The Keepers Of Knowledge
We spoke to librarians from Bombay's oldest libraries to its more contemporary ones to find out what it takes to keep books and reading alive today.
Bombay's libraries are like the city's soul. The constitution was drafted by Dr Ambedkar, in the 151 year old David Sassoon Library. In JN Petit old men wander in every afternoon to catch a quick snooze before heading back to work, they don't seem to mind or even notice the drilling and construction work outside. So typical of Bombay, where life is defined by constant adjustment and naps happen just as surely as life goes on. My favourite spaces however, that really give you a glimpse of the prudish liberality of Bombay are the lending libraries in building societies. Here Gujarati novels spill out of shelves just like the cleavages of the protagonists on the book covers, however Mills and Boons are demurely draped in opaque brown paper to avoid scandal. I am told that cook books aren't popular anymore, the internet being a more reliable chef, but the lending libraries themselves are still thriving.
The librarians are easier now, if they are to be believed. At The People's Reading Room, the head librarian will allow you to hold onto a book for a week past the due date and not charge you a fine. They all claim to not 'shush' anymore. And at The Nehru Centre they plan to have Kindles attached to a table by the window, so you can look out at the city and read and read and read. The readers may have dwindled but the libraries have found ways to survive.
KR CAMA ORIENTAL INSTITUTE
Amongst a sheaf of old manuscripts and neat office files we find a busy little lady, writing methodically into her notebook. When I ask her if we could photograph her, she smiles shyly and tells us to come back in a week, she needs to ask her husband if it will be alright. It may be easy to mistake Sarita Shekar Gandhi for a wallflower, however in the space of a short conversation I realise she is anything but one, in fact powerhouse would be a more fitting description.
She soon tells me about her 25 year old journey as a librarian in this daunting research facility, where grim looking portraits peer down at you with a very civil sort of snobbery. It isn't hard to relax here, but it does take some time.
When she came in here as a novice librarian, being a Maharashtrian in what is primarily an institute devoted to Zoroastrian studies, she was completely out of her depth. However under the guidance of her mentor Mr Dastur Jamaspasa, she learnt and understood the nuances of the subject. Today, anyone looking for assistance depends on her quiet smile and extensive knowledge. "I don't know what I would be if I wasn't a librarian," she says.
THE PEOPLE'S FREE READING ROOM
Mrs Cooper looks like someone who enjoys a laugh. In this dusty old reading room, students and senior citizens huddle over books surrounded by gorgeous colonial furniture, in complete silence broken only by the sounds of traffic outside. The furniture is indeed remarkably beautiful, old strong wood carved in that ornate style true to the time it was built in. The books I am told are rarer still, but most of them seem to be in shambles. This hasn't stopped the crowd from pouring in, every chair is occupied, thanks to the affable Mrs Cooper who claims that whenever she goes on a holiday, library members worry about her health and well-being. And I can see why, she's a friendly, easy-going librarian who doesn't like to charge a fine.
I spot an old PC in the corner of her office, it has been dismantled and replaced by a newer cooler model.
"Do you use this?" I ask her.
"I do everything on the computer. I taught myself to use it last year. Everyone said if you know typing you can use a computer." It is impressive when you consider that she has been the librarian here for forty odd years, this being her 'first and last' job as she likes to put it. The library seems welcoming and comfortable in the way old, well-used spaces often are. And the only thing Mrs Cooper doesn't allow here is talking.
DAVID SASSOON LIBRARY AND READING ROOM
Fondly known as Miss Pinki, this young and pretty librarian tells me she loves her job because of the peace and silence it offers her, and ever since she was a child, she only wanted to be a librarian. Maybe it was a love for the library period in school, or just her desire to be helpful to people, but this is all she ever wanted to be and after studying the course extensively she found herself at David Sassoon. This 151 year old library is already a popular destination for curious tourists and visiting dignitaries, but to increase membership the management has started The Reader Of The Year Award this year, for people who withdraw the most number of books in a year. The library has that rare quality of being welcoming and peaceful despite it's location on one of the busiest roads in Colaba. The garden is a great place to eat your packed lunch and the hot chocolate costs only eight rupees.
STATE CENTRAL LIBRARY
Something of the 'sarkari' seeps into this library, maybe in the half empty tea cups or the snoozing staff sitting amidst towering, possibly unopened files. It is maintained beautifully however, with well polished comfortable furniture now appointed with plug points to charge dying phones. The readers are a visibly serious bunch amongst various selfie takers and bloggers who use the space for personal photography projects, but there is still an air of quietude despite these distractions. The head of the staff is Mr Shashikant Kakad, a quiet intelligent man, not given to too much conversation but very well-informed on nearly all subjects. He likes to do his reading online, on an app that recommends best-sellers in every language to interested readers, he insists that I should get this app too. I ask him then, if electronic media is affecting readership. He tells me that the only issue that libraries of this stature face today, is space. Being a public repository The State Central Library now has seven and a half lakh books in storage alone, (not counting newspapers and magazines) which they are struggling to translate and preserve, due to lack of manpower and space. Digitisation is imminent, it seems.
I was once a member of Leaping Windows, they'd deliver manga, graphic novels and comics home based on your order on their website. I loved the service and the collection, so when they opened a space, I couldn't wait to check it out. It took me two years to get there, but I wasn't disappointed at all. This cozy little space is filled with comfortable cushions, just the right kind of lighting and a collection of books that makes you feel greedy and impatient. It's tiny but quite perfect and when you get hungry there's food and coffee at the café upstairs. Bidisha the librarian and co-owner has really impressed our photographer Vikram, he's mighty pleased with his pictures of her. But apart from being warm and photogenic, she is also extremely sharp, having the ability to convert an online lending library platform into an actual flourishing physical space. She was inspired by the Manga cafés during her stay in Japan to start one here she says. But she wasn't always into comics. "I was also one of those people who didn't take graphic novels seriously. But in Japan everyone from a three year old to a seventy five year old is reading one on the train. I didn't know comics could have so many genres. It was an eye-opening experience," she tells me. I leave the place with a happy photographer and a mental note to renew my membership here.
NEHRU CENTRE LIBRARY
Arati Desai tells me that she has the same passion and enthusiasm for her job that she had when she began working 35 years ago. "People find it hard to believe, but it's true," she says. I can believe her though, the space is the cleanest we have been to so far. Obvious pride is taken in keeping it spotless, comfortable and accessible. The leaves of the plastic plants are dusted every day, the chairs in the reading room are ergonomically designed and the librarian's office has glass walls so no one hesitates to walk in, everyone feels welcome here. "Let me tell you I've even swept and swabbed my library, there's dignity in everything that you do at work," she says when I ask her if there's any aspect of her job she finds irksome.
She doesn't feel that the reading habit is dying, as book and literature festivals still run to packed halls, the trouble she says is with the libraries themselves. "Librarians need to embrace the internet, to reach out to readers." In fact the Nehru Centre website has an extremely user-friendly catalogue online and the Facebook page is regularly updated. Arati soon leads us to the actual library, the collection here is vast and varied, from history to music to astronomy. However, the most widely read book is The Discovery Of India, no surprises there.
Trilogy is a beautiful sunlit space in Lower Parel that also doubles as a book store with a superbly curated collection of books. Ahalya and her husband and co-owner Meethil Momaya have taken care to get books that wouldn't otherwise be available in most libraries. "We stay away from most 'bestsellers', reasoning that people have access to those and at very low prices too, so we prefer to use our precious resources to stock interesting books that aren't marketed with such a big noise," Ahalya declares. Voracious readers are bound to be destroyed by greed at the book store here. In fact the entire space, is filled with quaint, charming details; tie and dye cushions propped against walls make for cozy reading corners, a few shelves have colourful post-its full of recommendations, the walls are that edible shade of mango yellow, and a tree outside the window lets in just the right amount of dappled sunlight to make you feel like you must stay a little longer.
If you like your romances covered in cellophane with a dash of history, head to Enbee Library in Andheri West. Here the steel shelves carry so many affairs of the heart in paperback that it's impossible not to fall in love, with the space that is. It has all that nostalgic charm of neighbourhood lending libraries which unfortunately are dying out rapidly. However, Vandana Dutia one of the librarians at this twenty year old family-owned space is optimistic. She's had generations of family members in the neighbourhood come in consistently and the memberships have never really gone down. The only issue is the space, the books are now double stacked to make up for the lack of room. The books here are curated according to Amazon What's Hot lists and the owner's personal taste. For instance The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, despite being severely popular didn't make it to the shelves because Vandana didn't quite like it. The quirks are what make this place special, I'd say.
Written by Meera Ganapathi
Photographed by Vikram Rana