We find ourselves silenced and devoid of language inside a library. It is an instinctive response, a childhood lesson internalised so thoroughly that sometimes even the sight of a bookshelf is sufficient to render us momentarily mute. The irony of our speechlessness hits us only when we look around, inside a library, at shelves that are bursting with language, at books that are dying to speak out. I wonder if a library’s intimidating air provoked Borges to compose his brilliant, dystopian tale, The Library of Babel, where a library — stocked full of all the books ever written and all the books yet to be written — is presented as a metaphor for a meaningless, godless and overabundant universe.
It’s therefore for good reason that most people don’t like libraries, and this applies most of all to committed readers. We — ie, committed readers — would rather sit in a cafe with a paperback, which we’re not supposed to return inside of 14 days at the issue desk. But in a city like Delhi, bookworms have little to worry about in this regard, since there are hardly any libraries here. Our urban planners had presumably read Borges’ horror story, and so they decided to do away entirely with the scourge of the L-word from the capital. Bless their souls.
This, however, doesn’t mean that Delhi has no libraries. There’s that book-lined and pleasantly air-conditioned gallery at the American Centre, where you have to get frisked before entering. It is usually filled with students preparing for their chartered accountancy exams, or some such. There’s one at the British Council that no one quite visits except for, I don’t know, CA students? To subscribe to the Nehru library you have to be a scholar or a journalist, and the one at the Sahitya Akademy is too boring even to mention.
The founding cliché of urban Delhi is that if you’re looking for more colour and excitement in just about anything — from food or clothes to general ambience — you head towards the old city. This works with libraries, too. There are couple of extremely large, well-stocked and virtually ancient libraries in this part of town. The name, Hardayal Municipal Public Library, usually occurs in scholarly journals, some of them published from American universities. They call it the oldest library of Delhi: it was set up in the year 1862 by the British as a whites-only reading club. In 1912, it became what it now is and even today it is home to some of the rarest Persian and Arabic manuscripts known to man.
“The oldest book in the library is the block-printed, A Relation of Some Years by Travaile Begvenne, 1634,” says the library brochure (actually a set of three A4 printed papers) that I was handed over here. The Hardayal library in Chandni Chowk, Delhi’s market district, has a building that is crowned with a dome and spike, and a plaque at the gate spells out the whole sordid story of how the library came to be established here: “The building was erected by private subscription in grateful recognition of the escape of their excellencies Lord and Lady Hardinge on the occasion of the bomb outrage at the state entry into Delhi on the 23rd September 1912.”
Love that phrase “bomb outrage”. I was shown around the library by Shameem, a middle-aged woman who told me that she has worked here for the last 32 years. We walked through the labyrinths (are you listening, Borges?) of aluminium shelves and cupboards kept under lock-and-key. “These contain rare books in English,” she said, as we passed through narrow passages flanked by bookshelves. The floor below was dingy and the fans overhead were labouring to retain their circular motion. “Can I see some manuscripts?” I asked Shameem.
A set of hardbound books was already on the desk — an American scholar had surveyed them just before my arrival. When I opened the book the wrong way, Shameem took it from me and opened it back to front. Handcrafted paper — the semi-transparent kind that has little veins of thread running through it. You felt the touch of someone’s hand when you touched it — the more so because that impeccable and elegant script itself was handwritten. “This is in Persian. Deposited here in 1939 and written in 1793.” The subject of the book, Shameem told me, was the saint Hazrat Nizamuddin.
The founding cliché of urban Delhi is that if you’re looking for more colour and excitement in just about anything — from food or clothes to general ambience — you head towards the old city. This works with libraries, too.
I opened the book, back to front this time, and saw some pockmarked and moth-eaten pages. “Yes,” she said. “The pages need to be laminated. But the money is a big problem.” I was also told that some employees at this particular library have not received their salaries for the last 10 months. There are close to two lakh books at the Hardayal library and around a thousand regular members who pay close to nothing for their annual subscription. But I had wrongly assumed that the building would be empty. How could I have forgotten? Shameem took me to the annexe towards the back of the library and, pointing at a hall full of young readers, said: “CA students.” When did libraries across Delhi become a watering hole for these creatures?
The Delhi Public Library, which I visited later in the day, was also filled to capacity with half-asleep youths trying to make sense of thick books on career-making. When did the library become a necessary passage to a lucrative career? I strolled around the bookshelves, straining my eyes to pick up something interesting. Advanced Practical Organic Chemistry, moaned one of the book spines. Accounting Standards, cried another. A little further, I came across this: E.M. Forster: The Women in his Novels by Dr Debashis Mallik. The first sentence had to be read, and it was a gem as rare as some of the books in these libraries: “The present book is an exploration of various dimensions of the women in the novels of EM Forster.” It was time to leave.
My final stop was the famed “newspaper reading room” in Daryaganj. It is actually a branch of the Hardayal library: it’s called “Branch No.1”. And here, at any time of the day, you will find people in silent contemplation of the latest magazines (mostly in Hindi) and newspapers. A tiny water cooler is kept next to the magazine stand, and in one corner is placed a chair for the attendant, Amar Singh Mehta, who has worked here for 26 years, and says that he hasn’t been paid his salary since December last year. “If you ask me, I am sick and tired of the place,” he told me, without my even asking. “Write it. Write my name. Write that I said it.” Once he started speaking, Mehta held forth for at least 10 minutes, with barely a pause. He pointed out the basic lack of upkeep on his premises, the upgrades required and the general apathy of government authorities. “I wrote letters to them. Complaints. I have a whole file. I even wrote to that MLA, what’s her name?”
Someone in the room said, “Alka Lamba.”
“Yes, her. She asked me to list the things that are wrong with the place. And I said, madam, why don’t you come and see for yourself the things that are wrong with this place…” I looked at my watch, and Mehta said, “Why don’t you sit? Do you want some tea?” Then he continued. “If only I had my salary, I’ll make these upgrades myself, you know. But all my efforts…” I had stopped listening, but I could feel for the man. I was even beginning to enjoy his soliloquy, and what made it even better was the fact that he was speaking, out loud and without a concern, inside