The Gathering Dust

November 2013 – Indian Quarterly

Six years before he helped to found the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1875, Premchand Roychand donated 2 lakh rupees to the University of Bombay for the construction of a clock tower on the express condition that it be named after his mother: Rajabai. Built of local Kurla stone and designed by English architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (best known for his Gothic Revival churches back home), the tower rose 85 meters, looking out over the palms and the maidan to the sea. The clock tower and its scrolls of Venetian Gothic masonry surmounted the university library; it was Bombay’s tallest building.

For years, visitors could enter and climb the tower for about one rupee. Then in the 1970s, having already lost its privileged position on the skyline to the blunt modernist towers at Nariman Point, the tower was closed to the public. There had been suicides; the university authorities realized they couldn’t control who came in (nor, apparently, how they left).

In 1980, the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) built itself a new headquarters: a 29-storey tower just 500 meters east of Rajabai Tower. Most views of the clock tower now include the concrete ellipses of the BSE building. And while I doubt if anyone still worries over potential suicide attempts at the tower, gaining entry to the library below it remains a task (a keen interest in architecture and books is insufficient; a letter and/or 30–40 minutes of stubborn finagling might do). Rajabai Tower is still a landmark, but a withdrawn one: set back, gated and overshadowed—an elegant relic.

Inside and up a flight of majestic marble stairs, the library’s Gothic reading room sits in tired silence, more creaky than cloistral, broken only by the cooing of pigeons nesting in its high wooden eaves. Stacks of books held together with twine rest on the edge of the head librarian’s desk and the circulation counter. Worn marble busts are surrounded by papers and still more books stacked on worn teak chairs and atop the chipped and rusting card catalogue. Organized only by author and title—not by subject matter—the catalogue is practically innavigable for a casual browser. Glass-fronted cabinets line the perimeter of the room. Open doors punctuate the reading room’s western wall, leading onto an arcaded veranda that 100 years ago would have gathered in the cool breeze directly off the water.

The librarian showing me around opens one of the cabinets and withdraws a dusty tome. “This is the oldest book we have in the library,” she says, “from 1490.” Then: “You can take.”

I heft the book in my hands (grimy from pollution and a long train ride from Bandra) and begin to turn yellowing pages that feel both brittle and damp in the thick heat, as humid, warped and involuted as the April afternoon. Raised around museums, exposed to old books primarily in the laboratory-like setting of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, holding the book feels to me somehow illicit. I grin widely, then reprimand myself, setting it on the table in front of me.

The librarian approaches now with another manuscript, this one a long block, wrapped in leaves and red cloth, taken from another cabinet across the room. She shows me the elongated palm sheaves engraved with what looks to my untrained eye like Sanskrit. “Actually we don’t know the language as such,” she tells me. “In 1880 only we had all this collection, all donated by different people,” she adds by way of explanation. What other mysteries lie hidden in the library’s stacks probably no one knows.

Despite India’s much vaunted position as a global tech centre, the oldest University in the nation’s largest city remains a decidedly analogue institution, as demonstrated by the embarrassing failure of its first online application in early June. The university’s collection—split between the main library in the newer Kalina Campus and the law and rare book collections here in Fort—also remains largely undigitized. And while the Kalina stacks are open for browsing, at Fort they are unsurprisingly, but also inconveniently, closed.

“We have very rare books, so the chances of them getting misplaced are high,” the librarian explains. The logic seems tenuous; on a weekday afternoon, there appear to be more birds here than readers. Theft or loss strikes me as less likely than decline—or worse, decay.

* * *

“By the middle of the 19th century, Bombay became a beehive of literary and scientific societies,” writes Aroon Tikekar in his book Mumbai De-Intellectualised. Come August, Dr Tikekar will have completed his term as president of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, which he describes in the same book as “the earliest society established […] for the diffusion of knowledge.”

As Bombay grew and trade links brought it into closer contact with the outside world, book clubs, geographical societies, scientific and medical organizations and, of course, libraries emerged across the city. According to Rafique Baghdadi, a journalist and one of Mumbai’s most committed citizen historians, 18th-century lending libraries, patronized primarily by ladies of leisure, were the predecessors of the larger reading rooms that came later. By the 19th century though, “the East India Company [was making] a lot of money in India, so people started needing education,” Baghdadi says. Colleges and schools, some created through the largesse of wealthy merchants, others, like St. Xavier’s College on the edge of Azad Maidan, through the ministrations of the city’s Jesuits, emerged alongside a slew of private institutions and societies.

By the time the Rajabai Clock Tower was complete, the Literary Society of Bombay (established in 1804) had merged with Calcutta’s Royal Asiatic Society in 1829. By 1847, a group of young mechanics had established a museum and library for architectural design that the Jewish cotton- and opium-tycoon David Sassoon would endow with a handsome new home in Kala Ghoda 16 years later. And in 1856, a group of 12 Parsi students from Elphinstone College had founded their own reading room on Modi Street, an institution that would eventually become the JN Petit Library.

Unlike the lending libraries that preceded them, these libraries were designed for men of the merchant class—Parsis, Gujaratis, Marwaris, Englishmen—who came to read both imported and, beginning with the launch of the Times of India in 1838, local newspapers. Even today in the reading rooms at the Asiatic Society and JN Petit Libraries, middle-aged men stand at raked easels to pore over periodicals in English, Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati.

Built largely through the philanthropic efforts of Bombay’s wealthy merchants, the grand library structures of the later 19th century were a physical testament to the confluence of intellectual accomplishment and economic brio that defined the period: monuments to wealth and the great tradition of learning which, for better or worse, was one of its most prized privileges.

“All these buildings are part of the history of Bombay,” Baghdadi says. “When you look at them, you get a feeling for what Bombay was.”

These buildings, of course, have few if any worthy analogues in the city’s contemporary architectural vernacular: all bulky, graceless concrete and sheets of blue-glazed glass. Still, since the official release of Mumbai’s first list of heritage buildings in 1995, several of the iconic south Mumbai libraries have undergone major restorations.

In the last several months, for instance, the municipal corporation finished applying a new layer of paint to the exterior of the Asiatic Society’s grand neoclassical home at Horniman Circle. Rather than a rain-stripped gray, the building now glows brilliant white—a shade ripe for peeling and the inevitable mascara-like stains of monsoon. Inside, the building is a mess of bureaucracy and bad lighting. Printouts of records of inquiries and requests are stored in binders; even photographing the fluorescent-lit main reading room, which opens directly onto the wide flight of stairs leading down to street level, requires coaxing multiple permissions out of reluctant bureaucrats.

The basement level, which contains the Asiatic Society’s galleries and private collection is also under renovation; despite several visits and assurances to the contrary, I was ultimately denied permission to see these spaces even after a board of some kind or other had granted me permission to take exactly five photographs inside.

The Rajabai Clock Tower and the exterior of the university’s library saw a major restoration project from 1997 to 1998 headed by conservation architect Vikas Dilawari: “I think the books should be maintained too,” he told me, “but our mandate was only to the extent of the façade and the stained glass.” The external structure receives reverential treatment from conservationists; the sanctum sanctorum suffers neglect.

At the David Sassoon Library even my simplest questions about its history were met first with bewilderment, then a cagey claim that I needed to become a member to speak with anyone, and finally with a simple pamphlet from the library president: “This will tell you everything,” he placated me with a bland smile.

In the past, Baghdadi remembers, nearly everyone had a library membership, particularly at the American Library, where the collection was free and the knowledgeable staff would suggest books for interested browsers. Having shifted with the American Consulate to BKC, the American Library lies cut off from the city centre, isolated (appropriately enough) among banks and corporate offices. Baghdadi says, “Now, most of the people who come are students. They want a place to study, so they come to the libraries. But they don’t continue that membership. Once their exams are over, then they stop going.”

At St. Xavier’s College, students appear to take full advantage of their own, beautifully maintained reading room. On the balmy weekday afternoon when I visited, the room was filled with the muted sounds of teenagers feigning studiousness while fans churned languidly below decorative mouldings, an elaborate lattice over the low ceiling. Some months before, I had visited the Heras Institute, a specialized collection within the College’s library system. That day, the contents of the stacks had been removed and stacked haphazardly around a small office space; it took two days to track down the book I needed. The library staffer who helped me find it told me that they were in the early stages of digitizing the collection. He expected the process to take at least three years.

As at St. Xavier’s, the reading rooms at the Sassoon, Asiatic and Petit Institute libraries seem to stay busy enough. On one of my visits to the JN Petit Library’s airy 500-square-foot reading room, a group of old men gather around the designated “Special Table” (a sign marked it as such). A few of them read magazines; one or two others nod off quietly. A couple of middle-aged gentlemen stand at the newspaper easels. Plaster recedes from beams and pipes at various points across the ceiling. At the long tables that span the room, 20-somethings plugged into their iPods read text books and sleep. A row of stained glass windows along the back wall depicts allegorical figures of Devotion, Charity, Constancy, Generosity, Culture and Commerce.

JR Modi, who has served as the JN Petit Institute’s administrator for 17 years, says that library membership has basically stagnated at around 3,000. At its peak in 1938, the library reached 7,000 members; in order to accommodate them, a third floor was added to the two-storey structure which had been built on DN Road in 1856. Established from an endowment left in Petit’s estate, the library still stands in the heart of historic south Mumbai, about halfway between Victoria Terminus and Flora Fountain, on a plot of land purchased from the Tata family for just Rs.240.

Modi explains that “the library is purely philanthropic”, save for whatever revenue the institute can cull from the building’s ground floor tenant (at the moment, a branch of HSBC). “But we used to get more donations from good people who saw this place’s value.”

* * *

“The intellectual health [of Mumbai] has of late declined,” Tikekar argues (predictably enough) in his book. “To be intellectual is to be ‘non-productive’ […] It is thought that intellectuals are the people who consume without producing.”

Baghdadi—more rueful, less polemical—made a similar assertion: “Earlier,” he said, “most people would go in for the arts. When you were going in for arts, then you were interested in reading. That was the point. Now the majority of people go for—well, in a sense for what is useful […], for science or engineering. You become a doctor or get an MBA or something like that.”

The tallest buildings on contemporary Mumbai’s skyline—often built by the Sassoons and Roychands and Petits of our time—are residential and commercial towers, monuments to accumulation and comfort, to “useful” pursuits and the things they buy you. The libraries of the 19th-century faced the city: the broad set of stairs connecting the Asiatic Society to Horniman Circle; the street-level beauty of the Sassoon and Petit libraries; the civic function of a clock tower as public timekeeper. The new monuments disdain even to look at it, preferring to face one another above the untidy ground, sequestered behind their gates and parking garages, barred to entry.

It would be disingenuous at best, and irresponsible at worst, not to acknowledge that these historic institutions were also, perforce, restricted—in the first place, to those who could read (not exactly a big number in 19th-century India), and, at least at the outset, each to its specific socio-cultural group. A building that is majestic to one person is, I would wager, intimidating to another. These are temples of knowledge, as the cliché goes, and temples are rarely organized around principles of equality.

Yet there was—and, I would argue, is—value in the public veneration of scholarship through architecture and philanthropy, an acknowledgement in brick and stone (if not necessarily in acts) that education has inherent value, that the pursuit of ideas is as worthy as the pursuit of money. Perhaps even that the latter is only valuable insofar as it facilitates the former. Then, obscene wealth bought you a library; today it buys Antilia. “A society whose politicians and leaders do not hesitate to publicly deride its intellectuals,” Tikekar said in a lecture, now published under the title Ideas Matter, “is bound to face a crisis of standards.”

And the obverse of the problem: a city of intellectuals retreating into premature nostalgia, of libraries that can’t (or won’t) modernize, is bound to fail at producing a powerful culture of inquiry. The guardians of the city’s intellectual traditions seem to have accepted the popular assertion that digital media has rendered books unnecessary as a fait accompli rather than a challenge to adapt. In failing to adapt, institutions founded for “the diffusion of knowledge” have become reliquaries, albeit romantic ones, where the fruits of a previous generation’s labours are jealously guarded. In an organizational system that has long since calcified, that knowledge becomes inaccessible, obsolete.

It makes little difference where the Rajabai Clock Tower stands on Mumbai’s horizon or how many buildings tower over it; when the doors close and the books gather dust, these temples of knowledge become memorials to themselves and the past they represent. We have another word to describe these buildings that have become monuments, ossified in the attitudes of the past: we call them ruins.

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