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A House of Books

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By GANESH SAILI

‘ There’s a bottle-neck on the busy Kempty Road that often leads to traffic jams. It has to be broadened by a metre.’ That anyway, is the gist of the letter that has just been delivered to me. In Mussoorie’s Library Chowk, or call it what-you-will Gandhi Chowk or Kitabghar, stands one of the hill station’s last treasures. It has always been a part of our history: it was there two years before Waverley Convent began; it was there ten years before Maharaja Dalip Singh, son of the Lion of the Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was brought in exile from the Punjab; it was there twenty- two years before Mount Everest got its name; it was there long before the Charleville, the Savoy or the Himalaya Hotel; it was there long before our schools including St George’s, Woodstock, Allen Memorial or Oak Grove began. Our origins are traced to a combination of British merchants, missionaries and military officers, who set their eyes on a site belonging to a Messrs. Scott and Pitt, who, in turn, sold it Major Edmund Swetenham, Commandant of the Landour Convalescent Depot. Yes! You are right! He is the same person who married a local girl and built Cloud End as a home for her. In 1843, the first Library Committee was formed with Vansittart, the then- Superintendent of the Doon as its Chairman. In the first year, Rs.2500 were collected by subscription and the land was purchased from Major Swetenham, for Rs.300. Subsequently, it was transferred ‘to be held forever in trust for and on behalf of the Mussoorie Library Committee.’ ’Library? Who needs one in the middle of a busy town square? With access to other devices, who needs books?’ ask the Chairperson of the Doubter’s Society. Nevertheless, a scholar from overseas writes in: ‘Anywhere in the world, this old Victorian building would be a UNESCO site! It’s the traffic that would have been diverted.’ That begs the question do we really need roadmaps when there are so many roads around? For twenty years and more, I have been a member of the hill station’s oldest living institution. As Honorary Secretary, I am quite used to being asked stupid question, or being given stupider suggestions if not outright indecent proposals. Priceless ones? ‘You should add a Café or a Coffee Shop with a pool table alongside card tables.’ ‘Simpler still,’ I tease. ‘Let’s build a glass skywalk – to eateries across the road.’ But we have survived. And lived to tell the tale a full hundred and seventy-six years down the road. We are still around because we see this as a lifeboat; a place to paddle one’s own canoe; to detox; to clean the cobwebs of the mind or open new windows to the world. What more can one ask for more than the grandeur of our Reading Room? To it flock historians, researchers and scholars keen on the hill station’s history. Step out to find yourself in the midst of a summer rush. Perhaps our founders knew that many a journey begins with the turning of a single page. They say: ‘If you want to destroy a civilization, destroy its libraries. You can either burn them, bury them or neglect them.’ And while some see us as preservers of our history; there are others who see us as no more than an obstruction in the middle of a busy town square. ‘Our environment may change over time,’ Hugh Gantzer (generations of whose family has contributed in no small measure to help in preserving the Library) tells me, adding: ‘But remember Ganesh, our heritage remains the same.’ What keeps us going? You may wonder. It’s the trust placed upon us by our founders. I believe we keep going because we see ourselves as keepers of the Faith. We help open windows to the world with the turning of a single page. Our sixteen thousand books celebrate knowledge and shelter to the buffeting of life. ‘Read a thousand books and words will flow like a river.’ Said Virginia Woolf. With over sixteen thousand books– Kitabghar or this House of Books like a woolly mammoth in a changing world, stumbles on.