By Ganesh Saili
In a lifetime spent in the hills, I must admit that I have had my fair share of proposals – both decent and indecent – but the latest one, from a complete stranger, took the flag today.
‘Four feet!’ he pleaded. ‘Can we chip the Library building by just four feet? To ease traffic?’
A trickle of ice raced down my spine. It left me gasping. We were not talking of any run-of-the-mill shop but of Mussoorie’s last heritage building, housing some fifteen thousand precious books. We were talking of a story that goes back to 1843, when British merchants, missionaries and army officers acquired the land and a far-sighted Superintendent of the Doon, Mr Vansitart became its founder Chairman. To this day, it is ‘held forever in trust for and on behalf of the Mussoorie Library Committee.’
‘Careful Gannu!’ Auntie Maisie Gantzer, Secretary of the Mussoorie Library, had forewarned me. She like others illustrious members of her family, had through trying times, steered the Library for over forty years. I guess I was young, still wet around the ears and had applied for membership. But she forbade me from trying to sneak past the Librarian. ‘Not unless you want to look like a dying duck in a thunderstorm!’ she warned.
When I mentioned this to our Chairperson, Pramode Sawhney, he laughed: ‘Our fire breathing dragon-lady? Who could dare go past her?’
‘Why have a library in the middle of the town square?’ asks Mr. Truly Ignorant. For that matter who needs books or libraries? Can’t we use Google? How do I explain that books are knowledge and for two centuries this Library is the custodian of Mussoorie’s history and memories! This is where down the ages all – the long, the short and the tall – have walked the wooden staircase to get away from the humdrum world.
As member of the hill station’s oldest living institution, I have grown immune to stupid questions: banal and others priceless. ‘Add a Café or a Coffee Shop? Why don’t we get a pool table or two into the verandah with a card table on the side?’ What can I say? It reminds me of Mr Daniel, one of our librarians, who Rakesh Agarwal proprietor of Prakash Stores, a member of long standing tells me worked here in the 1960s. It turns out the poor fellow thought of relocating the Library to his home in Kirkland Estate, but stumbled in the attempt and out of his bag tumbled a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Of course they recovered all the others books that decorated the bookshelves in his home and the Library survived, that and much more and lived to tell the tale.
To those of us who love the written word, the library is a lifeboat; a place to paddle your own canoe; to remove the cobwebs of the mind and open the windows to the world. Within its walls, is a Museum of Books, where knowledge is condensed in books and sheltered from the vagaries of the time.
‘Anywhere else in the world, this fine Victorian building would have been a precious heritage site. All else would have been diverted,’ Arthur Lopatin, a Fulbright scholar writes.
Seventy years ago it was here that Rahul Sanskritayan found peace and quiet to write; it was here, sixty years ago, Ruskin Bond uncovered forgotten treasures to give us his brilliant Strange Men, Strange Places. It continues attracts numberless historians, researcher scholars and students from across the globe. An old guide speaks of the removal of the bazaar on the south side of the Mall near the Library to give a clearer view of the Dun. In those days, the nearby Criterion and the Savoy restaurants would serve visitors ‘ices, cakes, coffee and cold drinks adding considerably to the charm assigned to music to sooth the savage breast.’
I think of the journeys that have begun with the turning of a single page. This is the last living frontier of a civilized land. But given our talent for disaster, I’m apprehensive. The jury is out. Too much vandalism has already visited these hills. Can’t we leave our heritage alone?