Thursday, November 14, 2013

Time Out Mumbai- Forever Bombay

This piece appeared in a slightly edited version in my 'After Words' column in Time Out Mumbai, Volume 10 Issue 6, November 8-21 2013.

Forever Bombay

At a vantage point above the Kala Ghoda parking lot, I watch the world whiz past. My gaze sweeps the panorama from right to left- the Jehangir, the Rampart Row, Rhythm House, and the undulating modernism of the BSE tower. Then, I turn my back to it all. Arrayed before me are several fornicator’s chairs, some occupied. They all face away from the street, towards the pointed stone arcade and the murmur of fans and nodding heads beyond. I lower myself into a chair that creaks with age but offers comfort. I turn its specially designed extendable arm and hoist one lazy foot over. To my left, a lady in an orange cotton saree lies dead to the world; on my right a college kid has his nose stuck in a textbook on economics. Soon the buzz of traffic lulls me into somnolence and I am gone. The pleasures offered by the David Sassoon Library are manifold, but perhaps the least known is their indulgence of sleeping members on their terrace.

When I wake, I find bodies all around me, expressions of repose softening their features. I move inside, walk past floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, old teak tables covered with textbooks, handwritten notes and reams of stapled, photocopied study stuff. This other indulgence the library offers is, in fact, a mandate. The Library doubles as a Reading Room accommodating students from nearby colleges (the Elphinstone is right next door) to study in the relative quiet imposed here. Students form the bulk of its transitory memberships, and the upper hall is often full to capacity. We have this image of school kids studying under street-lamps, or on the steps of the Asiatic, but here is the real deal- for the library keeps its doors open from 9 to 9 every day of the year. Old desks and reading lamps are available as are numerous plug-points, de rigueur for today's laptop and mobile fuelled world. 

This small colonial building houses so much history. Built with the munificence of one of Bombay's city fathers David Sassoon (a library booklet from 1931 calls him a merchant prince), this building was erected in 1870 for the erstwhile Bombay Mechanics Institute, an association of young professionals from the Royal Mint and the Government Dockyard. While their activities wound down by the 1930s, the legacy of mechanical excellence in Bombay is enshrined on the library’s mid-landing in a marble bust of James Berkley, Chief Engineer GIP Railways whose courage and risk-taking led to the first train line to cross the Bhor Ghat. Descending the grand staircase, I circumambulate the larger than life statue of David Sassoon by the English sculptor T. Woolner. I am fixated on his hands raised in prayer; the slim detailed fingers in marble remind me of Albrecht Durer’s 1508 drawing of praying hands. The polygonal Malad stone, the Venetian arcades, the sharply neo-gothic rooflines, the interiors of timber and the commemorative art all stand mute to the building’s dwindling relevance to the city. This is only emphasised as I walk past a notice that says ‘Happy Senior Citizens Day!’ The David Sassoon Library is symptomatic of several of Bombay’s public buildings that stay forgotten for most of the year, and are only occasionally made the most of, like a Parsee Gara during a wedding. Here too, the library’s pocket park is de-mummified annually during the Kala Ghoda Festival and mothballed when it is over.

Standing at the entrance on a mosaic of Minton tiles, I am struck that this should not be the case. The library’s essential resource- its books in English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati date from the 1790s and form an archive to be treasured and accessed, especially its scientific books procured as a memorial to Berkley. Like the Asiatic and the Bhau Daji this library quintessentially represents the city, and deserves every first copy of every book published in Mumbai. Today, the library relies on its own dwindling resources and the efforts of its bibliophile managing committee. I cannot but ask everyone reading this- if you love books, buildings and Bombay, become a member now. Read, study, sleep, or take in the garden, but embrace this patch of land that is forever Bombay.

I step outside and cross the road. I turn away from the city once again and meet the eyes of Sassoon, now in the roundel above the entrance portal. He is, just as Kolatkar describes, “a prisoner... wearing a collar... forced to watch the slow disintegration of a city I cared about more than any other.” Like Mumbai, here is a place pining for its potential to be released and shared.

All the photos here are by Smita Dalvi. My thanks.

1 comment:

Debanjan Basu said...

Yo as any fule kno!! The warm description about Bombay's most prized gems is truly amazing! Now this calls for yet another trip down the lanes of Bombay and catching up with the enchanting aura there!! Bombay Fever Forever!!<3