Nanny-free library

February 22nd, 2010

One of the most nourishing and restful afternoons I have had in a long time was the one I recently spent at the J N Petit Library in Fort, Mumbai. It’s not far from VT, in a beautiful Bombay Gothic building with a turret and a rattly-looking cage lift. The building is deceptively scaled: from across the street it looks smaller than it is, because the ceilings are so high.

The bulk of the library is on the first floor, with a broad shelf-lined gallery above. On the main floor are many tall shelves of the more often read books, such as thrillers, popular literary fiction and books in Indian languages. Gujarati is particularly well represented, which is fair because the library was built and partly stocked with funds from a Parsi philanthropist in the 19th century.

On the gallery above, the books are those perhaps less often loaned — obscure as well as well-known 19th- and early 20th-century fiction and memoirs, and various editions of writing that is much older, from all periods of time.

There are not many visitors to the library as a whole, and up in the gallery there are hardly any at all. I sprang up the circular stone stairway to the deserted gallery, seized the bunch of keys which open the shelf doors (locked so that the doors don’t swing open), and set to browsing. Seated on a chair of firm wooden frame but fraying fabric, in the bright, diffuse light of a Gothic window arch, with two arms of the gallery stretching dimly away to front and left, and with the broad pit of the main library nearby, I read snatches of two books which I have not seen anywhere else: Wings for Words (Rand McNally 1940), an attractive and intelligently fictionalised biography of Johann Gutenberg, and another whose title I forget on the court of Louis XIV in the time of one of his great mistresses.

This ate up most of the afternoon. It was very comfortable, despite the dodgy chair. A washroom was at hand, there was drinking water from a clay pot, the weather was mild, and everywhere were the sounds of distant traffic, birds, trees rustling in the breeze, murmurs of salesmanship and conversation from the road below (one amorous couple leant against each other and a parked car for nearly an hour, adding to the atmosphere).

Downstairs again, in the reading room the regulars were pointed out to me: a man in a bright waterproof jacket and cap, a quietly snoozing student, an earnest woman researcher, a middle-aged MBA holder with a set of management books and magazines, a Gujarati columnist, the seat normally occupied by a writer…

Nobody was supervising anybody. There were no hanging signs indicating where to go to do what, and when. No librarian or assistant marched by with beady eye. No tiresome nannying. One computer with a good and well-organised catalogue — far better than those in more heavily frequented libraries like the “information resource centres” of some foreign embassies. At J N Petit, they leave you to your own devices. Altogether a modest, respectful, respectable and firmly adult space. There are not many like it any more.

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