The 150-year-old Hardayal public libraryis a treasure trove of rare and valuable books, but they and the building itself are being left to rot after all funding was cut off. The staff are not paid but still go to work, determined to preserve and protect the collection.
Deep in the congested heart of Old Delhi lies a little known library filled with ancient treasures.
The Hardayal Municipal Public Library dates to 1862, but few know that this dilapidated building conceals a hoard of precious books. These include a 1676 edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World; a Persian version of the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, written by a vizier of the Emperor Akbar; a Quran produced by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and ancient London surveys.
The library has more than 170,000 books in six languages – English, Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, Persian and Sanskrit.
After surviving more than a century of change and turmoil, the library is now threatened by the most dangerous foe of all – government apathy. Recent changes to the administration of North Delhi means all funds have been cut off.
Gradually, the building and its historic volumes are crumbling, food for insects rather than the mind.
Any book lover entering the ramshackle premises of the Hardayal is likely to be horrified. Books, covered with dust and grime, are piled messily on decrepit shelves or locked away in inaccessible steel cupboards.
Many are infested with insects, some have moisture damage, others are missing pages. The rarer books are bound and clumsily laminated, but most are not.
The library has no air conditioning and only feeble ceiling fans, meaning the books wilt under the cruel Delhi heat.
“It costs me 25,000 rupees (Dh1,720) to bind and laminate one book,” says Madhukar Rao, the librarian. “Where do I get that kind of money?”
The books Mr Rao guards may well be worth a great deal but they have never been valued or properly catalogued.
“Foreign collectors sometimes offer to buy these books but my conscience does not allow me to accept,” he says. “These books belong here in India.”
Mr Rao and his staff have not been paid for nearly six months and are surviving on bank loans.
The library's electricity bills have not been paid, and the supply may be cut off any day now.
Mr Rao, like many of his staff, has worked at the library since 1973. “I have spent my youth in this library,” he says.
When asked why they show up for work, despite not being paid salaries, the staff smile wryly. “This is our calling,” says Shameem Kausal, an assistant librarian who has been working in the Hardayal for 30 years.
Now, the library functions mostly as a reading and study space for students.
“People don’t read as much as they used to do,” Mr Rao says. “Young people are only interested in taking competitive exams and not in taking out our books.”
When it was first founded, the library was merely a one-room reading club.
The present library actually grew from a bomb thrown at the then Viceroy Lord Hardinge in 1912, by the maverick Indian revolutionary Lala Hardayal.
To celebrate Hardinge’s lucky escape, a group of well wishers, including the Maharaja of Kashmir, donated 70,000 rupees to build the present library, which was named the Hardinge library.
In a strange twist of fate, after India became independent, the library was renamed, but this time, after Hardayal.
The facility has survived these dizzying changes of guard, but is now struggling to stay open. Until this year, the library was funded by the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, and received 30 million rupees a year.
But in May, the corporation was split into three, and when duties were divided up, the library was forgotten. The upshot is no one wants to take responsibility for Hardayal and funds have been cut off.
“After the new trifurcation, the library is considered a non-governmental organisation (NGO), and we can’t possibly fund every NGO.
Costs are rising steadily, and we need to spend most of our budget on civic amenities,” says Meera Aggarwal, the mayor of the North Delhi municipal corporation, in whose jurisdiction the library falls, and also the former officio president of the library.
The plight of Hardayal is not unusual. Across the country, heritage libraries are struggling to survive.
In Mumbai, the David Sassoon library, which dates back to 1870, cannot even afford a librarian. The Sassoon is housed in a beautiful heritage building but inside, its fragile books crumble in the pitiless humidity.
“Corporates have donated to restore the building but no one is interested in preserving the books,” says Vivekanand Ajgaonkar, the president of the Sassoon. “We had to throw away several books because they were infested with insects.”
As a private trust, the Sassoon gets no government funding, and survives on its membership fees, only 2,400 rupees a year (Dh165) and the odd donation from members.
Other libraries are trying to stand on their own feet. “My aim is to stop relying on the government for funding because they can’t and won’t do everything. Instead, I want to build a strong corpus of our own,” says
Dr Aroon Tikekar, a well known author, historian and president of the Asiatic Society in Mumbai.
The society, set up in 1804 by British scholars to promote knowledge of India, has an extensive library housed in the majestic Town Hall building. Its pride and joy is a rare 14th century manuscript of Italian poet
Dante Aligheri’s The Divine Comedy, one of only two in existence.
Rumour has it that in 1930, Benito Mussolini offered £1 million to the society for its purchase, but was turned down.
Other treasures include The Shahnama of Firdausi in Persian dating back to 1843; Captain James Cook’s Voyages to the South Pole and Around the World, and a rare collection of Buddhist relics. Despite funding from both government and private donors, the society is constantly short of money and its heritage building is in urgent need of renovation.
“Waiting for government funds is like waiting for the rain,” Dr Tikekar says. “They may or may not come.”
Instead, the society offers lectures, workshops, a literary club, an Adopt a Book scheme and fellowships for patrons, and is preparing a new catalogue of its manuscripts to attract more visitors and researchers. It also has its own respected conservation section.
“You have to get young people to come in, by any means possible,” Dr Tikekar says. “And if you have a moribund institution, you need to come up with ways to make it relevant.”
Some think deserted libraries need to stop expecting government handouts.
“Are we supposed to fund libraries that have declining readership?” asks Ms Aggarwal. “If only a handful of students use this library, why should we keep it going?”
But it is a vicious circle for most smaller libraries. “How do you expect me to attract readers when you don’t give me money for new books, online facilities and decent furniture?” asks Mr Rao.
The truth is that the government does not consider books important enough to save, according to many librarians.
“Libraries should not be expected to turn a profit,” Mr Ajgaonkar says. “They are a part of our heritage. We need to consider books as heritage, just as buildings are designated as heritage structures, and give them proper legal protection.”
Libraries are also steadily losing their collections. “India’s antique books are openly leaving the country, to be sold to collectors overseas,” Dr Tikekar says.
“The law bans antiquities from being taken outside India but no one considers ancient manuscripts to be antiquities.”
Meanwhile, the Hardayal library staff have appealed to Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit, pleading for their salaries.
She asked for the issue to be resolved on compassionate grounds as early as August, but no action has been taken.
“We are trying to sort out procedures to take care of the library but these things take time,” Ms Aggarwal says.
“Who cares about books in this country?” asks Mr Rao bitterly. “Soon they may all be sold as raddi [scrap] anyway.”