Monday, 18 October 2010



I didn't see doves the last time I had visited this place in 2007. But now they are freely flying inside the hall; the sound of their flapping wings echo a bit. No one seem to take notice, as they remain engrossed in reading the books, magazines, newspapers in the spacious groundfloor hall of Cowasjee Dinshaw Hall and Library on East Street in Pune. No one seem to mind the noise of traffic from the street either, or an inquisitive journo with pen, writing pad and camera standing at one corner of the hall, observing the actions there.

Beyond the rickety gate, there is a world of books in this building. The old bookshelves in the T-shaped hall have lost the shine; the dust on the racks and the books from ages gone by perhaps indicate the change in readership preferences. Along with several volumes of Life of Sir CJ Napier, the dusty, bound volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica and The Small Years by Frank Kendon stand side by side like unattended souls. I guess, it's the same for old books in Gujarati language and the rest of the tomes that stare at me as I try to figure out what they are about.

I look around the hall. The ‘old world’ feel is offset by young people all over, like Mugdha Shah, the final-year Chartered Accountancy student. “I come here to study. This place is not congested and very peaceful,” she tells me on learning about my intrusion into their world. What about the books that are lined-up in the shelves? “There is a good stock of Marathi novels. I take them too from the library,” she adds before getting back to her study materials.

I leave her to her studies and check the walls denuded of colour at places. The light from the fluorescent reflect on the paintings of notables, including one of the Mahatma. They seem to be like the witnesses of everything that happens here --- success stories, failures, happiness, whispers, little jokes that people share. There are others too: the electric switches that hang just above the reading tables; ceiling fans; the glasses on the door panels; the large board mounted on the wall, announcing the names of the donors; a round, varnished circular table; the long rectangular tables that appear to have borne the brunt of decades; the chairs...

Ah... the chairs. They are made of plastic. They don't seem to be too old, despite the scratch marks on them. In fact, one such chair is shining bright. Curiously, its design is very old as if it is trying to go back the Victorian age. Maybe at some point of time there were heavy, wooden designer chairs in this hall. After all, this institution dates back to 1875. I heard tales that this building once housed some prison and somewhere here the convicts used to get hanged.

“No, we haven't heard anything like that,” Santosh Pawar, a chartered accountant and a regular at this precinct, says when I tell him about the tales. He asks his friends --- Vishal Arivalagan, Amit Gaikwad and Rahul Jagtap --- who also frequent the library. They look amused on hearing about the building's past. “We are happy to be here...we spend hours together from morning to late at night. We eat here... we read here. This library has shaped so many lives for decades...” they say almost unison, as they bring out their dabba or lunch box.

Walking past their table and those graced by some middle-aged men busy with Crossword in newspapers, I reach the back doors of the Hall that leads to a small verandah. Three years back this place was filled up with elderly men leisurely reading newspapers. Now, there's just one man sitting quietly, reading nothing, but glancing at the small garden in the backyard. The greenery seem to have helped to dim noisy world outside. No doves here; just few sparrows chirping intermittently to make their presence felt. And sitting under a tree shade, Neelima Singh, a marketing professional, is “trying to refresh mind with literature”. Neelima is reading a collection of Philip Larkin's poems; the book looks fresh, like the surrounding. “This is my personal collection. I bring my books here as I love this ambience,” Neelima says. “I hardly get time on other days. So I make it a point to be here every Sunday and read,” she adds.

I walk into the hall again and cross the floor and reach to the verandah at the front that overlooks the noisy street. The worn-out wooden fence, the arched pillars and the musty-smelling walls surround the verandah where young minds are honing their knowledge. Ayurvedic professionals Bhushan Ramteke and Leena Panpatil are among them. Looking up from the pages of the books they inform about their plans: both are gearing up for the Public Service Commission examinations. “Convenient and peaceful” is how Leena describes the library. Bhushan agrees. “I will always remember this library. This is like my second home,” the bespectacled guy from Gondia says.

He then points at others inside the hall who are visible through the doors. “We all know each other very well. We share our lunch, happiness and sadness,” he says. “When one gets a job, we all throw a small party. We are a family,” Leena adds with beaming sincerity. Two doves sitting on the fence make a noise, as if in agreement.

Photographs by: Biswadip Mitra