Around 30 people huddle over large wooden tables in a dimly lit hall near crumbling Golcha Cinema in the heart of old Delhi.
The tables are draped with newspapers. In a corner is a small rack weighed down by dozens of magazines in Hindi and English.
Despite the whir of the three vintage fans suspended from the high ceiling and the ever-present hum of traffic outside, this is a peaceful place.
The kind of place meant for reading.
Welcome to the reading room run by the Hardayal Municipal Public Library.
The room, which does not require membership, is popular with an assortment of people: students, teachers, office-goers and senior citizens, many of regulars.
“I have been coming here for the past 30 years to read newspapers," says 72-year-old R.S. Gupta, a retired Delhi University Professor. "I give private tuitions to students in the area. Here I catch up on the news of the day in between tuitions."
Rajendra Kumar Buta, who works in the Ministry of Railways is here daily by 6 pm and is often the last to leave at closing time at 8 pm. "For me it's a place to read and relax after work," says Buta.
The reading room stays packed throughout the day. "About 150 people visit each day," says Shamshad a staff member. “There are always more people than we can accommodate."
Slice of history
The little-known reading rooms form a small but integral postcard on the Capital's cultural catalogue.
The city has 31 reading rooms, run by Hardayal Library, the city's oldest library, established in 1862 in Chandni Chowk.
Of these 28 are located in community centers across Delhi and boast of about 40 newspaper and magazines and a couple of hundred books.
The reading rooms are particularly popular with students who do not have the necessary space to study at home.
What attract them in hordes here is the peaceful environment, proximity to home and the freedom to come and read without any membership.
Anand Saxena, 24, an IAS aspirant and a resident of Mayur Vihar Phase-2, spends about 7 hours every day in the first floor reading room —a huge, airy hall-—in the local Community Center surrounded by DDA flats.
“Here I get the right environment and the right company to study,” says Saxena, who can see his flat from where he sits. “Unlike a typical library, here I feel at home.”
“There should be more reading rooms where people can read without membership cards,” says Mahipal, 23, who is preparing for his PGT entrance examination.
They can even bring their own books and food. On an average about 100 people visit each reading room in community centers, which are open from 8 am to 8 pm.
Another such reading room at the Hauz Khas community center is quite popular with office- goers.
“They come here to catch up on the news during lunch break," says Amit Pawar, a staff member at the reading room.
“What makes our reading rooms special is their location. Now we are planning to open air-conditioned technology training labs in six of our libraries for CA students," says Madhukar Rao, the librarian, Hardayal Muncipal Public library.
These community reading rooms are emerging as popular places for academic pursuits in a city where few can afford private study spaces.