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And then there was light

Mini Pant Zachariah Step into the J N Petit Library on D N Road to feast on its neo-Gothic architecture, exquisite stained glass windows and rare books.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2009 01:04 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah

If you ask the many hawkers, shopkeepers or passersby on D N Road for directions to the J N Petit Library, chances are you will draw a blank. Some may even enquire if you are, in fact, looking for the Asiatic Library — in which case you are on the wrong street.

So little-known is this library on the bustling thorughfare that connects Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Hutatma Chowk (or VT and Fountain if you will) that unless you have proper directions to the place you are quite likely to miss it.

And you’d never know what you had been missing out on till you spotted the obscure signboard of the J N Petit Library next to the Thomas Cook building that houses HSBC Bank.

You have two entry points into the library. You could walk up the spiral staircase to the third floor or you could take the quaint two-way lift.

Either way, you will find yourself entering a spacious reading room which is illuminated by the natural light that floods in from the many doors and windows on all its four sides. The old-fashioned fans suspended from the ceiling, 30 feet high, are an adequate supplement to the cool breeze wafting in from the old trees in the vicinity that have escaped the
axe. Anonymity has its advantages.

Sitting inside this peaceful reading room that can comfortably seat 450 (said to be the largest in Asia), it is difficult to believe that the road outside is teeming with noisy vehicles.

Living History
Founded in 1856 by a group of Parsi students of the Elphinstone College, the library came to be located in its present
home in 1895, when a donation of Rs 2.50 lakh — a tiny fortune in those days — was made by Bai Dinbai Nesserwanjee Petit.

It helped buy the land on which to build this beautiful yellow structure made with Malad stone and limestone. Inside, the Minton tileflooring , iron pillars and sheer elegance of the place is breathtaking.

As you enter the reading room, turn right and turn your gaze to the right. You'll find Lady Petit and her family immortalised in exquisite stained glass windows - a tribute to their generosity that is enjoyed by bibliophiles over a century later.

The library and the reading room are named after Jamshetji Nesserwanjee Petit, one of the founder members of the library, who died very young, The stained glass inscription tells us that the library was “dedicated by his sorrowing mother” Bai Dinbai Petit.

Here, under the watchful eye of the Petit family, people leaf through the newspapers, periodicals and the 1,50,000 titles that the library boasts of. Among the many rare volumes at the library is the calligraphy book of Firdosi Tusi titled Shah Nama.

The library is open only to members but getting membership is not difficult. Rs 845 will get you a membership for three months; that works out to a little over Rs 9 a day. A small price to pay for this pleasure.

If, at the end of three months, you haven’t got addicted to its quiet charm, you can opt out with a refund of the Rs 300 deposit.

Few of the library's 3,500 members consider that an option.

This weekly column explores the city’s low-cost pleasures