A trove of trivia and statistics, the Bombay Gazetteer was published in 1905. It’s maroon hardback, in the tradition of sturdy maroon hardbacks, sends up gales of that comforting smell peculiar to old books. This rare compilation sits proudly on the shelves of the KR Cama Oriental Institute Library near Kala Ghoda.
For Rs 50, anyone can spend a day trawling through these tales of the city.
It’s called reading for reading’s sake, and for a small price, or none at all, it can be done at one of a number of reading rooms in the city. Most of them stock a general selection of books – fiction, non-fiction, newspapers and periodicals – whilst some specialise in reference material. Your best bet would be to begin in south Mumbai where most reading rooms are located. The reading room at the Asiatic Society is no doubt the most celebrated, with its imposing façade and neoclassical design, attracting between 800 and 1,000 visitors a day.
Hari Shivpuri, a retired gentleman, is a regular who has been making the trip daily from Dombivli for the past six years. “I don’t buy newspapers as I do not have space to store them,” said Shivpuri. “I enjoy making the trip to this library as it is well maintained.”
The central library has two other branches, in Mulund and Worli, and will open a fourth in Thane this year.
“It’s very important to maintain free reading rooms. We have also begun digitising our libraries,” said BE Sananse, director of libraries.
On the parallel road you will encounter a majestic heritage structure, the JN Petit Library, with a collection of over 2,000 books.
If you want a dose of Marathi literature, the Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalaya at nine locations across the city is the best place for periodicals, Marathi fiction and non-fiction. Aided by the state, these libraries charge a nominal fee of Rs 7 a day. Every morning the spacious, airy reading room of its Dadar branch is populated with students and scholars alike. A peek into the hall piled with books is once more redolent of the smell of fading, aging books.
In the same Dadar building, another library is in the making. The Sahitya Akademi, the country’s premier forum promoting regional languages will soon throw open the doors of its library.
One place that has to feature in any library trail is Mani Bhavan Library at Gamdevi. Gandhi’s Mumbai abode, Mani Bhavan stocks Gandhian literature and books from his personal collection. Every foreign dignitary, including President Barack Obama, has made it a point to visit the bhavan. “This place has a vast collection of literature related to Gandhi, so I come here twice a week,” said Syamala Vishwanathan, amid a pile of books.
But wherever you go, ensure you talk to the librarian. It will only add to the experience. “When you go to a library you get energised, it's a place for mental food,” said Ranjan Bharuchi, librarian, Mani Bhavan Library.