The book keepers: How an Old Delhi neighbourhood rallied to save a library of rare reads
One morning in May, 1987, Mohammad Naeem lay in bed for almost an hour, well after everyone in his Old Delhi home had started their day. He hadn’t slept well. The night had been full of thoughts — about the six-day curfew in his area; the people around him and all that they had been through; how the local and national leaders he looked up to didn’t seem to be doing much; and how his neighbourhood seemed stuck in a time warp..
During the curfew and the communal riots that had preceded it, Naeem and seven friends — all in their 20s, all from business families — volunteered to arrange for essential commodities for the neighborhood. With nothing to do the rest of the day, they played cards in a stuffy room inside a tiny lane on Pahari Imli, one of the many hillocks in the Walled City.
Naeem thought of that room, and how it was rarely used, and a plan began to take shape in his head.
“The curfew was a moment of awakening for us,” says Naeem, now 54. “It changed something within us. Made us want to change the fate of our locality. We thought there was no better way to do this than by opening a library.”
In 1990, the group registered as the Delhi Youth Welfare Association (DYWA) and got to work. They started out with just the newspapers and magazines from their homes, then added a few acquisitions from the Sunday books market at Darya Ganj.
They hadn’t even thought of a name. Abdul Hadi, a local resident who was then a clerk with Jamia Millia Islamia University, suggested they name the library after the revered Islamic scholar Shah Waliullah.
As word spread, though, scholars, academics and clerics began donating. The books came in backpacks, on bicycle carriers, in cycle rickshaws, tied up in cloth; new, jumbled, torn.
Today, the Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library is a local institution—home to about 20,000 books, including rare works in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. And when the original eight decided to revamp the now-crumbling space, a grateful community stepped forward to help.
Some are giving time; others are pitching in with their skills or offering space where the books can be stored safely in the interim. Still others are serving as porters, carefully transporting the most precious books to various homes in the neighborhood.
All the volunteers have day jobs. So they dedicate three or four hours every night to the library, sorting, cataloguing and restacking. The indexing began in March and is expected to take until October.
It’s now past midnight on a windy August day. A game of carom is underway in Pahari Imli. A chaiwalla is fighting with his little assistant over where the rest of the glasses are.
Naeem stands amid shiny new steel shelves that don’t yet match the rest of the room, with its worn wooden door, iron beams in the ceiling and fading signboard.
He inspects the shelves carefully, and says it’s time for the books to come home. “It is a weird feeling. I want them all back here,” he tells Mohammad Sajid, a volunteer, on the phone.
Sajid, 41, an admin executive, is further up the lane, sitting in a second-floor flat with three other young men, surrounded by cartons of books they’re supposed to catalogue tonight. “I will finish another lot today,” he tells Naeem.
In the non-functional kitchen of this flat, he carefully opens a carton. “Preserving this treasure is our primary concern,” he says, pointing to the old, hardbound books in the box — Diwan-e-Zafar (Poems by Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, printed at the royal press, Red Fort, 1885); a copy of the Bhagvad Gita in Urdu; a 600-year-old Arabic book on logic; Sair-ul-aqtab, a 200-year-old book of Sufi teachings; and multiple dictionaries for Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Turkish.
Although it started out as a library, the space gradually took on other functions too. Locals come here for help navigating the school admission system, advice on business plans or welfare schemes, counsel on shariat (Islamic jurisprudence), even matchmaking assistance. All over rounds of sugary tea and gossip.
“The DYWA members come from various professions. They are accessible and there is a sense of trust. So the library is the go-to place for neighborhood people,” says Jawwad Iqbal, 24, a law student and a regular at the library.
In all, the library gets 20 to 25 visitors a day. It remains the go-to space for research material too.
“I had to do a project on the Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri and couldn’t find enough material. A friend directed me to the library. I was very surprised to find so much more information in a neighborhood community library. I have been visiting ever since,” says Farheen Naz, 23, an MA student in English literature at Jamia Millia Islamia University.
Anand Taneja, assistant professor of religious studies and anthropology at the Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, says he first visited the library in 2010. “During my doctoral research, whenever I was in Old Delhi, I would make it a point to go there,” he adds. “I would turn to the high shelf of ancient Urdu books on the history of Delhi, such as Bashiruddin Ahamad’s Waqiat e Darul hukumat Dehli, and read them for a peaceful hour or two. Being able to read those books, get a sense of Delhi nearly a century ago, while I was investigating the contemporary life and politics around its monuments, was an invaluable gift.”
It still surprises the original eight that they were able to do this. “We were driven by the zeal to create a library at par with the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna and the Raza Library in Rampur, which we had heard of. But we were novices,” says co-founder Sikandar Changezi.
Termites paved the way for the renovation. Initially, the DYWA tried neem leaves and anti-termite coating. But the sheer volume of books and wooden shelves made the space vulnerable. They considered relocating, but couldn’t find a place close enough.
Finally, they decided to fix the current space by replacing wooden shelves with steel racks, redoing the floor, and finally cataloguing the books.
“The significance of an institute like ours is not tangible. I cannot pinpoint to one thing that we have changed or give you a count of people who have benefitted,” says Naeem, standing amid the still-bare shelves. “But I can tell you it is a great feeling to be of help to society in an age when people are increasingly focused on the self.”