If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
—Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood ||
On the morning of May 5, a serpentine queue formed outside the majestic, white, neoclassical steps that have come to define the entrance of the iconic Asiatic Library in South Mumbai. The library’s administrative officials, including its vice president, were caught off guard—they had not expected such a heavy turnout—that too on the first day.
Founded in 1804, by Scottish philosopher Sir James Mackintosh, the Asiatic Library boasts a vast collection of rare manuscripts, books, periodicals, coins, maps, and has, for long, been considered a treasure trove of knowledge for its members and patrons, mostly Mumbaikars. Therefore, when word began doing the rounds that the library was going to hold its maiden book sale, bibliophiles saved the date and thronged the premises on the sale day, and the sale – which was supposed to go on for a fortnight—was instead concluded within just four hours on opening day.
More than 3,500 books had been put on sale. Priced between ₹20 and ₹30 each, the books had been donated to the library over the past years and were not from among the library’s accessioned collection. So, in case you were wondering if some lucky bookworm managed to purchase the original manuscript of The Divine Comedy by Dante (which only this library in the world can boast of), the answer is no.
However, book collectors did manage to get their hands on some rare gems. These included Rumi’s Masnavi, The Complete Works of Aristotle, and some vintage annual calendars printed by the Bombay University in the 18th century. A collection of war speeches by Winston Churchill, as well as various books on ancient Greek philosophy and Indian history were also sold.
Speaking with The Federal, Shehernaz Nalwalla, vice president, Asiatic Society of Mumbai, said, “The choices (of books) were as varied as the readers themselves. It was a mixed crowd; mothers waited in line while holding their children in their arms. There were working professionals, academics, students, and old people who had turned up as well. I noticed that there was a whole lot of interest in old books. The Complete Works of Aristotle (1940 edition) by Richard McKeon was the first book to be bought by someone. It was a book that I would have bought if nobody else had.”
Nalwalla says that several volumes of Rumi’s mystical poem Masnavi—comprising of a mammoth 25,000 verses spread over six books and considered to be one of the most influential works of Sufism—were highly coveted at the sale. “These went off the shelves very quickly,” she said.
“The Bombay University annual calendars, comprising question papers put together by various teachers at the university during the 1800s…and several reference books on psychology and economics were picked up mainly by students. Books in the Philosophy and History genres were in high demand,” she added.
The Asiatic Library managed to raise funds a little over ₹1 lakh from the book sale proceedings. The money will be used for “enhancing library services and infrastructure.” However, for an institution that claims it has been facing a financial crunch over the past few years, Nalwalla says that the money that has been raised from the book sale is “not even a drop in the ocean” when it comes to the amount of financial assistance that the library actually requires.
The Asiatic Society of Mumbai (ASM) receives an annual grant of ₹1 crore from the central government. More than 85 per cent of this sum is spent on the staff’s salaries, claims Nalwalla, adding that it leaves barely any money to be used on other expenditures.
However, in the summer of 2020—when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak—the central government slashed the annual grant for ASM by 40 per cent, bringing it down to ₹60 lakh a year. With the lockdown and civic curbs in play, staffers were given only 45 per cent of their salaries from April 2020 onwards. This prompted the union that represents ASM employees to threaten to go on strike.
Last year, the annual grant was rectified to its original amount, but Nalwalla says that a minimum of ₹2 crore is required per year for the library to function efficiently. “We sometimes have to pay our staff’s salaries out of investments that the library has made, or from donations that we receive,” she said, adding that it was a good sign that money was at least trickling in from donors for restoration purposes. “We need large scale corporates to step in to provide us assistance, be it in the form of CSR…or good government support.”
“We were running short of space at the library, and over the years, people have been leaving cartons of their old, unused books at our doorstep. We had to change our donation policy because of this three years ago. We even tried contacting many of our donors to come and take their books back, but got no response. However, if a book can find a reader, then there is nothing like it,” said Nalwalla, adding that it was “a good thing” that the habit of reading was still alive and kicking.