ONLINE JOURNAL

Maharaj Public Library, Jaipur

Public Libraries of India
25 April 2018

Located opposite Tripoli Gate, the Maharaj Public Library is situated in the heart of Jaipur’s Walled City

Photograph by Tina Nandi

Introduction and the Man

Me: (Speaking to a man sitting at an office desk on the ground floor of the Maharaj Public Library – MPL) Good Morning! I have come from Bombay and would like to meet the Chief Librarian Officer.

Man: Yes. Come, sit. (Notice how he smartly does not say if he is the CLO or not!) What can I do for you.

Me: I am visiting and researching various Public Libraries throughout India, and MPL is my first. I would like to see your collection and learn about the Library.

Man: (Nods his head in approval) Which country you are from?

Me: Originally America, but last 11 years in Bombay.

Man: (Eyes light up) Yes, you are most welcome to visit our Library. (I passed the informal country test – next time, I think I will say I am from Azerbaijan, just to see what the response will be).

Me: Thank you very much. I have some questions about the history of the Library, who could answer those?

Man: Go to the first floor – (points to an opposite corner of the building) – a lady at a desk will help you. And remember – no bags allowed, you can leave them here with me.

I step out of the office, and back into the courtyard of what one must have been the center an urban haveli. Today, the courtyard is packed with students reading – relishing the relative quiet of the oasis of calm in the midst of the walled city. Outside, traffic roars at Tripoli Junction.

My wife, son, and I head to the staircase leading up to the first floor, and in the process pass the toilet (which is conveniently located on the ground floor). One of my first criteria for analyzing the quality of a library are her toilets – location and quality. MPL location is decent – convenient (for most people) and centrally located – although it is not handicap accessible. Most problematically – it smells bad and is poorly maintained.

From the street an arcaded entry leads into the Library’s central courtyard. The romantic vision is corrupted by the waft of a poorly maintained toilet adjacent to the courtyard.

Photograph by Tina Nandi

First Floor and the Madam

Me: (Slightly out of breath from climbing the steep stairs quickly with a small child in arm) Good Morning madam, the Man downstairs said you could share a bit of information about the history of this library.

Madam: (not yet looking up – her lingerie magazine is much more interesting than my question)

Me: Madam…..(I repeat my question)

Madam: (Finally looks up) Go downstairs and ask for Sheila – she will help you.

This is the true sign of government rule – what I call the run around. When individuals are not passionate about their work, the natural response is to avoid work – hence the run around – bouncing people (distractions) from one desk to another like a pinball machine.

We leave the madam to her lingerie magazine (don’t want to expose our small child to graphic material!) and head downstairs to find Sheila Madam.

Sheila Madam and her team

We meet Sheila. Finally someone pukka. After a brief minute explaining (again) what I have come for, she understands and deputes another lady in a bright pink saree to give us a tour of the Library. And off we go – back past the toilets – up the stairs again – and into the inner sanctum of the MPL.

The Collection

Pink Saree Lady (PSL): This section is all english books. (points in a particlar direction and then quickly leads us into room after room explaining the various sections). This section is reference only. This section Urdu….then Children’s Books…..then Hindi….and so on….

Me: Do you have any rare books?

PSL: Yes – that room. (points in a particular direction across the courtyard)

We walk into the room. Sitting in the corner are three Godrej type cupboards – under lock and key. The rare book room – the inner sanctum. While walking around, I could not help but wonder which books were part of Maraharaja Ram Singh II’s original collection – which he donated at the first corpus of the MPL. Were they inscribed by him? Or did they have his pesonal book plate? Unfortunately I did not have time to go into more detail – that will be another project for another time.

Me: Would it be possible to see some of the rare books?

PSL: Yes, but we will need the key to open these, and permission.

From what I could perceive at this point, Sheila Madam was not the CLO – there was, infact, one more lady above her on the totum pole of hierarchy and leadership. At this point we head down to meet her – the boss – for permission and chat

“While walking around, I could not help but wonder which books were part of Maharaja Ram Singh II’s original collection – which he donated as the first corpus of the MPL.”

Wooden bookshelves sag under the weight of carelessly arranged rare books.

Photograph by Tina Nandi

The CLO

Me: Good Afternoon Madam. (I then explain, for the third time, who I am, what I am doing, and why there is a small child in my arms).

CLO: You are most welcome in our library. MPL was started in 1866 and we have more than 150,000 books in our collection.

Me: Do you have a list of the rare books that are upstairs in the cuboard?

CLO: Yes. (CLO asks Sheila Mam’s assistant to bring the list).

The hand written list comes – spread over 6 or 7 pages. Masterpieces quietly reside upstairs – The Jeypore Portfolio (12 volumes) – The Ganges Canal (Report), Architecture at Bizapur, and dozens of others. Sheer masterpieces that would garner worldwide attention from researchers and scholars – if publicized.

CLO and I chat a bit more – about the MPL’s rising membership numbers, the (rather complex) process for becoming a member. All in all, she was very friendly, helpful, and I am sure that if I wanted to stay in Jaipur for 5 days and research and review the MPL collection – I would have received her full support. Such positive vibes and rare books help make up for the smelly toilet in the otherwise wonderful courtyard – although does not make one complacent and accepting of such oversight!

Me: One last question Ma’am: If you had unlimited funds for the MPL – what would you do?

CLO: (Thinks briefly then responds decisively) I would build a new library with more facilities for students and visitors. While the current location here is great – centrally located, etc – we can do very little in this building because it is heritage.

“The central courtyard and verandah around which all book racks and reading spaces are arranged.”

Envoi

The desire for better infrastructure will become a broken record in the public library interviews that are up and coming. Essentially, India is a land of wonderful libraries in terms of diversity of collections – comprised of rare books that were owned by some of India’s most dynamic leaders. However, these jewels are housed in crumbling buildings which lack basic amenities – they are essentially store rooms into which people, students, visitors, and toilets are crammed.

In spite of her infrastructural deficit, MPL garners 9 out of 10 points on my rating list – on account of a wonderful old and rare book collection combined with quite friendly and helpful staff. The run around is to be expected in a government run organization and should not be taken personally – think of it more like a culture / way of life.

If you are in Jaipur, please do visit the MPL at Tripoli gate, greet the staff, and explore their selection – I sense they are encouraged and energised when new people come to visit and research.

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Urbs Indis is an urban aerial photography studio and archival library founded by Mumbai based architect and artist Robert D Stephens (RMA Architects). Since 2007 he has been documenting urban India from 10,000 feet above sea level, in black and white as well as colour photography.

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