The nearly-a-century-old Marwari Library in chaotic old Delhi houses a formidable collection of old and rare books and manuscripts.

Often on a trip to old Delhi I remember A Passage To India. Walking through the disorderly crowd, moving my neck suddenly sideways to avoid huge parcels balanced on heads, ducking to avoid trolleys, or glaring at the driver of a rickety lorry that appears suddenly, I think about what E.M. Forster said about India — a ‘muddle’, a chaos with a method — in his famous novel published 71 years ago.

That chaos and the method are nowhere as evident as in the Walled City. People and products jostle for space in narrow alleyways; the hawkers have taken over street corners long ago to sell all sorts of cheap and seasonal wares. Even stray animals look like they have no time to waste. Grab and go is the approach here.

Having negotiated my way through all this action, I have climbed a flight of steep stairs to the first floor of a building not far from that famous old Delhi landmark, the Fountain. And suddenly I am hit by a hushed silence. And a sense of order, the kind you find typically in a library. I am at the Marwari Library, a quiet two-storey institution dating back to 1915. A handful of people are seated in the hall. The hubbub of the streets is right below but all one hears here is the turning of pages, the rustle of newspapers and magazines, and an occasional clearing of the throat. Ram Naresh Sharma, librarian-in-charge for over two decades, emphasises the contrast. “Isn’t it amazing that in an area where you can’t stand still anywhere for more than a minute, you have a venue that gives you the silence to read?”

The library, situated in a heritage building in Chandni Chowk and run by the Marwari Education Foundation, has 250 life members and 50 ordinary members. Anyone who walks in can read newspapers and magazines free of charge. “For an annual payment of Rs. 20, a member can borrow a magazine for 15 days,” says Sharma. With a security deposit of Rs. 500, you can borrow two books for a fortnight. A life membership costs Rs. 3,100.

Despite its age and formidable collection, particularly of Hindi books and magazines,(many of them dating back to the first two decades of the 1900) not many people know about this library. In fact, if you ask around, it is likely that you will be directed to the Delhi Public Library not far away.

Recently a new section was inaugurated with books on competitive exams to attract young readers. “From CAT and MAT to MCA and NDA, we have everything. We want to attract youngsters to the library. We offer students a facility that will help them build careers; they have to pay only Rs. 20 a year for access to these scholastic guides,” says Raj Narain Saraf, secretary of the Foundation, which also runs two schools and a medical centre in Old Delhi.

But its strength is certainly the dog-eared, worn-out collection of 32,229 books and magazines, of which 2,000 are rare. Sharma, one of three employees, says these are only for reference. “Many research students from various Delhi universities and universities abroad come to us.”

Sharma, helped by B.D. Sharma one of the two attendants, brings out old Hindi magazines like Chand, Hans, Sudha, Maryada, Madhuri, Stree Darpan, Vishal Bharati and Saraswati; some from as far back as 1917. Among its 21 manuscripts is a handwritten Bhagwad Gita. My eyes rest on the History of Congress and Brighu Samhita, the Vedas, the Marwari Jati Itihaas, old dictionaries and encyclopaedias, a collection of 100 years of almanacs, Tulsidas’ Ramayan, Lok Sabha discussions during its formative days, Filmfare issues dating back to the 1950s, besides some books in English published in pre-independent India.

The maintenance, says Sharma, takes a lot of his attention. “After we renovated the building in 2004, things have improved. We regularly put ajwain and neem leaves between the pages,” he says. Realising the need to preserve its collection, the library has begun digitising them. “About 40-50 books have been digitised now,” says Saraf. This move was triggered by the loss of some rare books. “Two years ago, we lent some books to the Delhi Public Library for an exhibition. We lost them in a fire. Among them was a handwritten Kamayani by Jaishankar Prasad,” he says.

Other gems in the collection include a note by Mahatma Gandhi in the guest book when he visited the library in 1917. To leaf through the greying guest books, you need Saraf’s nod. From a steel almirah, he brings out two bound books, folds his hands in respect and opens them to show me Gandhiji’s signature, Lokmanya Tilak’s in 1917, Madan Mohan Malaviya’s in 1916, and Maithili Sharan Gupt and Harivansh Rai Bachchan in 1957.

Saraf says, “The library was a result of the Hindi revival movement in pre-independent India. So you will find here Hindi books and magazines of those times. It was started by Seth Kedarnath Goenka, a cloth merchant who was also involved in the freedom struggle. So meetings of Congress leaders also happened here. That is why people like Gandhiji visited the place.”

Once I leave the library, the hustle and bustle of the street hits me again, making me wonder anew at how some precious things in the old city have stood the test of time.