And drops formed an ocean…

A peek at Old Delhi’s Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library, an impressive community effort that preserves rare books in Urdu, Persian and Arabic

April 14, 2014 06:28 am | Updated May 21, 2016 11:16 am IST - new delhi

Researchers from foreign universities at the library. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Researchers from foreign universities at the library. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Old Delhi, to the general mind, is a picture of chaos, rickshaws, pullers, pushers and a teeming crowd. But there is none of it in this part of the Walled City that I venture into — Pahari Imli beyond Bulbule Khana. Perched on a mound, its lanes are mostly steps and slopes, meant only for walkers, two at a time maybe. Somewhat reminding me of its similarities with old Muslim cities, say Damascus, Jerusalem, albeit they are far cleaner!

Walking through this maze of sharp kerbs and steep slants around precarious looking matchbox houses, meeting strangers’ gaze — many times from behind a curtain, a paan shop here, a tailor’s establishment there, I seek out Hazrat Shah Waliullah Public Library, a one-of-a-kind community altruistic effort in today’s individualistic man-eat-man times.

When a paanwallah finally points at a small wooden door with a rather old and weary look a few metres away, a man on the street overhears my query to him, relays it to another standing near that door, saying, “A visitor for the library.” It is few minutes past 1 o’ clock, the last man informs us, time to shut the library for lunch. It reopens at 3 o’ clock, I learn. Turning the key in the lock, introducing himself as Mohammad Shareef Quraishi, the library caretaker, he, however says, “A library has to be open when a visitor comes. It keeps libraries alive.”

The small door leads to a small room, packed with strips of books stacked on bookcases sticking to its walls. In the middle is a low table, the size of a four-seater dining table, set on an old blue carpet. Remove your shoes, step on to the carpet, take out books, sit down and read, that’s clearly the design. Quraishi comes to the library every day at 10 a.m. other than Sundays. “But if you really want to see the crowd here, come at night, between 10 and 11 p.m. This is the only library in Delhi that is open so late,” he says, a streak of pride sneaking into the tone.

So who are its users? “Because we have some of the rarest books in Urdu, Persian and Arabic, we get a lot of research scholars from universities across the world. They usually come during the day. At night, most people come from around the area to read old books, also newspapers and magazines,” he fills in.

The phone rings, turns out to be Muhammed Naem, a Walled City resident and the brain behind the idea. Quick to arrive at the library to join in the conversation, he says the library is run by the Delhi Youth Welfare Association (DYWA), an NGO he co-founded in 1992.

Naem takes you to 1987 to relate the idea behind the effort, when communal disturbances in Old Delhi led to a curfew for four days. He and some youngsters helped deliver essentials to the residents. “Though there was curfew outside, the area is such that we could reach Turkman Gate through the inside route. We got from there supplies for people, felt good doing it. Once the curfew was lifted, we met as usual at my place and told each other, ‘Lets do something that people will remember us for’.” They zeroed in on collecting old books, creating a community space where people could come to read a book, a newspaper, meet each other. They named it after Shah Waliullah, the Islamic scholar who first translated the Quran to Urdu.

This enthusiastic bunch of 16 young people first brought books from their homes. “We then went around asking people to donate old books, even visited U.P. towns looking for them. On Sundays, we would go to Nai Sarak, rummage through the old books,” he fills in. The pile got bigger and better. Today, this one-room library hosts about 20,000 rare and out-of-print books in Urdu, Arabic, Persian, besides some in Hindi and English.

“We have an 80-year-old Hindi Ramayan, a 100-year-old Quran which has Bismillah written in 114 styles, a book of handwritten couplets by Bahadur Shah Zafar which also has his shayari in Punjabi, among many gems,” states Naem. In 1992, when the bunch formed DYWA, the library became a part of it. “After the Babri Masjid demolition, 17 NGOS came up in Old Delhi. None is alive today except ours, mainly because they accepted funds from outsiders. We collect money only from among us members, therefore we can do what we want to do,” he says. The NGO also provides free study books to poor meritorious students from Classes 9 to 12 each year, paying their admission fees when required. “This year, we selected 500 students, 200 from East Delhi, 300 from Old Delhi.” Pointing at a pile in a corner, he says. “We also collect old course books from students which can be passed on to the needy.”

Space is a huge problem in the library though. Many old books have been kept packed away due to lack of space for display. “Termites are eating into rare books. We have now put plastic covers on them to protect them,” he says.

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