It's around 3pm on a sweltering May afternoon. A group of men sit in a small room at the Capital's biggest library, flipping pages of newspapers. They frequently look up to check the time. Located right opposite the Old Delhi Railway station, the Delhi Public Library has become a convenient resting place for passengers to catch up on some reading as they wait for their train.
As the clock strikes 4, they hurriedly pack up and leave. It's time to board the train. The group of five men has to board a train for home in Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat city.
Standing tall since 1951 amid the din of Old Delhi, the library is now often used as a waiting room by passengers. "Since the library is right opposite the Railway station, passengers generally walk in to escape the scorching heat and read newspapers," said Karan Singh, 50, one of the Multi Tasking Staff (MTS) members at the library.
In the last few years, while the newspaper room at the library has been transformed into a resting-cum-reading space, the reading halls have turned into study centres for students preparing for competitive exams, officials say.
Partitioned by wooden planks in a well-lit reading hall at the library, with their heads buried in their books, around 100 men and women diligently take notes. With only a few days left for the civil services entrance exam, they cannot afford any distraction.
A few metres from there is another room where a group of Staff Selection Commission (SSC) aspirants debate over a problem from a sample paper. They return back to their respective study tables after a staff member asks them to keep their voices low or leave the room.
"We leave home around 6 am and reach the library by 9. It's the best choice for us as it's next to the Old Delhi Railway Station. We spend the whole day here, reading and making notes, and then leave for home at 5 pm. We get the required competitive environment here," said Amit Kumar, 22, a resident of Uttar Pradesh's Meerut who has been following the same routine since last eight months.
Singh, who has been working at the library since 1991 and has seen many generations of readers, feels the library culture has completely changed. "We don't actually see readers nowadays. Most of the members now are youngsters who are preparing for some or the other competitive exam. All they want is a suitable environment. They usually carry their books and study material along with them," said Singh.
Backing Singh's comment, a lady at the reception nods her head in affirmation.
"See, madam also knows the kind of avid readers we used to get earlier. Things have changed now. Yesterday, I was surprised when someone issued two books by Munshi Premchand. I inquired about the person and got to know that she was a 60-year-old woman who had come to visit her son during the summer break. Who reads Premchand in this age of sample papers and mock tests?" Singh asks.
Times have changed
Next to the reading hall is a counter from where library members can issue and return the books. There lies a pile of slips with book requests from the members.
"We don't actually get requests for books these days. All our visitors need is either a sample paper or a guide or a reference book for some subject. This is a busy generation. They don't come to libraries to spend leisure time reading new books," said Sudha Mukherjee, the Information Officer.
Since the library comes under the Union Ministry of Culture, it gets enough aid to meet the requirements of its visitors. "We have more than one lakh books in Hindu, English, Urdu, and Punjabi. We keep on updating our collection. However, e-books are more famous among the young visitors," says RK Meena, Library and Information Officer (LIO), Union Ministry of Culture.
The Delhi Public Library has several branches in Sarojni Nagar, East Patel Nagar, Karol Bagh and Shahdara, with more than one lakh members.
Similarly, officials at the Marwadi Library, resting atop the Haldiram's eatery amid the chaos of Chandni Chowk, say that with few takers for the books nowadays, their timeless and rare collection is gathering dust. "We have leading Hindi magazines like 'Saraswati', 'Sudha', 'Chand' and 'Darpan' preserved from the early 20th Century. The library is full of treasures, but only research scholars, mostly from abroad, come and read them," said BD Sharma who has been working as the in-charge here for the last 25 years.
Reminiscing old days, Sharma says there was a time when people came and took notes from the century-old books on Hindi and Sanskrit literature.
"We don't issue books. All our books are precious and can't be given to anyone. Literature enthusiasts used to come from across the city to take notes," he said. The Marwadi library, which used to receive aide by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), was taken over by a Marwadi Trust in 2009.
Officials at the Dyal Singh Public Library at Dean Dyal Upadhayay Marg also say that the number of books issued per year have come down over the period of time due to increase in number of visitors who come to the library with their own reading material. "It's because these kids want to study particular books that are relevant to their examinations and we generally don't have all the competitive books," said an official.
The narrow entry to the Marwadi Library in Chandni Chowk and (right) people outside the entrance of Delhi Public Library in Old Delhi
Lack of funds
Some libraries in the national capital are victims of authorities' indifference. For instance, Hardayal Municipal Public Library located near Gandhi ground in the walled city. The library, that celebrated its 100th year in 2016, is now struggling for existence as it lacks basic amenities like air conditioning, water supply and the prerequisite for any library — books.
"We have not bought a single book from last ten years. We don't receive funds. Last year, the library had no electricity for ten days due to the non-payment of bills," said an official at the library on the condition of anonymity.
The MCDs, North, East and South, have to give a fund of around Rs 3 crore annually to the library, which is a part of Capital's heritage now. But the delay in release of funds, which sometimes exceeds to six months, is killing the legacy. "We had no electricity twice last year. Also, our 80 employees were not paid a single penny for more than six months. The matter was resolved after Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia intervened," said the senior official.
Of its 30 branches that were open across the Capital, only 17 have survived. "Why would people come to a library that does not even have proper computerised catalogues? We planned to digitalise the system here but everything has gone down the drain due to lack of funds," said another official at the library.
However, officials at the MCD claim that the library was not directly administered by the civic body. "It's an autonomous body. There was a plan that MCD would take over, but it did not materialise," said Yogendra Singh Mann, spokesperson for the two civic bodies, North and South. He, however, admitted the delay in payment of dues. "Civic bodies are already cash-stripped. We don't have money to pay the salaries of our employees, which is our priority. Getting funds from the Delhi government is a problem," he said.
Meanwhile, the library continues to be an oasis for readers, most of them from weak financial backgrounds and preparing for competitive exams. Among hundreds of readers who use the library every day, despite its deteriorated condition, is Shivam Kumar, an Engineering aspirant. "We have a one-room-set for a family of five in Daryaganj. For me, it is a necessity. I need a space to study," he said.
Besides the quiet environment that makes these public libraries a haven for competitive exam aspirants, other factors like access to newspapers, internet, e-books and even air conditioning has become an attraction for many.
"I don't have an AC at my home. My father is a vegetable vendor and I am studying hard for the civil services examinations with a hope to change our lives. I can study here in peace without any disturbance," said Shivam Singh, 24, who travels everyday from Yamuna Vihar to the Delhi Public Library's Chandni Chowk branch.
The students carry their study material along with them, however, they use the considerably cheap internet facility at the libraries. "These libraries hardly have any books which are updated. And, who needs books when everything is available online? I just get the printouts of my online study material from the library as it is cheap here," said Jitendra Sharma, a resident of Greater Noida.
At Delhi Public Library, the administration often organises events like debates, singing and essay writing competitions. "If people don't come, we need to capture their attention. So, we keep on organising such events. We also plan summer camps for kids every year," said Karan Singh, the LIO.
Meanwhile, at a nondescript library in Old Delhi's Imli Pahar, over 10,000 rare books in Urdu and Persian gather dust. The number of visitors at the Shah Waliullah Public Library has reduced drastically over a period of time.
"Who will come and read Urdu and Persian books nowadays? Sometimes, some senior citizens come from the neighbourhood. However, some Urdu enthusiasts, writers and historians visit us regularly," said Sharif Quraishi, the caretaker at the library. The library is a community project and operates from a small room.
"We have treasured so many books over so many years, but not many people know about us. All we need is some more space," he says, as he recites a poem by lyricist and author Gulzar — "kitabein jhankti hai band almaari ke sheeshon se, badi hasrat se taakti hai, mahinon ab inse mulaqaaat nahi hoti" (Books peep through the glasses of cupboard's closed doors, with much longing and desire, they stare through for months now, we hardly meet them…)
PLAYING GOOD SAMARITAN
The old newspaper collection centre at the Delhi Public Library's Old Delhi branch has now become a saviour for people in trouble. For instance, a man walked in with a Delhi High Court order to get a copy of a news clip published in February 2012. "He wanted to take a clipping of news about his wife's murder. We helped him and gave him the newspaper. He clicked a picture of the news clip," said an official at the library
DEALING WITH FAKE SCHOLARS
At Marwari library, officials complain of visitors claiming to be Sanskrit Scholars. Every second person who walks in for the ancient manuscripts claims to be a scholar in the language. It takes us only a few seconds to identify such people," says the library in-charge
10 LIBRARIES ONE MUST VISIT
Delhi Public Library: Chandni Chowk, Time: 7:30 am to 8:30 pm
Marwari Library: Chandni Chowk, Time: 8:30 am to 8:00 pm
Shah Waliullah Library: Imli Pahar, Time: 9:30 am to 12 pm & 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm
Maulana Abul Kalam Azaad Library: ITO, Time: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm
The Ghalib Institute: Mata Sundri Road, Time: 9:30 am to 4:00 pm
Hardayal Library: Chandni Chowk, Time: 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Iranian Culture House Library: Mandi House, Time: 9:30 am to 12 pm & 2 pm to 4 pm
Subhan Book Seller: Jama Masjid, Time: Sundays
Dyal Singh Library: ITO, Time: 9:30 am to 5:30 pm
Jamia Hamdard Library: Mehrauli, Time: 9:30 am to 12 pm & 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm
FOUNDED BY A CLOTH MERCHANT
The Marwari Library was founded by a cloth merchant Seth Kedarnath Goenka in 1915 to save the Marwari literature. The building is now considered a heritage site. A resident of Delhi, Goenka wanted to strengthen the Marwari community by encouraging library culture as a place where people could sit together and gain knowledge
LORD HARDINGE LINK TO HARDYAL LIBRARY
The Hardyal Library was founded as Hardinge Library in 1912, reportedly after Lord Hardinge survived an assassination attempt. After the Independence, it was renamed as Hardyal Library. Lord Hardinge was the Viceroy of India under the British rule at that time