Free Press Journal

Letter from the hills! Kitabghar: Our house of books


Next time you’re in Mussoorie, ask for Kitabghar or Library and you shall find yourself in exactly the same place. Ages ago, when I applied for membership from Mrs Maisie Gantzer, the Honorary Secretary, who like other illustrious members of her family, had held the fort close to 40 years.

‘Be careful!’ she warned. ‘Don’t try sneaking up on Murthy Devi, our Librarian. She is an old battle axe!’

When I mention this to Pramode Sawhney, a senior member of many years standing, he throws his head back laughing: ‘Our dragon lady? Precious! You don’t get that vintage now!’

For sometime now, our Doubters Club has been hammering at the doors: ‘A Library? Who needs one right in the middle of the busiest town square? With access to Google, do you need books?’

How does one explain that we still need roadmaps, with so many roads?
As a member of the hill station’s oldest living institution, I am often accosted by such inane questions.

Indecent proposals abound. Priceless ones?

‘Couldn’t we add a café or a coffee shop perhaps? You know with a pool table or two in the upper verandah with a card table on the side?’

But it has survived the turbulence of a hundred and seventy-five years and is like a lifeboat; a place to paddle your own canoe; a place to detox or open a window to the world. It’s a celebration of knowledge to shelter from the vagaries of life.

‘Anywhere else in the world, this old Victorian building would be a heritage site. The traffic would have been diverted elsewhere,’ Jack Plant, a visitor from overseas whispers, in the Reading Room, to which flock historians, researchers and scholars.

Step out into the midsummer rush that the hill station now exemplifies, changes meet you in every direction.

It was not always so.

An old guide tells us: ‘The Criterion and the Savoy restaurants, the latter on the upper floor of the Library, – area are a boon and a blessing to man, and women too. ‘Ices, cakes, coffee, cold drinks, and cigarettes add considerably to the charm assigned to music ‘to soothe the savage breast’.

Our earliest records trace a combination of British merchant, missionaries and army officers founding the Library. Originally, the site belonged to Scott and Pitt, who sold it to Major Edmund Swetenham, Commandant of the Landour Convalescent Depot, who married a local girl and built a home in Cloud End. Later, in 1843, he sold it to a Library Committee formed with Vansittart, the then Superintendent of the Doon, as its Chairman for the princely sum of Rs.300.

Subsequently, it was transferred to a trust ‘to be held forever in trust for and on behalf of the Mussoorie Library Committee’.

Perhaps our founders knew that many a journey begins with the turning of a single page. Small wonder, which it makes Kitabghar or our House of Books, the last living symbol of a civilized land.

Mussoorie born author-photographer Ganesh Saili has had a lifetime affair with the mountains. His two dozen books are a testament to the hills of home.