Today I decided to visit the Asiatic library. I had seen it for many years, from the time I didn't know what libraries were about. Only upon entering it did I realise how vast it was. The ceiling was high above the tallest cabinets and the common area was so wide, I had to cover five or six subjects before I got from one end to the other. Rows of tables were surrounded by books on physics, computers, literature. There were shelves filled with encyclopedias about Islamic history, music, general topics, medicine, and other things. Impressively new books lined the entrance in glass cabinets marked 'For display only' - a way of communicating that they weren't stuffy, they had it all.
I asked a librarian about old books, very old books, say, first-person accounts of life in...
"They're over there," he said, pointing at a large doorway before I could finish. "But for members only."
The members-only area was where elderly Parsi gentlemen sat over cups of tea and discussed misfortune on leather couches. Busts stood guard occasionally, stern English figures gone decades ago. This was, however, only the common room in the members' section - a large hall which connected to the other rooms. One wall was lined with metal filing cabinets that noted the author or the topic. And this was it, apparently. There were no librarians, just filing cabinets to help you find your way around. A bit disconcerting if you think about it, especially when the secretary (of the library, as opposed to Miss Paulomi, who takes notes and files her nails all day) says to you 'we've got everything,' with an emphasis on everything. Everything? I ask, mouth slightly agape. Everything, he repeats, shutting his eyes in conclusion.
The shelves are dusty, and I find (to my delight) that books such as 'Two days in Cairo' or 'A journey into the interiors of Africa' have very few spellbound. I remove one such and it nearly falls apart, its glue having lost its stickiness. The pages are brown, with a darker brown creeping across words on some pages, and dust flies up when I flip through the book. There are shelves and more shelves full of these books. Shelves that will need a ladder, shelves that will take years to explore. I decide to join this library.
But wouldn't you know it, there's a catch. Two members have to testify for your character. Normally this would not be a problem, but someone has recently been caught walking away with pages torn from a valuable book, and the people who testified for him are now in soup. After approaching several visitors, two, the secretary and an eccentric swami, vouch for my standard of writing without knowing me. I thank them and am about to pull my hand away and leave when the swami squeezes my hand and orders me to follow him. What follows is a tour suited to a Manhattan office in speed as we climb down spiral stairs into the 'godown' - "Manuscripts, old old books, very old books, microfilm, binding room, tremendous old books here." - bounce back up and into the study area where I am introduced to researchers, and through another cavernous hall before entering the newspaper area where, I cannot help notice with some glee, stands an enormous bookshelf titled 'Travel'.
All the books I cannot have and have yet looked for, and a number of books I don't know yet that I will eventually need, are all here.
I don't know. This place, Bombay, has suddenly begun looking good again.