A dust storm swept through Mandi House circle Wednesday afternoon, blowing up leaves and dirt over people and cars. A gust of wind, at about 3.30 pm, blew out hundreds of loose sheets of paper, charred wickerwork and torn pieces of white plastic sacks from the upper floors of the National Museum of Natural History building.
“I walked stealthily through the thick bush/As my sensitive ears heard the mahout shout mush… White men with huge guns came/They hunted day and night for wild game,” read a charred sheet of paper titled ‘The Tiger’s Tale’, lying in a drain on Tansen Marg.
Hundreds of pages flew out of the fourth floor library, which housed an estimated 15,000 books, the sheets carpeting Tansen Marg. Employees of the museum, seated on a parapet on the pavement on Tansen Marg, watched the pages come down in sooty dust.
“We reported here at 9 am and will be here till the close of our usual office hours. All of us are on duty, but we are not allowed to go inside the building because it has been sealed,” said Dr C R Magesh, a scientist with the Botanical Survey of India.
All employees including Director B Venugopal spent the day sitting and waiting outside the museum premises, downing cups of tea. They watched police officers, fire department officials and municipal authorities file in and out of the museum premises. With their 6th and 5th floor offices burnt, the museum staff waited for orders from the Ministry of Environment.
“We do not know where we will be sent. Perhaps to the head office in Jorbagh. We might be transferred to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, where the ministry has its museums,” said an employee.
Environment Secretary Ashok Lavasa said, “We are waiting for NDMC to hand over the building to us. As soon as it is done, we will assess the situation and see if there is a workable space left for museum staff. Depending on our assessment, we will prepare a contingency plan to assign duties or transfer and relocate staff to other centres.”
While newer members wondered where they would go next, staffers who have spent nearly two decades or more of their lives in the museum were yet to recover from the shock of blaze that devastated the museum early Tuesday. All conversations centred around the “sudden” fire.
“Everything is gone. Things I set up with my own hands are destroyed forever,” said Amarnath Saha, a taxidermist who stuffed birds for the museum and looked after their upkeep for the last 20 years. “But we will set it up again, specimen by specimen.”
“I got a call at 2 am yesterday. I could not sleep after I was told that the museum was up in flames. My daughter and I wept when we saw the gutted museum building. This was where I got my first job 26 years ago. I have been working here ever since,” said Sheela Marandi, a senior member of the education department. She knew each exhibit by heart, having conducted tours of the museum for schools and educational institutes.