Building a library, feeling the footpath in Old Delhi

In the space of one tiny room of the Shah Waliullah library are original works of Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Zauq, Momin, Sir Syed Khan, an Urdu translation of the Bhagwad Gita, a 700-year-old Arabic book on logic and medieval Sufi treatises along with other contemporary books. Since all the books don’t fit in that room, they have been kept elsewhere. As Naeem says, “We have so much, by God’s grace, now all we want is space.”

Written by Rana Safvi | Updated: October 2, 2017 3:44 pm
Shah Waliullah library, old delhi, delhi footpath, delhi youth welfare association, feel the footpath, Rana Safvi at the Hazrat Shah Wali Ullah Library (Source: Delhi Youth Welfare Association/Facebook)

Dilli jo ek sheher tha, aalam mein intekhaab
Rehte thay muntakhab hi jahaan rozgaar ke

Dilli is the name of a city, unique in the world
Only the chosen ones of the world lived here

Once upon a time a royal city or at least one in which the rich and famous chose to live, large parts of Delhi today are hardly better than a slum, with its dirty, pot-holed roads and overcrowded ‘mohallas’.

Fortunately, a group of dedicated men and women have had different ideas, for some time. This group of crusaders from Shahjahanabad – today’s Old Delhi – call themselves the Delhi Youth Welfare Association (DYWA) and owe their coming together to the riots in the old city 30 years ago, when strict curfew was imposed and the large population had to do without food, medicines and even milk for babies.

When curfew was relaxed on the fourth day, Muhammed Naeem and a few friends set out to find provisions for those who needed them most. DYWA was born and Naeem became the president of the NGO. For years, the men met in two tiny rooms in Pahari Imli, a little way off from Jama Masjid, the area named after a tamarind tree that dominated the hilly area in which it grew. Unfortunately, the builder mafia has cut down the tree and leveled the hill and made flats there.

Anyway, Naeem and friends, who would spend their time playing cards and carrom before the riots, now decided to put their time and resources to better use. So in the beginning they gave stipends to a few widows to learn some skills. They arranged for free medical aid so they could see a doctor. But soon enough DYWA was expanding its activities to education and career planning. They realized that Old Delhi had fallen way behind the rest of the city, especially Partition in 1947, and especially in the field of education.

So in March 1994, Naeem and his friends opened a library – a most unique and beautiful space in the entire city. Another founder member, Sikandar Mirza Chengezi, brought some books from his own collection. Naeem, an ex-cricketer, donated books on sports. Very soon people started donating entire collections from their homes. The Shah Waliullah Library was born.

The young men started scouring bookshops in and around the Old City. Today the library has as many as 25,000 books in Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Urdu and English.

In the space of one tiny room are original works of Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Zauq, Momin, Sir Syed Khan, an Urdu translation of the Bhagwad Gita, a 700-year-old Arabic book on logic and medieval Sufi treatises along with more contemporary books. Since all their books don’t fit in there they have kept some books in someone’s house. As Naeem says, “We have so much, by God’s grace, now all we want is space.”

The library makes the evenings of this crowded area, with no parks, clubs or places to hang out in, very pleasant. Friends gather here to read, play carrom and board games, or simply to share their joys or just unburden their problems to a sympathetic ear.

Education remains their priority. The NGO distributes around 500 sets of textbooks to students every year, of which 70 per cent belong to Shahjahanabad and 30 per cent to students who live across the Jamuna. The education of 15 meritorious students is fully funded by them.

By day, Naeem & Friends work to earn an honest living; by evening, they are found in the Shah Waliullah library, helping students fill up scholarship forms under various government schemes, school and colleges. They offer education and career counseling too. Last year, 150 Muslims children got scholarships as a result.

Other NGOs are offered support. One such is Marham (Muslim Association Rehablitating Homeless and Mistreated), which adopts the homeless and offers them food and shelter, identify skills and help find them jobs. They believe that every human being deserves respect.

Recently on Bakr-Id, the group launched a video appealing to all those offering sacrifices to donate the money to them instead. As Marham president Irtiza Quraishi said, instead of sending meat to friends who already have well stocked deep freezers the money could be used for feeding the poor. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMgITyWvmX0)

More initiatives are on the horizon. On October 7, a week from now, Marham has organized an event called ‘Feel the Footpath’ to observe World Homeless Day (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxdaQ2H0R5g&feature=youtu.be), part of which people will be invited to leave the comfort of their homes and spend one night on a footpath, so they can feel the plight of those who spend their lives there, day in and out. The purpose is to brainstorm and find ways to help the destitute.

Another beautiful initiative is the NGO, Purani Dilli Walo ki Baatein http://www.facebook.com/puranidilliwalokibaatein/, which is dedicated to preserving and reviving the traditions and customs of the Old City which are slowly getting lost.

This dedicated team of men and women living within the Walled City want to break down barriers, open minds and ensure a better life for people less fortunate. They believe that it’s not just the responsibility of the government but also that of mainstream society to work together towards bettering society.

Rana Safvi is a historian who believes that stones will speak if you listen to them. She tweets @iamrana

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