Even on a searing hot Wednesday afternoon, the reading hall of the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya, a treasure trove of Marathi literature across topics in Dadar’s Naigaum area, is fully occupied.
Inside, the white walls are lined with steel cupboards full of books. Apart from the whirring of the fans suspended from the high ceiling, the only sounds are those of the occasional turning of a page, some furious scribbling, or the creaking of a chair as a reader gets up to look for another book.
In an era of computers, printouts and photocopies, the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya is still a favourite among students wanting to research on Marathi history and literature. The only odd thing is that most are not students from Mumbai.
“If there are 30 students referring to books from our libraries at a time, not even three of them will be from Mumbai. It may be because not many students in Mumbai opt for courses such as an MA or a PhD in Marathi these days. It can also be because all this material is now available at their home at the convenience of a click,” said an official working in the administration of the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya.
As of March 31, 2014, the chain of libraries under Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya, which will complete 117 years of existence on March 14 this year, had a total of 11,787 members, a slight dip from the 12,524 members it had seven years ago. The decrease in membership is despite its book bank having nearly doubled to 6.15 lakh books in 2013-14 from 3.56 lakh books in 2006-07.
Even the registered members don’t necessarily take books to read on a very regular basis, employees at the organisation said.
While the libraries in the island city would earlier have a large number of members, the numbers dropped as the textile mills shut, and the chawls started disappearing, giving way to high-rises, pushing out the Marathi working class, the official said. In fact, the numbers are slightly better in the organisation’s libraries in the suburbs now.
About six years ago, the organisation had to shut 12 libraries, most in the island city, as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) stopped extending financial assistance, citing low readership. Today, the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya runs 18 libraries in the city with BMC’s aid, and a few that it runs on its own.
Krishnakant Shinde, chief administrator of the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya, said, “Put together salaries of our employees, funds for purchase of new books, maintenance cost and so on, we spend about a lakh rupees on every library every year, while the BMC’s grant is much lower. So, instead of operating in massive deficit, we chose to close a few libraries. We keep writing to the BMC every year requesting them to increase the grant.”
The BMC, one of the richest municipal corporations, gives the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya a grant of Rs 28,000 per library every year, which is woefully inadequate, an official working with the organisation said. As a result, the most handsome salary at the Granth Sangrahalaya does not exceed Rs 8,500 a month.
Even as several political parties in Mumbai claim to champion the growth of the Marathi language in Mumbai and the ‘sons of the soil’ theory, not one has come forward to help the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya in any manner, Shinde said.
“No political party gives us any assistance. If they want they can help us improve in many ways by giving aid for new books, better furniture, computers. We have tried asking elected representatives time and again without much success. They are not interested because as such this is not a votebank,” Shinde said.
“Having a library near you will not make you a reader, just like having a playground near you will not make you an athlete. But if you do not have a playground, you cannot play. And if you do not have a library, you will not be able to read. One of the biggest failures of Mumbai as a city is that there is no public library available where anyone can walk in and read,” said Jerry Pinto, poet and author.