Calcutta, Nov. 9: The book fair is a “great cultural event” — according to the chief minister — that must be held on the Maidan, come hell or high court. But one of Bengal’s great libraries doesn’t qualify for such special care.
Rare books with broken spines, crumbling reprints of 19th century periodicals — cobwebbed, coated in dust and scattered carelessly in the labyrinth of racks at Bangiya Sahitya Parishad. That’s the ground-floor library.
The second-floor museum boasts statues dumped in a corner, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s quaint wooden chair in the company of two red plastic chairs meant for daily use, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar’s huge oval-shaped dining table leaning against the wall amidst a pile of clutter….
One dare not probe further.
Armed with a paltry annual grant from the government, the 112-year-old state-aided library is struggling to preserve its staggering collection of 3.5 lakh books and journals, 3,000-plus manuscripts, paintings, coins and sculptures. A bulk of the journals, periodicals and books are rare, dating back to the first publications.
The state pays the salaries of five Parishad employees and provides an annual grant. Last year, the amount was Rs 10 lakh, up from Rs 9 lakh the year before, officials said.
“The funds crunch is hitting us hard. A large share of the government money is spent on paying the remaining 16 employees... We don’t have the kind of money that is needed for preservation of the rare collection. This requires not a single paisa less than Rs 25 lakh a year,” says Parishad assistant secretary Aloke Das.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could ask the organisers of the book fair — a commercial venture — to help meet some of the gap by simply paying for the Maidan space they use for free every year.
The deficit is reflected in the virtual absence of modern technology, with not even a computer in sight. The best the Parishad can do to slow down decay today is a painstaking process of manually wrapping the fragile scrolls in cloth and spraying them with insecticide from time to time. A bunch of Tibetan scrolls has been stacked up, almost touching the high ceiling and bathed in dust.
Without basic tech tools, most of the tomes and scrolls will perish.
“The collection at Bangiya Sahitya Parishad is exceptional but the condition of books and other artefacts is poor. These need to be preserved properly and it’s very important that it be done immediately with the help modern technology,” said Mallika Sengupta, who used to be a regular at the north Calcutta library set up in 1894, with a current floating readership of around 1,200.
The Parishad runs up huge establishment costs. The two second-floor rooms full of century-old fragile scrolls (punthi) have been air-conditioned to control the moisture content, but the system is switched off after working hours, apparently for fear of short circuit — and burgeoning electricity bills.
A natural threat to the prized possessions is rainwater. “The terrace has developed cracks and the roof leaks. This can damage the artefacts on the third floor,” warns Das.
Last, there is the security aspect, with the cover too thin for comfort. “There are so many artefacts like coins and statues packed into trunks. But now we are planning to put some on display, for which we are trying to rope in the Indian Museum… A grant is on its way from the central government which might make a little difference,” adds Das.