Memories of growing up in Agra and revisiting John's Public Library

Something else also happened in these years, though there are few statements to the contrary - religion collided with science.

 |  13-minute read |   29-11-2016
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On a summer afternoon in the early 1990s, I got my first library membership at John's Public Library in Agra.

I was a Class 9 student. John's Public Library was in a corner of the Hewitt Park, a couple of miles from Taj Mahal. The park included three lakes filled with the waters of the Agra canal, the soothing shade of giant tamarind, mimusop and palash trees, and winding pathways along the trees, discreetly leading from one lake to another.

Until then, I had not had the image of a library as some massive structure surrounded by gardens and lakes. The only library I knew was a shop named Khanuja Book Depot in Shehzadi Mandi, Cantonment area. Khanuja was close to our house, me and my brother and the kids of our neighbourhood bought our school books and notebooks from there.

Khanuja also rented out Commando comics, Diamond comics, Hardy Boys, Champak, Chandamama and Nandan for 50 paise a day during summer vacations.

jones1_112916023051.jpg John's Public Library stood in a southern corner of the Paliwal Park, which was earlier known as Hewitt Park. (Picture: Atul Sabharwal)

When we moved out of Cantonment, schools were indefinitely shut, first because of the Mandal Commission unrest, and then due to Babri Masjid riots. We had not taken a cable television connection yet. Though there was no indication as to when the schools will reopen, my father saw my ICSE Board exam hovering closer than I did.

In Cantonment, we were the last house to buy a TV set. My brother and I had to go on a strike like the two kids in Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning to make our parents budge. VCR was never purchased. It was only rented during summer vacations. I was too old now to go on a strike to make my father give in to our demand for a cable TV connection. I looked for a library.

John's Public Library stood in a southern corner of the Paliwal Park, which was earlier known as Hewitt Park. The library was not affiliated to any school. The doors were open to all to fall in love with books under its high Indo-Saracenic ceiling, along its semi-lit corridors and dark wooden shelves.

Years later when I read Miles Harvey’s book, The Island of Lost Maps, where he described George Peabody Library in Baltimore as “a cathedral of books”, my mind went to John's Public Library. Harvey further informs that Peabody was a philanthropist who “did not promote religious beliefs. Let others save souls; Peabody was interested in minds.”

jones2_112916023249.jpg The doors were open to all to fall in love with books under its high Indo-Saracenic ceiling, along its semi-lit corridors and dark wooden shelves.

The Johns of Agra originated from the House of Joanides, a family of Greek diamond merchants. Antonius Joanides came to India from Levant in 1801 and enlisted with British forces. He Anglicised his name to Anthony John.The family acquired a large proportion of vacant land in Agra due to the good books it kept with the British.

“They were neither British nor colonialists but philanthropic mill-owners,” recalls author Ronald Vivian Smith. In building the John's Public Library, whether the John family had intentions like George Peabody’s is not recorded in writing anywhere. One can see that though in the setting, the design and the love with which the park and the lakes were laid around the library.

Centuries before the John family opened their public library, another man in Agra conceived and built a library surrounded by waterfront and gardens. Prince Dara Shikoh’s library faced river Yamuna and the gardens, that his forefathers had lovingly built, lay along its banks.

jones5_112916023738.jpg Dara Shikoh’s library. 

The four corners of the library terrace had a chatri each, where one could sit in shade and read, debate with nobles of the court, ideate on the future of the dynasty and the empire while listening to the river.

Prince Dara Shikoh, Emperor Shah Jahan’s favorite son, was being groomed to be a visionary and scholarly emperor like his great grandfather Akbar. Fate had something else in mind for him and for his library.

Today, Dara Shikoh’s library is not an ASI-protected monument even though the building remained to be of historical importance beyond the era of Mughals, all the way to years of India’s struggle for Independence when it was renamed as Municipal Hall.

jones6_112916023840.jpg Today, Dara Shikoh’s library is not an ASI-protected monument even though the building remained to be of historical importance beyond the era of Mughals.

Many patriotic speeches were delivered from its steps, many rallies and prabhat-pheris originated from its ramparts. Most of the original building now has been razed to accommodate shops of grain mandi at Moti Ganj. Only the central structure stands. A municipal school runs there. Standing on its steps, one can see the fort that Dara’s great grandfather Akbar had built.

In 1905, the British installed a statue of Queen Victoria in the garden, across Akbar’s fort. The statue designed by Thomas Brock, erected on a granite slab also had three bronze figures surrounding the Queen. Two figures were fairies or winged angels. One holds a giant book and the other holds a wand and the third was an otter.

The statue was unveiled by the Prince of Wales. It was so placed that the "Queen would always have her eyes on Akbar’s fort".

jones3_112916023357.jpg In 1905, the British installed a statue of Queen Victoria in the garden, across Akbar’s fort. (Picture courtesy: Yale Center for British Art)

After Independence, in 1947, the statue of the Queen was removed by the local authorities.The two fairies or angels and the otter were dismantled from the main mast for the ease of storage. The statue gathered dust in a store room at Police Lines, Agra.

In 2014, the statue and its dismantled parts were brought to Paliwal Park at the behest of Paliwal Park Eco Club, and were installed at the entrance of John's Public Library. That’s when the trouble began.

jones4_112916023544.jpg After Independence, in 1947, the statue of the Queen was removed by the local authorities.

Bajrang Dal, through its state co-convener Ajju Chauhan, protested against the reinstatement of statues, calling them symbols of slavery. Vikas Sharma of Paliwal Park Eco Club argued back saying, “Bajrang Dal must call for the banning of train tracks and water lines that were put in place by the colonial government".

Running out of argument, Bajrang Dal threatened to demolish the statues. The district magistrate panicked and ordered them to be removed. Within days, the statues were dumped in the bushes behind the library. Chauhan then made one more demand: John's Public Library should be renamed Ram Vilas Sharma library.

Back in the '90s when our schools opened after the long drawn chaos of the Mandal Commission, Rath Yatra, Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid years, I was happy to get back to class, to friends. It was not like the end of summer vacations where one felt miserable about the season ending so soon and hated the fact that the last week of the holidays was wasted in finishing "holiday assignments".

The liberalisation of economy that followed sent the feeling of long-awaited stability across the masses. It also gave hope that senseless violence based on religion, the wastage of human life, human hours and resources on rath yatras, and the caste-based politics of reservation was behind us.

The only big scam that stayed in public memory was Bofors and everybody thought that that was a thing of the past too. Snakes had only retreated into their holes for a while.

Now where we are we are, and here, let’s take Bajrang Dal’s state co-convener Ajju Chauhan’s side in the argument. Let’s try and take him seriously because he has slithered to the surface in this drama. Let’s doubt ourselves, we who think that Queen’s statue and John's Public Library deserve better.

After all, no one remembered these statues in the seven decades when they lay gathering dust. So let’s push the envelope a tad bit on Ajju Chauhan’s behalf.

jones7_112916024022.jpg Bajrang Dal through its state co-convener Ajju Chauhan protested against the reinstatement of statues, calling them symbols of slavery.

Cities are ever evolving narratives. Temples, cathedrals, libraries, museums, cinema halls don every great city’s skyline. It’s squares, chowks, bazaars are museums too, of sorts, where statues are usually erected to commemorate some important plot event or character in the city’s narrative.

A unifying theme of myths, narratives and man’s attempt to create and preserve their visual adaptations binds cathedrals, temples, libraries, museums and cinema halls together, so much so that the terms used for them sometimes interchange for the sake of symbolism. Remember “cathedral of books”. Andrew Haydon too in his article asks, "Are theatres the new cathedrals of our age?"

Narrative first came in the form oral recitations. Then came text. Legends were written and rose to become popular mythologies. Visual adaptations of these mythologies were done by constructing temples and cathedrals where paintings and sculptures depicted characters, stories, scenes of war, moments of romance. Choirs and bhajan mandlis sung songs of their heroics during festivals.

Theatre had its origins within the compounds of these temples and cathedrals. Actors enacted mythic legends making it more engaging an experience than static sculptures and paintings. As mythology turned into theology, as dynasties emerged and fell, wars tore cities and their skylines apart.

Some wise men acted fast and started to preserve for posterity - texts in libraries and visual adaptations in the museums as artifacts. In the wars that followed, libraries and museums were attacked and razed with equal fervour as temples, mosques and cathedrals were once.

Something else also happened in these years, though there are few statements to the contrary - religion collided with science. Had church become a patron of science rather than its opponent, even if it were for a specific period, who knows invention of cinema too would have sprung from church.

That would have been some alternate reality for cinema’s beginning, if the first cinema halls were built within church complexes playing filmed mythologies on the silver screen in its arenas. But cinema as we know was born through private and industrial research.

In every generation, such men come along who want to see these narratives rewritten, drafted afresh with a stamp of their own, a hint of their own aesthetics.

Ajju Chauhan is not alone. He and his outfit are neither the first nor the last. And gone are the days when all they could do was demolish the statues and replace them with new ones.

Now the technology knows no bounds, especially the digital technology in media. The game has been stretched much beyond razing of statues, burning of library books or reducing temples, cathedrals and mosques to rubble.

Today, faces can be changed in archival photographs and replaced by new faces. A photograph of a certain war can be made to look like of another war. Soldiers of certain race or ethnicity can be keyed in as heroes upholding a certain flag. The soldiers who never fought that war.

Tomorrow, faces of actors of certain ethnicity could be digitally replaced or inserted with the existing set of actors in films. Not only fictional films, even the archival newsreels and documentaries can be altered, reimagined rather.

We have had this technology for years now. Remember Kamal Hassan in Hindustani (1996), receiving a medal from Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and then walking next to the great leader in the black and white archival footage. Of course Kamal Hassan told us it was all a lie created for a fulfilling illusion. But what if he did not?

What if someone born a hundred years from now saw only that small clip, while no one is there to tell that this clip existed within the context of a long fictional feature film?

Or what if this happens sooner than feared, let’s say in 50 years from now, while someone is actually there to speak the truth aloud but his lone hoarse voice is silenced by the noise of thousand believers, screaming in unison? It will be one man’s word against many, and what evidence will that one man have? Evidences will become rare and probably extinct.

So though organised religion and its self-appointed armies missed out on the opportunity of being the patrons of invention of photography or cinema, they now can exercise their sense of entitlement in an altogether new form. Cinema and film archives are an extension of temples, cathedrals, museums and libraries, and their turn too shall come.

All things that have the power of visually elevating the legends, historical or fictional, in the eyes of common people will face some Ajju Chauhan. These men and their armies are not interested anymore in saving souls in the name of religion. They are interested in minds. Of future generations.

Their brigade wishes to command them through their abridged narratives, skewed in its favour. And since we are on Ajju Chauhan’s side as of now, let’s just take a deep breath and believe in the Biblical saying "what was will be again" from Ecclesiastes (Chapter 1 Verse 9).

For those of us who don’t want to be on Ajju Chauhan’s side there is no other side. At least not a strong unified one.

We speak of tolerance and then hope that it will create an impact, a ripple in the pond but "tolerance" by definition is negative. Oxford Dictionary defines tolerance as an "ability and willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behavior that one dislikes or disagrees with." In being tolerant, one agrees that one dislikes or disagrees.

Mythologist and author Joseph Campbell devoted his life to studying mythologies originating from several cultures across the globe and discovering unifying themes and archetypes encoded within them. Campbell was asked during an interview by Bill Moyers for TV series The Power of Myth as to how to read clues from the myths, “how to get that experience?” and Campbell replied, “Read myths. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts, but if you read other ones you begin to get the message.”

Now, if you may, let's push the envelope a tad bit on Campbell’s behalf. Teach myths. At schools let young minds expose themselves and engage with their own mythologies and with other people’s mythologies too, not as books of religion but as stories of legends.

Don’t tolerate. Engage with it. Imbibe.

Whatever is evil today or that whatever good is around, it all sprang from that fountain. By being on Campbell’s side, one may not be able to immediately stop men like Ajju Chauhan or those on his side. But this hopefully will arm the future generations, the young "minds"against their imposed narratives.

“One of our problems today,” Campbell cautions, “is that we are interested in the news of the day and the problems of the hour. It used to be that university campus was a kind of hermetically sealed-off area where news of the day did not impinge upon your attention.”

So sow knowledge and while doing that, insulate those young minds against noise and information.

Also read: Delhi's Marwari library is a treasure trove free from politics

Writer

Atul Sabharwal Atul Sabharwal @sabharwalatul

The writer is the writer-director of Aurangzeb and TV series Powder.

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