Posted in India, Natural History Museum, New Delhi

Memories and the Natural History Museum

A few days ago a major fire almost totally destroyed the Natural History Museum in New Delhi. I have fond memories of that museum and began thinking back to the days and hours spent there.

It must have been 1981 or 1982. I had completed the first draft of my thesis on the Historical Geography of the Ganga-Yamuna doab and needed to reorganize and finalize it. The data had been put together mainly from the vast resources of the Archaeological Survey of India library, a few other libraries, and field trips.

At that time I was living on the second floor of a building in a glass room. And I mean that literally! There was a small inner room, but the main room, 15 x 17 feet, large enough to house all my books, had three walls made of green glass. In the summer it was so hot that standing in it for even half a minute in the day time was unbearable. I had to find a convenient and peaceful place in which to rewrite my thesis.

I decided on the Sapru House [ICWA] library. The Archaeological Survey library despite its wonderful resources was definitely not the right place. [I have depicted it in my story The Library, which some have thought was fantasy or magical realism! Only the end is imagined in that]. My university [JNU] bus used to pass my house three times a day, on its way to Sapru House. I just had to descend the stairs, cross the road and catch the bus at 9 or 9.15 in the morning.

Reaching Sapru House one entered that vast and peaceful air-conditioned library,  a great relief from the heat at a time when there were not many places with air-conditioning. I sat at the same desk every day in the book-lined main hall. When I wanted a break I picked up a book from the nearest shelf. That shelf consisted of books on the Rosenbergs, and I got to know all about them. Of course I had heard of them but now I obtained an in-depth knowledge! I was sure they were innocent.

I’d have lunch in the canteen. A meal of rice or roti, veg and dal cost one rupee fifty paise. If one was feeling rich, there was Triveni across the road.

The main problem with the Sapru House library was that it was freezing cold, the air-conditioning lowered to the level that my finger-nails used to start turning blue.  It seemed too odd to bring along a shawl or something warm as it was burning hot outside. So I took breaks in the Natural History Museum next door. Wandered through the planetarium and other rooms, and watched short wild-life films, which were showed every day at 11.30am and 3.30 in the afternoon. There was never much of an audience, maybe some passing children, or others looking for an escape from the heat.

The last JNU bus left Sapru house at 6.45, and I would be back home by 7.30, and open all the windows and doors, so that the glass room was finally comfortable.

A few years later, when I joined a publishing company as an editor, I spent at least a month in the Natural History Museum’s library, rewriting the book of an artist and  wildlife enthusiast. Unfortunately the book was never published as it was later stolen by a disgruntled employee. There seemed to be no copies, in those pre-computer days.

My best memories of the Natural History Museum though are of those earlier days, and the half-hour films on wildlife.

IMG_20160428_0001Terrace door of my glass room.

Posted in Dehradun, Henrich Harrer, Nino La Civita, St Francis

Church of St Francis, Dehradun

I had wanted to visit the church of St Francis of Assisi in Dehradun for a long time. And finally I made it there last week. When we reached, the church was locked, but it was opened for us to look around. The priest also gave me some postcards of the frescoes, one of which is reproduced here.


The church is famous for the frescoes painted high on the walls, depicting the life of St Francis. And there is a story associated with these. During World War II there were prisoner of war camps on the outskirts of Dehradun. One housed Italians, and the other Germans. Among the Italians there was a talented painter called Nino La Civita, of Sulmona, Italy.  Did he spend his time in the camp painting? Possibly. As the Italians must have been Catholics, the parish priest of St Francis Church visited them, and noticed Nino’s talent. He asked him to pain frescoes in the church.  Nino painted seven huge frescoes, high on the walls. A plaque outside the church states that these were painted in 1946, that is after the war, though stories narrate the paintings were executed while he was still a prisoner, and that he had special permission to leave the camp to make them.

In 2004, Lorenzo Cassamenti, another Italian artist, restored the paintings.

I have not yet come across an account of the Italian camp. But Henrich Harrer, who later escaped to Tibet, and wrote a book on his life there, described the German camp in his book Seven Years in Tibet. He wrote, ‘This time we were conveyed by rail to the greatest POW camp in India, a few miles outside the town of Dehra-Dun…Our camp consisted of seven great sections, each surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire. The whole camp was enclosed by two more lines of wire entanglement, between which patrols were constantly on the move.’