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.
Terrace door of my glass room.