Under my byline


Posted in Books by Rrishi on 27 June 2009


It could hardly be said that Delhi, this imperial capital, is rich in libraries. There must be fewer library books here than there are residents, which cannot be true of any other major world capital. Apart from the few large collections, including those at the Parliament Library (inaccessible to ordinary mortals — do MPs read?), Delhi Public Library, Delhi University (DU), JNU, the rest of Delhi’s libraries are relative midgets.

But it’s a David and Goliath thing. Some midgets have an impact disproportionate to their size. One such is the library of Iran Culture House, a small but vigorous institution under the embassy of Iran, located on busy Tilak Marg. It doesn’t get as much traffic as it deserves, but it is nevertheless more active, and possibly of greater long-term importance, than the higher-profile cultural centres of wealthier countries.

Persian, or Farsi, was the court language of the Mughals and their predecessors. Therefore, much of India’s surviving historical record is contained in its wealth of Farsi manuscripts. Well into the last century, students in north India learnt to write and read Urdu — which shares its basic script with Farsi, not to mention a sizeable chunk of its vocabulary. Many literate Indians still speak Hindi or Hindustani but can’t write in Devanagari. Farsi used to be one end of a cultural continuum that was all in the mainstream.

Now, however, there are few who know Farsi, even among aficionados of Urdu poetry. Yet there is a small but robust current of students and scholars to whom the Iran House library is of great value. Not only do they use its 40,000 books as a reference and research resource (less academic sorts go for the roomanha or novels), but the library is one way for the quite numerous but widely separated institutions of Persian study around the country, and in Iran, to connect.

There are frequent seminars on literature, poetry, calligraphy — earnest but well attended — and film screenings. Assistant librarian Ali Zaheer Naqvi tells me that the library will also edit and publish an interesting manuscript or a deewan (a work of poetry), if you have one. Last year they published volume one of a Persian-Hindi-English-Urdu dictionary edited by the head of DU’s Department of Persian — a significant work.

Working through their network, the author of a Farsi book can expect to sell 250 copies around the country to various institutions — not bad for such a niche market.

A separate section locates and microfilms rare religious manuscripts in Farsi from around the country. In other words, the government of Iran pays to save Indian heritage. With their earned goodwill these Iranians can reach into the old princely collections, like those of the Khuda Bakhsh (Patna) and Rampur Raza libraries, both now government-owned, and of Mahmudabad, to catalogue and preserve jealously guarded manuscripts.

Iran House’s own collection is admirably eclectic. There are books in various languages on literature, history and art, including translations into Farsi of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Upanishads and so on. Some beautiful ones bear 19th-century publication dates. Yes, contentious political works are not to be found — although contemporary novels are — but the atmosphere of Iran House is not at all forbidding, which I know because I studied Farsi there for a year.

Despite censorship, Iran remains a reader’s land. Naqvi says that in Iran “People buy books. They make a budget and buy regularly. Every house has books.” And he adds that Indians are welcomed with open arms — “If you’re a Pakistani they won’t invite you home.” Here, he says, books on India-Iran relations are popular among Iranian library users.

Now why can’t India afford to do as much, through its embassies? Libraries, MEA, libraries — dozens of them! It was the British, a naval power, who severed land links between India and our neighbour civilisations — but we’ve been independent for a long time now.


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