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Mumbai’s Asiatic Library Is A Memory That Can’t Be Lost

Books are mankind’s collective memory. They are tangible evidence of the evolution of the human mind – of our thoughts and ideas accumulated over centuries. Books are also, unfortunately, perishable in printed form, vulnerable to forces of nature and human negligence. And, often the loss of a particular book causes the cumulative loss of that particular memory.

The renowned Library of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai is struggling to save these memories. Housed inside the Greek-style Town Hall at Horniman Circle, the library is better recognised by its imposing architecture than its resources. The stylistic dominance of Doric columns and 30 tall steps hide the historic and literary wonders within, which includes a 19th-century copy of Firdausi’s “Shahanama”, one of the only two extant copies of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”and a 16th century Sanskrit manuscript of “Aranyakaparvan” of the “Mahabharata”! The library holds more than 2.5 lakh books; at least 15,000 are rare manuscripts.

However, the library’s collection doesn’t receive much attention, partly because in the bustling Mumbai of today the idea of public libraries as centres of culture and art has slowly been replaced by the more opulent art cafes and poetry clubs that attract the youth. Most of these new age establishments have Instagram-worthy interiors, and the added advantage of food and drinks being sold under the same roof. The other handful of libraries in Mumbai don’t offer much in the respect of literary collections, and remain of interest only to scholars and researchers who may visit for a couple of weekend lectures and talks. The Asiatic itself has a membership of only 30,000.

Restoring Memory and  Identity

Books are also beholders of identities. A majority of the invasions from the ancient and modern times have left behind charred manuscripts, dissolving a community’s contemporaneous identity to foist a new one. Much about civilizations and its people have been lost (and forgotten) this way, the Mayans being a popular case in point.

The preservation of the Asiatic’s collection is thus ironic and important. The society formed by British Orientalists (whose motives can be debated endlessly) amalgamated and organised manuscripts, writing and relics from across the country. Today the collection includes writings in Sanskrit, Arabic, Urdu and Prakrit. It holds volumes of books on the history of Maharashtra and has recently acquired a huge collection of writing by Pu La Deshpande, regarded as the foremost Marathi writer of the 20th century. In many ways, it carries fragments of identity from the past and the present. In Mumbai, which is slowly losing its unitary identity in its growing diversity, the library is perhaps where its memories can be saved and accessed.

Unfortunately, the grand Asiatic is fighting to survive. While the monument is being restored on a large scale with an allocation of ₹9 crores, the requests of saving its collection have been sidestepped. Earlier this year, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis inaugurated a finely renovated Durbar Hall and library and yet, six months later, the September rains in Mumbai ruined over 500 manuscripts – including a precious edition of poetry by Robert Graves.

A few decades ago, perhaps, this would have been an inevitable loss – but with the digital revolution, books have found the fountain of youth it so dearly needed. There are debates that digitization of books brings up. Who owns these digital libraries? Why aren’t they more easily accessible? But, these are lesser concerns easily outweighed by the biggest advantage of digitization – simple, low-cost preservation.

The costs, unfortunately, are high. According to library sources, it costs ₹2/page to digitize a book and ₹9/page to microfilm it. The total cost of digitizing a manuscript can be anywhere between ₹8,000 to ₹10,000. While the government has been trying to implement digitization of public libraries for the past three years, it has not been successful enough.

There are no grants large enough to support digitization of every book still living at the Asiatic. As a last and frantic resort, the Asiatic has turned to the people of Mumbai for support. Their crowdfunding campaign named ‘Adopt a Book’ allows anyone to virtually adopt a book by paying for its digitization. The initiative is being backed by a local NGO called Mumbai First which is hosting events for children at the Asiatic to bring people back to public libraries.

Asiatic’s ‘Adopt a Book’ campaign is a two-fold initiative. It aims not only at preservation but also at making the one-crore plus population of the city more involved in its collective memory – postcolonial and otherwise. By inciting ownership, it makes the people the patron of their histories, relics and writings.

While in the West, digitization is a growing call to action, few understand its importance and value in India. Which is why, perhaps, crowdfunding could help reconnect people with their memories and identities and call attention to the importance of their digital preservation.  Crowdfunding a digital library is a rare chance to transfer a civilization’s allied identity and memory across a gaping temporal abyss back to its people.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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