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A tale of two libraries in the Nilgiris

Coonoor residents feel a stab of envy at having lost their colonial-era library, while Ooty has safeguarded the heritage building that houses the historic Nilgiri Library

The Nilgiri Library in Ooty is housed in a majestic red ochre building with arched windows highlighted by white plaster. (Courtesy: Vijaya Kumar)
The Nilgiri Library in Ooty is housed in a majestic red ochre building with arched windows highlighted by white plaster. (Courtesy: Vijaya Kumar)

The retreating monsoon finds the residents of the Nilgiris unfurl their umbrellas and shake out their raincoats, thankful that the rains held till the end of the Ooty Literary Festival (OLF). And every year, those of us from Coonoor, who attend it, feel a stab of envy that we lost our library, while Ooty has safeguarded theirs.

The OLF is the only lit fest in the country held in a library. The Nilgiri Library sets a majestic backdrop, with its red ochre building and arched windows highlighted by white chunam plaster. This distinctive building is part of Ooty’s heritage cluster which includes the Adam’s Fountain, St Stephen’s Church, Breeks School and the Collectorate. The library was designed by Robert Chisholm who is credited with introducing the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture in British India.

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The history of the library is intertwined with that of Ooty itself. The Europeans who made this hill town their home found a need for books and started a subscription drive as early as 1829. The “Neilgherry Library” as it was then called opened in1859, and ten years later, it shifted to its present premises.

Today, the library has a collection of 60,000 books, both fiction and non-fiction. One of the prized collections is a commentary on the Bible printed in 1585 called The Auncient Ecclesiasticall Histories of the First Six Hundred Years After Christ. This book is stored in a rather quaint safe to safeguard it from book thieves and dampness.

According to Ramkrishna Nambiar, the honorary secretary of the library, the Nilgiri Library is one of the few public libraries in the country that is privately held. A managing committee oversees the running and also vets new members. Over the years, the library has been blessed with strong managing committees, which have withstood attacks from land sharks, eager to get their hands on the prime real estate on which the library stands. One such character on seeing the spacious reading room with its high ceiling and large windows remarked that it would make a good kalyana mandapam or marriage hall.

The members of the Ooty Library are well aware of the dangers of allowing people, whose intent is not reading, into the library. The fate of the Coonoor Library is a constant reminder. Coonoor, just 19 km away and my hometown, once had a lovely private library.

The European residents of Coonoor, just like their neighbours in Ooty, must have felt a similar longing for books.A library was started in the Post Office building, then shifted to the Assembly Rooms (possibly Coonoor Club), and finally found a permanent home in a beautiful building, built by F.R.R. Stokes-Roberts of the Royal Engineers, on Club Road. The construction was completed in 1903 at a cost of 20,000 raised through debentures.

The members at that time must have been thrilled with the beautiful double storied building with large windows and a balcony that ran around the upper level. The circulating library was on the ground floor and a large well-lit reading room on the first floor. The reading room with its octagonal tables, leather arm chairs and a fireplace which would be lit on cold days, was a joy. The building still stands on Club Road, but locked and covered with creepers.

In its heyday, around the early 1900s, the Coonoor Library had a membership of around 700 with 18,000 books. By the mid-1960s, however, the British residents were leaving and membership dropped. A senior chartered accountant and Coonoor resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, said it was likely that some members or their heirs who had contributed to the debentures would have cashed in and taken their money. A possible reason for why the library became so cash strapped.

There were very few Indian members of the library at that time. There was no conscious effort made to enrol new members or collect dues from existing members. Case in point being my mother’s membership which she forgot to renew. A resident said that times were hard, and the managing committee decided to hand over the premises to St. Antony’s High School, next door. There is only one surviving member of that committee who is now over 90.

The library and the reading room on the first floor continued to function until the early 1970s. My last visit, sometime in early 1973, was quite traumatic. The librarian was standing at the entrance; he took the books from me and told me the library was closed. Subsequently, the school blocked the entrance and removed the small wooden bridge which connected the library to Club Road. The story was that the library had been sold to the school. No questions were asked and no answers given.

Dr. Vasanthan Panchavaram, a retired government doctor who has documented the history of the library out of personal interest says, “A gift deed was presented by Charles Gray to the Sub Registrar, Coonoor on 3 March 1902 in the presence of H. Simons and A. Wingrave Chemish. It is learnt that the old unregistered institution had by now become a society registered under Societies Registration 1860 (Act XXI). Although the land records are clear, neither the registration number nor the year of registration of the society mentioned in the deed is available or is untraceable.”

Efforts to get the library building back from the school started in 2016, when a philanthropist businessman, Matthew Cherian, retired and came to live in Coonoor. He formed another society called ‘The Coonoor Public Library’ under the aegis of the District Collector in 2017. Although the move was successful and the school handed over the keys of the building to the Tahsildar, the effort was futile. The next Collector handed the keys back to the school with a covering note stating that they can continue to enjoy possession of the building. Subsequently, Matthew Cherian passed away and with him gone, the movement lost steam.

Meanwhile, the residents of Coonoor are waiting for the book fairy to wave her wand, cut through the lantana bushes which now grow over the entrance, and let them in.

Nina Varghese is a Coonoor-based freelance journalist.

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