Curry and Rice (1911), a book comprising 50 lithographs and chapters documenting lives of Englishmen living in colonial India, can only be found at the Punjab Archives Library, boasts Ejaz Hussain, the senior librarian at the Archives Library.
Even UK’s India Library, which has the largest archive reserves in the world, says Hussain, does not have the book.
The rare book is only one of the more than 70,000 that the library, situated in Civil Secretariat, houses. Among them is the library’s oldest treasure: Journal of Sir Thomas Roe that dates back to 1616. It documents Roe’s encounters with Mughal courtesans. Only two copies exist in the world, says Hussain. The other is at the India Office Library.
The collection features rare books on subjects ranging from biography, history, travelogue, gazettes and gazetteers, law and administration to commission reports and public works report documenting construction activity undertaken by the government from 1849 to date.
The collection, however, is threatened by the building’s dismal state. Part of a wall in one of the building’s first-built halls collapsed over a month ago while Hussain was going through the records. As a temporary arrangement, some book shelves have been moved to the side and the wall has been repaired.
The Archives and Libraries Department now hopes to demolish and reconstruct parts of the structure. It also wants to add a basement to the structure that has six large halls and an office. The department forwarded the proposal to the Planning and Development Department in early February.
The province’s chief architect Zahra Asghar is working on a design for a new structure, on a pattern similar to the original one. The project has been allocated Rs1.75 million and is expected to be completed by July. Two archaeology officials have been associated with the project.
Originally built in late 1840s, the structure was remodelled during the 1930s when the ceiling was put in. The building served as a stable for horses until the early 1940s when records and books were first shifted there.
Orya Maqbool Jan, the archives and libraries secretary, told The Express Tribune that they planned on adding verandahs, which were part of the original design, and a basement. Jan, who has served as a former director general of the Archaeology Department as well as the Walled City project, said a basement was needed so that the books could be shifted there and leave a reading hall. Currently, only the entrance hall has a small space that is used for reading. “Work will start as soon as the design comes through,” Jan said. The books will temporarily be placed in a shed, he added.
According to the Special Premises Ordinance 1985, a building over 75 years old can not be demolished and re-built. It can be “retouched for restoration purposes”.
Jan says the rule applies if three conditions are met: the building has to have a historic, architectural or celebrity affiliation.
“Other buildings inside the secretariat have architectural value. But this was used as a stable by the English. It does not have high architectural importance either. Besides we plan to restore it to its original state. We are not disposing of the windows, doors, bookshelves or wooden ceilings dating back to the colonial years. They will be installed in the new structure,” Jan explains.
Afzal Khan, Archaeology Department director, told The Express Tribune that only the main secretariat block – once the residence of Jean Baptiste Ventura, a general in Ranjit Singh’s army – and Anarkali’s tomb have been declared ‘protected monuments’ under the Special Premises Ordinance. Other structures can be demolished for re-building, he says.
Dr Ajaz Anwar, the conservationist, agrees, “It is not a protected site. We can not oppose every government [decision] and make unnecessary noise.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2013.