Every time Assam heads into an election, the political discourse in the state invariably veers towards the issue of indigeniety. Who is an original inhabitant (and who is not) becomes a central question, with all the political parties nudging the electorate’s collective memory to recall real and imagined injustices.
With elections having kicked off in Assam again, my thoughts returned to something else, to my childhood when I would accompany my parents to a concrete structure in Guwahati’s Lakhtokia area. The structure was architecturally nondescript, but the images and the experiences of it still coalesced to form fragments of my memory. Known locally as Sirat Library – although the Assamese pronunciation Sirot often rendered the name incomprehensible – it was located within the precincts of a mosque called Lakhtokia Masjid No. 1.
I vaguely recall public meetings being held in the small library. And till the early 2000s, it moonlighted as a voting booth. For a child, it was an unusual sight to see so many people of different religions line up to cast their votes and even more unusual to see them do so in a library inside a mosque.
The structure still stands today. But the only sight that greets a visitor is of a small room bereft of books or readers. Its holdings are restricted to a small glass cupboard and a few Islamic texts in it.
Legacy of the past
The history of the library is really important to the Khilonjia Muslims or ethnic Assamese Muslims living in Guwahati. Khilonjia Muslims have been in Assam since before the Ahom invasion in the 13th century and they have always been known to relate to their ethnic, rather than their religious, identity.
Shehabuddin Talish, the official scribe of Mir Jumlah, the Nawab of Bengal who invaded Assam in 1662, described their encounter with the Muslims in Assam: “The Muslims whom we met in Assam are Assamese in their habits, and Muhammadans but in name.”
The famous colonial historian Sir Edward Gait, in his monumental work A History of Assam published in 1905, extensively employed Talish’s descriptions to map out a definitive chart of Assam’s history. Nevertheless, historical narratives of Khilonjia Muslims remain sketchy. The same fate is shared by the library in Lakhtokia.
There are no written records of when or who constructed the library. It is, however, believed that the structure is among of the oldest libraries in Guwahati, and the mosque it is a part of is among the three oldest mosques constructed in the colonial period.
The mosque finds a mention in an article in 1885 in the journal Assam Bandhu, which was edited by the Assamese intellectual Gunabhiram Barua. The land for the mosque was donated by Col. Jalnur Ali Ahmed, the father of the fifth President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. Col. Ahmed was a distinguished Assamese of his time: he was the second Assamese associated with the Imperial Medical Services and the first Assamese to receive an M.D. degree from London.
Writer-lawyer Akdas Ali Mir, one of the inhabitants of the locality, points to a letter written in 1915 by AHW Benting, the then Commissioner of Assam, which is probably one of the earliest and only clues to tracing the history of the library. “Benting had issued directions in an Order Letter to shift the Makhtab (primary Islamic school) established by the British from the mosque to the present location, where the Junior Madrassa High School is in Guwahati.”
Mir continued: “We can surmise that Sirat Library is the spot where the Makhtab was and then got converted into a library.” This may be true as Sirat is an Arabic word meaning a “way of life”.
As with all public libraries in the state, Sirat Library too was awarded a monthly grant from the government for its upkeep. But the actual running was done by the area's Assamese Muslims, with people taking turns as librarians. Renowned Assamese filmmaker Altaf Majid remembers his childhood days spent in the library reading in the quiet. “My uncle used to be the librarian for many years. Every Friday afternoon he would take me to the iconic Lawyers’ Book Stall in nearby Pan Bazaar to buy books. In fact I read the Mahabharata in Bengali in Sirat Library in the 1960s.”
Majid continued: “This library was also a repository of well-known pulp fiction of the period. They were in English, Assamese and Bengali. In fact, I also read my first English novel in this library as well as the famous Bengali Mohan Detective Series and the Assamese adventure series Pa-Phu.”
Mukimuddin Ahmed, another resident, talks of the days in the late 1950s when he would act as the librarian in the evenings. “I was paid Rs 5 every month as the librarian and I worked for a year. Every afternoon after school I would go to the residences to collect the newspapers for the library. In the evenings after the readers had finished reading them I would then return them to the respective households.”
Assamese Muslim women had a strong role to play in the library’s upkeep. In the late 1960s, the only Assamese Muslim women’s social organisation, Anjumaan-E-Khawaateenein Islam, contributed Rs 10,000 to construct the new building for the library from the earlier Assam-type house construction. Noted Assamese woman writer Alimun Nessa Piyar donated furniture to the library in 1960.
As Helena Barranha and Susana S. Martins poignantly observed, “Memory has become both an intellectual challenge and a commodity for easy consumption.” This is true for contemporary India in general, and Sirat Library epitomises the trend. The erasure of the library from popular memory testifies to the erasure of cultural traditions that were once so integral to the Assamese society.