Mumbai’s newest public library is a small garden behind a luxury hotel in Parel, and it began attracting readers even before the bookshelves could be unlocked.

The reading space – touted as Mumbai’s “first open garden library” – was all over local Marathi news channels on May 17, when Shiv Sena’s youth wing chief, Aditya Thackeray, inaugurated it. The next day itself, dozens of people from the neighbourhood showed up at the garden library, only to find its ten glass book cases still locked up.

An old security guard claimed he had to turn away at least 40 people that morning, because he was yet to receive the keys to the bookshelves. At 5 pm in the evening, when the garden reopened after a lunch break, at least 15 people strolled in to inquire about the books in the span of just 20 minutes.

“I have not been to a library in many years, but this outdoor library is such a creative idea, I had to come and see it,” said Vijay Prasad, a Patna resident who is in Mumbai for a few months to care for a relative undergoing cancer treatment at Parel’s Tata Memorial Hospital. “I will definitely come here again when the bookshelves are unlocked. This is so much better than watching TV.”

A section of the open garden library in Parel, Mumbai. Photos: Aarefa Johari

The Parel open garden library has been set up by Shiv Sena legislator Ajay Chaudhari, who used Rs 18 lakh from his MLA fund to build the library on municipal plot. “For the past 15 years, this garden was occupied by the ITC Grand Hotel even though the plot is supposed to be used for civic amenities,” said Chaudhari, who decided to turn the garden into a library because it was too small to house a jogging track or a children’s play area.

The library currently has 1,300 books divided by subject into ten bookshelves. For now, all the books are in Marathi and include literature, poetry, children’s literature, spirituality, history, science and politics. The target readership is diverse: the garden library is located close to three major public hospitals, several schools and colleges, residential buildings as well as a number of offices.

“Everyone can come here and I think this is also a good way to encourage children to read,” said Chaudhari.

There are ten glass-door bookshelves in the library.

Many readers

Four children from a neighbouring housing colony were perhaps the most enthusiastic visitors to the garden library on the day it opened to the public. The boys, aged between nine and eleven, had seen the library on the news and decided to make a trip instead of playing in their building as they usually did.

“We want to read from the children’s book section, but I’m also interested in history and Shivaji Maharaj,” said 11-year-old Sarthak Kere, who is proud about being able to read in both English and Marathi. His friend, 10-year-old Manas Dudhwarkar, was disappointed to see only Marathi books on the shelves. “I read only in English, but I like reading more than watching TV,” he said.

Dudhwarkar is not the only one hoping for the garden library to become multi-lingual. Prasad, for instance, wants to see Hindi books on the shelves, for the “many Hindi speakers in Maharashtra”.

In another corner of the garden, Vinod Kumar made a case for including Malayalam books in the library collection. Kumar is a driver working with a private company and had come to the garden library with two other drivers while they waited for their bosses to finish their meetings at the ITC hotel next door. “Many of us drivers are South Indian and we spend so much time just waiting, it would be nice to have books in our languages too,” said Kumar, who also occasionally borrows books from his company’s private library.

Ashwini Shrivastav, also a driver waiting for his boss, was happy to just sit in the shade on one of the garden benches, without reading. “When this garden was a part of the big hotel, they never let us sit there and rest. So it’s nice that it is now open to the public and we can use it,” said Shrivastav, who plans to read books on history and politics the next time he is in the Parel area.

Vinod Kumar (left) and Ashwini Shrivastav (right) are drivers with plenty of waiting time on their hands.

Book collection

According to MLA Ajay Chaudhari, expanding the book collection is part of his future plans for the library. “We want to increase the number of books in different languages, and we also want to introduce a new shelf for health-related books,” said Chaudhari.

One visitor, however, had very specific suggestions to make to the MLA and his team in charge of the library.

“They should have books on government schemes too, so that ordinary people can understand how the government works,” said Prashant Patil, a 50-year-old canteen worker at Parel’s KEM Hospital, who is delighted by the idea of the open garden library. Patil is currently trying to get his family’s ancestral land on the official land records of the village, and wishes he had information that could help him understand land laws. “But in general, this library is a great initiative. The city really needed a space like this.”

Prashant Patil works in a hospital canteen and wants to read about government policies.