A hallmark of colonial-era architecture is struggling for survival in a corner of Dhaka, where a rich collection at a 137-year-old library is withering away into dust.
Johnson Hall, one of the city’s oldest surviving libraries, along with the whole Northbrook Hall complex, is home to insects, spiders and rats today.
Also known as ‘Lal Kuthi’ because of its red brick architecture, the building in Farashganj is barely visible among tall structures around it. A century-old rundown ceiling drips water during rain on top of the invaluable books it houses.
A restaurant has occupied the land of the once-famed library, using the veranda as its store room. The crumbling doors of the back gate is wide open for anyone.
Mostafizur Rahman, chief executive officer of Dhaka South City Corporation -- which is the custodian of the building -- says he is “new at the office” and knows little about it.
“Within a month we will take care of the books,” he told The Daily Star. “I am really sorry it has happened to the library, but we will undertake a plan soon for the whole Northbrook Hall complex.”
“But will it ever happen?” doubted eminent historian Muntassir Mamoon while talking to this newspaper on this issue. “Our mayors do not understand the value of history, heritage and culture.”
“For the past three years, they have neglected Northbrook Hall to the state it is in -- waiting to crumble down. The authorities want to see the building collapse naturally, so that they can erect a new building on the complex area,” he alleged.
HISTORY OF NORTHBROOK HALL
After the Library Act was passed in Britain in 1850, local governments established libraries throughout its colonies.
Thanks to efforts by Zamindar Abhay Chandra Das, the rich and powerful of Dhaka including Raja of Bhawal Kumar Rajendra Narayan Roy, and Nawab of Dhaka Ahsanullah Khan Bahadur, stepped forward to establish Northbrook Town Hall and Library.
Northbrook Town Hall was launched in 1880 as part of the initiative in honour of then Governor General Lord North Brook’s visit in 1872 and 1876. Two years later, the library opened to public.
Librarian Md Zahidul Amin says there used to be around 15,000 books in the library, but that number has come down to a few thousand. Some of the oldest books in the library are over 200 years old, he said.
It is also the hall where poet Rabindranath Tagore was felicitated by Dhaka University, Dhaka Municipality and People’s Association in 1926.
The library was sealed off in 2017 after the building was deemed dangerous. Since then, it has been out of sight and out of mind of authorities.
“Three years back I proposed [to the city corporation] to renovate the whole complex as a cultural platform. But because of some vested interest, the authorities didn’t do it,” Muntassir Mamoon said.
Librarian Zahidul Amin said he wrote repeatedly to the authorities. “It is my duty to inform the authority, but unfortunately they are not paying any attention.”
The cultural ministry formed a committee in 2015 in an effort to preserve the books. Even though a report on the preservation process was submitted to the ministry, it did not yield any effective initiative.
The report said the books need immediate fumigation for protection from insects, and suggested renovating the entire complex including the library building. The initiative has remained only on paper.
Insiders say the main reason behind the failure of the initiative is a conflict between the cultural ministry and the city corporation. The ministry wanted to bring the entire complex under its jurisdiction but the city corporation did not agree.
In 2017, two bookshelves were moved to the adjacent building; books of the remaining 13 shelves remain in sorry state in the worn-down building.
If something is not done soon, Northbrook Hall Library may be lost forever and remembered only on pages of history.