Recording intellectual journey of man
is a piece about a library; but also, to an extent, about people. I was
going to be in Geneva for a lecture last month, and high on my priority
was the desire to visit what is one of the finest repositories of the
written records of man in the European world: the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana.
I had known of the existence of this library, and of a few illustrated
manuscripts of my interest that it housed, but had never been inside it.
I decided, therefore, first to read up a little about the place, as also
about the foundation to which it belonged. And I found that, in doing
so, I was educating myself in a manner. For this was no common
collection of rare books: it was with a clear, limpid vision that the
library was founded. Martin Bodmer (1899-1971), whose name the
foundation and the library bear, was interested in tracing the
intellectual journey of man from its first, faltering steps to the
present day. And what better way to do this than to gather together
texts, which involved the entire history of writing, regardless of where
they were from? Like a man driven, he began some 70 years ago and built,
over the years, a treasure house of untold riches.
But to come back to my own experience last month. I was to be in Geneva for less than a day after my lecture, and decided to call ahead of time from Zurich to make an appointment, because I knew that at this point of time the library was closed for renovations, and accessible to scholars only for one day in a week. I spoke to the Director, Dr Martin Bircher (whom I did not know at all, and had never met till then), and told him of my wish to come in and consult, if at all possible, a couple of Indian manuscripts in the library, for these were critical to the research that I was doing at that time. The director was most cordial and said he would make special arrangements for me to have access to the manuscripts — this on a day when the library was not ordinarily to be open — if I could only come in early. The library is in Cologny, an idyllically located suburb of Geneva on the lake, but I made my way to the place together with a friend. Once there, we were let in with great courtesy, for the two ladies on the staff had been alerted to my coming. They knew approximately what I was looking for, but needed just a little more information before they could pull the manuscripts out from the vaults where nearly everything had been put in, while renovation was in progress. I was handed in a printed list of all the Indian manuscripts they had, and asked to mark those that I would need to see. "It will take some time, but not more than a few minutes", the scientific assistant told us. And exactly as told, within less than ten minutes in fact, during which we were treated to coffee, and kept taking in the exquisite setting and the appointments of the library, the manuscripts did arrive. I set to work immediately, taking notes and some photographs. It took a few hours, but every now and then someone would come to ask if we were comfortable, or needed something. In between came, most gingerly, the request to let them know if any corrections needed to be made in their records pertaining to these manuscripts, in respect of title, script, dating, etc. Or share any other information with them. There was no pressure, simply a gently worded request: something that I was most happy to comply with since I knew something about the volumes in question. Work over, we were seen out with exactly the same cordiality with which we were received, and with an expression of ‘their’ gratitude for ‘my’ interest in the Library and their work. It could not have been more pleasant. Or more rewarding.
A sense of commitment
As I said at the beginning, I wanted this note to be as much about the library as about the people responsible for it. What else can I say? Clearly the passion that Martin Bodmer had for books courses also through the people who run the place now. And I wonder, sadly: of how many similar institutions, or people, in our own land can one say this?