CHANDIGARH: At a juncture when open spaces are shrinking in both physical and intellectual terms,a landmark in Shimla –The Book Café- must survive. This unique initiative is right now embroiled in a legal battle to save its original character and somehow defy efforts at commercialization.

One needs to first understand the unique character of this institution that is merely four years old. To begin with, it is a perfect spot right in the heart of the city on the famous Ridge, next to another iconic spot called Taka bench. It is a place where one can sip endless cups of tea or coffee with mouth watering fare of muffins, pastries, hamburger, cream rolls, patties and hot dogs while pondering over books that have been generously donated by voracious readers from the town as well as visitors.

But themost important aspect of the institution is that all the goodies savored are made by prisoners in jail. Still more important is the fact that the café is run by jail inmates serving life imprisonment sentences. They come every morning from prison to run the café through the day and move back to their cells for the night.

Despite having been run successfully by jail inmates for almost four years, the Shimla Municipal Corporation (SMC) recently decided to lease the Book Cafe to the highest bidder for profit.Desperate, one of the jail inmates approached the Himachal Pradesh High Court for relief. The courts has has reportedly stayed the vacating of the café by the jail inmates for now. With the next date of hearing fixed for November 13.

“The place was actually the location of the shabbiest of public toilets in Shimla with an open adjoining area. It was in 2015 that in consultation with the then Deputy Commissioner at Kullu Rakesh Kanwar, my deputy Tikendar Panwar, the then Director General of Police (Jails) Somesh Goyal and Municipal Commissioner Pankaj Rai it was decided to develop it into such an institution,” former Shimla Mayor Sanjay Chauhan said.

He pointed out that institutions like the Book Cafe provide a unique character to Shimla that is even otherwise known for its reading culture. Besides, as he said, every institution is not created for profit. “There is a social justice committee provided for in local bodies by the 74th amendment to the Indian Constitution. Even prisons are no longer prisons in the literal sense. They are now referred to as reformatory homes,” Sanjay Chauhan told this reporter. He said that the aim of the judicial system is to provide an interface to those lodged in prisons with the society at large and this café is one of the best examples in current times. According to him the profits being shared from the café by the SMC and the prisons department are otherwise also in the 60:40 ratio.

“This place belongs to the inmates running the show here and it will remain with them,” said Smriti, a law student from Himachal Pradesh University (HPU) who is passionate about the place as well as the humble inmates who are running the show.

“When our system aims at their rehabilitation and their constant interaction with the main stream society, what is the need for the SMC to put it up for lease just for profit motive? These people (jail inmates) have nurtured this place and the credit for making it popular goes to them,” she said.

“We are feeling helpless. We definitely want to be involved with this place in the days to come as it has led to a sea change in people like me,” said one of the inmates Jay Chand who belongs to Hamirpur as he went about serving the customers.

Just as its name denotes, it is a place about books that are otherwise falling prey to the dying habit of reading. Since it is all about books, the café is frequented by people who are well educated, who prefer a quiet spot to browse through books over a hot beverage while enjoying the splendid view of the hills. It is not a place where one finds people glued to their mobiles and tablets while creating a ruckus.

“These places are a must for where people like us can go and discuss things that make our life much more beautiful. It can be films, music, art or even other facets of life. These are spots where we can have long discussions sitting on the benches outside while steaming cups of tea or coffee make their way from the kitchen to us. There are very few such places left where there is debate and discussion away from the world of whatsapp and television. It has become an attraction for the people all over the country and abroad who have visited it. Above all it defines the very basic culture of Shimla,” said Saurav, a student of National Law University at Shimla who is doing a sociological research on the place.

One of his friends from an engineering institute rued, “Nowadays it is boldly written on college notice boards that no form of protest is allowed and it is well known that protest of all sorts comes from debates and discussions. Such activities take place only where there is an open atmosphere and such places are shrinking day by day.”

Even as the legal battle is on, the visitors to the café are not at all happy over the move of the SMC to lease it out to the highest bidder. They fear that the new party that takes over would make convert it into just like other run off the mill fast food joints where costs are on the higher side and are unaffordable for most of the locals. In addition to this the aura of the place will be lost to the loud and brash atmosphere that dots the routine fast food joints. Above all, what answer will the SMC have for the jail inmates like Jay Chand for whom the Cafe is an opportunity and a lifeline.