I never saw such a fine collection in a small town, and it does honour to the generosity of the donors and to the zeal for instruction of the Parsi population at Navsari. This visit will remain one of the best remembrances of my short occasion in the Parsi mofussil.
This inscription, the first entry in the guestbook of Navsari’s 145-year-old First Dastoor Meherjirana Library, scrawled in the lithe, oblique hand of James Darmesteter, a French Orientalist, translator and scholar of Iranian philology and Zoroastrianism, dates back to January 1887.
The son of a Jewish bookbinder, Darmesteter was elected chair of Iranian languages at the Collège de France in Paris in 1885. He travelled to India the next year to trace the origins of a few Pashto ballads. His 11-month-long itinerary included excursions to the Punjab, Peshawar and Abbottabad and brief halts in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Navsari.
An article he wrote on Bombay’s oldest French library, Le Cercle Littéraire Bibliothèque Dinshaw Petit, located on Forbes Street (today V.B. Gandhi Marg in the Kala Ghoda precinct), published in Les Journal des Débats in November 1891, testifies to his visit to this thrumming commercial centre of colonial India. But what drew Darmesteter to Navsari, a sleepy town in Gujarat surrounded by chikoo plantations, about 250km from Bombay?