Do books save lives? Do books save lives in the midst of a pandemic? Perhaps only a committed bibliophile will say “yes”. But let me tell you a few stories first.
Aryan was all of four when he became a member of Cosy Nook Library. He was a friendly child with a ready smile, happy to stop and chat with the three librarians of this little library in Bangalore. He told them many things about his life and friends, not all of which could be understood because he still retained his adorable baby lisp.
He was a firm decision-maker and while he was ready to listen to the librarians, he took sole and serious ownership over the task of picking his books. But then, over some months, the librarians noticed that he had changed. He was quiet, withdrawn, and when he saw the “library aunties” he did not come running up to greet them as enthusiastically as he used to once. Was the reason his new baby sister? Or was he just leaving behind his charming baby ways?
The librarians wondered and felt just a bit sad about their friend. He no longer came bounding into the library, he no longer settled down to examine four or five books before he made his choice. When he came, he sidled in, grabbed a couple of books and ran off.
Then one day, his mother came with him. Finally, the librarians had an answer to what was ailing Aryan. It was because he had been asked to read books on his own. He loved being read to, and the time his mother spent reading to him was precious for him. And now, she was trying to stop that, so he could start reading on his own! He didn’t want that, so he retreated into a sullen shell.
His mother was worried sick because other five-year-olds (Aryan was five by now) were walking-talking encyclopaedias. The librarians, one of whom has a degree in early education, spoke to her for a long time. Let him read at his own pace, she advised. Don’t stop the little reading rituals that are so important to him. It’s more important to love the idea of reading. Sooner or later, he will read on his own if he has access to books.
His mother went away relieved. And soon, Aryan was back to his cheerful, chatty self. He is a tall six-year-old now who has, sadly for the librarians, dropped his baby lisp. But he continues to pick his own books with utmost seriousness, some of which he reads on his own, while others are to be read with mamma.
Aryan’s story showcases some classic library wisdom. That children are drawn to books if they have a ready access to them. The atmosphere where they pick their books and read them is very important, especially in the early reading years. There is no substitute for a cosy reading time with a parent or trusted adult for a child to feel protected and loved. Reading proficiency happens at different paces and it is best not to force a pace on any child. As long as there are books for them to pick, a love of books and reading usually follows.
And where will they find this “ready access to books”? Enter children’s libraries like Cosy Nook Library.
This library opened its doors in Bangalore in 2016. It began as a labour of love of its founders – Radhika Sathe, Anitha Murthy and yours truly. Each of us had loved children’s books all our lives. Radhika as a teacher, Anitha as a writer and reader, and I as a children’s books publisher. Books brought us three very different people together, and, through some alchemy, the library was born.
When it started, there were about 700 books on its shelves. Over the years, the number swelled to over 3000. From the opening day’s membership of 20, we have grown to nearly 200 members now. From just a fond dream, it is now a community of readers.
Cosy Nook is where children find little corners to read their books on rainy Bengaluru evenings. They discover new authors and genres here. They tell us vociferously and fearlessly what they love and don’t, and hand us their wishlist of books. This is where 10-year-olds spend hours pulling out baby books and retreat for a while into a happy past without being judged.
They stop by here as a timeout space after being pushed around by friends. They also come here dragging their reluctant reader friends, and like new converts to a religion, determinedly turn them into bookworms as well. They chat with and listen to authors here, and are filled with happiness and wonder at meeting those they have known so far only through printed pages.
The three of us who run the library are not professional librarians. We fell into it by accident, and learnt to swim as the library grew with us. But while we derived intense joy from seeing the library grow within our community, it was also clear to us that we were reaching a very small, privileged set of children. How could we reach books to a more diverse group of children?
One day, the problem got solved when a group of tutors walked into the library and asked if the children they were teaching could read and issue books from us. Their students were the children of domestic workers, and were taking help from these teachers after school. It was as if the answer to our problems had resolved itself easily.
Soon, ten more children were added to the member list. But now we came across a new problem –that of shyness. The children were shy about picking out books for themselves. Some books seemed to them to be for younger readers, while others were tougher than they anticipated. While we read with them as much as we could, it was impossible to give them undivided attention during busy library hours. What were we to do? Enter the Reading Buddies idea. And time for story number two.
The only word to describe Anuradha, 12, would be eager beaver. She was always first in line to exchange her books when the library opened, and made sure her friends joined Cosy Nook as members. A complicated system of book exchange arose between the girls, as they each issued what the other returned, sending the librarians into a tailspin of maddening confusion.
When the Reading Buddies idea was floated, Anuradha was one of the first to sign up. The thought behind the programme was that each of our new members would be paired with a child who was a good reader. And since kids can overcome barriers much faster, they would read together, going over words or ideas that seemed too complicated. Anuradha started reading with 13-year-old Jyotsna. And soon they struck up a friendship.
By 5.50 pm, Anuradha and her friends would be pacing the library, waiting for their reading friends to turn up. At around 6.05, the children finished their tuition and entered the library. The tentative gaze, the shy, low voices of a few weeks back had disappeared. They walked in jauntily now, waving regally at us, dumping their laden schoolbags in a corner, digging out the books they wanted to return.
By then their buddies were champing at the bit. Soon, there was a stampede near the shelves. While I, the resident shelf-keeper, watched in despair, books got pulled out, examined, discarded, and then finally chosen. The chairs and the rug filled with bodies with heads bent over pages. That low, happy hum of children reading and talking quietly to each other, filled the room.
At this time, the library, not a large room at all, suddenly seemed so big to us. It was chock-a-block with children reading, with more of them streaming in by the minute. There was friendship, kindness, happiness and laughter in the air. The love and hope that live in books was on full display, a palpable thing we could reach out and touch.
But can a library’s work stop here? We had still more to do, still more children to reach out to. By a quirk of fate, we once again met just the right facilitators to open the doors for us. A Montessori school with a heart, housed in a leafy lane in Bangalore, offered us their best room to set up a library. For a reasonable rent, the space was ours to do up as we wanted, and to throw open the doors to the children of the city. Once again, after four years, we started setting up yet another library.
The room took shape, the shelves came up, built by our trusted and harried carpenter Juggi Lal, and soon more than 2000 books were on the catalogue. Covered in greenery with tall magnolia and neem trees flanking it, the second branch of Cosy Nook Library was soon ready.
Friends and writers donated their books and time to us. Distributors loosened their rules and extended credit and discounts to us – something they would give only to established bookstores. The children’s bookstores of Bangalore – Lightroom, Funky Rainbow, Blossoms – became our happy hunting grounds as we picked, chose and dusted off books for our little haven of book love.
On 26 January, when the country had plunged into debate and protests over citizenship, we did our bit as citizens. We opened our library so that children could read, form ideas, and begin to think. It was a happy, fuzzy day, and our membership count started ticking up slowly. We were waiting for the annual school summer holidays to begin, when children would be free to spend long hours reading and relaxing in this inviting new space. Little did we pay heed to what was happening in far-off China.
But by early March, the pandemic was at our door. As a lockdown was imposed, and the virus began its relentless march through the country, we had to close the doors of both libraries, and like everyone else, hunker down at home.
The days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and the lockdown went on and on, the virus inching closer and closer. For us, the thought of those rooms, once buzzing with the coming and going of children, now lying silent, dusty and uncared, broke our hearts. But our members did not forget us, and, more importantly, seemed to have turned to the solace offered by books to tide them over the uncertainty of the days.
We started receiving beseeching messages: “We need books. We don’t like reading online. We don’t know what to read, we want the library aunties to recommend books for us.” Soon, the chorus grew into an orchestra. We started an online book club, but it barely quenched their thirst. And now, enter another saviour, technology.
Overnight, Anitha, with her decades of experience as a software engineer, came up with an app. A simple, elegant link that contained the entire library catalogue and the option to reserve books as well as timeslots for pick-ups and returns. By now, so much of our lives had moved online, that people took to the app like ducks to water.
And then, we made a startling discovery. We saw that our readership was going up. Many members who earlier visited the libraries occasionally now became regulars. Parents started accompanying their children, helping them to choose books.
Earlier, we did not see too many fathers taking an interest in the children’s reading habits but now, many became enthusiastic book selectors. They spent time trying to understand what books were available, and which ones would appeal to their children. We heard stories about how quickly the children finished reading their books. We received thank you notes when someone was happy with the books we picked for them because they couldn’t come to the library themselves.
Books for toddlers, early readers, tweens, teens, all started flying off our shelves. Who says children are not reading? Who says books are dead? When the children were bored and stuck at home for long hours, most of them turned to books. They also wanted those books from the library – a space they had grown to love.
And so all was well…or was it? What of our friends in the community library of Ejipura? And so it’s time for story number three.
It all started when we met an incredible couple who run the Swabhiman Trust in Bangalore. Venkat and Vijaya Iyer have been working among the residents of Ejipura, one of Bangalore’s largest slum areas, for over two decades. Their commitment runs deep and diverse. In the middle of 2019, they asked if we could visit their newly opened community library at Rajendra Nagar in Ejipura and work with the students of two grades in a school there, help them to read, and to bring the world of books to them.
Over nearly a year, we had been doing this with a group of 20 and odd children. They entered our lives and enriched it beyond thinking. We learnt to work with children in circumstances far removed from our privileged bubbles. The children, too, grew and blossomed in front of our eyes.
Until then, most had never read anything outside their textbooks. Now, they began to read and discuss a variety of books – Indian children’s writing, classic tales of adventure and mysteries, books on facts, big format illustrated books, and whatever else we could source for them. We discussed iconic picture books from around the world, travelling from Rome to Japan. Heidi became a surprise crowd favourite and read-aloud story times were followed by intense discussion sessions.
One of the many books and stories we shared was Kali Learns to Dance written by Aparna Karthikeyan and illustrated by Somesh Kumar. This book struck an immediate chord with the children. It is the real-life story of the Bharatnatyam dancer Kali Veerapathiran, who grew up in a small fishing village near Chennai. Overcoming barriers of caste, gender and his humble background, he goes on to become a world-renowned dancer.
When the reading of the book finished, a chorus of voices erupted all about us. Yes, boys can dance too, just as girls can do whatever they wish! There is no substitute for hard work just as there are no barriers to thinking big. If Kali is now travelling by aeroplanes all around the world, maybe they could, too. We googled Kali’s dance videos and everyone watched mesmerised as the protagonist of the book came alive.
On the last day we visited the community library before what we thought would be a short summer break, we read Ruskin Bond’s story The Cherry Tree. The children sat spellbound as they listened with their hearts. The cherry tree from the story spread its leaves and breathed in that little room, in front of their eyes. When the tree was suddenly chopped in half as a young sapling, an audible gasp rang through the room. In that cramped space, where there were barely any trees outside the window, a cool Himalayan wind blew on the back of words and a mist rolled in.
Over the months, the children were encouraged to talk freely about ideas in the books they read – from disability to gender to the environment. They gave flight to their imagination, often tucking little scraps of paper on which they had written their own stories into our hands to read later. Never was it clearer to us that a little touch of books in a child’s life is enough to bring about big changes.
But with the pandemic this activity came to an abrupt halt. Many households in Ejipura either lost their livelihoods or used up all their savings during the lockdown period. A large number of the children we had been working with now had no access to phones or online resources, and the community library was temporarily turned into a storage space for rations by NGOs.
Once again, it was time for us to take a pause and think deep. Have we found the answer yet? No. A crowdfunding initiative to buy tablets and SIM connections for those with no access at all has yielded results. But until we return to the library, much of the reading sessions will have to wait.
So to come back to my first question: Do books save lives? Can books save lives in a pandemic? I leave it to you to judge. But we at Cosy Nook know that books can bring about deep and meaningful changes. That children need books the way they need clean air and healthy food. That access to a library should be a basic necessity of life. And that when all else fails, you can rely on your friendly neighbourhood library to make sure that books are waiting for you on its shelves.
We are the last mile of a journey that begins when the book is but a glimmer in the writer’s eye. After it passes through the long publishing and distribution process, it is libraries like Cosy Nook and many others like it all over the country, that work to bridge the gap between books and readers. Libraries are an essential tool in a democracy – they don’t discriminate and they build ideas. They are places where magic happen.
Does magic save lives? Librarians will say yes.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.