“Would you believe what just happened? The metro arrived and people rushed to the exit without even looking at the book. I had placed it in plain sight. One girl glanced at it casually and walked away. This is horrible. What should I do?”

“Try making the book more visible.”

“Yeah. Also, are you standing close to the book? If yes, then find a safe vantage point. If you’re too close, people might think you are a prankster.”

“Good point! I’ll change the location – the book’s as well as mine!”

“Good luck! Hope you are able to see your book-picker. The first book drop is always special.”

“Thanks, I really want to experience the joy of being someone’s book fairy today.”

Moments later...

“It got picked! It got picked! It was the same girl who walked away after a glance. She knew about our initiative but didn’t realise she could actually find a book. She ran back from the exit gate to see if the book was still there. Can you believe it? It was such an amazing moment. She was jumping and squealing with joy. She even hugged me and said I made her day! It’s the best day of my life. Thank you for making me a fairy.”

This is a snippet of the life we lived in pre-Covid times. This was how Book Fairies spread joy on the Delhi Metro.

A group of 40 volunteers – whom I lovingly gave the title Book Fairies – worked hard to make sure that books were dropped regularly every day, even on Sundays, on the Delhi Metro at any random station. Our followers were updated about the book drop via our social media channels, with a picture that gave hints about the book’s location.

Before March 2020, the official WhatsApp group of Books on the Delhi Metro was constantly abuzz with messages. Every time a book was picked up by a commuter, it was a cause of celebration. If someone had to leave the book behind because they were getting late for office or college, we prayed for another reader so that the book could find a new home. Our social media handles were filled with messages of joy from strangers, well-wishers, and bibliophiles. They followed our treasure trails, hoping to lay their hands on one of our books, and when they did, their joy was boundless.

We dropped our last book on 15 March. One of our book fairies was heading home amidst the frenzy of the coronavirus. We had already reduced our frequency of drops, but she had insisted I let her drop a book “one last time”. We had decided to stop the drops until the situation was under control. Little did I know it would take us months to get back to any form of normalcy

The good old days

When I started Books on the Delhi Metro in May 2017, I envisioned Delhi as a city of bibliophiles. The idea came to me like a calling. Growing up, I did not have too many books, which were a luxury in our household. My mother, a schoolteacher, would bring home books from the school library. Since money was a concern, I wasn’t even allowed to buy books with my pocket money. Every Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew I read was either borrowed from friends or a second-hand edition.

I came to treasure books more than our annual trips to Vaishno Devi. I envied my friends who had the privilege of owning floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Not just because I wanted one of my own, but because I knew those books could be put to better use if others could read them. The more our small circle borrowed and shared books with each other, the more confident I grew that this was an idea that could grow bigger.

By 2017, I had planned to give away a few books I had accumulated as gifts. Apart from a few precious Harry Potters and my mother’s copy of Wuthering Heights, I knew I would not read them again. I don’t feel ashamed of admitting I didn’t have many treasured books at the time. The sight of books sitting like pretty objects on my bookshelf didn’t excite me.

Around then, I had seen a video of actor Emma Watson leaving free books on the London Underground.The idea struck a chord with me.The more I thought about it, the more convinced I grew this could be replicated on the Delhi Metro. Imagining a space where people could share their bookshelves to give others – whether strangers or friends – a chance to read gave me goosebumps. I began to prepare the logistics, designed a logo for the initiative, printed stickers, took the books I had meant to give away, and started leaving them inside the Metro compartments.

The first book I left on the Metro was The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.The initiative then started becoming popular on social media. We gained followers and received media coverage, which I desperately needed for the initiative to grow as I had envisioned. Folks started to reach out and offer books as well as began to volunteer. I had my doubts about our motto – Take It, Read It, Pass It­ – but they were put to rest when people started sharing the books we had left behind.

By March 2020, we had placed nearly 2,000 books on the Metro. Close to 500 had been picked up and shared by commuters. We received messages on our Instagram when readers picked up the books or passed them on to family or friends. Things were going well, and I had planned to make the initiative even bigger.

Then the pandemic struck.

The post-Covid world

When the first nationwide lockdown was announced on 23 March, I took it in my stride, thinking of it as a much-needed break. With a full-time job in an IT company, running this passion project was like running on a treadmill all day long. By the time the second phase of the lockdown began, I grew anxious. By phase three, I had become restless. By phase four, I was at my wit’s end – worried, confused, and irritated.

It’s hard to explain why. After all, what I was doing was no more than social service, right?

True. But I want to put some things in perspective.

Just as some people enjoyed eating out, dressing up, travelling, we liked dropping books on the Metro for others. It had become our routine. For us, the joy of surprising someone with a serendipitous gift was a truly singular experience. And it was the same for our followers.

Even though there were more popular books-related accounts on Instagram, people had shown us their love because we had offered a human connection. Our fairies didn’t have wings or halos, but the experience of meeting and talking to one was no less than magical for the readers.

The pandemic clipped our wings and altered our realities. We were now mortals, not fairies. It was like dealing with an existential crisis, as if someone had taken away our ability to make strangers happy.

With every extension of the lockdown, my hopes began to shrink. But I wanted to do something more. I wanted to pivot on our concept. We decided to introduce our Book Fairies to our followers, so we created an account called Humans of BODM. Then we ran some stories around those who had picked up a book while travelling. Something still felt amiss, especially the charm of reading and sharing books with each other. I wanted to bring it back.

It was during Unlock 2.0 when I began to wonder if I could start sending books to people at their homes. What if I posted about a book on social media and if someone wished to read it, they could ask for it in the comments? I could then courier the book to them. Though well-intentioned, the idea wasn’t sustainable. Courier prices were skyrocketing, and even the cheapest option would burn a hole my pocket.

I then found a solution after stumbling upon a fellow Instagram account that had successfully executed the same concept. The solution was simple: keep the books free, and ask people to pay for postal charges. I knew that readers wouldn’t mind bearing shipping costs. I planned everything meticulously: the courier service; the sanitisation of books; the frequency. After I figured everything out, I announced it on our page.

Once again, I started posting books from my personal collection, the first being Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Immediately, several readers replied. I reached out to the first person who had replied, asked him to pay for postal charges, and sent him the book via India Post. The book reached him in five days.

And just like that, we had gone live again!

Hoping for better days

The pandemic has helped me discover a lot of new things. The slowdown has been great. But I refuse to go back to the uncertainty of running Books on the Delhi Metro in the same way as before.

Our new concept gives us a chance to interact with readers from all over the country, not just Delhi. This is an outcome of the new normal, but I want to go back to the “old normal” – where people were not afraid to touch books they found in strange places and take them home; where university students missed lectures to run after their favourite books; where authors turned into “Book Fairies” for a day and hid books on the Metro for their readers;a nd where people hugged our fairies and wrote notes expressing their gratitude.

However, there’s one thing I am sure of. I will continue my efforts to make books more accessible for everyone. Perhaps one day people will realise the merit of sharing books rather than collecting them.

The book fairies of Delhi Metro are eager to jump back into action. Now that the Metro is operational, we are looking for ways to resume our work in the safest manner possible. Since there are fewer commuters on the Metro and even those who are travelling are currently worried about their safety, we will hold our operations till the end of the year, and most likely resume in Jan 2021. Our fingers are crossed.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.