If you follow The Community Library Project on social media, or even if you’ve chanced across Michael Creighton’s poignant essay for this series in August, you’d know that this year has been a particularly difficult one for this citizen-led free library project. To navigate through 2021, to raise funds in order to rebuild two of their four libraries in Delhi-NCR, to run their remotely conducted Reading Fluency programmes and to sustain their online WhatsApp library, Duniya Sabki, TCLP is organising a fundraiser, the Free Library Festival 2020.

Over two days (19-20 December), the Festival offers a series of workshops by award-winning authors, publishers and artists. The workshops span a range of subjects – from identity politics, through screenwriting and publishing guides for aspiring writers, to Hindustani classical music. The names on the list are impressive: from Shubha Mudgal, through Indu Harikumar, to Karthika VK. Each workshop requires those interested to purchase a donor pass for registration and participation.

Simultaneously, for those who are so inclined, TCLP is conducting, for the first time, a charitable auction of personal items. Saris from Shobhaa De, Vidya Balan and Satya Paul, a vintage Bottega Veneta handbag from Dia Mirza, and a Chennaiyin FC track-suit from Abhishek Bachchan are just a few of the pieces on auction. The finale will be a free concert, starring Sonali Kulkarni, Varun Grover and Danish Husain, among others.

“There is something for everyone,” said Mridula Koshy, co-founder of TCLP, “A little writing, a little reading, a little learning and at the end, a little music and a little Bollywood. ”

From libraries to political thought

When I sat down to talk to Koshy about the upcoming Free Library Festival, I had a set of prepared questions, the first of which was fairly obvious: How did the idea of workshops across so many fascinating subjects come up?

“We do workshops already at TCLP every week,” explained Koshy. “There is something for everyone. We have Kuchipudi dance classes; workshops on gender, on science and technology, workshops with teenagers and their parents, guitar classes – you name it. So it was a question of migrating what we already do every week in the physical space to an online medium.”

TCLP has in fact been conducting annual fundraisers even before the pandemic. Nearly 2000 people attended their last fundraiser held at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre in 2019, Koshy told me. “Our fundraising effort right now probably won’t raise as much money as it would have if we had written professional CSR proposals,” she said, “but our intention was never as much to raise money as it was to engage with the public. It’s a way for the public to engage with reading and with one another.”

The Community Library Project is not just a library, Koshy explained. “We are an activist political organisation. So we do what many NGOs do and provide services to an underprivileged population, but we also do what many NGOs do not do, which is to raise political questions about the kind of society we live in. That’s why I say that we are a political organisation as well and not just your typical library.”

Libraries and protests

At the heart of this is the idea of reading. An engagement with reading – if done properly – is political as well as personal. The events unfolding in the country today, Koshy believes, prove her point. “We saw this happening first during the protests against the Citizenship Act,” she said. “Part of their protests included laying claim to libraries as powerful tools for representation. So you were basically saying, ‘I am a thinker and I am a reader. Here is the library that establishes my credentials.’ It was the first time I have seen people impatient for the privilege of being part of a library.”

In a year that has been as much about protests as it has been about the pandemic, Koshy hopes the fundraiser will be the starting point for something bigger, “I want to see a permanent protest library at the Jantar Mantar,” she said. “This can be the start of a new public library system in Delhi: a system which demands neither your kaagaz nor your paisa.”

This is the hope behind the Free Library Festival: to help spread the message that knowledge is power, and that information is always free and accessible. “Today, various solutions are offered to solve the problem of India’s missing libraries,” said Koshy. “Those solutions are centred on integrating India into a global economy, with a minimally literate workforce. This means delivering mobile and app-based reading material to the poor. But have we ever thought about what it actually means for a first generation school-goer to not just consult a manual or to read a script and answer a phone call at a call centre, but to actually question the society in which they live? That’s why it’s important to advocate for all those who don’t have access to libraries.”

Koshy views libraries as the first crucible of learning. “Reading in India is always going to look different from reading anywhere else in the world, because of the history of exclusion in this country,” she said. “The only way to get around this is to encourage community reading.”

Staying local

Of the ten workshops that are being held as part of this year’s FLF, five have sold out, while the others have only a handful of seats left. Will the FLF the be a model to be sustained in a post-Covid world too?

“We’re not in the business of getting the Internet to be more than what it is,” said Koshy. “It remains a means to an end for us. But yes, I think we will do a combination next year, after all, some of my favourite authors do live abroad. We’re translating a text by Neil Gaiman for the concert this year. Sonali Kulkarni is performing it. But we will always keep up the physical engagement.”

Will the TCLP consider a more global edition of the festival in the future? “Our movement is India and our focus is India,” said Koshy. “The work we need to do is India specific. When we intersect internationally in any way, it’s because we love literature from all over the world.”

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