“To understand what this library is about, I think it’s important to first understand that reading is a privilege,” insisted Ushimi Linggi, “Not everyone has access to it and that needs to change. That is the idea behind this library.” My conversation with her was via Zoom, but the network was patchy, to say the least.

But this was not surprising. After all, Roing, where Linggi is based, is the last major township on the north-eastern frontier of India. Nestled in the Lower Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh, Roing is home to picturesque rivers, mountains, forest – and a silent reading revolution.

The establishment of the Roing People’s Library, something I first discovered on Twitter (courtesy Kaustubh Deka’s timeline) was an idea that took two years and a pandemic to reach fruition. In 2018, Ushimi Linggi returned from Guwahati, Assam to her hometown in Roing to join the school where she now works. In 2019, Linggi and a couple of like-minded volunteers founded the Eya Collective.

“In the native language of the Idu Mishmi tribe, Eya means mountain,” said Linggi, “We didn’t have a concrete plan beyond our mutual desire to create a space where people could come to read. We wanted to create a place where kids could come to talk about their ideas and their knowledge of art and literature.” The time was right, she felt, since she could see Roing changing, and aspiring to move forward.

“We began by having small poetry readings and art exhibitions. It was a way to reach out and make the Eya Collective known to the residents of the town.” That initiative was a first step, though it didn’t immediately crystallise into anything larger. “We all had our own personal and professional projects to take care of, we almost forgot about our plans.”

And then, in 2020, fate – and the pandemic – stepped in.

An inspiration and an idea

The first reminder for Linggi was when a roadside library sprang up in Mizoram’s capital city, Aizawl. Started in February 2020 by C Lawmzuala, a professional assistant at Mizoram University’s central library and Lallaisangzuali, a deputy librarian there, the library was an almost instant success, with citizens pulling together to donate books. Then, in March 2020, India went into lockdown, forcing a plan that had nearly been relegated to oblivion to the forefront.

“The pandemic was our catalyst and our inspiration, at a time when the lockdown forced us to stand still,” Linggi said. “Here were people of all ages – some older, some younger and some my age – who wanted to continue reading, especially during the lockdown.” She drew inspiration from what she had seen and heard of the roadside libraries in Aizawl, where readers could take a book, and leave another one in exchange. “We thought that was such a great model, because a library should be that kind of a safe place, where you can come to talk to one another about what interests you and your community creatively.”

The only problem, of course, was that for something as ambitious as a people’s library, bureaucratic approval and funds to cover labour, construction and transportation were essential. Linggi decided to start with funding. She was well aware of the time and drudgery involved, and wanted to have nothing to do with applications, permits and red tape involved in getting funds from the government. She was insistent, right from the beginning, on doing it herself.

“In a place like Roing, there needs to be a lot more awareness about concepts, like this one, that are out of the box – particularly when it comes to the arts and to literature,” Linggi said. “Not everyone gives credence to ideas like a people’s library.”

Her funding plan was unusual, to say the least. “I’m a huge hoarder of pressed flowers,” she said. “I’ve been collecting them since childhood, and you can find them stuffed between the pages of every book or notebook I own. So we started yet another collective. This is called Bookmark Blues, and we offer handmade items like bookmarks, tea candles, and pressed flowers.”

The “we” in question was her family. Linggi’s mother, who loves gardening and flowers, undertook special expeditions to pluck the prettiest flowers she could find so that her daughter could press them and sell them for her Bookmark Blues initiative. Linggi spent hours on the internet as well, searching for new and innovative ways in which she could press and present flowers, especially given that there was a lockdown.

It was both a help and a comfort to Linggi to realise that, pandemic or not, books united the entire town. “A lot of my friends – and their friends – bought from me to show their support for the library. It was a little overwhelming!” As funds began to roll in, there was finally enough time and money to design a structure for what the People’s Library would look like.

Putting it together

The design was sent off to the local workshop, and construction began over the summer of 2020. “We wanted an open, independent structure. It would be standing outside against the elements – which, in Arunachal Pradesh, mean mad rains and strong winds, especially in January and during the monsoon. So it would be an assortment of basic shelves, with waterproof curtains to protect the books from humidity and moisture.”

The next question was where to set it up. Bookshelves could not be placed at random spots, however ideal that sounds. “Added to this was the fact that Roing already has two official public libraries,” said Linggi. “But when you enter a library, you have to abide by its rules. My idea was to provide an open, relaxed space, which is open for both reading and debates about what you might be reading now, or what you’re planning to read next. I wanted to encourage an ongoing conversation about books and reading, which is not necessarily confined to one age group.”

The District Commissioner, Mitali Namchoom, proved to be an immensely helpful force. “She was very supportive of our ideas, but bureaucracy takes its own time,” said Linggi. “So even after our installations were ready, it still took another month before we got the green light to begin setting it up.”

Between September and November 2020, Linggi organised a book donation drive from residents in Roing. “We got a mix of genres, with nearly 180 second-hand titles in all. It’s small, but it’s a good start,” she said. “It’s not age-restricted in any way, nor do we have a focus on any particular genres. We just requested for books – any kind of books – and we got them!”

None of this was easy, given that the keywords of 2020 were “isolation”, “distancing”, and “virtual”. And with Namchoom being transferred, the process of getting clearances had to start all over again. Still, the different elements fell into place, which was possible, according to Linggi, because Roing is determined to bridge the gap when it comes to education, to learning, to books and literature. “If you asked me whether I expected this kind of support, even I was taken aback,” she said.

Opening up

The People’s Library in Roing opened in late 2020. The lockdown had eased by then. “We didn’t know what or how many people to expect, but we made it a point to sit at the library ourselves,” Linggi said. “People could see the installations, but many of them needed a push. So even if a couple of people stopped by, just to have a look, we would chat to them to find out what they liked about the library, what they wanted to read or what they were reading currently. That was how we started.”

That is also how Linggi means to go on. There is no time limit – unlike public libraries – on how long readers can keep books. “In order to keep track of missing books, or books that are being kept too long by readers, we’ve put in place a register system, which we call the Borrow Book, which has the reader’s name and contact number,” said Linggi. “So after three weeks, I usually give the reader a call to find out what’s up.”

The register itself soon became a way to track milestones in the growth of the People’s Library. “It soon became a barometer of how many people were taking books from our shelves,” said Linggi. “From a handful of people stopping by the library, we began seeing entire pages of the register filling up in less than a day!”

As the January rains descended on Roing, hitting attendance at the library, Linggi remained hopeful. Her library is an initiative that she wants to see continuing into the post-pandemic world, whatever that may look like. “When kids go back to school after the pandemic, they will want to engage their minds with something new. Books are the best way to do this. The People’s Library is an idea that I think will persist with or without the pandemic, given the support I’ve seen.”

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