The distance between the posh neighbourhood of Patuli in Kolkata and the dusty meandering roads of Ashina village is over 50 kilometres. The villagers of Ashina most likely have never seen the towering housing complexes near the Satyajit Ray Park in Patuli. Similarly, most of the residents of Patuli may have never set foot near Ashina.
Kalidas Haldar, a resident of Patuli and an English teacher at a government school in Kolkata, has never heard of Razzak SK, a migrant labourer currently living in Ashina without a job. Rahila Khatun, an eighteen-year-old, has never been to the little shabby grocery shop that Tarapada Kahar runs just in front of Halder’s building in Patuli. Yet, all of them are part of a grander narrative that has been unfolding since the lockdown of 2020.
Haldar became increasingly aware of the impact of the lockdown on the impressionable minds of school students. “I saw how being confined to their homes had made the kids vulnerable to the darker side of the digital world,” he said. “It made me upset to see how so many kids spent all their recreational time playing games.”
And so he conceived the idea of a street library and decided to translate it into reality. Haldar asked Tarapada Kahar, a grocer, whether he could use an old fridge to store some books outside his shop. Kahar, who never went to school, agreed promptly. “I never had the chance to get an education,” Kahar said. “I don’t want anyone else to have a similar fate.” On February 21, 2021, the Patuli Street Library came into existence.
Haldar’s partner Kumkum has been equally enthusiastic and instrumental in setting up the street library. She has spent hours labelling the books with serial numbers. “I studied English literature in college,” she said. “I have no formal training in managing a library, but I’ve learned these things watching people working at the British Council Library. I have been taking my son to libraries since he was a child. He is in class 10 now”
As she was speaking, a man in his early thirties came to return a book. The book was Sanchita, an anthology of poems by the Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. His name is Shubhankar Dey, and he runs a fast food joint in the vicinity. “We have a diverse readership”, said Kumkum.
The Patuli Street Library is truly different from any traditional library one may come across. Anyone can borrow a book here, there’s no need for membership. Kahar takes the responsibility for making the borrowers write their names and contact details in a diary when neither of the Haldars is present.
“We understand his predicament and appreciate him for his help,” said Kumkum Halder. “He has a shop to look after. Catering to the customers and the people who come to the library at the same time is a difficult job. He is the breadwinner in his family.” Kahar has one daughter who is married, and a son. “My son got his MA in History with a first class from Rabindra Bharati University, but hasn’t found a job yet,” he said.
Kahar’s regular customers have started avoiding the place because of the people who gather at the shop for books. “The customers fear corona,” said Kahar. “I have no other source of income. I haven’t been able to pay rent since the lockdown. The landlord is a decent man. He has not driven us out. I am trying to pay him back slowly.”
“Almost 300 people have borrowed books from us since we started the library,” said Kalidas Haldar. “Many others have called, wanting to donate books. We have received around 600 books. Now we are looking for a room for the library.”
In Ashina, Razzak and others are fighting tooth and nail to keep school dropouts in their village engaged with some form of education. These children had to leave school because of financial restraints – unable to attend classes on smartphones and other devices.
Razzak was in Hyderabad when the lockdown was announced. When he returned to Ashina, he quickly realised the need for an initiative that would cater to the increasing number of school dropouts in his village. Many like him came to his aid and they started the Ashina Gramin Library. Rahila Khatun, an 18-year-old high school student and her family gave up one of the two rooms in their home to make space for the library.
A class 9 dropout himself, Razzak believes that “education is the backbone of any society.” There are ten others, including Rahila Khatun, who constitute the core committee that manages the library. Runa Khatun, who wishes to become a college professor, is the library-in-charge. “We have almost 200 members”, she said. She is hopeful of clearing the NET or the SET exam very soon.
“Most of our books are schoolbooks,” Runa Khatun said. “We have only five story books. We want the school dropouts to continue their education.” The library also holds coaching classes for students from class 9 to class 12, four days a week. Almost 20 students have been coming to these classes, including youngsters who can afford to stay in school as well as dropouts. The other regular teacher here is Arjina Khatun, a third-year college student.
Rahila Khatun is yet to decide what she wants do after school. Her mother Fatemah Biwi is determined that her daughter must study further. “I want my daughter to study and work just like any other boy,” she said. “I don’t want her to sacrifice her life just because she is a girl.”
Razzak and the others are trying to find another place for the library. “Many people have called us to donate books,” he said, “but we are asking everyone for financial assistance. We have sought help from the authorities but to no avail.”
The Haldar couple and Razzak SK are fighting similar battles in some senses, and their weapon of choice is the same. They believe books can still help navigate the pandemic.
The writer would like to thank Professor Parimal Bhattacharya for his constant inspiration.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.