Tucked away in Mumbai’s least developed ward, the slums of Shivaji Nagar might be one Mumbai’s best-kept secrets. With 78% of the population living in slums and an average life expectancy of 38, this municipal ward has a Human Development Index of 0.05. A landfill serves as its backdrop, where Mumbai dumps 4,500 metric tonnes of its garbage daily.

Walking through the narrow lanes of Shivaji Nagar one sidesteps stagnant pools from overflowing sewers, avoiding children playing on the road as motorcycles and auto rickshaws whiz by, crosses playgrounds with hardly space for even a game of marbles, and notices the tiny schools and “classes” dispersed through the chawls. Looking around, it seems there are children everywhere, walking to or from school and tuition classes, playing by the roadside, or huddling together glued to a mobile phone screen.

The fact that the population of Shivaji Nagar consists mostly of young people means that it is the youth of the community who must bear the brunt of the all-pervasive problems here. Only a fraction (23%) is enrolled in institutions of higher education and they face an atmosphere rife with economic hardship, gender violence, juvenile crime, and substance abuse.

Anoop Parik spent eight years as an English teacher at Shree Geeta Vidyalaya, first during a two year fellowship with Teach for India, and then employed directly by the school. This under-resourced school has students whose parents are mostly daily wage earners, craftsmen, shopkeepers, or drivers. He observed the impact of this environment on his students.

“I watched my children face all these obstacles outside, and then bear the pressure created by the rigid formal education in school as well,” Parik said. “They had very few chances to explore their creativity, fewer still to explore their potential if it lay outside the prescribed syllabus or diverged from the views their families held or were forced to hold.”

As Parik’s students grew into young men and women trying to find their feet in the bigger world, he noticed that some of them had broken out of the moulds forced upon them. They had found their voice and were charting independent journeys. They weren’t held back by the walls of the classroom or home; some were avid readers, others were busy exploring art or science outside the syllabus and others still found their passion on the sports ground.

Why couldn’t every child in the community be given that same opportunity?

This planted the seed for The Next Page. Parik left the formal education space to set up a youth community centre with the help of these youngsters. Reading, arts, and sports would be their three areas of focus.

Were it not for the gentle trickle of children walking out the door shaded by a lemon tree, you might mistake the Next Page Library for just another two-storied house jostling for space in Shivaji Nagar. Books in hand, the children quickly attract others who flip through the loot. The old men at the tea stall watch indulgently: children with storybooks in their hands is a curious sight in Shivaji Nagar. Inevitably one of the other children pops in through the door and looks around, asking, “Comic books hai? Kitna paisa lagta hai?”

The library is free for everyone. All patrons need to do is register their name and provide a phone number in cases of late returns. Since it started operations in January 2020, more than 1,200 members have signed up to use the library. Some visit almost daily, some monthly, and others during holidays when they get free from their endless coaching classes.

Walking into the library, one must be careful not to trip over Peter Pan and Tinkerbell, the resident kittens, and their watchful mother, Winnie. The ground floor has a wall lined by children’s books categorised into three levels. Here Chacha Chaudhary jostles for space with Tintin, and Neil Gaiman books stand next to old favourites from the National Book Trust. There is also an impressive collection of reference books lining the back wall: picture books about animals, space, science, art, and an encyclopaedia set.

The home-like feeling is intentional: “I didn’t want this space to be like a classroom. Children should feel at home around the books and be comfortable enough to sit anywhere they like, anyhow they like.”

Most of the books were donated by well-wishers and charities. Others were bought from second-hand book-sellers. Many belonged to Park and his cousins, who grew up in a joint family of bibliophiles in Kolkata. “I lived in a family with thirteen members,” said Parik. “It was routine for my uncles to pass down books to my elder sister, who would pass them on to me, and I to the younger ones. Now our books are being read by kids who rarely have anything besides textbooks at home.”

Farheen Khan, one of the two librarians, is an aspiring doctor studying for her entrance exams. She echoes what Parik says. “It’s almost impossible to find a home here with storybooks. Most parents think they are useless. Even though parents want their children to study hard and succeed in school, they feel storybooks are a waste of time. I had to hide in the bathroom at night to finish reading A Thousand Splendid Suns when I was younger!”

Khan believes that story books have played a huge role in her life. “Textbooks are used to fill our minds with facts, but storybooks help us experience different worlds and help improve our lives.” Her favourite book is Bridge to Terabithia, which she read under the guidance of a teacher in sixth standard. It changed the way she looked at reading. As her tastes and understanding matured, she read The Mahabharata from three different perspectives, realising how important it is to see the world from multiple points of view.

Shweta Shetty is pursuing a Bachelors in Management Studies and has been working at the library since its inception. She feels that the best thing about the library is the sheer variety of books available to the children. “I’ve seen so many kids who at first would just read fairy tales, or maybe comic books. Then slowly they started choosing different books. They began to pick biographies or books about science and try them out too.”

This is proof that a library should be more than just a collection of books. Here, children and young adults explore different kinds of books without restrictions on what they can read. Children learn how to self-select books based on interests and reading levels, an important skill for young learners. “There were so many kids who would earlier only be able to read books with only a few words, and mostly pictures,” said Shetty. “Now those same kids, if they’ve been coming regularly, read far more complex books.”

The Next Page was just a couple of months old when news of a possible pandemic hit the world. The team was still trying out different ideas at the library and planning different activities. They had started read-aloud sessions and writing circles through the week, movie screenings on Fridays, art activities and science experiments on weekends.

The last science experiment before the lockdown was around making models of different kinds of viruses. A group of twenty children sat on the terrace, learnt about RNA and protein shells, spikes on the surfaces, and the shapes of different kinds of viruses. They also created simple models using sourdough, toothpicks, beads, and paint.

“We didn’t really know how to respond to the news of the lockdown,” said Parik. “Of course we closed down immediately but, like everyone else, had no idea of what the future held. It was particularly tough because we had just started preparations for registering the organisation and raising funds. The lockdown put a complete stop to all that.”

Through the first two months of the lockdown, the team decided to put the space to good use. While the library was closed, they spent April and May identifying those in the community who needed food supplies and helped distribute dry rations to over 600 families after raising funds.

As the government lifted restrictions, the library resumed activities gradually. They planned out the precautions they would have to take. Masking, sanitising, quarantining, distancing – a list of protocols was soon established and the library reopened. Moving their work online was not a possibility – most of the children who visited them did not have access to smartphones and if the family had one, it was usually reserved for the online classes of the older siblings.

Slowly, children started returning to the library. Still, many children were in their native villages, the families choosing the safety of their family homes over the uncertainty of Mumbai in lockdown. The trickle strengthened gradually and turned into a stream as more and more children found that their education had come to a standstill, and there was only so much time they could spend playing with friends.

As life limped back to normalcy, the library resumed some of its earlier programmes in January. Storytime and art activities resumed with smaller groups under the open skies on the terrace. Ayesha, another member of the team, took over responsibilities for creating mini-art-workshops for groups of 12-15 children. Older students were now able to use the space again to study for upcoming exams and Anoop held revision classes to guide HSC students with their preparations.

Younger children were still restricted to borrowing books to discourage crowding, but could stay at the library longer. There was a general feeling that by the time summer vacations rolled around things would be normal. A much-delayed plan for visits to the museum and zoo was revived; plans for summer reading circles for children and discussion circles for older patrons were also in the works.

All of this came back to a resounding halt as the pandemic resurfaced in 2021, with new restrictions put in place in Maharashtra. The activities had to be stopped and the team considered closing down again. After much deliberation they decided that they would continue lending books to children. Given that so much valuable learning had been lost during the previous year, they felt that allowing children access to storybooks was important.

The library has stayed open with restricted timings and very strict precautions, and children still come by for books, albeit in far fewer numbers. Daily footfall has halved from an average of 40 per day before the restrictions came into place. Many of the families have gone back to their villages and their return is uncertain this time around.

Despite the difficulties they are facing, Parik believes that this kind of physical space in the community is essential. Being around books and around others who enjoy reading and learning provides an environment missing in the lives of many of the children here, something many take for granted.

While the number of children who have been able to use the library has been limited for a while, it has still seen a total circulation of over 8,500 books since reopening in June. The team hopes for a return to normalcy soon so that the library can be as full of enthusiastic and curious learners as it was before.

The Next Page was set up with the belief that access to a high quality library should not depend on the economic background of a child. Every young person deserves to have access to good quality books and spaces that encourage exploration, creativity, and enquiry. As a result of keeping the library free for its patrons though, the founders have had to rely heavily on the charity of others.

“I’m a big believer in the strength of charity and have no qualms in asking others for help, no matter how often I end up doing it,” said Parik. “I believe that the funds are used for a good cause, and, more than that, for an important cause. It’s only if people believe in and support ideas like this that we can carry on our work.

To learn more about the work of The Next Page Community Foundation visit their website. You can also follow them on Instagram and YouTube.

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