When people ask me, “Do kids read these days?” in a disbelieving tone, I want to ask them, “Have you tried giving kids books? Books they want to read? Giving them to kids who have no books to read?”

— Padma Baliga

Padma Baliga took to hashtagging her social media posts at least three years before I did. A vocal feminist, her write-ups on phenomenal women have a liberal sprinkling of the word “badass”. Kickass, too.

And she seems to have liked SRK.

I am not even one-tenth down her Facebook timeline and am already enamoured of her.

But first, the reason I’m stalking her online.

Padma, as she insisted on being addressed by one and all, and I had never met. Our interactions had been limited to a one-off on Facebook over children’s literature, mostly Indian, and a few emails exchanged back and forth over the books she would occasionally place an order with me for, for the many libraries that she was setting up. She had once also reached out to congratulate me on one of my books that she found particularly engaging.

When I learnt of her death from Covid-19 on May 12, I put out a small note for her on Facebook. She belonged to our close-knit kidlit world and her loss was irreplaceable.

I tagged her.

Within minutes, my timeline was flooded with massive outpourings of grief, but also of fond remembrances and love for Padma. Some were from our mutual kidlit overlaps, but the bulk of it came from people I did not know. Colleagues, ex-colleagues, scholars, students, her teachers, book clubbers, critics, friends, old friends, new friends, children of friends – just how many people’s lives had she touched?

I felt inadequate. And a bit of an imposter who had set out to publicly mourn someone I myself knew so little about. Something inside me was itching to correct that; committing to writing out a proper tribute to her would help, perhaps?

The inauguration of one of Padma Baliga's classroom libraries.

I set about connecting with people who had known her well. Fascinating facets of her life began to appear. Long-term friends and associates began reminiscing Padma’s ability to stir up passions, whip up enthusiasm, to inspire to dream and do. It was in her doing that she created multiple spaces of interest in literature teaching, research, writing, creating libraries and other reading spaces for those who could afford and those who couldn’t.

Some spoke about her way with words and her sense of adventure, others, about her remarkable lack of envy or insecurity in professional spaces, always sharing credit with others with aplomb. And I learnt about her goodie bag of marvels she would lug around, filled with cookies and chocolate surprises. Chocolates, always, to bribe you to read, and chocolates, always, for a job well done.

The more they spoke about her, the more fascinating her persona grew. But these were coming as distilled, filtered, revisited fragments; Padma herself still at least twice removed from me. I craved for her words, her ideas. I needed to hear from her.

That’s where Facebook comes in…

I am scrolling down and don’t know where to stop for this story to begin. Classroom libraries, community libraries, children and books, reading and children, book reviews, Konkani literature, voicing against patriarchy, fighting injustice, championing inclusivity; I can’t stop marvelling at the uplifting nature of her posts.

There is only one mention of the pandemic that I find, from about a month before it would end up taking her life. It “rages on, rendering unfamiliar our sense of time and space,” she wrote, “but the colours of the tabebuia rosea are a familiar anchor.”

She talks often of the resplendent bloom of this magnificent pink poui tree near her house. The accompanying photos show us its splendour. Is there anyone there who admires that tree as much now, I wonder.

I continue my journey down her timeline.

March 22, 2017. I pause. Sharing a Scroll.in piece on community libraries by Sharanya Deepak, Padma wrote, “I hope I can start such a library!”

Here. It makes sense to begin my story of hers, here.

Teaching the preamble to the Constitution.

Early 2017 is when Padma decided to bring to a complete stop her long, illustrious, and inspiring teaching stint of over two decades that touched the lives of thousands of students between Grades 2 and MA. It was her voice, I later learnt, that had been giving her a hard time. And her legendary passionate, animated, often mesmerising lectures and discussions would not exactly have been conducive to healing a niggling throat issue.

It was also around the same time that her other lifelong dream began to play out larger and louder in her head – that of setting up a community library for children who wouldn’t otherwise have access to any form of books.

“She would always say – we are what we are because of what we read,’ her sister Asha Hegde had said in an earlier chat with me. Through their growing years in Mangalore, their family would read every single book they could lay their hands on at the public libraries. Which also made Padma something of an unapologetic library evangelist.

The general loss of this reading culture among the generations that followed, and the redundancy and near-extinction of public libraries thereafter, never quite sat easy with Padma. Exactly a month after her March 22 post, she had news to share with her world.

“Libraries are awesome places,” she wrote, “but you need a good librarian to open the door and help you navigate that awesomeness. Have embarked upon a library educator’s course, and am loving every minute of it.”

This was the Library Educator’s Course run at Bookworm, Goa, in partnership with Parag, an initiative of Tata Trust. She needn’t have gone for it, really, accomplished as she already was as a treasured scholar, academic, writer, critic, and translator. Running a community library or two would be cakewalk for her.

But Padma was a perfectionist. And she was thorough. The only way she knew to give herself to anything was fully. She did not know then of the brisk, spirited and committed journey she would soon be embarking upon for making reading accessible to children in a manner that hadn’t been envisioned before in the country.

A classroom library.

Within a year of this announcement, Shahnaz Sultana, the founder of the NGO Reading Stars India and Padma serendipitously bumped into each other. Shahnaz, with her desire to see books in the hands of those children who have never had the opportunity to read for pleasure, and Padma, with her dream of setting up libraries; their eventual teaming up appears predestined.

What emerged from their association was Reading Star India’s flagship programme of setting up of carefully curated libraries for each classroom in the partnering schools that cater to the not-so-privileged children.

Padma was aware of the limitations of our existing academic methodologies where, as she would often point out, even post-graduate students may have never read a single book outside of text books. Padma’s deeper anguish arose from seeing the bulk of children as being ill-equipped to read the most basic books by the time they are in class 5.

That attending school does not translate to any tangible learning for the children is what she kept irking her. And that is what she strove to fix through the classroom libraries programme, by using the medium of storybooks to spark every child’s imagination and the interest to learn.

The engagement didn’t stop there. Padma knew that in order for the children to take to reading, it is the teachers who first have to be made to warm up to the idea, benefits and ways of leisure reading. The partner schools were made to build in a DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) period into their schedules, all five days of the school week.

Knowing that most of the children would have problems reading even the basic words like “the”, she devised the Library Readiness Programme, where before the books are handed over to the children, they are exposed to some of the frequently appearing words. This ensures that their first experience of picking up and reading that title is relatively smooth, so as not to put them off reading.

Picture books by Indian authors – and this is the reason she and I connected – were her favourite medium in classrooms, as they allow creative responses from the children to the visuals, and each of those responses ends up making them more comfortable with new words and ways of expressing.

So genuine was Padma in her commitment to seeing every child read that she would even end up designing learning modules on a case-to-case basis. She also introduced the concept of peer-reading for extra motivation.

A community library.

It’s easy to gauge Padma’s exhilaration the day the first set of libraries were inaugurated in 2018, eighteen of them. Padma was bursting with pride at the job well begun. “And with this,” she wrote, “over a thousand children set out on a new journey – of words, stories, ideas, books and learning. My camera could not possibly capture the excitement and the enthusiasm.” These children would soon learn to lose themselves in a world of books.

Padma went on to set up many more classroom libraries across the country. She saw libraries as the building blocks of democracy. “Without libraries,” she would often say, “we would not know our past, nor be able to plan our future.”

For Padma, the library space was where we learn to think and critique, imagine and build, enjoy and experiment. “Without libraries, there would be no civilisation; democracies will cease to be.” We can, then, imagine her joy at putting her energies behind opening up a community library at Shanthi Foundation, Jayanagar in June, 2019, based mostly on her massive personal collection of books.

The more I discover her through her posts, the louder I can hear the unstoppable, insatiable buzz that Padma’s mind must have harboured. She was forever questioning, thinking, learning and exploring, and re-exploring and re-learning and re-thinking – ideas about cities, towns, villages, communities, families, our prejudices, our nation.

And she was forever doing. For a person who would end up sacrificing so much of her personal time towards all that she wanted to do for the others, her constant refrain was, “I’m not doing enough.”

I’m trying to imagine her in the hospital room in her last few days before her death, thinking about all this, and books, and thoe many more things that she wanted to do. Shahnaz and her other colleague at Reading Stars India, Apoorva Ashok, recall how, until the very end, she was busy planning for the numerous things they’d earmarked as must-dos on making books accessible to as many children as they could through the pandemic. “It was not a question of whether she would return, it was all about when Padma would come back and plunge herself back into these plans,’ said Sultan.

During the anti-CAA agitations, Padma protested in the way she knew best – taking words to young minds and empowering them to think, to speak up against tyranny and to stand up for justice. She did several readings of the preamble with at various schools. “The children were especially excited by the idea that the constitution is something WE the people have gifted OURSELVES,’ she wrote. ‘For no one can take away from us what we give ourselves.”

Padma’s keen focus on Indian authors and work done by homegrown creators is known to many within kidlit circles. She was present wherever Indian books were being discussed and celebrated. In 2018, she guest edited the children’s special issue of The Book Review, and another one for the Association of Writers and Illustrators for Children.

A masterclass.

Not many, however, may be aware of her exhaustive work on Konkani literature, and her rich body of research papers around children’s and YA literature exploring gender, identity, marginalisation, dystopia, and more; her engagement never an exercise in academic isolation. To me, that is what especially stands out as being remarkable.

She had to be a visionary to have rested her gaze on it at a time when children’s literature was not an area of interest in academia in India. It still isn’t. She even created a post-graduate paper on children’s literature that she co-taught with her friend and colleague Nalini Pai at St Joseph’s College, Bangalore.

If you knew Padma as a little girl, you were certain to have come across her sitting under a tree with a book in one hand and a chocolate in the other, next to a little house in the woods, the one that she has always wanted ever since her Blyton biblio days.

I sense a fleeting distraction here. Which book should I let myself imagine in the little one’s hand, I wonder. Alice in Wonderland, perhaps? Decades later, she would go on to translate it in Konkani as Adhbhutha Lokkaanthu Alice with an old friend and associate, Vidhya Prabhu, for the Konkani Sahitya Academy.

That settled, my mind eases back to that charming image: Little Padma, the tree, the book, and the chocolate, all of which she would carry in her heart right until the very end.

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