Joy of Reading

For India’s poor children, community libraries are an escape, a refuge and much, much more

With public libraries closing down and books becoming more expensive, children from backward classes find it harder to read.

At the Ramditti J R Narang Deepalaya Learning Center, a sunlit building full of books, it is easy to recount the joy one felt when one first began to fall in love with reading. At 3 pm every day, streams of children flood out of the building’s gates. Even though it is closing time, a few linger hopefully, longing for a little more time spent lost between the pages of a book. Writer Mridula Koshy, curator of Deepalaya, is firm but gentle when she tells them to return at a time scheduled for kahaani, the centre’s reading sessions.

The library is set in the dense neighbourhood of Sheikh Sarai in South Delhi, close to Jagdamba Basti – home to a community of waste-pickers. Most of the library’s members are from the Basti. According to Koshy, while several children from the community do go to school, the quality of education they receive there is inadequate. Like most public schools in the country, teachers are scarce, frequently absent or uninterested in students, the curriculum is confused and reading outside school rarely encouraged.

Given the dwindling number of public libraries, combined with the inflated rates at which books are sold at most commercial bookstores, it is nearly impossible for children from lower-income families to find the means to read. Community libraries bring reading and literature to areas where books are hard to come by. At a time when rote learning, securing high marks and a career-centred approach to education are encouraged, these libraries provide a space for children to think, question and evolve.

Community libraries bring reading and literature to areas where books are hard to come by. Credit: Deepalaya Community Library Project/Facebook.com
Community libraries bring reading and literature to areas where books are hard to come by. Credit: Deepalaya Community Library Project/Facebook.com

At Banashankari in Bengaluru, a new library called Buguri is modelled after Deepalaya. The library was started by the non-profit Hasiru Dala, which works with more than 10,000 waste-pickers.

“Often the children of waste-pickers, especially the older ones, would get alienated and run away from home,” said Lakshmi Karunakaran, who heads the library project for Hasiru Dala. “They would be found at bus stops or train stations the next day. Having a place to go, a book to bury yourself in may change that.”

The library, which opened on January 27, received an overwhelming response.

“It was a heartwarming surprise to see the kids take control of the space in the way they did,” said Karunakaram. “They seemed ready for the library. I had to explain some rules, but everyone seemed enthusiastic about having a place to read.”

The dynamic of Banashankari is diverse, with families from distinct regional and religious backgrounds. Buguri stocks books in Urdu, Kannada and Tamil. At the library, children read and listen to stories in all three languages. Unlike Koshy, Karunakaram is apprehensive about the way things will unfold, but in both libraries, the families of members have been very supportive.

“What was interesting was that there was a demand from the community that we educate children about unspoken things like sexual politics and gender issues.” said Karunakaran. “It was heartwarming but also enlightening to know that a readership is not as simplistic as one believes.”

Painting the walls of Buguri in Bangalore. Credit: Hasirudala/Facebook.com
Painting the walls of Buguri in Bangalore. Credit: Hasirudala/Facebook.com

At Bhilwara district in Rajasthan, where the community has long been victim to saffron terror and a lack of civic amenities and illiteracy, the community library is a place of refuge. The Dhapara community library here was set up by the School for Democracy, Loktantrashala. In Bhilwara, the members of the library come from homes where alcoholism is rampant.

“The books take me far away from here,” said 12-year-old Saroj Kumari, one of Dhapara’s first members. Though most of the library members are enrolled in government schools in and around Dhapara, poor attendance of both the students and teachers ensures that learning doesn’t always happen. A non-formal learning space, the Dhapara library, like the School for Democracy, is dedicated to teaching its members about their own agency in the world.

“More than ever, each of us needs to consciously understand our rights today, both politically and socially,” said Adithi Manohar, one of the staff members at the School for Democracy. “The absence of books from a child’s life doesn’t let them see a world different from their own. When they do, it brings light to their own lives.”

Storytelling session at Dhapara community library, Rajasthan. Credit: Loktantrashala - School For Democracy/Facebook.com
Storytelling session at Dhapara community library, Rajasthan. Credit: Loktantrashala - School For Democracy/Facebook.com

One of Dhapara’s main aims is to help children gain political literacy. Though it is still early to tell the effects, the response from villagers in Bhilwara, according to Manohar, has been overwhelming.

“Word spread and children from other villages who came to school in Dhapara brought along friends and family to see it too,” Manohar said. “They began accepting this new space as theirs and asked questions. Their demands thrilled us, it seemed like a beginning towards larger things, towards creating human beings with agency, and the ability to question.”

In Bhilwara, the library becomes an an act of political inclusion, a space in which human beings become thinkers, and literature, in its purest form, becomes a tool for rebellion.

“At school, reading is taught to the children as drudgery, as means to an end, something that will one day land you a job,” said Koshy. “At a library, they come into contact with books of all kinds. We give them access, they discover the joys and purpose of literature on their own.”

Dhapara community library, Rajasthan. Credit: Loktantrashala - School For Democracy/Facebook.com
Dhapara community library, Rajasthan. Credit: Loktantrashala - School For Democracy/Facebook.com

The members of Deepalaya’s community library – more than 1,400 in number – range from four-year-olds to adults of all ages. On a weekly basis, approximately 350 to 400 members visit the library and borrow between 900 and 1,000 books. The daily functioning of the library is looked after by volunteers from outside the community and a student council composed of teenagers.

“More than ninety per cent of our members are first generation readers,” said Koshy. “They read Hindi, Urdu and English and are free to choose whatever books they want. There is no dictation of method, no enrolment, no conditions – everyone is welcome here. We don’t want them to have any limits with what they read and when.”

Deepalaya stocks books of every sort: there are books on social media like Facebook – social media ka chamatkaar and others that talk about domestic and sexual abuse. For younger children, there is a wide selection by Indian publishers like Pratham, Tulika and Zubaan but also the Kajari Gaay books, a translation of the Mamma Mu collection from Sweden. Programmes like Headstart, a reading session for four- to six-year-olds with guest authors like Urvashi Butalia, are attended by droves of excited members. Like all libraries, there is a great degree of precision in the way the books are organised, bought and issued but at the same time, the ethos is designed largely towards comfort and joy.

“Reading, and literature is a way of life – it is a habit, it lets people think,” said Koshy, as she locked up the library for the day. “I want to live in a world in which people think.”

Buguri, in Bangalore. Image Credits: Hasirudala/Facebook.com
Buguri, in Bangalore. Image Credits: Hasirudala/Facebook.com
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.