I grew up at a time when watching an occasional movie at the only theatre in town along with parents and siblings, or friends, was what a day out was all about. There was no other screen viewing, malls, play zones or much money in either parents’ account. But, what might seem to be a mirthless scenario was, in fact, a ‘blessing in disguise’. My father’s library, replete with an array of books on a variety of subjects was a delight in my growing years. The love of reading was nurtured by my parents who were avid readers, themselves. When the holiday season came, my father would walk with us to Singbal Book House, a significant repository of interesting books during that time, and throw open before us a choice of reading delights. Lavish holidays and amusements were out of bounds, but it was an awakening to the realm of the real and the fantastic; it was about building an inner world where the imagination and the spirit flew unbridled and never ceased their quest.
The Portuguese Lyceum in Goa, where during the late 1960s, I attended secondary school, catered to the older readers, offering a rich fare of literary works but not children’s books. There was another more challenging alternative for me and my classmates: a surreptitious exchange in class, of comics and storybooks; Andersen, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, 1001 Nights, biographies of great men in simple easy-reading editions, you name it. We had instituted our own library! And that was not all. Amongst our immediate neighbours, was Aleixo Manuel da Costa, who in addition to being the Curator of the Central Library, was also a friend and a facilitator to his young reading public. I must mention his name as he is a major contributor to the literary scene in Goa. This genuine lover of books would invite us to accompany him to the Central Library (the walk was rather long), and allow us to feast on the children’s books and borrow as we pleased. As I grew up, the town libraries became nodal points for my search and in them, I found my best refuge.
In the autumn of my life, I have discovered a new love growing in me, or rather a new dimension to the love I already had. When two of my grandchildren were born, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the parents had a collection of baby books; I was asked to read a simple book, entitled Goodnight Moon to these less than three-month-old twins every night. It was the beginning of a routine reading habit that grows as the kids grow. While some of my grandchildren enjoy being read to, others prefer that their grandmother follow the traditional story-telling which we ourselves heard, when children’s story books, beautifully printed and suitably short, did not exist in Goa. Story-telling, be it out of made- up plots or printed books is now for me a wonderful avenue for creativity, dramatising and, best of all, a priceless bonding with the little ones, their innocence and their pristine energies.
Photo credit: Nandita MF
While in Melbourne, I accompanied my grandchildren to storytelling sessions in the libraries. Twice a week, these preschoolers, come rain or sunshine (and more of rain in Melbourne), would join the rest of the tiny tots, squatting on colourful rugs, and eagerly await for the adult animator to start reading out of a new book each time. The theme was then translated into a vibrant activity with music, shapes and colours. Parents and grandparents patiently assisted the children; neither competition nor commendation marred the pleasure of that book-hour. Children and grown-ups walked away stress-free, looking forward to the next week.
Photo credit: Amritha Melo Furtado
Each library member was allowed to borrow around fifty books at a time for a period of three weeks after which the books could be either returned or renewed. The most remarkable enterprise to encourage reading was called the ‘1000 Books before School’ programme. The parents are urged to read 1000 books to their toddlers and pre-schoolers as a desirable exercise for building high literacy levels in the children by the time they are taught how to read. A challenge? Perhaps. Yet, the system is simple. The same book read a number of times, counts, as do the books heard during the story-telling sessions – every single book that is gone through counts.The libraries offer a calendar to the parent to keep a record of these. The child’s lifelong learning is assured beyond what school will teach over the years. And all this for free! The library was a place where age-specific events were organised during the school holidays as well. Theatre in the libraries, for preschoolers and others, brings alive characters from the storybooks and, adds a lively dynamism to the entire reading experience.
Is it impossible to have such systems in place in Goa? The ever-growing conflict between children and parents over digital gadgets and the helplessness of the adults in managing their own kids, regardless of their age, needs new strategies. The habit of reading is no innovation. The challenge would be to maintain a well-organised system of public libraries where children can find a new addiction: books!
Youngsters would want to engage with children’s libraries, so why not the ‘nanas’? We may take our cue from Dr Seuss who wrote: “You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”