Twelve-year-old Srini skips into the library. “Ma’am you have lost my library card,” she declares chirpily. You, the librarian for the day, are a volunteer who comes in only once a week. You’ve never met Srini before so you can’t take the accusation personally. When cards like hers can’t be traced, there’s a protocol. Hunt in all four card boxes, each one arranged alphabetically. When that fails, as it does now, you launch an investigation.
“My card is there somewhere!”
“When were you last in?”
“Long ago.” Long ago in child time could be one week or three months.
“Was it when school vacation began?”
“Maybe. I went to gaon after that.” So, May was when she last attended. The hunt is diverted to a box marked ‘retired cards’, where records of children who haven’t come in a while are still maintained. When people join the community library, they remain members for life.
“Do you remember how many books you’ve read?” Sometimes the count of books can help locate a member’s name through a system that celebrates every tenth book read. Those who make it to 100 books are champions.
Srini replies, “Lots.”
Time to change strategy.
“Is Srini the only name you go by?” Sometimes kids use ‘pet’ names rather than ‘school’ names and that creates confusion. Sometimes you spend precious minutes searching for Alam in the As when you should have been rifling through the Ms for Mohd. Alam. And sometimes Monu is actually an Ayushmann with two Ns and a drippy nose.
You think harder. To your ears, Srini is an unusual name, even for this community that has its fair share of Beautys, Nursabhas and Saddam Husseins.
“Are your mummy-papa from the South?”
“Yes. Our village is near Chennai.”
“Even I’m from the South. Our names are different sometimes, aren’t they? Do you have a letter in front of your name like I do? Mine is ‘N’—N. Purnima.”
“Mine is also ‘N’.” It isn’t. Sometimes children, like grown-ups, agree because it’s nice to feel found.
For the next hour both you and Srini rummage through every box, drawer and cupboard shelf for the truant card. Srini sits down with a book and giggles because she knows how to read Hindi while her cousins don’t.
By now other members have walked in, patiently forming a line at the desk. The community library is free and welcomes all but there are rules. Lines need to be stood in, books need to be handled respectfully and no biting. As you issue books you’re asked the same question repeatedly: “Ma’am kitney books huey?” How many books have I checked out so far?
You handle each yellow envelop with care, slipping the blue card out of its casing, to count how many books the member has borrowed so far. As your fingers scan each row, you trace the child’s journey as a reader. You don’t understand why Kajari Gai strikes a chord with so many members. You delight that Pippi Longstocking means as much in Hindi to these children as it did to you in English 30 years ago. Each card becomes the testament to how a child found books.
In quiet moments, the image of Satyam comes to you, barely taller in your memory than the table where you sit now. You remember him, once issuing a baby book, more picture than text. The business of borrowing completed, he picks up an X-Men comic.
“How many books can I check out?”
“I can’t read this yet, ma’am,” he says sweeping his palm across its glossy pages. “You will soon. You’re doing so well Satyam,” you try to deliver encouragement, while balancing the next member’s urgent demand for attention. He puts the comic delicately back in its place, his tiny brown face widening into a grin.
Now you wish you had turned your full attention to his smile.
Weeks later, when you are informed of his death, it isn’t grief that hits first, it’s anger. Satyam died at play, not in a playground designed to keep him safe, but in a canal choked with garbage. When he didn’t return it was termed an unfortunate accident but you know it wasn’t. The odds were always stacked against Satyam. No one had built playgrounds for him and no one had built day care centres for his parents to drop him off before beginning their long day of work. No one had secured the area around the canal.
This is the first time in your life a child you know has died. His death is the first you’ve experienced that can only be described as collective criminal neglect.
For now, you will go back to Srini’s lost card. You will make a fresh one and she will resume borrowing books. Her blue card will fill up with new titles and you will start retracing her journey as a reader. It excites you to imagine what Srini will be when she grows up. Will the books she reads here make a difference? Both optimism and fear are held at arm’s length as you greet the next child in line, grateful there are some losses which are redeemable.
Photo credit: Nishant Gupta