Ultimately it’s the space, or the lack thereof. Then there’s dust. And the abundance thereof. Unfair, especially when you crave one and want to banish the other. When one is finite and the other limitless.
Now turn to the deep love for books, reading them and being in their company, being surrounded by them.
Throw in a growing family, increasing the tribe of book lovers.
Uncover varied interests, different subjects and mixed age-groups.
Time to re-read that first paragraph – and you know one of the great motivating factors that led my friends and me to start a library. No, not concern for our fellow men and women, no. It was almost selfish.
Because had we not started a concerted effort to look for a place to start a library for our children, our families might have been huddled on the balcony at nights, one child in the bathroom, the taller one sleeping diagonally, with the odd guest being accommodated under the kitchen sink. We might have. Because we were buying books at alarming speed, every horizontal space occupied, outings with children unequally divided between parks and bookstores, tilting in favour of the latter.
So when we found the board that read “public library” on the most peaceful road in our neighbourhood, we were delighted! Only to see that it was closed, open for a couple of hours early in the morning and then similarly in the evening. On some days it was not open at all. Ours not to question why.
We decided to meet the organisation, the Maharashtra Mitra Mandal, that ran the place and offered to work with them to set up what we wanted: a home for books and a haven for children.
You read earlier that it was space and dust that motivated us to get started. Not entirely. Not really.
There had been an inspiration. And it was in the shape of a 6- year old. Little Neel was a voracious reader. Bright and curious, he befriended books. When you met him,
“… the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew.”
His mother told me that it was their town’s local public library that had been the boon that set Neel’s mind free to roam among thoughts and ideas, words and worlds beyond his hometown. Every summer, the library encouraged children to read books, to promise to read a certain number, actually. The number wasn’t important – you could say you would read 4, 7 or 20 books. It was the promise. If you did indeed read what you had promised to, well, at the end of the summer, the Mayor of the town would come and give you a certificate at a small ceremony. Small ceremony, for small people – but what a great gift! You’ll soon see why.
The summer he was 6, Neel pledged to read 20 books. I was aghast – 20?! Would the little thing manage to keep his promise?
So did he? You want to know too, right?
Well, he did. But he went beyond that figure. How many books did he actually finish in those holidays?
Think of a number. Double it. Multiply it by…and the answer is: 162.
Now pick up your jaw and understand that young Neel is our real inspiration. And with him, those three little words: local public library.
Why not here, why not us, we kept thinking.
My friends and I started working with the Maharashtra Mitra Mandal and found they were as keen as us; that they had been looking for people to run the place. They had not been able to find staff to set up and run the library and until we contacted them, it had been more like a reading room – newspapers for the community. Now we formed a committee and put our shoulders to the wheel.
We sent out an email to our families and friends. And the response we got was unexpected, unimaginable.
Help poured in, it was an avalanche. Books, money, mattresses, furniture, computer and printer, projector and screen, magazines and more books.
Help came from friends and family – and from friends of friends. From complete strangers who lived far away, in other cities, in other countries. Those who would never benefit directly from this library simply gave.
One person sent books by an author his mother loved, in her memory. Another sent his top 10 favourite children’s books. Somebody else donated his entire collection of National Geographic. Friends bought the whole series of Tintin and Asterix and the Amar Chitra Katha. An architect helped with ideas to optimise space. Children from a local NGO painted Warli figures on the walls. An artist did the rest.
And then we got a chaise longue and a chest of drawers and a huge glass-fronted cupboard and a round table with 6 chairs … The generosity overwhelmed us.
We started with all the excitement of new beginnings. But would we be able to sustain it? Would it all peter out? We know with the wisdom of hindsight that we had worried in vain. I said earlier that people simply gave. And they still do.
We have programmes for children and grown-ups. Meet the author sessions. Book-readings and writing workshops. Film screenings. Summer festivals and other activities. Students come to study at the library and an NGO sends volunteers to the Library to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds with their homework and exams. It is the community around that suggests we hold these, throwing ideas at us, offering ways in which to grow.
Please come and see for yourselves. It is in Bandra on one of the quiet roads that link those noisy arteries, Hill Road and Turner Road. You turn on to the street on any summer’s day and carpets of copper pods stretch out before you, the spreading boughs of old trees, a shelter from the sun.
The library is built by many hands, minds, and hearts. It is truly a public library.
Illustrations: Alia Sinha