That Thing About Creating Nalandas

Mridula Koshy
Grist Media
Vision - A Book in Every Child's Hand by Pratham Books India via flickr/CC BY 2.0.

There was a library on the KK Express. Though I am not certain, some 40 years since, if it was even called a library. We boarded the train in Delhi and did not get off till we got to Trivandrum some 50-60 hours later. That was a lot of reading and debating time. There was a rupee library many years later on the footpath near where I lived in New Delhi. It was definitely not called a library. But there were hundreds of tattered books, their covers lurid, and I read what I shouldn’t have. At the Delhi Public Library on Curzon Road (before it became Kasturba Gandhi Marg) I read through the classics – Austen and Dickens. In the community center next door, a table tennis ball bounced, its hollow plastic sound knocked in my head till it didn’t, and the light faded outside and the librarian turned the lights on inside. We migrated to the United States, I was certain I had lost everything – friends and language and even me – but then I found a library.

At the three-day India Public Libraries Conference 2015 (which began in Delhi on March 17), one of the conveners bemoans: “Why can’t we keep creating Nalandas?” Others on stage concur: public libraries have not been able to maintain high standards. The gap is debated: the gap between knowledge and what portion of it the few libraries we have make available to ‘customers’.  Meager funding is cited as a reason for this gap, as is low level of staffing. Then fingers are pointed at the librarians; they are exhorted to remake themselves. They are the value-added element, which the library’s competition – coffee shops and malls – cannot provide. This last bit of analysis is heavily endorsed by administrators of libraries from far away New Zealand, Australia and England, who have all remade their libraries to successfully attract ‘customers’. The librarians and future librarians in the audience have come from Aligarh and Chandigarh. They are from the Alliance Francaise and from the Center for Science and Environment, both in New Delhi. How do they feel about remaking themselves, about the weighty work of bridging the knowledge gap (the digital gap is on everyone’s mind, as well; the conference is organized by the Digital Empowerment Foundation), about the weightier work of begetting Nalandas?

The conference is exciting because it is the first of its kind in India. But its goal “To envision the role and the functioning of public libraries in India to respond and meet the changing needs of communities” is impossibly ambitious if not downright confounding in a country of India’s size. Dr HK Kaul, Director of Developing Library Network and a member of the High Level Committee of the National Mission on Libraries (NML), tells us that according to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, India should have 4,23,333 libraries if it is to meet its goal of one library for every 3,000 people. While it is impossible to find any figures for how many public libraries exist in India, NML provides 54,856 as a figure for the number of public libraries that have existed in India, going back to English Colony Library at Chennai in 1661. By the NML’s own estimation only half are likely to still be in existence. Here is gap worth tackling. Dr Kaul points us to the other crucial gap. Only 76 percent of a population of 1.2 billion are literate, leaving 288 million who need libraries to promote literacy. India needs libraries that serve varying needs, and when Dr Kaul urges “reading spaces for common people,” he adds this cannot be accomplished through innovation and technology alone; it also needs “devotion”.

Archana sticks her head in the door of the Deepalaya Community Library on her way out to the street from “tuition” (a drop-in education program at Deepalaya). She reads poorly, which is understandable given how little formal education she has had in her ten years of living. “Ma’am”, she calls out, and three different volunteers in the library turn in response. “You are open, already?”

It’s the Monday after the IPLC conference and the volunteer-staffed Deepalaya Community Library has opened its door at 3pm and not its usual 5pm. This is possible because yet more volunteers have joined the roster. There are at least a dozen regulars. In no time at all, Archana is settled on a charpai with a book. She will not have to hang around outside waiting for the Reading Project which is held at the library every Monday at 5.

At 5pm Archana is shooed outside where she joins the line of nearly 100 children streaming in for the Reading Project. They are given little slips of paper to help them remember if they belong in the Lower Group meant for the younger ones, or the Upper Group for those who are older. Archana’s age places her in the Upper Group, but in fact she has been gently encouraged to move from green ticket holder to pink and she heads off to a room full of children ranging in age from 4 to 9. Her ticket tells her she will go for a 20-minute rotation with Anamika Ma’am to have a story read aloud to her in Hindi, followed by 20 minutes with Michael Sir, who will sing and read to her in English. The third rotation on her pink ticket will return her to the library where she can choose a new book to take home and read – the pictures, if not all the words. By the time she arrives at the library she will have sung Wheels on the Bus, including the stanza in which “Kejriwal on the Bus says Paanch Saal aur”, she will have played Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes and gone on a Bear Hunt. She will have learned when she is supposed to join in chorus with others and when she is supposed to open a notebook and draw a response to a story she has just heard read.

Elsewhere in the school building, the green ticket holders are interrogating Doctor Seuss’ Would You Rather Be A Bullfrog? in English and Kamla Bhasin’s Ulti Sulti Amma in Hindi. The theme that guides them through their reading is spelled out on the board, but if referred to too often, old-timers in the room like Yash will roll their eyes: What do I belong to/Mein kis cheezh ki hissa hoon? The class votes on whether they would rather be cats or dogs. They shout out their answers “cat”, “dog”, “cat”, “dog”. Now there is silence as they are asked to explain their thinking. Because a dog is “useful”, says Sumit. Because he is “wafadar” says the tall boy with the glasses who is new and whose name I don’t remember. The word wafadar is repeated and the English ‘loyal’ is written on the board and exclaimed over. Yes, that is indeed a wonderful word. Sumit says he would rather be a dog because then he could growl. Aakash would rather be a cat because cats are beautiful. Mausam and Meeta and Rani agree they would rather be beautiful cats. Later, given a choice between butterflies and bullfrogs, Aakash would once again rather be beautiful and a butterfly. Throughout we return to the words on the board, “myself” and its Hindi equivalent “main khud”.  Nearly everyone is certain they would rather be themselves and not anyone or anything else. Shivam is a dissenter, as he often is. He would rather be very, very rich. Even at the risk of not being himself? This creates confusion in everyone. Then clarity, as the girls in particular assert furiously, they would rather be themselves. What if they could be a little bit themselves and a little bit rich? Shivam is back in fine form when he asserts he just wants to be very, very rich.

Where am I while the debate moves back and forth in the room? I am remembering a debate just a few weeks ago in which Yash stated that while everyone else may belong to something larger called God, as for him, he only half believed and  therefore only half-belonged. The group’s shocked silence was equal parts apprehension and equal parts pleasure. What would happen now?

When the Reading Project began, it was a small group of volunteers and students and a few dozen books in a bag. Uncertain of whether they qualified as a Library, they called themselves The Reading Club. But yes, as in libraries all over the world – on trains and sidewalks, and in the tiny room in the Deepalaya School in Sheikh Sarai – patrons borrowed books and read and thought about them. The story Friends in School by Jupaka Subhadra had provoked passionate thinking and discussion. After reading the story, the mostly 12-year-olds in the club examined the literal fence to which the ‘upper’ caste girl in the story was driven by her mother’s anger over the girl’s friendship with a ‘lower’ caste girl. “It’s a figurative fence, Ma’am,” they dutifully chimed. We had spent the year studying the figurative versus the literal, something we do year after year with new batches of children. Then Ankit (the Yash of that group) had burst out loftily: “Ma’am, the poor have no figurative fence.” The same moment of silence, of equal parts apprehension and pleasure, and then the debate raged. Never mind that every child in the room was poor by the standards of Delhi’s middle class; they debated as thinkers are wont to do, from the vantage of some safe distance and with a whole lot of passion, what caste meant to them.

At the conference a number of the presenters speak sometimes obliquely and at other times pointedly about a different kind of gap – the gap between knowledge and thinking. They see themselves perhaps as we volunteer librarians at the Deepalaya Community Library see ourselves – not as purveyors of knowledge, opening the door to a shop from which we provide a bigger share of that resource or goods to those ‘customers’ who would not otherwise have access to them – but as instigators of thinking. These speakers present the library as a place where transformation takes place. They speak of libraries as places where women meet and think about their need – for safety, for employment for microloans, for companionship.

On Day 3 of the conference, Sujata Noronha, an educator with Bookworm Library in Goa, leads a workshop in which she models the librarian’s role in provoking thinking. She reads a story out loud to a room full of children’s librarians. With each turn of the page she asks what we think will happen next. We, in the audience, are nervous and enthusiastic as we blindly guess and then increasingly think our way through the story of a poor boy who agonizes between choosing to save for a toy helicopter and giving his five coins to an even poorer beggar. When a rich woman enters the story sweeping by the boy on her way into the toy store, we sit for some time with the sweet sorrow of wondering, as the boy does, if she won’t  buy that toy from right under him. After the last page is turned, we are asked what we think of the story. Naturally, we are confused as the question is similar and yet so different from the older question all of us were raised on: what is the paath or lesson of this story? Someone ventures that it is good to give to beggars, and that in time the boy’s goodness will be rewarded and he will find himself in possession of more money.

Yash and Ankit would have been interesting additions to the workshop. I can imagine Yash’s contribution: “I only half believe in goodness.” Or Ankit: “The poor should never give.”

Mridula Koshy is a writer of fiction and a long-time volunteer librarian at the Deepalaya Community Library Project in New Delhi.