“A aoji aao ” (Come, come). Rahisuddin’s greeting is warm, almost cheery, each time a familiar face climbs into the bus. He sits on a rickety, wire-meshed office chair, next to the engine box. The dusty table in front of him has been wiped clean a few times, a register spread out and cards stacked on a wooden tray. Soon enough, there is a steady trickle of people. Familiarity defines the transactions, books are returned to Rahisuddin after which visitors walk towards the bookshelves for the week’s two books.
To the residents of Bhaktawarpur, about 30 km from Delhi, Rahisuddin, driver CP Bharti and the DTC, as Delhi Transport Corporation is better known, bus they sit in are familiar sights. They are part of the Delhi Public Library’s (DPL) rural mobile service, launched in 1953 to reach out to people on the urban fringes. Buses, with a motley collection of books, criss-cross the Capital and the rural mobile service parks at two different points each day of the week. Every Tuesday, it’s the turn of Bhaktawarpur and Tiggipur.
It’s 10 am on a Tuesday and the DPL building in Chandni Chowk is quiet. The library shares a wall with the Metro station but remains blanketed from the bustle on the other side. Rahisuddin is preparing to set out for the day. Hukum Chand Sharma, an old DPL hand, walks into the bus with a duster. The bookshelves along the length of the bus are an eclectic treasure-trove. Noddy editions and Harry Potter series are here, for sure. One can spot the Ramayana for young readers, as also texts on accounting, botany, physical chemistry and pathology. Tomes on journalism and mass media carelessly accompany memoirs and historical novels. Hindi and English bestsellers abound too, all with a hint of dust on them. Rahisuddin has chosen a new set of books for that day’s trip. In all, the bus stocks around 1,200 books in English and Hindi. A five-year membership comes for a nominal fee of ₹20. Hari Om Sharma, the library information assistant, says academic books are much in demand. Popular works of Prem Chand and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee are always in circulation and the wait for them is long.
Bharti, the driver, arrives and the bus library is set to roll. I join in, accompanied by a photographer. There are three rather iffy-looking chairs in the bus and Bharti is particular about who sits where. Quickly identified as the frailest, I’m asked to sit behind the table and hold onto it tightly. The photographer settles into a chair next to the water cooler.
As we steer into into the maddening morning traffic of Chandni Chowk, the precautions seem completely warranted. Bharti believes in driving boisterously through the melee of handcarts, cycle rickshaws and pedestrians fighting for space with buses and vans. An ambitious swerve and the photographer is on the floor. His arm has hit the cooler stand and is bruised. A commotion of sorts ensues. Since there are no grave injuries, however, order is restored and we drive out of the city. Bharti and Rahisuddin are quite a team, both at ease in their routine. Their weekly journeys take them to Kapashera and Bijwasan, Majra Dabas and Ghevra village, Alipur and Shahbad dairy. The drive is long and we get talking. Rahisuddin tells us that Bharti is a diploma-holder in library sciences.
At 11.40 am we are at Bhaktawarpur, at the fixed spot in the market opposite Prathmik Balika Vidyalaya. Rahisuddin is a tad disappointed, as the school is closed that day. “I usually have a lot of schoolchildren and teachers coming in,” he says. Nevertheless, there are visitors aplenty.
Ram Gopal, who once used to be a daily-wage labourer, has been waiting for a while. “I have been coming for the past 12-13 years,” he says after boisterously greeting Bharti and Rahisuddin. The mobile library has meant much to him. “My son relied on the books here to prepare for the CISF examinations. I couldn’t have afforded them. Now my daughter-in-law borrows books for her teacher’s training course,” he says.
Bhawna, an undergraduate student, walks in, does a recce and enquires about membership formalities. “The application should be signed by a gazetted officer,” says Rahisuddin and he guides her to officers in the locality.
Dilbaug Singh is flipping through Hindi books, looking for Vishwas Patil’s Sambhaji . Singh couldn’t study beyond school, but makes up by reading whatever he can find. A security guard at a school nearby, he takes a short break every Tuesday to visit the mobile library. Rafiquddin, a retired teacher, is hunched on the floor, sifting through books in the lowest shelf. “Bhaktawarpur has no library, so this is our only avenue,” he says. Rafiquddin has read most of the books in the bus, but doesn’t want to miss out on the new arrivals in the collection.
Vijay Singh runs the shoe shop in the market. He hops in whenever he finds time to pick up comics for his children. He wishes there were more new books in the library. Readers looking for specific titles put in a written request to Rahisuddin, who then tries to bring them the next time around. Half an hour later, the visitors thin out. A few stay back to chit-chat. Soon, it’s time to leave. Rahisuddin doesn’t appear very excited about the next stop, Tiggipur. He knows each stop well. Majra Dabas, the library’s farthest point, is the best, he says. Schoolchildren and other locals flock to the library. His register shows 27 new memberships at Majra Dadas. In stark contrast, Kapashera has none.
At Tiggipur, the bus halts at a T-point next to a few shops. There is no one in sight. “We had gone to the local school and told them about the library. We can only tell, isn’t it?” asks Rahisuddin. Soon he and Bharti bring out their lunch boxes. The bus stays put for close to half an hour. A young man walks in with a crumpled 10 rupee note and asks for books. Rahisuddin hands him the form. On the drive back, there are no more adventures and Daddy Long Legs proves to be good company.