The book in your hands

Between the pages: At the community library in Panchsheel Vihar, children transform from being scared of words to wolfing them down   -  SREE SEN

Community libraries are becoming spaces that provide peace, respite and learning for children and young adults, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds

She was six years old, and petrified of the books that lined the walls. This was not a place she was familiar with. The little girl hid behind her siblings, peering out now and then. Gradually, she began to explore the rooms and pick up a book or two. Soon, she was not scared of books — or people — anymore.

There’s a touch of the old-school about the community library at Panchsheel Vihar, a residential colony in Delhi. There are rows and rows of books, and a centre table around which members sit and read. There is a quiet sense of camaraderie among the children and the young adults who browse through the books. The Community Library Project (TCLP) seeks to set up, in association with NGOs, similar libraries across the country where people can borrow books free of charge. It wants to inculcate the reading habit among the young to “democratise” society, says its founder Mridula Koshy.

The library at Panchsheel Vihar is housed in three rooms of the Deepalaya Learning Centre, which provides formal and non-formal education to children from marginalised backgrounds. For 18-year-old Vibha Kumari, and many more from the locality, the library is not just for reading but also for solace and respite.

“I recently came from Bihar to pursue my Bachelors in English. I had little space, time or even peace of mind to concentrate on my studies. When I heard of this library, I came to visit and I fit right in,” she says, adding that she is eagerly waiting for the membership rolls to open up. Membership is free and there is no security deposit.

Another centre recently opened at Sikandarpur, Gurugram. With close to 2,000 members, and over 1,000 actively regular ones, the library has now decided to go digital. “Manual book-keeping has become difficult with the rising membership,” says 28-year-old Monica Yadav, the librarian.

Most of the members study in government schools, where reading is not always encouraged. At the library, which has a curriculum curated by an educator, the children transform from being scared of words to wolfing them down. Volunteers read out daily to the members and hold workshops or interactive sessions and the occasional film screening.

Yadav stresses the community library does a lot more than just foster reading skills and literacy — it helps the young build character. She cites the example of the six-year-old girl who was shy when she first started coming to the library with her siblings six months ago, and is now very much at home there.

The space — provided by the Ramditti Jiwandaram Narang Public Charitable Trust, which supports Deepalaya and other education-based initiatives — is open and bright, with none of the gloom typical of libraries with musty books and a silence imposed by authoritative figures. The children are free to choose any book, all new, labelled and neatly organised. The collection — in English, Hindi, Bengali and Urdu — is varied enough to engage readers cutting across age, gender and community.

The topics are diverse, too, with literary books jostling for space with those on fantasy, sexual abuse, the human body, and even a dictionary on rap music. “There’s this concept that a child must read to study, to contribute to the GDP as an adult. We fail to realise the potential of reading as a tool of social growth, by inculcating critical thinking,” says project trustee Koshy, as she sorts the pink-and-yellow library cards.

She smiles as she reads out aloud from a card where the young borrower’s mother had written that a book had been taken by the boy’s cousin and would be returned soon. There was no reproach in Koshy’s voice, just mild amusement, starkly different from the stern warnings mouthed by librarians who guard books like lost pirates’ treasures.

“We are trying to break this cycle of fear that children feel after losing a book, [and] often not coming back to the library for a long period of time. We encourage them to inform us and, instead of replacing it, we ask them to volunteer or put in some hours at the library,” says Koshy.

Although the project began in January 2015, Koshy had been working as a volunteer at the Deepalaya School since 2008. It was when she realised that there was a need to encourage the young from poor families to read that The Library Community Project was born.

The project is donation-driven, with aid from other trusts and NGOs. The books are gifted by individuals, publishers, the Trust and TCLP. The Delhi centre library currently has 7,000 books.

An avid book lover at the Delhi centre is Rohit (name changed). He was four when he first came to the library — and had never before heard a book being read to him. Today, the seven-year-old, Std II student is a devourer of books, both Hindi and English.

“Reading is not just an end, or a social endeavour. It is a political movement to encourage critical thinking, which will, in turn, lead to greater awareness, questions and educated contributions to society,” says Koshy.

Sree Sen is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

Published on October 26, 2018

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