It was mid-afternoon, and the much talked about India-Pakistan ICC Champions Trophy finals was well under way. Going by the buzz leading up to the cricket tournament finals, the long serpentine line from the tiny staircase leading up to innov8 to the Regal Cinema building in central Delhi was unexpected. The queue – mostly college students but also those well into their 60s – was of those who found the concept of a ‘Human Library’ all too intriguing and wanted to check things out for themselves; some standing for up to an hour to get admission and a book slot.
The gates opened at 2pm, but people had been waiting from as early as 12.30pm, much to the surprise and pleasure of the organisers, for whom it was a collective labour of love. The concept – started in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2000 by Ronni Abergel in an attempt to enforce social change and encourage conversation around marginalised communities – encourages people to ‘borrow’ experienced people with a story to tell as ‘books’ and learn from them. After successful chapters in Hyderabad and Mumbai, this was the first event in Delhi.
Among the early birds were three members of the Paul family – father Rajib (48), son Shounak (17) and daughter Shaalmoli (15). Like everyone else, they too had read about the event on Facebook and had come to meet Nidhi Tiwari (the first Indian woman to drive solo to Siberia from India) and Kohli, a recovered drug addict who now shares how he fought and won the fight against morphine addiction in the hope that today’s youngsters can learn from his experiences.
But the sheer crowd and lack of time had forced the organisers to not only assign whoever was available but also make groups of five readers for each ‘book’ in a 20-minute slot. According to latest figures, around 700 people had turned up to meet and speak to 11 books over just 5 hours and 30 minutes. So the Pauls ended up meeting with Himalayan conservationist Gaurav Schimar and Kohli. “It was an interesting experience to hear about how economy and tourism is negatively impacting the environment. We don’t really think about that,” said Shounak, who is awaiting results for his engineering exams. Others like applied psychology student Pooja Bista (20) and accountant Nisha (22) weren’t as particular about whom they met, as long as they participated in this “one of a kind event”.
The ambiance at the coworking space was equal parts electric with excited readers buzzing to meet their books, and chaotic as organisers struggled to make sure participants got to meet the books and have a fulfilling experience while tackling the huge crowd. Bt 3pm, slots till 6.30pm were already full. It was heartening to see volunteers high-fiving each other at the turnout depsite it being a hot day, with the India-Pakistan CT finals match and a free-entry food festival in south Delhi, with whoops of “humanity wins” echoeing occasionally.
Most readers seemed more than willing to hop from one book to another, “It was great to meet such interesting people whom you wouldn’t usually, and they’re willing to talk to you, which is the best part,” gushed engineering student Devyani Verma (21). The most popular books of the event were The Rover Tiwari and Breakfree (a domestic abuse victim), for whom extra sessions had to be held.
For the books themselves, it was a chance to interact with youngsters brimming with ideas and dreams. As people sat rapt listening to the life-story of tea-seller and award-winning author Lakshman Rao, who continues to sell tea in front of the Hindi Bhawan in Delhi, the gentleman himself revelled in the interest shown by the youngsters, hoping to not only promoting Hindi literature but also the idea of following your dreams, until you achieve them. Schimar found the experience “tiring but rewarding…people are really interested to know about conservation” dealing with the challenging questions posed to him. Artefacts collector Aditya Vij (whose 23 category collection spans vintage cars to matchboxes), who by far had the most interesting space with knick-knacks such as old cameras and Harley-Davidson posters on display, said this platform allowed people to actually interact. “to know what is going on behind the scenes, they get to actually see the kind of effort and depth going into getting something done. It is about exchange of expression and exchange of emotions, which makes it a lot more interesting”. Though he was a bit disappointed that “not as many people are interested in history”.
Where the event was a resounding success was in identifying people who had injected meaning to their lives, going beyond just the 9-5 job in pursuit of their dreams, to overcome huge hurdles and be happy. As Rajib Paul said, people who are happy in life would inspire others to be the same, and that’s what these human books seem to be doing. Going by the sheer number of people who turned up from all walks of life, the once a month Human Library is set to become a much-awaited regular feature in Delhi’s cultural landscape.