The nearly 8-km trek between the Khurik village to Kaza in the rocky and cold terrain of the Spiti Valley is not an easy one. Tanzin Kinzang, however, makes it look like a cake walk.
All of 10, Kinzang covers the distance almost every day, mostly alone and sometimes with her father. Her destination is a library, aptly named Let’s Open a Book. Kinzang, on her part, has “opened” at least 180 books and took them home to read in just over two months last year. An avid reader she keeps returning for more.
“I love to read stories, but at the primary school in my village, only books that are part of the syllabus are available. When this library came up, I started visiting almost every day. I mostly come alone. Sometimes a friend or cousin tags along,” says Kinzang, who sometimes stays the night at her aunt’s place nearby to reach the library early the next morning.
Ruchi Dhona counts Kinzang returning to borrow more books as nothing less than a reward for her initiative. The 36-year-old from Kolkata, who quit her well-paying corporate job to find her “true calling” during a trip to Lahaul-Spiti in 2017, now has many such returning readers—the library claims to have issued around 5,000 books to over 100 local children.
Like all other things big, Dhona’s library movement started small and only after she noticed during her first trip that the school-going children in the cold desert had never seen a bookstore, forget reading a storybook. Shaken, she returned home, resigned from her job, and launched an NGO—‘Let’s Open a Book’—based in New Delhi.
After the initial struggle of overcoming the adversities of harsh weather, Dhona started a pilot project in Lahaul-Spiti by the end of 2017 by giving a few primary schools a small collection of books, and requesting teachers there to rotate them across different schools throughout the winter months. She returned to Spiti in June 2018 to see how the initiative was progressing.
“There was barely a single bookstore in Spiti, and I saw teachers and children value the books we had given them. In September 2018, I went back again, and conducted a workshop with teachers,” says Dhona, adding that the idea was to build a culture of reading among children.
Her NGO now runs libraries in 60 villages covering around 1,000 students, and she now plans to teach training techniques to local teachers.
India is home to 46,746 registered libraries, according to data accessed from Kolkata’s Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation (RRRLF)—an autonomous organisation established and financed by the Union Ministry of Culture, which is not enough to cater to its 1.3 billion population. The problem is acute in far-flung and remote areas where creating a reading space and making books available becomes a strenuous task.
According to RRRLF, Himachal Pradesh has 945 registered libraries, including one state library, some district libraries, and 918 school libraries for a population of around 68 lakh (as per the 2011 census). The numbers are alarming for neighbouring Punjab and Haryana, which have 15 and 27 registered libraries, respectively. While Punjab has only one state library and 14 district libraries catering to 2.77 crore people in the state, of the 27 libraries in Haryana, 19 are district libraries, seven sub-divisional libraries and one state library for a population of 2.54 crore people, as per RRRLF.
It is in the face of such a crisis, that good samaritans like Dhona are going the extra mile to make books available to children at locations where books and stories have remained a luxury.
Swati Kundra, 45, turned the ground floor of her house in Dharamshala into a library and the first floor into a reading café. A native of Lucknow, Kundra worked in New Delhi for 20 years as a financial advisor before planning to set up a reading place in Himachal for the local children.
“We source books from publishers and donations. The library has a seating capacity of 60 and a collection of over 3,000 books. We have Tibetan books apart from the ones in English and Hindi. The library is a huge hit among students,” says Kundra, who started the initiative in September 2018.
The cafe, where a plate of vada pav costs Rs 25 and aloo parantha Rs 40, has ensured Kundra a loyal customer base of around 45 students from classes 5 to 8, who visit the library daily.
As the coronavirus pandemic struck forcing educational institutes to go offline, many primary schools with just 10-20 students shut down in remote villages. To ensure that such students are not left out, Jasmine Kaur and Anoop Chugh, both from New Delhi started Kahani ki Dukaan to teach them through stories, plays, music, and story books.
Kaur and Chugh, who started their first library in Gunehar in Bir in 2019, say that they work closely with the Gaddi tribe of the Kangra region.
“These children didn’t have any exposure to creative art. The boys here go to the local primary school and study till class 10 and then try to get enrolled into the Army. The girls, however, dropout even earlier and get married. We wanted to create an interest in them for creative arts. We use books, plays, and storytelling as mediums. Now the children have started writing their own stories and poems,” says Kaur, who had started off as a shoe designer but switched to storytelling and travelling.
Of the many initiatives started by Kahani ki Dukaan, their mobile library—a yellow car—and the children’s museum are a huge hit among the local residents.
“We fill the car with books and travel across the villages handing them over to children every weekend. The museum hosts the children’s artworks and activities,” says Chugh, adding that it all started in 2019 when they visited Himachal Pradesh as part of a project to engage children.
They, however, returned to their hometown a month later, but started getting calls from the children asking them to come back. “We realised that there is a huge gap between the facilities that the children in cities and the remote areas get. We took a house for rent, and started a walk for tourists to sustain us. Since then, we have expanded to 20 villages in Chamba, Mandi, and the Tirthan Valley,” says Chugh, adding that the local children also interact with travellers, learn new words, and teach them some.
Kaur says that children read books, find new words and use them to create their own stories. “The stories range from social to environmental issues,” she adds.
The pandemic had, however, put these initiatives to a halt and the progress that these children had made also nosedived. Mridula Koshy, a free library movement activist and trustee of New Delhi-based The Community Library Project (TCLP), adds that the pandemic created a huge void when schools were closed and reading habits reduced a lot in children.
“Books are a very powerful tool to build a child’s imagination and his/her overall upliftment. However, India has no national library policy, unlike some foreign countries. There is also no allocation of funds for the infrastructure and facilities of a library. In such a scenario, the minds of the future leaders suffer,” says the activist, who opened a free library network in April 2020 feeling the need to keep children engaged.
Since then, the community has started a free library network and has volunteers working in Kargil, the Spiti Valley, Jammu, Uttarakhand, Ahmedabad, and Tamil Nadu and has sent around 15,000 books to these places in two years. While the small yet large library movement by Koshy created the buzz in the minds of the young readers, TCLP had a tough road ahead.
TCLP director Prachi Grover, who looks after the library curriculum, says that the situation turned from bad to worse after the pandemic when schools started opening as students fell back on their learning capacities.
“In the absence of reading sessions, elocution workshops, the speed, accuracy, and pronunciation of children suffered. When schools reopened, a Class 4 student could only read 30 words correctly every minute from the earlier normal of around 80 words. Similarly, a class 8 student, who otherwise could read around 120 words accurately every minute, could now read only half in the same time,” says Grover, adding that if this is the scenario in cities, one could only imagine how the reading accuracy of a child in remote places must have suffered.
They, however, are not the ones to give up. Dhona says the challenges are many and it’s a long way to go as her work doesn’t end at just making the books available. She also works to ensure that there is a plan ahead.
“The major problem is raising funds, half of which comes from crowdfunding campaigns and the remaining from individual donors. We also have an Amazon wish list that people can check to send us books. The fieldwork happens between June and October when books are distributed, the library is functional, workshops are conducted etc.,” she says adding that she moves to Dharmshala during October/November and stays there till May.
She now plans to build a team of local workers and volunteers so that the library can be functional throughout the year.
For Kaur and Chugh, the rigid caste system also posed a major challenge. “While some children were coming to us voluntarily, the caste divide was very prominent. It is so deeply ingrained in the minds of even children that the Rajput community people initially didn’t want to share space with the Dalit and the tribal children,” Chugh says, adding that they had to find the solution to this and books helped here too.
“We made a rule of a name change. Whoever came to us had to adopt an imaginary name for themselves. It could be something as simple as mango or even a fictional character. They sometimes rotate names among themselves and we saw a welcome change in the children. This is what we love about what we do most, being the change and bringing about a change,” adds Kaur.
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