THE HOT wind blew while children hid within the dark walls of their homes. They had been up since early in the morning, helping their mothers fetch water, gather dry twigs for the fire and feed the goats. They had eaten their morning meal of dal and bajra with ghee and salt. Outside, the wind played games with the sand, blowing it into shapes of mountains and valleys. And, sometimes, into waves like in the sea. Although the sea was very far away. The children had not seen the sea but only heard about it from those who had travelled out of their sand-dry land. Work done, the children were listening, waiting for one sound.
Ah, there it was, Tring tring trring Masterji’s cycle bell. The doors of each house suddenly held at least one child, smiles wide open, doors wide open too. “Chalo aao, aao ji aao, school ka time, school ka time…” Masterjirang his bicycle bell as he walked through the village. “Coming, Masterji,” sang the children as they tumbled out oftheir doorways, chasing their teacher as he made his way. It wasn’t re-ally a village, it was a small collection of homes in Rajasthan, outside Bikaner. They called it a dhani.
Big children, small children, girls and boys all followed their Masterji. The one who ran the fastest ofall was Shona. In all the dhani, there was just one teacher and he had one cycle and one chair. And re-ally, no school at all, just a dusty maidan where two trees grew. This was the only school they had, the only school the children knew. School had been booooooring before. Since Masterji came, he tried to make it fun. But he was the only teacher for many children ofall ages and stages oflearning. As a re-sult, there were many drop outs.
Today, he carried a big bag. What’s in the bag, Masterji? Is it magic? Is it toys? Is it food?
Each child hoped it’d be something else. But Masterji only smiled mysteriously. He put his hand into the big bag and took out a big… The children leaned forward. They were sure it was going to be something very exciting. But what he took out was… a big…
Ball of string. Ohhhh! The children were disappointed. What were they going to do with string?
Masterji quietly tied lengths of string running between the trees. Then Masterji reached in and out came something that they had never seen before.
It had colours, it had some words. It had lots and lots of pictures. “Does anyone know what this is?” asked the teacher. Everyone was quiet. Masterji began to read them a story, showing them pictures as he went along. “It’s magic,” whispered Shona. Finishing the story, the teacher said, “This, children, is a book. You can see the pictures and if you study very hard, you can learn to read the books yourselves.” With that, Masterji began to take more and more books out of the bag and hung them up on the strings tied to the trees. They looked like merry flags waving in the breeze. That afternoon, the children stayed on, forgetting their thirst and hunger.
Time went by. With the help ofMasterji, the children began to read. Until they had read every book. They read the books over and over. But now they thirsted for more. “Masterji, can you get us some more books?” Shona asked. But he couldn’t. There were no libraries or bookshops nearby. Someone had given them this bag of books. And now there was no way to get more.
The disappointed children began dropping out of school again.
“Masterji,” Shona protested, “we were living in a world of darkness without any books. And we were perfectly happy because we didn’t know that such a world existed. But now, you have shown us these beautiful books. We have finished reading them and now we need more. How can we go back to living happily, knowing there are books in the world that we cannot reach?” Masterji was troubled at the truth of these words. But he really had no way to get these children more. He wrote letters to the government, knowing that his letters would collect dust on some shelf and never be answered.
So he started to tell the children stories. His own stories. And stories that had been told to him in his childhood. He made up stories about camels and peacocks. He made up stories about the sky and clouds. He made up stories about families who move to far off, magical places. He told stories till he couldn’t think of any more stories at all. Stories that made the other children laugh, some that made them cry or even sigh. Then the children started to make up their own stories, too.
Shona had an idea she shared with Masterji. Shona ran home and took an old sari from her mother. She used some string to tie the sari to the two trees and all the children sat together, writing stories, making pictures. Once there were about 20 pictures and
stories, they began to stick them with homemade glue to the old sari. The old sari became a storybook that many could read. And ever since that day, the children of Shona’s dhani have a place where they can write and draw and read their own books. Most of all, they have a place where they can write their secrets hidden in stories. And ever since that day, Shona and her friends love going to school.
(This is a story loosely based on true events that I experienced while setting up libraries in remote villages in Rajasthan.)
(Paro Anand is a Sahitya Akademi award-winning author and former editor of the National Centre for Children’s Literature, NBT, India)