Open Books

Why India needs a library movement

01 June, 2017

TUSHAR PUSHES AGAINST WEIGHT. He might be eight or nine years old, wiry, muscled. He has a large head with lashes of disproportionate length, even for his large eyes. He insists he will read “this book,” and only “this book.” On this day, “this book” is the thickest of the volumes in the Harry Potter series available in the library in Hindi translation. He is directed to volume one in the series, a book of medium thickness, but apparently not thick enough. Tushar shakes his head. He hefts the book of his choice. “This book.” On another day it is a slimmer book, but extra large. Hardcover. The title: France. Open the book and let’s see. It is about winemaking and other things French. “Yes,” he says, “this book.”

When he disappears from the library for a while, his absence is noted, remarked upon, and in time there is anxiety. “Where is Tushar? He was such a good reader. You know, he persisted his way to page 35 in that Harry Potter book.”

He is seen outside in the lane by various volunteers who run the library. He is seen pushing a cart full of plastic canisters. The canisters are full of water. He pushes through his shoulders; he pushes with the weight of his body. Other bodies join his and the cart moves.

He is seen again. This time he is riding the bicycle that pulls the cart, straddling the bar. The seat is too high, sized for an adult. He is seen pushing his weight into the pedals.

“Where are you these days, Tushar? We don’t see you in the library.” He ducks, he rides away.

When he returns to the library, he is pushing another weight. “Ma’am, has my name been cut?”

“No, of course not. We never cut anyone’s name.”

And where has he been these many months?

The school he attends will not let him in. He pushed a boy, but only because the boy threw a rock. Well, no. Actually he, Tushar, threw the rock.

So then he did more than push the boy?

Yes, because the boy had called him names.

No one wants to ask Tushar: what names?

Tushar cannot attend school, he cannot complete class four, not until his father accompanies him to meet the headmistress. His father has refused the offer to meet the headmistress. Tushar’s name has been cut from the school.

But here in the library—where he had enrolled without his father at his side, without his Aadhar card, without a security deposit of Rs 1,000, or even Rs 100 or Rs 2—here, his name is still on the rolls. His reading card resumes its transformation from blue to grubby blue and scrawled all over with the titles of books he may heft or read, as he chooses. Someday, soon enough, he will read his hundredth book, his card will be switched from blue to pink to mark this passage, and he will be feted as he enters the 100-book club. Today, he has a place where he is welcome.

TUSHAR IS A MEMBER of a small community library in Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai.

The library is housed in the Ramditti J R Narang Deepalaya Learning Centre. Its three rooms—with an area of 450 square feet—can see a weekly footfall of 900. Like Tushar, most of the children and adults who come to the library are first-generation learners.

The library is a collaborative effort, run by three-dozen volunteers from the Community Library Project Trust and the NGO Deepalaya. I am one of the library’s volunteers, and a co-founder. At times, my work as a community organiser finds me behind the circulation desk. But more often, my work is about integrating the library into the community from which we draw our membership.

Some members live in the lanes around the library, where the housing can be makeshift structures belonging to waste workers. A few live in homes with two rooms, two stories up and equipped with a bathroom. The single largest segment of the library’s membership comes from a few lanes away—the basti of Jagdamba Camp. In the two years that it has been open, the library has signed up 1,400 members and retained about 900 of them. It is a free library.

I get into an exchange with someone about “free.” They ask, “How will the members value books if they are free?” I want to ask if monetising an experience is the only way to assign it value. But I do not, because I cannot win against this familiar argument, which begins from the premise that we should concern ourselves with saving books from the uncaring hordes. This is an argument for restricting library access to those who have money and are assumed, therefore, to know the value of books. And by “books” they mean that most limited understanding of books, as only physical objects. It is an argument for widening access only to the few, the exceptional, the “deserving poor.” Tushar, who throws rocks, would not qualify.

Tushar’s library is not just free. It is open to all. It is not a poor library for poor members. It is an excellent library for all. There are 5,000 titles within—by Rabindranath Tagore and Neil Gaiman, Nicholas Sparks and Bhimrao Ambedkar. There are Tintin comic books in Hindi and a United Nations series aimed at adolescents, Kishoravastha se Mulaakat. There is a volume of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry and the reading card for a National Book Trust title, Mahilayon ke Kanooni Adhikar, is covered over with the names of members who have borrowed it for their mothers. A reading room is equipped with dailies and periodicals. A child in the library once exclaimed, “It is like a real library. The shelves go all the way up, like the ones you see in movies.”

I may no longer debate the merits of free access, but I have the evidence to show that it works. Free access ensures enrolment. And once enrolled, children do value their books. They mainly do so because volunteers in the library open the books, gather the children around and read to them. A read-aloud is not the exercise of calling out the sounds made by letters on the page. That is for the schools to teach. A read-aloud is instead the exercise of reading with expression, reading to think, reading for the pleasure of thinking. It is a practice that recognises the book as more than an object. It is a practice that recognises that the book is always already the reader’s, because it has no meaning other than the one it makes with the reader.

“Ooh what’s going to happen next?” the volunteer asks in a read-aloud, and everyone thinks the question over and smiles before they launch, each one, into their understanding of what will happen next. “Yes,” Ma’am insists, “there should be as many answers to the question as there are thinkers in the room.” There is pleasure in being a thinker, and in having access to this tool—books—that makes for powerful thinking. This pleasure translates to children caring for their books.

In 2015, this tiny library in Sheikh Sarai issued 10,000 books. In 2016, its second year, 20,000 books went out the door.

And yes, children lose their books. Yes, they crayon all over books and tell us their little sister did it. They get angry and they throw their books. If they accidentally drop a book on the road they pick it up, touch it to their forehead and ask its forgiveness. But if they drop it in the nala then they come to the library on Repair Day—held every Tuesday—and work it off. Three hours of dusting and cleaning books and the guilty child is once more a member in good standing. The library has lost some 250 books if you count only those books that children have confessed to losing or destroying. It has lost another 350 if you count those that left the building in the hands of members who have not been seen since.

The library, like good libraries everywhere in the world, accounts for the possibility of such loss in its budget, and keeps functioning. So far, around 800 children in the library have read 10 books or more, and of these, 50 have read more than 100.

In the eighth standard, I lost a book I borrowed from the school library and was banned for the year. I was a reader whose life depended on reading. Fortunately, I lived in one of those rare neighbourhoods in Delhi where there is a branch of the Delhi Public Library. That year I spent all my time outside of school in the shabby rooms of the DPL, where, miraculously, there was open shelving that allowed for free browsing, and where Austen led to Brontë and then Hardy. I read to wander English moors where I might forget that my mother had been gone from our home for more than a year. I read to silence solicitous neighbours, who felt the need to ask, “Is she ever returning?” Each book I read told me something about how to live what was, to me, a strange life. Each book I read told me how to meet a future with or without a mother.

Though I did not know it then, and I certainly did not seek it, each book brought me closer to the day I would write my own books, the day when I would call myself a writer.

In the early days of being a published writer, I would be unhappy when my book was found lacking by critics, not in comparison to the ambitions it had for itself, but for ambitions it did not have. This kind of critique is easy when a literature only produces a handful of new writers and new books each year. In any given year, the few titles of Indian writing in English that are published can easily be found wanting for what they have not covered. Each book I have written has made me question how we came to produce a literature so thin as to involve a scant few dozen writers charged with telling a story greater than our capacity to tell.

If critics miss being able to read all the books that have not been written in India, then they are not unhappier than writers themselves. While we may not waste our sorrow on the idea that we should have written those thousands of books, we need those other books to be able to write the books that we do want to write. We need those other books so the books that we do write can be understood. If writing is a way of describing what we see and experience, then all those missing volumes that have not been written render us quite blind. As a writer, I feel my way in the darkness that stretches between a few beacons of light. For a literature to exist, we need thousands of books that stand not as lone objects but in relation to one another, much like they do in a library.


Which brings me back to what I know about how I became a writer. I became a writer by first becoming a reader, and I became a reader for the simple reason that I found my way to a library and the books within. So I return to the community library in Sheikh Sarai so I can find readers. In these readers, I glimpse books that will one day be written.

THE MOST RECENT ANNUAL REPORT of the Delhi Public Library is from the year 2015–16 and accounts for less than 140,000 total members who borrowed an average of five books per person that year. Membership is theoretically open to all residents of Delhi, but the number of eligible Delhi residents missing from the ranks of library membership is staggering in a city of 19 million people. If all those millions of our neighbours were motivated to use a library, then each of the DPL’s 35 branches would have to serve around 500,000 members to reach all the residents of the city.

But where is the outrage at the lack of public libraries in Delhi? Yes, there are a few scattered requests for new branches from library members and Residents Welfare Associations. But there is no procession marching from Delhi’s northernmost tip in Narela, where the DPL has a branch, to the southernmost point of Bhatti Kalan, where there is no branch of the library.

The report mentions a plan to build branches in Ashok Vihar, Patparganj and Bawana. Three more branches, the report implies, will meet the increased demand for library services. The report concludes with a soupçon of self-satisfaction: “The functioning of Delhi Public Library during the report has been generally satisfactory.” This self-satisfaction would be well earned if all Delhi wants from its libraries is a place where a select few can read for pleasure—the particular pleasure of reading as a mark of privilege.

The missing members need to be understood as the result of a complex interaction of factors within and beyond the library. To read as we are taught to read in government schools and private schools is to be literate in the most baldly functional sense of the word. There is hardly even a private school in our city that will halt long enough to allow a half-hour of daily independent reading in the classroom.

Where is a school to find this time for free reading when it imagines reading in the most limited light: as a tool children need to acquire to become part of the workforce? Nearly every school, regardless of the class background of its students, subscribes to the same pedagogy that sees reading as utilitarian.

When a book is opened and presented to a child in school, it is not for story time or read-aloud time. It is for study time. It is the textbook that the adult and the child pore over, and with which they grow their intimacy. The textbook is valued by adults for allowing the child to become a student of some arbitrarily selected collection of information. It is recognisable to the child as the ticket to an adulthood that the child mistakenly believes will be free of similar arbitrary arrangements. So the child resents the only books she knows, but her intimacy with them is complete. She memorises them.

The child who never enters a library or who has limited access to a library is one for whom books and reading will forever be associated with the most odious version of learning—that which is imposed on her. The idea that books are for thinking her own thoughts and for learning what she wishes to learn, and ultimately for learning about herself, will be forever foreign to her.

The community library in Sheikh Sarai is open to adults as well as children. But for every book it issues to an adult, it issues over 20 to children. The few adults who have enrolled have done so because they are already readers, mostly accidentally so. The many hundreds of children who have enrolled have done so because their friends have dragged them through the door that is so irresistibly wide open: no Aadhar card required, no security deposit required and no attestation required.

It is indeed a rare event, then, when late one evening a pair of siblings parts at the door and goes their different directions in the library and from behind them emerges their father. He looks like he is trying to hide. He speaks diffidently. He would like, he says, to ask about books that will help him learn English. There are thousands of English titles in the library, for children and for adults. But no, there are very few for learning English. There are a few dictionaries, a couple of thesauruses. Perhaps he would like to think about the possibility of learning by reading fiction. Non-fiction would work too, if that is his interest, his curiosity.

The volunteer and the father browse the shelves together. She points out titles that would appeal to him as an adult and whose content would yet be simple enough to suit his limited fluency. Yes, you will internalise the grammar as you read. Yes, you can learn correct English by reading.

And how long will it all take?


Well, there is no knowing. It could be speeded up through an immersion approach—perhaps watching the news on television and reading the newspaper. The library does subscribe to newspapers and magazines, which he can read in the reading room.

But he needs to learn quickly. Now. The emails at work are so difficult to decipher and need quick responses. He struggles, he says, at work. It is extremely stressful, not knowing how to do his job.

No, the library way of learning is not quick. Perhaps there is no quick way. He asks about classes. The library offers teenagers workshops in sexual health and development, in life planning and time management. There are science workshops that help children understand their cosmic address, drama workshops that introduce them to voice exercises; there is Madhubani art, kite-paper craft, creative writing. There are reading-fluency classes for children—but those are in Hindi. No, there are no classes in the English language. At least, not yet.

His children are done selecting their books. He selects one too. He speaks about getting up early to read this English book before everyone wakes up. The volunteer advises him against reading alone. If you can persuade your wife, read aloud to her. Reading aloud, the volunteer tells him, is a trick she learned from a poet. She herself reads aloud when the text is a little outside her fluency, as poetry often is.

He leaves the library. His quest to learn as an adult is a daunting one. Ahead lie the early morning hours, the wife who has to be prevailed upon to join him, the colleagues who must not know of his struggle, his children for whom he voices the hope that they never find themselves in his situation. For now, there is at least a library close at hand.

FREE PUBLIC LIBRARIES do exist in rich countries, of course. Some of us have encountered them as graduate students abroad, in the United Kingdom or the United States. In those libraries, we have bent our heads over books alongside other students, workers, the rich, the poor and even the homeless, and found ourselves belonging to a community of readers, as Tushar belongs, in his small community library in Delhi. But many of us believe such “luxuries” are unaffordable in a poor country such as India.

In 1970, a procession wended its way from the top to the tip of the long state of Kerala, from Kasargod in the north to Parassala in the south. The marchers carried signs that invited onlookers to “Read and Grow,” and “Think and Act.” If I had been one of the onlookers of that procession, which was one of the watershed events of the library movement in Kerala, I would have asked to be allowed to carry one of those signs: “Read and Grow,” “Think and Act.”

It seems the marchers recognised that reading is not only a tool for preparation for exams, or a necessary skill for fulfilling your professional duties at work. They recognised reading not only for the purpose of learning a trade or transacting business, but also for the purpose of thinking. Recognising this allowed schools to take responsibility for imparting reading as a skill and libraries to exist as places where the skill was put to practice not only in preparation for work, but also in preparation for thinking and living.

If reading is for thinking then there is no justification for having only a few libraries that serve the few. Kerala, with its population of around 35 million, has over 7,600 libraries under the Kerala State Library Council, or KSLC. Kerala’s library movement created libraries that are open to all. Their origin can be credited to a handful of visionaries, chief among them a teacher, PN Panicker, who led the citizen-initiated Kerala Grandhasala Sangham, which administered libraries that, in time, have become part of the publicly owned and managed KSLC. Kerala has the library system for which the procession marched: a system in which there is a branch for every 4,600—not 500,000—residents of the state.

The library movement in Kerala arguably preceded, and in time begat, the literacy movement. When the government of Kerala set itself the goal of achieving 100-percent literacy, it also set itself the goal of writing, translating, printing and distributing the books people wanted to read. Without provision for books to read, and libraries in which to access those books, the literacy movement would itself have been stillborn. Literacy as a function essential to the marketplace and books as a marker of privileged entry into that marketplace were long preceded in Kerala by the crucial relationship of books and literacy to thinking.

Studying Kerala’s library and literacy movement can be dismaying if the hope is to find a blueprint for recreating such a movement in a short period. The first public library in Kerala—tellingly, also the first such library in India—opened in 1829, under the patronage of the Travancore maharaja Swathi Thirunal. The next hundred years saw the opening of a number of libraries, some under royal patronage, some by local governments, others by people’s initiatives or as parts of the Independence movement or other socio-religious reform movements.

The library movement in Kerala truly began with a series of public conferences in the 1920s. These conferences and other organising activities, including the founding of community libraries themselves, were initiated by the elite as well as by common people. But they were almost always the initiatives of private citizens. By the 1950s, there was a widespread understanding that libraries were necessary, and that the new state had a responsibility for providing libraries that were open to all.

There is no hope, then, that a quick march from Narela to Bhatti Kalan will bring about a library movement in Delhi and create thousands of libraries. At the Community Library Project, we have managed in two years to open and run a second branch of our community library. The creation of a third and a fourth one are underway. And we jumped up and down when Hasirudala, a wastepickers’ and waste-workers’ organisation in Bengaluru, called us about its effort to organise Buguri, a community library. But at this pace, it would take us centuries. Luckily, there are other similar efforts—Pratham’s Story Weaver Platform, Katha, A&A Book Trust, Read India and the Parag Initiative of Tata Trust, to name a few. But even with all our efforts taken together, we know there is a longer march ahead, a march in time to when we can understand this crucial connection between books and thinking. And this is where the Community Library Project both provides a model for an excellent library that serves all, and pushes back against the idea that books and thinking are the purview of the few. And when we march, carrying our own “Think and Act” signs, it will be to demand a publicly owned library system. As a writer, I have a personal stake in this, of course. That arid landscape of Indian writing in English, to which I belong, will be richer only when there are libraries in which people can read and think, and write.


IN 2010, I was invited to Jamia Millia Islamia University, in Delhi, to read from my writing. The audience was a group of faculty from the literature departments of numerous colleges. I read a passage from a short story, “P.O.P.,” whose central characters are cement masons in Delhi. After I finished reading, one of the faculty members commented, about the characters, “But they don’t think like that.”

I was baffled. I took the charitable view that I had failed to convince my listener, a professor of literature, of the plausibility of my characters. The suspension of disbelief, suspension of her own reality—so desirable in the reader, so much the responsibility of the writer—had not transpired in this instance. It could be a failure of craft, of talent, of both. I tried smiling my way out of the situation. But the professor persisted. “They don’t think like that. Those are just your thoughts. And you are just putting your thoughts on them. They don’t think like that.” I was dismayed when others in the room joined her by nodding their agreement.

I have revisited this exchange many times in the years since. “Of course,” I think, “my character’s thoughts are actually mine, but I figured on the possibility that my characters might have such thoughts.” If I resisted the idea that the classroom full of professors was rebelling against my claim to an interior life for working-class people, it was for the reason that there was a weight to such disbelief, weight I did not feel capable of pushing against. Surely, the professors—who saw themselves as standing apart from the “they” in the story—surely they did not see their difference as that of a thinking people from a non-thinking people.

I have never quite lost the uneasy sense that the professor meant to say, “They don’t think.” But of course they do, I had wanted to say that day. I wrote a second book in which my working-class characters continued to think. Then I felt that refuting the professor required a third book, which seemed much the same as the first book. But the three books barely added up to an argument. And the books that would talk to my three, amplify my three, stand as correction to my three, even refute my three—these seemed so few and stood so far apart from one another that the professor’s voice had only to say “they don’t think like that” for them to topple over.

NOT SO LONG AGO, in the community library in Sheikh Sarai, I had occasion to revisit the conversation with the professors. Several young members of the library have gone from reading books numbering in the single-digits to the double-digits and now triple-digits, and have attended dozens to hundreds of read-alouds. We volunteers have had to come up with increasingly sophisticated read-alouds to keep their interest. (Of course, our bread and butter continues to be the basic read-aloud for the new members who keep walking through the door.)

On this day, the plan is for poetry-loving members of the library to come together and share poems from their favourite poets. There is some amount of head-scratching, but some people express immediate delight at the suggestion. Then there is Ankush, an eighth-standard student, who asks, “Can I share my father’s poetry?”

I argue so hard with the professors in my head that I forget sometimes the extent of what I share with them. I forget that their disbelief belongs to me too, as it does to anyone else of my class. When Ankush offers to read his father’s poetry, my immediate reaction is disbelief. I have been arguing so long and so hard with the professors from so many years ago that I sometimes do not see how many others there are in the world with whom I can converse. The professors may not be the ones to convince. And there may be many others who are already convinced—like Ankush and his father. The library has been a good place for me to discover these other conversations.

Another day, the feminist publisher and writer Urvashi Butalia visits the library as a guest in our visiting-author series. She questions the notion of a feminism divorced from class-consciousness. Who, she asks, is the working-class woman the equal of—the working-class man or the middle-class woman? But before she begins, she asks the audience—some are in their teens and some of whom are parents of those teens—what language they would prefer she speak in: English, Hindi, or a mixture of both? Yes, indeed, there are people in the back of the room who are visitors from outside the community. But most of the 70 or so seated in the room are library members, and, even though they are polite, they are emphatic in the assertion of their membership. “In Hindi,” they assert, “speak in Hindi.” And she does.

She begins by reading from Aalo Andhari, Baby Halder’s memoir of her difficult childhood and marriage, and life as a domestic worker. When she finishes, there is a woman in the audience saying quietly, “That is my story she read. I, too, was married at 12 and had my first child at 13.” Another woman is weeping.

I remembered my own lesser reading of Aalo Andhari years in the past. I had attended Halder’s book launch at the India Habitat Centre. The audience, struggling to assimilate the notion of Halder as a writer, had taken recourse to describing how exceptional it was that such a book could exist. I resisted the notion that there was someting exceptional about literature being written by a domestic worker, but there were not nearly enough books like Halder’s on the library shelves for my resistance to gather strength. But I had forgotten that books belong not only on shelves but also with readers, that books acquire their meaning from readers.

I was in the library to watch Aalo Andhari grow in meaning as it found new readers and thinkers. Ten-year-old Sania, an active library member, had forcibly brought her mother, Milan, to the event. Butalia’s reading of Aalo Andhari thrilled her mother, as did the public conversation and the chance to speak alone to Butalia afterwards. Milan became a library member that day. But her schooling was a long time in the past, and brief. It had ended in the second standard. She borrowed Aalo Andhari from the library and asked her daughter to read aloud from it, but it was difficult going for the ten-year-old and they stopped midway through.

Perhaps one day, Milan will finish Aalo Andhari herself. It will be a long journey for her. But it is a short walk to the library for Sania. The daughter is a voracious reader of children’s literature in Hindi and English, has read more than 100 books and won the 100-book prize. Sania has also written stories in the writing workshops offered by the library In one, a magical old woman offers a child three wishes. The child wishes to become beautiful and rich and clever, and then, in a refusal of plot conventions, she wishes a fourth wish. She wishes to become a writer.