“You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” wrote poet Nikki Giovanni in a poem quoting Mrs Long, who looked after the town library she frequented.
It is perhaps this thought that has driven Santhya Vikram, founder-director of Yellow Train, and her team to make books accessible to children wherever they are. “We want to open this library to the community, especially for children from rural and government schools not just here but across Tamil Nadu and even other states. We have already connected with some nearby and are just waiting to work out the logistics of access. Some cataloguing still needs to be done,” says she.
- The library (both the bogie and the brick and mortar one) will be thrown open to the community soon; may be in about three months.
- “We have other plans for it too,” says R Chitra, a senior teacher at Yellow Train who has been closely associated with the library. “Besides it being a reading space, we want it to be a training centre and a resource space. It will be used for teacher development programmes and workshops besides being a retreat where we will have a chance to introspect and raise awareness through reading. We truly want it to be a tribute to the community.
It began two and a half years ago in the early hours of a December day. The teachers and children of Yellow Train waited impatiently and a cheer went up as a trailer truck trundled into the school grounds and carefully lifted off its precious burden. It was a train bogie!
Bogie 92410, from the Indian Railways, which would otherwise have ended up as scrap was going to be reborn instead as a library. “We thought we would have it up and running in six months,” says Santhya wryly. But it took a lot longer. Speaking at its inauguration earlier this month, Santhya said,“The inspiration was Totto Chan (an autobiographical memoir by Tetsuko Kuronayagi featuring a school built on the love for children). We wrote to Tetsuko and she actually sent us her good wishes and a reminder to never forget how fortunate we are to be able to go to school!”
Yellow Train sent out letters into the world asking for books and the response was “magnificent”. One of the first to respond was librarian Hellen Andalis from Dandenong Ranges Steiner School in Australia. She not only sent books but also put Yellow Train in touch with other libraries. Books poured in from Germany, the United States of America, New Zealand, Singapore and across Africa. Coimbatoreans raised thousands more when the school organised a Book Marathon for which the registration fee was a book.
Converting the rusty, dark and cramped bogie was a challenge taken up by Yellow Train’s art teacher, Reema Alva. “It was unlike anything I had done before,” says Reema. “My first focus was on was making the bogie spacious and bright but retain the mood and charm of an old train.” It was an exciting project ,says Reema, because she was given a free rein and she had the help of a contractor, Balaji Ravichandran, who put his heart into converting her drawings into reality.
Some of the berths were ripped off to create an open floor space where kids can sit on soft handwoven rugs and read or be read to. An open trunk nearby has books spilling out, a pretty yellow table occupies one section where kids can sit down and make notes. The interior is brightly lit, has probably every beloved book one can think of and a section for Tamil literature.
Its walls are hung with artwork by Reema herself. “I picked a few of my favourite illustrators — Quentin Blake, Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, Axel Scheffler — and recreated their works, using acrylics on canvas. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of trying to draw in the styles of these amazing artists and I wanted the children to recognise their styles and appreciate illustrators too, for their contributions to books.”
Then came the business of bringing in the books. Shakthi Rajendran volunteered to do it. “Not everyone gets to say that putting together a library inside a train was their first-ever job,” says the 18 year old who unpacked and arranged more than 20, 000 books. “Sorting and categorising them endlessly (along with the occasional help from students eager to bunk their classes) was my main job.” Shakti particularly enjoyed curating the top 100 books for children and young adults, which has an exclusive section in the bogie. “Inputs were taken from teachers and students while picking the books.”
Shakthi says it has been one of the most rewarding tasks she has undertaken in her young life. “I felt a desperate yearning to be a child again, when I would lie in bed and listen to my mum read to me. I did manage to convince her to read to me while I lay on one of the top berths in the bogie. I wish that could go on forever. It made me want to read through all the children's classics again, even caused me to start a small collection of children’s books of my own.”
The Yellow Train library will soon be open to all.