In 1955, a 23-year-old boy left the comforts of a small town in the erstwhile Bombay province and settled in a remote village of the Naga Hills. Here he set up a unique Gandhi Ashram, rendering lifelong service to the Nagas.
The boy, Natwar Thakkar, is now 85 and popularly known as Naga Gandhi. His 62-year-old ashram at Chuchuyimlang village now draws visitors from across the country and occasionally from abroad.
Thakkar forged close relationships with people like Kaka Kalelkar, Jayaprakash Narayan, Verrier Elwin, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Manmohan Singh. One such relationship has helped build a unique library in a remote Naga village.
“It is not merely a collection of books,” says Thakkar, “but my continuous love affair with text for the past 60 years.” We approach an old wooden building that has sheltered his lifetime collection of some 5,000 rare books.
The door creaks and the musty smell of old books welcomes us. The rusty racks are stacked with a rich collection—the selected works of Nehru, Gandhi and Kalelkar; novels and classics, books on Nagaland and the Northeast; rare books on history, religion, science, philosophy, anthropology and rural development.
Naga Gandhi has handpicked these books over a lifetime. “When I came here, I saw a region reeling from violence. I decided to build a library—a common platform where the young could study, discuss and debate pressing issues and develop a critical consciousness, so that they could catalyse positive change in their society,” says Thakkar.
In the late 1950s, the idea of setting up a library in a remote, almost entirely illiterate village attracted no financial support. So Thakkar decided to scrimp and save to pursue his dream.
Over the years, he developed a small but impressive collection, which local government servants were the first to discover. Soon, Thakkar’s library became a haven for book lovers in this remote region.
Many Nagas began to frequent his library. “One student passed the civil services examination and said that one of the main reasons behind his success was the library. It felt good,” says Thakkar.
In 1994, the library came close to being shut down when militants forced Thakkar to leave Nagaland. But he temporarily moved to Assam, where he set up another library.
In 2010, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), in collaboration with the Ashram, launched an M.A. programme in Social Work at Chuchuyimlang. Thakkar’s library suddenly turned into a bustling spot in the rather sleepy village. But the phase was short-lived; IGNOU closed the programme in 2013.
Museum of treasures
Since then, not one person has checked out a single book. The library stays closed and opens only when a visitor shows interest, especially if they want to see the pictorial timeline of the Ashram history displayed on its walls.
“It is depressing that my books have become mere artefacts in a museum,” Thakkar says. As I walk around exploring, I open Christopher von Fürer-Haimendorf’s The Naked Nagas and a page falls out like a dead leaf. “The books are dying because of age and lack of care,” Thakkar says anxiously.
“They deserve a better place, but this is the best we could provide.”
Thakkar, however, keeps adding to the library. “I continue to hope that someday these books will find the place and the readers they deserve,” he rationalises.
In 2015, when Tata Institute of Social Sciences set up a regional centre in Chuchuyimlang in collaboration with the Ashram, it rekindled Thakkar’s hopes: “If the centre grows, so will my library.” The tiny yet rich library stands as a symbol of hope for the Nagas.
On my way back to Jorhat airport, Thakkar suddenly asks the driver to stop the car and makes an urgent phone call. “Seven books are on their way. They can arrive at the Ashram any moment. Tell Sharmaji to be cautious,” Thakkar tells Lentina, his wife. “One of them is by Ramachandra Guha. It is an interesting read, but I have forgotten the title,” he says with an excited smile.
The writer is assistant professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and chairperson of Mahatma Gandhi Academy of Human Development in Chuchuyimlang, Nagaland.