Back in 2008, author Mridula Koshy and her partner, poet Michael Creighton, started an after-school book club at a neighbourhood school run by an NGO called Deepalaya, which served underprivileged children in South Delhi’s Panchsheel Vihar and the neighbouring Sheikh Sarai area. Some two dozen 12-year-olds would come to listen to the two read aloud, mostly from picture books.
Koshy took a brief hiatus to work on her debut collection of short stories, If it is Sweet , and her critically acclaimed debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened (2013). Upon her return to the book club in 2010, Koshy saw that it was no longer enough for the children to listen to stories read aloud; they wanted to read.
The book club, which had begun as a bag of books toted to the school each week, became a cupboard of books and then a room with 3,000 books. Today, the Deepalaya Community Library and Reading Project serves 700 children and adults who would not otherwise have access to books. Says Koshy, “Most of our children, whether from the working or upper classes, are subject to a curriculum that sees no relationship between reading and thinking. School is a place where a finite and rather arbitrarily constructed syllabus of information is taught as knowledge to be mugged up and spat out on demand. The lack of public libraries means that children from poorer families have no means to make up for the deficiency in their education.”
Convinced that good libraries do more than house books on shelves, Koshy and her team of dedicated volunteers have turned the library into a vibrant space. Six out of seven days, the library is crawling with children who have taken on the responsibility for its running. They form the Library Student Council and work with some three dozen volunteers to issue books, run a reading room, and organise other programmes like the Reading Project, where students come together three times a week for multiple read-aloud sessions. The older children in the Project recently ended a six-week-long poetry series and are producing a book of their own poems. They also listen to Hindi translations of Pippi Longstocking and Roald Dahl. And, in fact, Koshy’s latest novel, Bicycle Dreaming, is perhaps born from her experience with the children at the library. She says, “Certainly the children I met over the years inspired much of the curiosity that led to my writing the story of 13-year-old Noor.”
The library has started a special early intervention programme called Head Start to Reading, which has four-to-six year-olds in a weekly read-aloud session. Stories (and books) are seen as part of a continuum of nurturing that includes play and food — ‘kahani, khel, khana’. Members are also encouraged to write, with several writing workshops planned for them. Koshy’s idea is to run a community library for all ages and literacy levels on a minimal budget, and to see if the idea can be taken up by others who want to open libraries in poor communities.
And the children are their own ambassadors. “In November last year,” says Koshy, “the children who run our library took eight boxes of books (some 700 titles) to children in another community who have no library.” They then asked the children there to build a second branch of the Deepalaya Library and lay the seeds for a third branch. From less than a dozen in the beginning, more than 500 students now regularly visit the library to read and borrow books and often get them reissued.
Kunal Ray teaches English Literature in Pune and writes on art and culture.