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'Didi? Will you come for my birthday?'
I nodded and smiled at her absentmindedly.
'And you'll read a story to me that day?'
This time the nod was deliberate and the smile wider.
Meet Diya, an almost six-year-old daughter of mum's helper. She goes to a school, along with her elder sister and my mum helps them with their homework. The school that they go to doesn't lay emphasis on reading. They hardly focus on textbooks so reading for pleasure is out of question. When mum started teaching the little ones a few months back, I picked up a few picture books and put them in a basket in their study room. Honestly, I didn't make an effort to get them to read. We were struggling to get them to learn the basics that the school had conveniently ignored.
After a few weeks, however, on one of my visits, I saw Diya snuggled in a corner, buried in a book, only resurfacing when she needed mum to translate a word for her.
'She chews my brains everyday to get me to read to her.' Mum gave her an indulgent smile.
Diya looked up and ran to me, 'Look! The girl in the book is also Diya, and her birthday is coming too!'
This little girl has busted the complex theory behind reading habit - be a role model, read a bedtime story to the child everyday, read with the child, and more such steps in raising a proper bookworm. Diya's parents are illiterate, and a bed-time story is impossible since both of them are bone-tired by the end of the day. Yet, she fell in love. She is forever seeking out new books, looking for unsuspecting grown-ups whom she could trap into reading to her, and finishing her homework at supersonic speed to buy her extra reading-time.
Diya is the dream that I needed. If she can fall in love with reading due to the sheer accessibility of books, so can any child. Sadly, a little research revealed that the city that I live in has no library and even the district library which was dysfunctional till a last year, has now shut shop. There are no bookstores. The only books available are a tiny shelf-full of Famous-Five novels crammed together with colouring books in a stationery shop. And anyway, bookstores go only so far. One cannot endlessly buy books. At least not everyone can. Libraries are the only grounds where a friendship with books can be forged to last a lifetime.
When I think back, most memories of my childhood centre around reading, and now the boys say the same thing. They find refuge in books when the exam stress gets too much, or the bullies in the class decide to put up a show of strength. Books give hope, as my older one puts it, of things turning out fine. They inspire to create, imagine and explore - one look at my younger one's room is sufficient to prove this. Elaborate battle plans, detailed descriptions of the super hero he imagines, loom band dragons and intricate origami figures - his creations can be found in every nook and cranny. We cannot imagine our lives devoid of books. When, as children all books weren't available or affordable, we'd spend hours in the neighbourhood library which didn't boast of a huge collection of children's books. So we were fed the classics. The trip to the library is one of my favourite memories. The memory became a dream, when we visited Singapore a few years back and got teary-eyed on seeing their public library. It was more like a book-heaven that is sorely missing here. How can we expect the young ones to grow up to be readers when they have no place to befriend books, to experience them, - a sort of a neutral ground where there are no expectations attached with the kind of book they pick? Imagine a place where they can just be, meet new books, explore poetry, experience art, and plop themselves down under the tree with a book they just found. Imagine favourite memories being created.
Hence, the idea of building a library was born. If the city doesn't have one, we need to build one to keep the place alive. Libraries, after all, are known to be the souls of societies. And best place to find all sorts of books to escape to is a library - a place sadly missing in most cities.
Most of the people I bounced this idea to, stared at me for a moment, trying to look for signs of insanity, and then gave a reluctant, almost sympathetic pat on the back. Some said, 'A library? How will you run it? People study for that sort of a thing! Do you even know how to? And a place! You'll need a place. Do you even know the rental prices?'
Sometimes clouds of doubt cast a web on my mind. It does sound ridiculous once logic takes over. Thankfully, Diya blows them away and I cling on to my dream. And then I have a bunch of friends, including my father, who believe that creating a space for everyone to walk in and find their book is the most natural thing for me to do. Hence, word was sent out requesting people for books for the library. When the first carton arrived, I started getting nervous. We still did not have a place. With each lot of books that arrived the anxiety grew.
And then I got a call from Kisan Bhawan to come over and check the space. I was expecting a tiny corner and they gave me a room for free!
'Now go and get your books,' the founders of the place said.
I could have cried at that moment. Then they handed some money to me and said, 'It isn't too much but we hope that you can at least start working on the shelves.' The stray tear found its way out but was promptly wiped away. I finally had the space! The dream seems a couple of long strides closer now.
The skeptics are murmuring, 'A space and books is all fine but who will come here to read? Who has the time?' I just smile back and mostly ignore them. If Diya can find the time to read, so can everyone else. I admit that there are no funds yet and the dream is far from reality. All I have right now are a few cartons of books, a room, and a head full of a vision of having libraries in each corner of the city. There is, however, no dearth of enthusiasm and faith - faith in people to gather funds, books, and readers. We will get there. We have to get there.
I can see towering shelves of books, and readers lost between the lines rooting for the little boy who saves the world, crying for the child who lost his dog or biting their nails when the last man falls. I can hear a story being told under the tree on a balmy, winter morning. I can hear the notes flutter on the Wishing Board listing books that should be added to the library. I can inhale the heady fragrance of old books mixed with some new ones. I can sense Diya's smile as she reads the umpteenth book that found her in the library. I can see the city come to life.