Photographs: Divya Nair
When was the last time you visited a library and immersed yourself completely while reading a book?
My last memories date back to college, almost six years ago; the librarian 'suggested' I read a particular book, following which I was ushered to a table where I had to sit obediently and read 'quietly'.
So when I was asked to meet Vibha Kamat, who I was told was planning to open a public library in a suburban Mumbai neighbourhood, I did not think it was a big deal at all. And when I was told that it would cater to only children aged upto 16, I dismissed its effectiveness immediately.
Why would any 16-year-old today visit a library, when they don't have enough time for studies and when e-books can be conveniently downloaded and read at the click of a button?.
Maybe they'll have the Harry Potter and Twilight series, I thought.
However, when I stepped inside the semi-furnished reading space at D'Monte Park Road near Bandra Gymkhana, I was greeted by colourful walls, animated pop-up figures on shelves, interesting-looking lanterns hung from the ceilings and books of myriad interests and sizes all around the place. I was tempted to pick one up myself and start reading right away!
This initiative was the long-pending dream of Kamat, a 47-year-old who teaches French and is ably supported by Vaishali Shinde (41) and Sonal Bimal (41). While Vaishali has worked with an NGO called Focus and is trained in disaster management, Sonal is an apparel consultant.
So how did the three meet? "Our kids got us together," they replied in unison.
But why open a library? What was the purpose behind it?
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'People in our society always want to support a good cause'
"When his mother called me, I asked her about the pledge and I was told that he read a whopping 162 books in two months. Not only was I shocked at his determination to read, but his story inspired me to take that initiative ahead to kids here in our country," she said.
"For almost a year, I was scouring for a good place to start the library, but the real estate prices in Mumbai made it an impossible dream. That's when I heard of the Maharashtra Mitra Mandal's almost-defunct library."
"I fixed up an appointment; we met the officials and expressed our desire to revamp the library. Although they liked the idea, there were questions to be answered. They wanted to know how we would raise funds? Where would the books come from? Who would look after it?"
"They were very valid questions. None of us had an answer. All we knew was that this was a dream for all of us and we were very hopeful about it. Besides, I have always believed that people in our society always want to support a good cause. You just have to ask for help and they will willingly abide."
In June 2011, Vibha wrote a letter asking for donations in the form of books and cash and circulated it amongst her small circle of friends. The response was humongous and exceptional, to say the least.
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'Books arrive almost everyday at our doorstep'
Within weeks, they were flooded with books and e-mails from absolute strangers who wanted to donate to the cause.
"Some of them ordered books off the shelf and couriered them to us. Brand new books! They arrive almost everyday at our doorstep. Why would anyone do it? Would I do that? I don't know. I am not sure," says Vibha.
The library had already received over 2,000 books in the last three months since the appeal was sent out in July 2011.
"It was very encouraging. We have already spent close to two-and-a-half lakhs. And that doesn't include the cost of books that were delivered free to us. There is so much we owe to these well-wishers." But the struggle did not end there, she goes on.
"Now that we had books, we realised that we had to catalogue them as well. None of us have worked in a library and to meet the demands of technology, we had to have an online cataloguing software installed. This is mandatory for a library."
"Fortunately, we found help in the form of Charles D'Souza, who was a librarian. He was willing to give us the software absolutely free. Only later did I realise that without his help, the software would have cost me about Rs 40,000."
"I never imagined meeting such wonderful people. I think it's the cause that has raised the awareness of the initiative. Everyone in this locality wanted a library like this."
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'We want kids to drag their parents to this place'
As if to validate Vibha's gratitude, a lady came in as we were talking and said that she wanted to donate some books.
Quips Sonal, "Generally, mothers tend to donate books to neighbourhood kids, schools and libraries; but the intent is very selfish. They want to get rid of the books and make some space. But at the same time, kids are the ones who are very possessive about their stuff. Strangely, this time, we've seen kids who have come forward to donate their books. Some of them can't wait for the library to open. That is exactly what we want. We want kids to drag their parents to this place. We want to make reading a fun and enjoyable experience for them."
So far so good, but how will it sustain itself?
Adds Shinde, "We have a lot of ideas. We plan to start book clubs, organise workshops, invite authors for readings, so that the library is more active, functional and reaches out to people. We want to start an appreciation club where we can screen movies that are adapted from books and ask children to discuss them. We may eventually start giving away discount coupons on subscription. Children can gift them to their friends on birthdays and festive occasions."
Vibha adds that she wants to install a projector in the library and wishes someone could donate one. "A projector is very expensive, but eventually we plan to get one," she explains.
"Right now, we have enough books, resources and ideas to work on. Some people have also agreed to volunteer for us. We are really thankful to Shyam Karmarkar and Rajani Kothare from the Mandal, who encouraged and supported us throughout this cause. This dream would have never materialised without them."
"But the need of the day is to raise money so that we can hire enough people who will look after the library. We want to increase subscriptions and organise activities that will take the initiative ahead," concludes Vibha.
The library is scheduled to open on September 30, 2011. The monthly subscription is Rs 100 per head for kids aged 16 and below. Students will have to pay a certain security deposit if they wish to borrow any book from the library. The library will be open between 4-8 pm on weekdays and 10-8 pm on weekends.