A few years ago, the poster girl of child education rights, Malala Yousafzai, told the UN that one child, one teacher, one book, and one pen could change the world. The pandemic changed the world of books digitally, but die-hard bibliophiles in India have taken her advice seriously.
Book activists such as Shankar Reddy Patlolla in Telangana and Vijesh in Kerala are establishing local, crowdsourced libraries in their towns and villages to combat the reading famine caused by the COVID-19 wave.
Twenty-nine-year-old Patlolla, a farmer-poet-activist, started a local library with his pocket money last year. During the peak lockdown period last summer, he had stayed for over a month at a migrant camp on the outskirts of Hyderabad where over one lakh labourers were preparing to leave for home.
They had little to do except anxiously watching the news on their phones. "After the lockdown ended, I thought of starting a free public library," he says. Heading the requests of locals, he established three more libraries under the 'Pustaka Kendram' label in Erravalli, Gottimukkula and Pullumamidi villages between February and March this year.
Vijesh, a school teacher, along with a bunch of locals in Perumkulam, a village five km from Kottarakkara, Kerala, are spearheading the Pusthaka Koodu (book nest) initiative that involves placing small boxes containing books in various parts of their village.
It costs a minimum Rs 60,000 to establish a library, with at least 600 books. Well-wishers donated books, racks, reading lights and chairs for Patlolla's campaign. A school principal offered space in his school. Friends, family, top civil servants, businessmen, CEOs, educationists and authors came forward to help. Local students at each location run the libraries. "We’ll set up libraries wherever there is a need. We hope to add e-books next. I’ve cracked the code," Patlolla declares.
Meanwhile, in India's most literate state, Perumkulam village is setting an example for reading in a simple and efficient way. Registered with the NGO Little Free Library, the house-shaped wooden book nest contains 30 to 50 books, mostly children’s literature. There is even a register to enter the names of borrowers. Children to adults waiting at the bus stop can grab a book.
College student Abhirami is glad that she does not have to visit the public library far away from her house anymore, thanks to the book nests. "I can choose my books at any time of the day. Books are meant to be shared," he said.
The concept behind these micro libraries is 'Take a Book, Leave a Book'. The initiative has given Perumkulam the title of 'Village of Books' after Bhilar in Maharashtra. The same year Bilar got the honour in 2017, Perumkulam built the first Pusthaka Koodu.
Says Vijesh, "Our purpose is to plant and nurture the reading habit in children who are engrossed in technology after learning went online." He admits to feeling initially sceptical of the project's success.
After having the first book nest in place, the overwhelming popular response led them to install more. "I prefer comics and try to finish one fast, so that I can take my next book immediately," says Sharath B, a Class VIII student.
Sindhu K Unnithan, another avid reader, says, "Though the initiative focuses on children, it is equally helpful in spreading awareness about reading a among adults. Since the books are being replaced with more books, everybody gets to read a new book."
She regularly borrows books for herself and her 15- and 11-year-olds to read. The locals have sponsored more Pusthaka Koodus in the village. Pustaka Kendram and Pusthaka Koodus are signs that the virus cannot keep a good reader down.