In India, there is always a lot of debate on Right to Education and the opportunities that need to be given to children. We all agree children should have the right to education. We agree there should be more schools, colleges, et al. Somehow we just ignore a whole section of the populace, who are all around us but have no hope for even basic education and a hope to access books. Unless all children are included in our thought process at least, it is impossible for a society to progress. Fortunately, there are some people who are doing this.
Sheela’s (name changed on request) son Aseem died suddenly in a car accident in 2013. She and her husband were devastated. “When Aseem left us suddenly, the earth opened up and swallowed us whole, the volcano and holocaust that followed left only shrapnel and debris all around. For many months we could not breathe eat or sleep, and performing simple functions of daily living seemed impossible, “ she says. After a while, they picked themselves together and wondered what to do next. “There was only one thing we wanted: to keep him with us at any cost. Of course this was the one thing we could not do. So the next best thing was to keep alive books, which he loved next only to life. “
They went to his school, St Columbus, to offer books, but found that the school had enough and children of his school like many other main stream schools -do not read; as they have graduated to computers and the internet. They then went to Aurobindo Ashram to offer books, hoping the population here would be more welcoming, but met with the same fate.
In the meantime, they had begun to offer food in Aseem’s name to children of an orphanage nearby -Ummeed Aman Ghar, at Mehrauli, where street children were given shelter, food, clothing, medical help and education. There, they saw that the children did have some books, but these were torn, dusty, dilapidated and lying in disarray. Suddenly, it struck them as the perfect place to give books.
They sought and got permission from Aman Biradari , the NGO that runs the place to start a library. They agreed but they offered no financial support with some of them even a little sceptical on how it would succeed. They were even discouraged by some to give books here as the children were not really literate. The debate about whether a library should come first or literacy should come first, the chicken -or- the- egg story baffled Sheela and her husband, but they were determined and hence, started with the chicken!
The birth of the library
“On 17th October 2011, about six months after we had lost everything in our life, we started Aseem’s Library with 300 books and a bookshelf, “ says Sheela, with pride.
She would spend hours hiding here, with the boys, crowding around new books, making lists, reading to them, telling them stories, of how books can be a friend, and fun too. “All I wanted was to be with books and hence, with my son,” she says.
This did take off in a surprising manner, “The boys surprised me with their reception and respect and love for the books, they made lists, cleaned the place, protected and read the books, and wanted more,“ says Sheela. Sheela and her team soon developed their own Honeycomb Methodology to connect children with a book. Multiple activities of literary nature, art and craft, brain teasers, games and sports, dramas and debates, helped to crack different children in different manners. Outings and competitions built a sense of equality in them, keeping them engaged with a productive book or game or puzzle kept them away from fighting and non -productive occupations like drugs and reduced negativity and anger. Being appreciated for the largest number of books read or maximum attendance every month , or seeing their art display decorating the corridors, built a sense of belonging and pride and confidence in them. It soon became a matter of pride to be called a member of Aseem’s library.
The ripple effect of positivity
There were no funds or support as such but the universe did help them all along. When people came to know the benefits, the demand did increase. “We had no time or money to meet the demands, but friends and family came forward and we found great librarians. The children everywhere, boys and girls, in homes and custodial centres, all loved and welcomed the books,” she says.
Now the library is treated as a place of first intervention for healing a traumatized child when he enters the facility. It grows to be a source of recreation, it inspires learning, imparts general knowledge, and life skills and supports academic progress.
It has been four years now, nearly all the 3400 users who are underprivileged, from the streets, flyovers, rag pickers or trafficked and abused, rescued from dysfunctional or non existent families have learnt to read and yes, even write.
In August 2012, Sheela produced a book of stories written and illustrated by the boys, based on their own experiences and fictional stories they wrote. The book Ummeed-Hope was launched in the Book Fair in front of 60 other mainstream schools and libraries. This was an hour of pride, the children had arrived and the library was here to stay.
This itself can teach us many lessons of life.
Sheela has indeed epitomised what one of the authors in her books, young Ramzan says, “As I struggle hard every day to shape my destiny, I wait for the answers and if I don’t get them, I pledge to make them myself”. Incidentally, Ramzan lost his father when he was in the second grade, because of which the financial condition at home deteriorated and he started doing odd jobs. Now, with the help of Umeed, an NGO for helping the underprivileged, he started schooling again and has never given up on studies or life.
After speaking to Sheela and reading the books of the children, I certainly have moved a wee bit higher in my Umeed (hope) for India and the world itself.
For details of the books and/or the library, contact B 119 Sarvodaya Enclave, New Delhi 110017, firstname.lastname@example.org or +91-9810440506.