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Posted at: Sep 6, 2015, 1:19 AM; last updated: Sep 2, 2015, 6:35 PM (IST)

Dispersing the light of knowledge

A voluntary effort to stimulate logical thinking through books in disadvantaged children has taken up the shape of a community library movement in some areas of the National Capital
Dispersing the light of knowledge
Story-telling sessions held at the Deepalaya Community Library encourage children to take up reading as a hobby

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Except for the name borrowed from its tony neighbourhood, Panchsheel Vihar in South Delhi it looks like what it is — one of the many village-turned-urban-enclaves of the National Capital. Matchbox houses on tapered lanes, cycle rickshaws and motor vehicles in constant jams, small shops and pushcarts jostling for space.

Then the surprise. Stuck to the window of a school building is a chart paper on a lane with two words: Community Library. A flight of steps takes you to the Ramditti J.R. Narang Deepalaya School, run by the non-governmental organisation, Deepalaya. A brown door says, ‘All are welcome’. Enter it and you discover a beautiful story in the making.

The man behind the Deepalaya Community Library Project is Michael Creighton — a teacher in Delhi’s American School, and his novelist partner Mridula Koshy. The community library has 410 members, from Panscheel Vihar and the neighbouring Sheikh Sarai, out of which 400 are children.

It all began with the weekly story-reading sessions that Mridula used to conduct as a volunteer in 2008 for the reading club of the school that serves the underprivileged children of the area. Mridula says in 2010, the reading sessions were conducted with books carried around in a bag. These turned into a children’s library at a school corner with books donated by individuals, American School, Full Circle and Pratham Books. It was let open to all the children of the area.

Early this year, it shifted to the school’s front room to become the community library with the aim of turning it eventually into “a reading movement” for the underserved areas of Delhi.

With 10 adults from Panscheel Vihar already as members, the initiative is on its path. In just a few months’ time, it has also been able to attract children from the nearby middle-class households attending public schools. “We have about two dozen such children as members. This is despite the fact that their schools have libraries. While most poor children go for our Hindi and Urdu books, they like the wide collection of English books. With children from different backgrounds sharing the same space, we hope it will also help develop a few friendships and help bridge the divide,” says Mridula.

On a Monday afternoon, Mridula is busy readying it for the time it opens for public on Mondays and Fridays. Its colourful walls have posters announcing the names of the child members who have read more than the others. “For every 10 books that they read, one book of their choice is given free to them. This is not only to encourage reading in the children but also to give them the choice of owning books other than textbooks,” she says.

Along the walls are shelves and boxes where books are neatly stacked as per genres and languages. Mridula is the library’s only permanent staff which is otherwise dependent on volunteers. The day’s volunteers include a doctor, an advocate, a journalist, a student and a filmmaker. “When we thought of turning it into a community library, we realised that we need some institutional support for funds and stability in the form of staff. It was then decided that I take up the newly created position of Community Organiser for Deepalaya,” says Mridula.

Even as a volunteer helps Mridula arrange the library cards on boxes placed atop a table, she highlights that the children from the community are the main force behind the initiative. “We have student council members from the community who go door to door with us to talk about the library, also help monitor peer behaviour. It is them who will take this movement forward and help set up more such libraries,” she adds. The library also has a reading room, its shelves stacked with books and magazines mainly for adults besides a small section for children. There are newspapers as well.

Every Monday evening, some school classrooms also become story-telling rooms.“We have continued the read-aloud sessions. We now pick a book from thelibrary collection to give a head-start to the children. It is to instil a love for stories, to break the belief that books are only for memorising. We want to stimulate thinking in the children through books,” she states.

At 3 p.m.,over hundred children from different age groups queue up to enter the room. By now, two volunteers are manning the desk and another is monitoring the entry and exit of the kids to avoid the room from filling up. Mridula is flitting about, interacting with the children — nudging one towards a shelf he may like to pluck a book from, showing another how to shift through the titles, asking one if she wants to read the freshly issued book at the reading room.

A volunteer is seen mending torn books. Explains Mridula, “Most children come from one-room accommodations.” They don’t have space to keep books; sometimes they get torn. At times, they lose them. Many times, the books are wet from the water they use to cook and for washing.”

In the queue are also some mothers who are library members.Says one such member Chumki, “I am class eighth pass, always liked reading magazines but could never afford them. I now borrow one for free and read it in free time.” Mridula points out here that the library has given the community “a choice of having books around them.”

To take this choice to other underserved areas, effort is on to attract more publishers to regularly donate books, also the CSR funds of the corporate concerns.

Next on the anvil is to open a similar library at the Deepalaya School in Sanjay Colony this month. Children from Panscheel Vihar have already delivered hundreds of books to the Colony children for the purpose. Keeping in line with the initiative’s aim, “It was emphasised at the small ceremony to receive the books that the children in Sanjay Colony have the responsibility of starting the next library in some other location.”

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