Kiran Manral is a well-known blogger, and Author of The Reluctant Detective. She also runs India Helps, a group that began in the wake of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai and helps organise support in such cases.
She was a young girl, barely ten one presumed, but then this was a girl who survived on bare minimum food and the rigorous life of a rag picker. She could have been older. She seemed older with a wizened wisdom that seemed to go far beyond her chronological years. I was standing at a bus stop, back in the days when I worked a day job and hadn’t dropped out of civilization, waiting for a bus that would take me to the railway station, from where I would catch a train to get me to work. Work, back then, was at one of the leading newspapers in the country, where I was part of the team that worked on the weekend supplements.
She looked at me reading the book in my hand. Back then, I never stepped out of the house without a book to see me through dead wait time. Of course, now we have the mobile phone.
“Achchi kitaab hai?” she asked me, without invitation or preamble. I looked at her, am ashamed to say, with some stare, annoyed to have my reading disturbed and nodded back without speaking. She settled herself comfortably on the rod next to me, dumping the sack in which she was dumping all the recyclable things she was collecting off the road. “Aapke pass bahut kitaabein hain?” I nodded again. My bus arrived, I hopped in and that was the end of that conversation.
It came back to me recently, this unfinished conversation with an unknown girl. I saw a young girl, from evidently an underprivileged background, come to the raddi shop in the lane behind my office, browse through the second hand books on display, carefully count out some coins and hand it over to the shopkeeper after choosing one book. “She’ll read it,” the venerable uncleji who owned the shop, told me. “And return it in a few days, and then take another one, I return Rs 5 of the Rs 10 to her. There are no libraries these days for them to borrow from.”
“Why do you charge her for them?” I asked. “Why not let her read it without a charge?”
“Madamjee,” he laughed, “If I don’t charge her, she might not return the book. And if she doesn’t return the book, she won’t come back to get another one to read.” I asked him to inform me when she returned with the book and told him I’d pay the amount she normally went through in the course of a month to borrow books to read, it was less than what one would pay for a burger and fries meal. “I want to talk to her.” And so I did, the next she returned. She worked as a domestic in homes, she told me. “But I love to read. I’ve studied up to the eight standard.” I thought back to the piles of books I’d bought for my son, languishing at home, untouched and felt a pang pierce my heart.
The thirst for knowledge, I realized, finds a way. There are children who study under streetlights, those who walk for miles to reach school, those who read everything they can lay their hands on because they realize that knowledge is what will empower them, what will lead them out of their current circumstances. I may not be able to do much for all the girls out there who want to read, but I can definitely help one to read to her heart’s content. And someday perhaps, she will pass on this love to her daughter in turn. Is there a young girl in your immediate surroundings, who would love to read? Pass your old fiction books down to her. There is no greater gift than the gift of words and imagination.
Today’s changemaking organisation that we’d like to highlight is the Room To Read program. The Room To Read program is a movement that works across many Asian countries, including India, to improve reading skills in children, and give them access to books through libraries and reading programs, to foster their imagination and creativity, while also improving their performance at school. Many studies have shown that improvements in reading skills can greatly impact performance in many school subjects. While reading access makes a difference to all children, there is a wide gap between literacy levels among men and women in India, making it all the more important that girls need help moving ahead.
You can get involved with Room To Read in many ways, by donating, visiting a learning site or even starting your own fundraising campaign.
Pic credit: eperales (Used under a Creative Commons license)
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