Friday, September 29, 2017

Ambedkar, a Library and a Boy Called Balmiki

WHY do I have to sit separately in a corner of the classroom?
WHY can’t I drink water from the tap like other children?
WHY do the teachers never touch my books?

The ‘Whys’ shout louder in little Bhim’s head as he grows up, trailed constantly by the monster of untouchability. They catapult him into a lifetime of struggle for equality. They shape the remarkable ideas that are the cornerstone of the Indian Constitution, which he drafted as India’s first Law Minister.

 from the blurb of ‘The Boy Who Asked Why’

You know how it is when you have found a book that speaks to you, or better still, sings to you. A book that’s so close to your hearts that you don’t want to ever part from it. What would you do to never let it go?

One boy wrote the book down by hand in his notebook! This is probably the most moving response we have ever received for our books and we are so overjoyed.

Here’s the background. One fine Saturday we came across this beautiful and touching story on the Community Library Project’s Facebook page. The featured story was of Balmiki, who is a member at the Community Library Project — Agrasar (Sikanderpur, Gurugram). In his lunchtime, he hops over to the library to read his favourite book, a biography of Dr. Ambedkar (the NBT Children’s edition). This is an everyday habit. One day his favourite book cannot be found. The library staff search high and low for it. But no luck — the book is just not to be found. So they suggest an alternative, Tulika’s Vah Ladka Jisne Poocha Kyun, the Hindi translation of The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendran, illustrated by Satwik Gade.

©The Community Library Project

After he leaves, they find the book they were searching for. On Monday when he is back in the library, they ask him if he had read the book. He replies yes and produces the entire book written down line by line in his notebook! He says he liked it!

©The Community Library Project

The story seems to have had a domino effect. The writer Somwya Rajendran was so touched by it when she came across this post that she sent copies to the library and a letter to Balmiki. This means more boys and girls will read the book. Which is always such a  hopeful thought.

A look at the comments section tells us about how the story has touched so many people. Illustrator Manjari Chakravarti commented that it “Brought tears to my eyes”. Another comment was from Radha Harish who said, “These are stories that need to be shared, made viral...Or else we will become a barbaric society.” The poet and library activist, Michael Creighton expressed it best: “O, this is a revolutionary post. Thinking and reading is often a revolutionary act in a world that is not fair or kind.” We cannot agree more.

In Balmiki’s act of writing lies our hope for the future. He found a book he loved and he made it his own. Now, the story is his forever. As Michael Creighton mentioned when he shared the post, “On the surface, this is a feel-good post. But I'm guessing when this member grows up, he and his friends will have questions of his own--and the answers to those questions may make us more uncomfortable than we'd like to admit. A library movement is a movement for access to ideas and thinking, which is to say it is a movement for access to power.”


The Community Library Project reading program has its roots in a volunteer-run after school reading program which began in 2008. The library itself was built over the course of the 2010/11 school year by volunteers from the American Embassy School, and it has been supported since then by many local community members and publishers.

The library has gone through several phases over the years, but currently it is home to 4,000 high quality English and Hindi books for children, and checks out books to over 700 working class and poor children with a volunteer run reading and library check out program. 

Image courtesy: The pictures of Balmiki have been used with permission from The Community Library Project. 

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