Kolkata, April 08, 2021: A fridge outside a grocery store is nothing new. But the one outside this small shop in South Kolkata certainly is. Instead of the usual bottles of cold drinks and packets of milk, this is one is loaded with books thanks to a new library in Patuli.
With a message to “inculcate reading habits” and an aim to “create a book loving community”, a teacher and his wife have joined hands with a shopkeeper to set up a free street library. The rule is pretty uncomplicated — one can take home one book at a time and return it within a month, no fees required. The only request to readers is to take care of the book.
Located near Satyajit Ray Park in Patuli township, adjacent to the gate of Dinabandhu Andrews Institute of Technology and Management, the old double-door refrigerator has nearly 100 books neatly stacked in. More can be found inside the small shop made of aluminum sheets.
From dictionary to novels and even literary magazines in both English and Bengali, the collection is indexed with handwritten numbers. Interested readers can simply borrow a book by putting their name, phone number and date of issue in the dairy kept on each rack.
Kalidas and Kumkum Haldar wanted to do something meaningful seeing how children’s academic development and growth have been affected by the pandemic, with most staying at home sitting in front of computer screens all day. ‘Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,’ the words on a banner put outside the shop pretty much sums up why they started the thoughtful project.
“I wanted to start something meaningful in such trying times and wondered how it can be done. Children these days spend far too much time hooked to mobile phones and it’s important for them to read and open the window of their minds,” Haldar said.
To start the project, he approached Tarapad Kanhar, whose shop is right across the street from his house. “Depending how the shop was near a college, park and main bazaar, I knew most people in the locality cross it daily, so it was the perfect place to get everyone’s attention,” Haldar added.
Asked why they chose a fridge to stack the books, his answer was pretty clear: the convenience. “I was looking for something that wouldn’t need much space as well as keep books safe all year round. It’s covered and I don’t have to worry about keeping the books safe in the monsoon. What better way to use a broken fridge.”
A high school teacher himself, Haldar initially donated most of his English books and spent nearly Rs 45,000 to purchase a big collection of Bengali books and build some racks to store them. “What started with around 300 old books from my own collection, is now nearly 900 and every day we have been receiving more and more,” said the English teacher. Although the initiative started on February 21 on International Language Day, it got wider attention after a Facebook post about them went viral.
As he earns praise online, Haldar highlights he couldn’t have done it without the support of his family, students and, of course, Kanhar. “I couldn’t have done it without him. Coming from a difficult background, he values education and agreed to my proposal rightaway,” Haldar said.
“My son gave me all his saved pocket money to buy new books. My wife personally labelled all the books and attends the library when I can’t. My students have been spreading the word and donating books as well, I’m truly grateful to them all,” he added.
Although footfall has increased in the tiny shop, it necessarily isn’t transforming into sales for Kanhar. However, he isn’t demotivated. “I don’t mind people coming in and looking through the books. If they buy something as well, I’m okay. But I’m really glad everyone is getting an opportunity to read,” he said. “I didn’t have this chance growing up,” he lamented, as he now spends time glancing at books stacked inside the shop.
When initially some had discouraged the trio to set up the library for free saying the books might get stolen, the learning has been quite the opposite. “The people who have taken one or two books now approach me to ask if they can donate old books. From religious books given by the elderly to children’s books given by parents of children who no longer need them, the project has now turned,” Haldar gloated.
The teacher claimed he hasn’t lost a book yet, though after 15 days of the due date they do make a polite call to the borrower.
After pictures of the fridge-bookshelf went viral, Haldar’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “I have been getting calls not just from different parts of the city but all around the country. Many have asked how they too can contribute to the library,” the teacher added.
So, Haldar is now exploring if the model can be recreated in a different locations. “If I receive more books, it might be difficult to keep them all here. Also, I think it’s unfair. I have been thinking that with the help of my students, I can create such libraries in different areas to spread joy and knowledge.”
Haldar has also been organising book reading events and arranging plays involving local children to get them excited about books. “I think more people read Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Pather Panchali after seeing Satyajit Ray’s films. So, I’m trying to do the same, get them inquisitive about the real text before introducing them to the books,” the teacher explained.
And the plan is working well. Outside the shop, it isn’t just retired people coming for their evening walks, but also little children drawn to Bantul on the cover of Suktara, a popular Bengali children’s magazine. “If I have managed to even inspire one person to read a book, my mission is accomplished here.”
Courtesy: Indian Express