Mridula Koshy in conversation with Puneeta Roy
Jules Evans, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Guest Blogger
India needs a new model of community libraries that encourage people to think for themselves, according to novelist and community activist Mridula Koshy.
Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Koshy described her own experience setting up the Deepalaya Community Library in Delhi in 2010. ‘We’re trying to create an example of what a library should look like’, she said.
‘We need to say out loud that most people in India are denied access to reading. Children may learn to read, but only in a very functional way, for the purposes of the state and the economy. Very little is done to encourage independent thinking or reading for pleasure’, she said.
The community library she runs grew out of her partner’s experience volunteering at a Delhi school. She started to volunteer there too, reading aloud to the children. She was impressed with the children’s resilience, and ability to engage with books with empathy and enthusiasm. ‘Those children taught me a lot’, she said.
When the school closed in 2010, she and her partner decided to keep the library running as a community library, run by members and volunteers. ‘We’re in the frantic start-up phase. Today, we issue 1000 books a week, with 350 children and adults visiting each week.’
The library has reading-aloud sessions, which she thinks are central to creating active, critical readers out of young non-readers. The library also runs a poetry programme, and workshops on topics ranging from sexual wellbeing to gender. ‘We try to help people with questions like ‘should I trim my pubes?’ These are the questions people worry about! We also try to encourage young people to find what sort of literature appeals to them. Maybe they’re into history, maybe they’re into erotica.’
Three quarters of Indian government schools have libraries, but often they are tiny rooms with few books.
Koshy also spoke of her own experience as a writer. Growing up in Delhi with an aunt who was a writer, she says she was expected to be a writer herself, but initially rebelled against it. She moved to America when she was 15, where she became a trade union activist. ‘I left a comfortable life in Delhi and became a member of the working class in America, experiencing systemic oppression and exclusion.’
Why, after 20 years in the US, did she decide to return to India? ‘I could never get over leaving.’ Yet she found a very different India when she returned. ‘When I left in 1984, there were only two international flights each day from Delhi.’
Writing was a way of getting to know India, and herself. Koshy has been very successful as a writer, writing a collection of short stories, If It Is Sweet, which won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize; and two novels, Not Only the Things That Happened, and Bicycle Dreaming.
Photo Credit: Rajendra Kapoor