In early 2015, after an email exchange with the coordinator at The Community Library Project - Deepalaya, I found myself attending a read-aloud session on a very pleasant Monday evening. I had stepped feebly into the classroom, unsure, but within minutes felt motivated enough to not leave without having heard the whole story of an Amma whose antics were, best put, 'unladylike'.
When I stepped out of the room, after the read-aloud, it all seemed unreal to me - the people who on a Monday afternoon made origami birds, read out 'Ulti-Sulti Amma' and issued books to children to take home and read. Their work seemed more authentic than the job from which I had asked for downtime on a busy first day of the week. The yearning to return back here, for me, immediately became compelling.
The beauty of this place wasn’t in any sort of neat structuring but in the sustainability of its ethos in chaos. As one of my initial volunteering duties I was to be the library assistant. With a constant inflow and shift of duties, my job was to be a face which is consistent. I was there to give members a sense of confidence about the library: this place is here to stay, we aren't packing and leaving. This was initially staggering to me - to provide confidence, which I myself lacked, to others. My initial few weeks were unsteady, and after messing up a few times, I worked through it.
After about two months of helping in and around the circulation desk, I shifted to assist another volunteer in her read-aloud. It was a few weeks into shadowing her when one day she handed me a book to do a read-aloud instead. For my heart this was like reliving one of the scariest moments of my childhood - to stand in front of a class and read. Never in my life was I known as one who could captivate an audience. Yet, in that one moment when I held the book and walked to the front of the room, something cathartic happened. It wasn't that I immediately transformed, but I remember during the telling of the story I totally forgot myself. When I read out loudly for the first time, emoting the story of a child who thought everyone in his family has forgotten his birthday, I was no longer a person with personal worries, sadness or fears. There was only the performance, intent and drama of the story, there was no me. As adults we become so addicted to a certain kind of performance expected of us that there is no room for creativity. In a normal world if I read a story about a stubborn Amma and simultaneously start stomping around like one, I might be termed borderline insane. But in a children’s world it is normal.
However a child’s world isn’t just exaggerated theatrics. As a grown up inhabiting a world with fellow grown ups, I often see them all romanticising their childhood. They locate their childhood as a perfect place in time where they would want to go back. I wonder loudly in my head, ‘But did they not go through times when they were pushed off a swing, and had their hair band thrown away?’, or ‘Did they never eat lunch alone in the farthest corner of the playground, surreptitiously jealous of all those who ate in a group?’ or ‘Were they always served lemonade and warm meals when they reached home?’ How had they grown up and not faced the daily heartbreaks of being a child whose existence was so much easier to ignore/forget about?
Being a grown up tires me but when I look back at my childhood, I would rather be here than back there. I feel safer (relatively) in a grown up’s body, with a shell around, while being a child is plain vulnerability - the lack of control, non existence of any solid identity. As a child all I wanted was to grow up fast and stop being a child, as if at the end of this tumultuous ride there will be a safe, solid ground. Now I do know, solid ground is a myth. As an adult I found that one way to cope up with such loss was to stop looking at it. I ignored my childhood, as if it did not exist. I refused to tell anyone where I was born or how many schools I shifted or how I had no childhood friends, pretending I was born a grown up.
‘Don’t think about a big yellow truck,” my therapist challenged me once. I could not help but think about one. The more I blocked my childhood, the bigger phantom it became. The only way out was to keep reaching back to it, in small, quick forays, sometimes retracting. In last 2 years I found there has been no therapy that worked for me as well as reading out to children. Enacting out stories helped me to steadily reach out to the ignored child in my own self. Together we all felt the pain of being pushed around in playground. We found story about a girl who had no friends and eventually ends up being her own best friend. We read about monsters that were not always under our beds. I never planned it, but there is a hidden beauty about things that find a way to you.
A few months into my work at the community library, I moved on to read aloud to the youngest members of the library. The youngest crop of 4 and 5 years were the most unguarded group of children I ever read to and played with. Though, working with young children has also been a sharp learning curve for grown ups like me who have long forgotten the intricate emotions of childhood in the hurry of growing up. Every Saturday we acquired new knowledge - sun isn't always yellow or orange; boys can playact to be butterflies and can cook; the colour brown is called 'chocolaty'.
There were times when we were brought face to face with some deeply tormenting situations. During harsh Delhi winters we would have children wearing barely 2 t-shirts and slippers without socks. Even before telling them a story we would wish to provide them with more sweaters. Because we could not do that, so we rather talk and think why some people have more sweaters than they need while others have none. There are many deprivations a child has to endure, but the onus of each one of them isn’t with schools and family alone, it has to be on the community too. We could not provide children with financial resources, but by reading with them we could together feel socially and emotionally less isolated.
Early on during the read alouds, a young, placid girl, Khushi, was part of the group. One time in her drawing she made a large 3 storey house along with a car, which she wished her father could buy for them. In another one of the defining moments, Satish, a 6 year old graduate from the group became a guardian to his 4 year old brother, Ayush. Since their mother was too busy to keep track of all programs, Satish took on that responsibility. Now, every other Saturday we have a 6 year old drop his 4 year old brother. Some days Satish forgets too and drops in on a Sunday asking, “Ma’am, aaj head-start hoga / Ma’am, is the head-start program today?”
Childhood is tough and even worse when we forget that all children are worthy of one. Sometimes in wishing to tell them to not grow up before their time, I wish to go back to my own younger self and remind her to not grow up before her time.
Having spent more than two years reading with children I now understand that by giving children agency to voice their thoughts and opinions they can build a lifelong belief in their own self - a skill which is not a privilege but a right. I now also believe that community libraries are important not just because they provide free access to books (though that is a library's raison d'etre). I believe they work because they give everyone access to belonging, belonging which is imperative to living. The belonging into a warm, safe world of stories, a world where everyone is welcome. In reading-out books, we find words that our vocabulary lacks, we find thoughts that we think but are afraid of expressing, and we find children whose outer lives may be starkly different from ours but the inner lives might have the same struggle.
As a young person I loved believing in redemption. As if for every wrong, there will be an eventual right and the end will be joyful. Alas, after so long I understand that there is no final redemption and there is also no rightful cause for our pains. And that is why more so, as human beings and organizations, we need to keep building places for reclamations. Anyone striding in the library does belong here, to books, to stories, to one-another - the only antidote to living I know of.