For love of the WRITTEN WORD
Reader's Digest India|November 2020
United in their passion for books and stories, these five ordinary folk are on a mission to spread the joy of reading with their unique libraries
V. Kumara Swamy

THE PUSHCART LIBRARY

For years, journalist Sheik Sadiq Ali has dabbled in various businesses—a matrimonial bureau, real estate, but his greatest happiness came from the children who rushed over to receive the books he distributed from his pushcart or thopudu bandi in Telugu.

As a one-time book-retailer, he realized that many children couldn’t afford books so he decided to distribute them for free. In 2015, Ali began travelling around Hyderabad handing out poetry and storybooks among children. He then started taking his mobile library beyond the city too.

At 57, Ali claims to have travelled more than 3,000 kms pushing his cart across Telangana on foot, even in the remote interiors of the state. “I have distributed books worth more than ₹50 lakh so far. I have also set up around 150 libraries in village schools, panchayats and youth clubs,” he says. Ali says that 90 per cent of whatever he and his wife, Usha Dayal, a government servant, earn is used to buy books to give away.” We are a childless couple, so whenever we see any young person who has a hunger for knowledge, we consider these children our own and want to help them grow,” he says.

With the coronavirus pandemic putting the breaks on Ali’s donation circuit, he is now on a different mission—arranging access to mobile phones for poor children, so they can access online classes. “Everybody, including government schools, are touting online classes for children. But how will poor kids, who don’t have slippers for their feet, afford expensive mobile phones to attend lessons? But I am doing my best to arrange phones for those who really need it. It’s a drop in the ocean, but I am trying,” he says. He uses Facebook and other social media handles to encourage netizens to contribute.

True to his mission of spreading a love of reading, Ali is also building a library in Kallur, his village in Telangana’s Khammam district. He has no plans to pack up his pushcart library, however. “Sharing books with kids gives me the utmost happiness. We will be back on the streets once the pandemic recedes,” Ali says.

THE STORYTIME SALON

As a barber, Pon Mariappan is fairly skilled, but in his home town of Thoothukudi (formerly Tuticorin), 670 kms south of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, this 39-year-old is better known for something far more interesting. Amongst the cans of shaving foam, aftershave lotion and other salon equipment on the shelves of his 10x10 ft salon, more than 1,500 books— Tamil and English novels, history texts, poetry collections, autobiographies, periodicals and other tomes—jostle for space. This treasure trove of reading is a labour of love for Mariappan—a library that would enable a culture of reading and knowledge-building in his community. “Most customers, many of them young students, would be busy gaming on their mobile phones. I wanted to encourage them to read instead. Why not offer them something better?” he says.

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