A motley range of visitors drop into our little library. But then, it should be nothing unusual as every library caters to readers of different age-groups and backgrounds. But what makes this library different is that it is located in a tiny ‘town’ in a thinly populated Himalayan state where libraries are few and readers fewer; and where reading would generally refer to ‘reading textbooks’. Our visitors include tourists seeking mountain heights, who stop, surprised to see a library on the lonely road; government officers passing by; wildlife researchers to the nearby sanctuary; curious villagers who peep in to see what goes on, and sometimes looking for a tuition master-ji. Of course we have a small band of regular, young, spirited readers and some youths whose visit is more like lightning.
It was therefore no surprise for me to find, one March morning, a little lad of 6 or 7, sitting in a corner absorbed in a book. Normally, visitors’ timing is in the afternoon, although no one is barred in the mornings, when I sit working. But as the minutes ticked by, I noticed something odd about this visitor. It was exam season, and not the time for a student to drop in – and then sit for so long. And I had never seen him before. So after some time, I casually enquired if he had finished his exam early. But the lad, without bothering to lift up his eyes from the book, answered equally casually…
“Oh, I left school already.” It sounded as if he was saying ‘I’d completed schooling’!
“Where were you studying?”
“Namsai,” came a matter of fact reply. It was a town three hours from our place.
“Why did you leave?”
“Oh, my mother was not interested.” It was the same tone.
“And your father?” My visitor just ignored my question.
“Where’s your home?”
“At Zero junction.” That was five kms down the hill! I was surprised and determined to learn more.
I learnt that Sawai had come that morning to the house of a ‘didi’ (someone from his village) studying in a local school. He was in class one in a private school for a few months, but had been brought back. “Oh, she (mother) didn’t want to spend money.” He seemed not much impressed by the notions of maternal love.
So Sawai had been moving around, doing what he liked. Yet he seemed keen to browse through books and try to read. I went up to him, pulled out a Dr. Seuss “Foot book”, and sat down with him. He was now earnestly practising the sentences. Seeing he could benefit better in the company of other young readers, I asked him to come in the evening and closed the library.
“Are you really interested in joining a school?” An idea struck me.
Sawai had no objection.
“Ok, let’s go to an uncle.”
Reaching the school office, I introduced the lad.
My friend spoke to Sawai in his mother tongue and enquired about his parents. “I’m ready to study, if you admit me.” The boy was so sure of himself.
My friend asked him to come in June for the new session. “Uncle, the boy has been wandering too long, but let’s try. We can waive his fees.” I felt a great relief.
From that evening, Sawai became a regular visitor to the library, both morning and evening. I sometimes sat reading with him. The other readers readily helped him.
One morning, the boy came to me. “Sir, can you fix me a room to stay?” I was totally taken back. His ‘didi’ was leaving for the village after her exams and his host had asked him to go home. What could I do? I myself was a guest here, ready to leave for my eye surgeries anytime.
We then went to a neighbour, a doctor-friend. The doctor kindly provided the boy’s host three weeks’ provisions and got the boy some clothes and toiletries. “Now you stay nicely, and read in the library.” Sawai was happy.
I left for Chennai soon and could return only after a year of prolonged treatment. Sawai had wholly gone out of my mind.
Returning, I was sitting one morning outside my chairman-friend’s office, watching the hosteller-students walk to their classes, some smiling and waving at me. Suddenly a young boy came over to me and said good-morning. I returned the greetings and casually asked his class and name. Just as he walked away, it struck me: ‘So my young visitor has found his school at last!’
I felt deeply grateful to my friend, who boldly gave a strange wanderer a home and a foothold to a better tomorrow. Will the lad make it, or go back to his wanderings? Only time will tell…..
The author is Coordinator, Lohit Youth Library Network, with its HQ at Tezu, Arunachal Pradesh. He is an educational activist and a reading promotion campaigner with 38 years of close interactions with Arunachali students and youth. He can be reached at [email protected].