Taking Arabian Nights and Grimm’s to the Homeless

The article has been reblogged from Mahindra Rise. If you have a great idea and need a platform to showcase, please submit your idea for Spark The Rise- and get your project funded.

Govind, a reticent 3 year-old, who almost always has a runny nose and is seldom clothed beneath his waist, till a few months back would end up spending all his day either in his ailing mother’s lap or lying on a piece of torn cloth on the cobblestone pavement and staring at the traffic zooming past.

Nowadays, Govind along with other children of the homeless community outside Mahim Station sits next to a rack stacked with works of authors ranging from Rabindranath Tagore to Ruskin Bond scribbling on a blank paper with pencils and sketch pens.

To the middle classes of Mumbai children selling pirated copies of bestsellers with thick paper, intricate illustrations and photographs at traffic signals is a familiar sight, but children sitting on the streets every afternoon and flipping through these books, attempting to replicate the illustrations on to blank sheets of paper come as a shock. For them the sight is nothing short of imagining a group of children stepping out of their pavement homes and sauntering into a public library where the city’s intellectuals spend their time researching.

When people pass by the pavements in Mahim, Cross Maidaan, Ballard Estate and Mankhurd and watch children engrossed in sketching and flipping expensive coffee table books, the first question that comes into everybody’s head is how these children went from selling to reading. The one person solely responsible for transforming homeless children from being a small link in the book supply chain to becoming consumers is 34 year-old Abhishek Bharadwaj, founder President of Alternative Realities, a not-for-profit organization that has been working with the homeless in Mumbai since 2004.

The Inception

Almost a year back, when Bharadwaj was sitting with the homeless community on Tulsi Pipe road, Mahim, he noticed children from the community come back from local municipal schools and spending the rest of the day loitering around on the street and traffic signals. “I asked them why they weren’t revising what they were taught in school or drawing or sketching in their spare time and they almost all said that their schools don’t have functional libraries that can give them access to interesting books and they don’t have resources to buy educational toys, colors, blank papers and books to keep them occupied,” says Bharadwaj.

That’s when he thought of starting a small street library cum resource center for the homeless children and youth. For about a month he went around town collecting stationary and old and new books in English, Hindi and Marathi.

Most people he approached to collect books were baffled and couldn’t understand how the books they or their private school-educated children had read could be of use to the homeless. And every single time he was asked this question Bharadwaj patiently replied by saying what he has been for over a decade. “Most homeless in the city are not beggars. They are daily wage workers or artisans who make baskets, garlands, toys etc. They live on the pavements because they are the poorest of the poor and can’t even afford a small room in the slums of Mumbai. That, however, doesn’t stop them from sending their children to schools and that doesn’t mean that those kids don’t have interest in art, music and reading,” Bharadwaj told me.

He understands that the homeless may not be able to read and understand the contents of each of the books that people donate but the idea behind the Homeless Library (HoL) is to give them access to books that they’ve never owned or even seen and get them to pick up those books and flip through them. “The homeless children while flipping through these books may not understand its contents but they will definitely get interested. The thought is to generate curiosity, which will translate into them asking questions to the volunteer at the library, who will read out and explain the contents of the books to them,” explains Bharadwaj.

Ownership and Sensitization

Alternative Realities has also developed a model that can generate further interest of members of the homeless community in the library and see more participation. Bharadwaj has designated a person within each community, who takes ownership of the books and the stationary, keeps a watch on people who use the library and sets up the library every alternate afternoon. That person also charges Rs 1 from each person using the library and the money is then used to buy newspapers, colors and other things needed for the library. “Once they realize that the library is managed by a person from within their community and once they start paying a nominal amount for the library they start attaching a value to it and make more use of the resources available,” Bharadwaj explains.

HoL is also a tool for Alternative Realities to sensitize the more privileged classes about issues of urban homelessness. HoL welcomes everyone who is open to sitting on the pavement and reading a book. “It is a great opportunity for people to interact with the homeless, understand their lives and break the communication barrier and the stereotypes that has existed for decades,” Bharadwaj says.

A simple idea, a three tier bamboo rack, a metal trunk to store books and a few spare books is all it has taken to successfully provide, for the first time, a recreation space for homeless, sensitize the more privileged classes about homelessness and increase the interest of homeless kids in reading, art and photography.

HoL is currently operational in Mahim, Mankhurd, behind Cross Maidaan (Churchgate) and Ballard Estate (VT) and will soon be operational in other parts of the city. To donate books or stationary you can call Abhishek Bharadwaj on 99204 02813