This is a fact of life: bibliophiles will go to any lengths for books. But some seem to go further than others can even dream of. Literally. Meet Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Rautaray. They met each other at a bookstore in Bhubaneswar where Rautaray worked, and their mutual love of reading got them talking about society, reading habits, and things that bothered them. Both felt strongly that they could join forces and make things better.
To begin with, that meant only travel. But when you take two bibliophiles out of a bookshop, you can’t leave the bookshop behind. So it was just a matter of time before they put into practice what they had only dreamed of while travelling in the tribal areas of Koraput, Odisha. Starting January 2014, they collected books in backpacks and set off for villages and small towns, selling them to people from footpaths and bus stops. “We wanted to make books more accessible,” says Mishra. “So we started Walking Book Fairs and set off.”
Walking didn’t take them far enough, so Mishra and Rautaray soon purchased a second-hand Maruti Omni van and went around the entire state of Odisha with books. Next came an actual shop in Bhubaneswar, called The Walking Bookfairs Bookstore and Tea Café. Soon after, they were off with books again, but this time with a bigger aim – to travel to 20 states with a customised truck carrying 4,000 books, as part of an initiative called Read More India.
“We partnered with publishing houses like HarperCollins India, Pan Macmillan India and Paragon Publications,” says Mishra. “We bought a pick-up truck with a large cargo space and customised it with bookshelves. That cost us a lot of money.” They tried to cater to everyone, by carrying a mix of children’s books, picture books, classics and non-fiction.
After starting in Odisha, Mishra and Rautaray continued on to Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and beyond. After 85 days and 11,000 kilometeres, they wound down in West Bengal on March 7.
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“People were overwhelmed to discover books they couldn’t find easily even in bookshops,” says Mishra. School and college students came in droves to look at the books, the truck and them. “We had thousands of school students at a reading session in Khammam, Telangana. It was overwhelming to see the joy on their faces,” says Mishra. An old man at the session was thrilled to find Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. When Rautaray and Mishra thanked everyone for coming, “he got angry!” laughs Mishra. “He said: we should be thanking you for coming with these books, not the other way round.”
Another joyous memory is of a bunch of bibliophilic sex workers in Bhubaneswar, to whom Mishra and Rautaray donated some books to build up a library.
Overcoming The Odds
Everything isn’t all happy-happy, though. The road is not always smooth. “There is so much traffic that driving is stressful,” says Mishra. “It’s also dangerous driving on the highways and finding a parking space is almost impossible.” She does not exaggerate when she says impossible. A two-day trip to Chennai became a few-hour detour to another venue because there was no place to park. “And I’ve had people stare at me because it’s odd for them to see a woman with weird hair (a pixie crop) drive such a huge truck,” says Mishra.
Driving through Naxal-dominated Bastar and Sukma in Chhattisgarh, the duo was stopped by army men and taken to the police because “they looked suspicious”. Finally released after much questioning, they were advised to stay on because it wasn’t safe to travel.
But ultimately, Mishra and Rautaray loved interacting with different people, eating different kinds of food and witnessing different kinds of cultures. And more importantly, knowing that Read More India made a difference.
“We learned that children just aren’t being introduced to books outside of their syllabus,” says Mishra. “We met a bunch of girls from an engineering college who had never read anything apart from their textbooks. There are so many more like them who are absolutely clueless and unaware of the world outside. It’s sad.”
From HT Brunch, March 27, 2016
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