Three-year-old Arpita, accompanied by her village didis, enters a garage at Nagari Farm Tea Estate in Darjeeling district, West Bengal. Instead of finding car parts, though, she stumbles into books—lots of them. She runs towards a table that has a giant encyclopedia and struggles to lift the heavy hardcover, but eventually manages to flip the pages. Seeing Arpita, Srijana Subba—a teacher of Pokhriabong Girls’ Higher Secondary School near Darjeeling, and the woman behind this space— smiles with contentment. “It feels like winning an award,” she said.
The space, curiously called the Book Thief Open Library and located some 36 km from Darjeeling, is unique in its own way. One may ask why but the first glimpse is a big giveaway: No librarian peering through their spectacles, or the need to maintain silence. Opened in 2016, this place derives its name from the novel, The Book Thief, by Australian author Markus Zusak. “The protagonist is an orphan girl who is on the verge of adolescence and is fascinated by the power of words,” says Subba. “She ends up stealing books from bonfires and mansions. This beautiful story, set on the backdrop of World War II in Germany, captivated my mind and made me think how beautiful the world would be if young minds were book thieves rather than engage in anti-social activities.”
It was Subba’s childhood dream to open a library to imbibe reading habits, especially among the youngsters. Recent reports show the many problems that shroud this region. Over the last decade, substance abuse of prescription drugs has become a major problem, and youngsters are the most vulnerable demographic due to reasons such as curiosity or peer pressure. For Subba, her garage was an opportunity to pitch in.
The Nagari Farm Tea Estate comprises around 20 hamlets, and each of these settlements are occupied by around 40 families. The area lacks proper library facilities, says Subba. Local reports document previous attempts of setting up libraries, not once but thrice: in 1970 came Devkota Gramin Pushtakalaya, followed by the Gorkha Fort Gramin Pustakalaya in 1988, and then again in 1996 with Agam Singh Giri Pustakalaya. Despite fulfilling all formalities for government aid, none of these lasted more than a few months. The locals blame the absence of librarians and internal politics among the members.
With pink-and-green interiors, the space has modified old jeep carriers and bicycle parts to function as magazine racks and newspaper holders. Old tyres have been painted in bright colours with bamboo planks laid across, to be used as seating. Her old, dysfunctional fridge now stocks books. “In a way, the library is made from waste materials,” says Subba, who, in 2011, authored a collection of poems called Fragments.
The library—built from her personal collection as well as those donated by friends and well-wishers—has more than 500 books that cater to academics, general knowledge, religion, fiction and nonfiction, both in English and Nepali. It also has a children’s corner with collections of Aesop’s Fables and illustrated fairy tales. “Students from nearby villages also drop in on their way home,” she says.During one of my visits, I meet 13-year-old Nityam Sharma, who has been visiting the library since last year. “If there’s a heaven, it’s this library,” he says. “It has a very good collection of books which help us gain more knowledge,” says the class VII student who wants to be a scientist.
And the library is not limited to children. Adults and senior citizens also visit to preen through English and Nepali dailies. Even Nepali authors come by, leaving a copy of their books. Subba tells me how she recently hosted Manipuri author Rahul Rai, whose collection of poems Kalo Akshar (Black Letter) has been translated into Hindi (Kala Akshar), along with Darjeeling-based writer Arjun Pradhan.
“There are hardly any public libraries in northern Bengal,” says Siliguri-based writer Sumana Roy, who has authored Missing and How I Became a Tree. “A culture of reading opens up a world of imagination, possibility, and expectation for children from smaller settlements, those without the advantage of studying and growing up in metropolitan places.” Bengaluru-based author Mala Kumar, adds, “However small, a library is always a good thing for a community. Books open the reader’s mind to a whole new world outside their immediate surrounding. Readings give strength to our ideas, helping us to strive for a better life for ourselves, for our families and sometimes for our larger community.”
“After coming home from work, it’s always a delight to see book lovers enjoying reading in the open space. Who knows, the library might be helping future Pablo Neruda or Anne Frank,” Subba signs off.