By Zinnia Sengupta:
Reading Space, the Cuddalore chapter of the Belongg Library Network, is a cozy nook that houses over 400 books (mostly in Tamil) for readers of all ages, with a focus on children’s literature. Situated in this small town, Reading Space aims to make literature more accessible in places where the written word isn’t quite widespread yet.
The founder, Banupriya Jagadeesan, who hosts the library in her own home, is a storyteller who works with children from marginalized communities. She believes in the power of art and literature to transform complex ideas into meaningful conversations.
We spoke to Banupriya about the story behind Reading Space, her fears and inspirations, and everything in between.
ZS: Could you tell us a little about your own journey with books and literature? Any memorable childhood anecdotes?
BJ: Growing up in a town, I can only remember being introduced to Enid Blyton books, Nancy Drew and Hardy boys in school, with some Birbal and Panchatantra stories being available outside. It was only in my early twenties that I discovered children’s books written by Indian authors and world literature, over the course of my diploma from Dakshinachitra Museum, Chennai. I began reading widely since then.
ZS: Building from that, what motivated you to start the Reading Room? Any particular source of inspiration that stands out?
BJ: I love picture books, and I conduct weekly story sessions using my books for children in an NGO that works with underprivileged communities. As much as I wanted other children in the town to use my books, I had huge doubts about running a library – funds for more books, membership fee, admin,etc. Nonetheless, a few of my friends continued to buy me books, and that gave me the courage to take a step and start a library. Mridula Koshy’s talk about free libraries also helped me understand things better and decide strongly on free membership. So that’s how I started Reading Space in July 2020.
ZS: What do you hope to achieve with the Reading Room, both in the near future and over the long term? What role do you see this organization playing in cultivating a diverse reading culture in the town?
BJ: I really hope to reach out to diverse communities and make important books accessible to people in different places. I believe we will be able to create a vibrant, inclusive reading culture through careful curation of books, improving socioeconomic access, and creating spaces and programmes for people to meet and exchange ideas. Running a library all by myself didn’t allow me much time to plan events. I am excited and hopeful that this collaboration with Belongg will help bring interesting, relevant literary experiences to our small community here.
ZS: Would you share some of the toughest challenges that come with running a literary organization like this? How have you managed to cope with those?
BJ: It is really, really challenging to find readers. Sometimes I think it is easier to get donors. Since we have a very small collection of over 500 books, I thought it would be okay if people slowly come in by word-of-mouth recommendations. We didn’t have any sign outside. I did go around talking to different people in and around the area – neighbours, security and housekeeping personnel in a hospital here, auto-men at the street corner, vendors and sanitation workers who come to the street each day for work. Nobody stepped in. I did lose hope at times. Likes and shares on social media didn’t seem to matter. Then, we put up a sign three months ago and it has been interesting to see some people walk in. People from far off towns who visit the hospitals on our street step in and spend time browsing through the books. Nevertheless, it has only been around 10 people who have come to the library so far, which is very, very low considering that nearly 500 people visit the hospitals here each day.
Recently, I saw a group of children playing on a ground near the beach in Pondicherry. After a few days, with a lot of hesitation, I did go and talk about the library to some children and adults in a street nearby. They were really interested and now I deliver books to children there. Since this worked out well, perhaps, I need to do more such outreach. However, being the only person to handle things here is rather tiring sometimes.
ZS: Tell us about one of your favourite and most memorable experiences since you’ve started this organization!
BJ: A parent called me almost after four months since I met her outside a stationery shop and started to talk about the library, quite unexpectedly. Soon, she visited the library and we ended up chatting for more than an hour. She borrowed books for her children and on her next visit, brought her daughter along. The young girl in turn, got her cousins along later. Now they visit the library regularly.
Another memorable incident comes to mind. I deliver books to a few boys who live in a hostel in Pondicherry. They have restrictions there and we have met only once over a wall. I managed to get a book they asked and a woman passed it on to them. Last week, one of the boys peeped through a window to thank me.
ZS: Could you share your thoughts on the importance of representation in literature? According to you, what is the significance of diverse and inclusive literature in the times we live in today?
BJ: I have friends from different cultures and professions; friends with different gender identities, sexual orientations or disabilities. The more I read about them or see them represented in movies, the better I can try to understand their lives and unique contexts. I believe diversity and inclusion in literature creates more awareness, helps us treat each other with dignity and connect with our fellow human beings.
ZS: In an Indian context, what do you think about the current landscape of inclusive literature in the country? Challenges, reasons for hope, possible ideas for a more diverse future?
BJ: I admire the work of small independent publishers in India like Zubaan, Navayana or Panther’s Paw. How they manage to do incredible work with small teams and limited resources is hugely inspiring. I also look up to children’s publishers like Pratham, Tulika, Duckbill, Tara, etc. who focus on diversity and inclusion. Initiatives like JCB and DSC literary prizes, literature festivals, series like ‘Publishing and the Pandemic’ on Scroll, libraries like TCLP, Bookworm, Belongg, and independent bookstores give me a lot of hope and inspiration.