What does it take to build a library? Not so much, yet a lot. This is the story of the wonderful things I learned in helping my friends build a public library in a village called Chaengdai, a beautiful Rongmei village situated six hours away from Imphal, standing tall on one of Tamenglong’s misty mountains.
The beginning of 2020 was hopeful for many people, with their dreams and plans finally looking like they will come through. So naturally, it was in January when a mutual friend shared on Instagram that their village students’ union had just started a project of building Chaengdai Public Library in their village. There is no functioning public library in Tamenglong district as of now, and I learned that when this one starts functioning, it would be the first non-government public library in Tamenglong district! The beauty of this project lies in it being almost fully crowd-funded, with membership open to all. The project name was simply, “Let’s build a library,” like their Instagram username suggests, and the first step was calling out to people for book donations. For me, 2019 had been a year of voracious book buying and reading, and therefore a library in a mountain village excited me. Not enough to make me donate my books for I am very stingy with my books, but enough to offer myself to do the cataloguing. This excitement was to take me places.
I had helped build a small library in a children home I once worked in, and that experience taught me that a library never goes to waste. It is essential to have libraries for every cluster of population, whether it be for a remote village or a crowded urban locality. Simply because not everyone can afford to buy books, and having an easy and homely access to a library will create a culture of reading among all kinds of people. And we all know that reading does wonders to an individual and society.
So the project was kicking off quite well, with people donating out of genuine concern and enthusiasm. Being someone with an alarming number of friends and acquaintances, I naturally became part of the pick-up and delivery activities. This reminded me that I am blessed with the friendship of avid readers, and that reading is slowly picking up in Manipur. People from Imphal area would reach out to me and I in turn would inform the Chaengdai folks. I like to believe I received this yellow ‘medal’ for my sacrificial act of helping my friends.
Like how every story in 2020 would read in the pages of history, this effort to build a library was disrupted when the corona pandemic made a dashing entry into the country. In late March, the team had to rush home to Chaengdai. Although there they were reunited with everyone and were pre-occupied with village activities, they were concerned of how the project will pick up its pace again. I remember it was then that this interesting Edinburgh-based podcast called ‘The Contemplative Tribal’ interviewed Nambi Panmei, the guy leading the team, on what the project was all about, their vision and future plans. This podcast episode started another wave of donations around the month of May, starting with a generous cash donation by a lovely lady from New Zealand. The support came all the way from the land of the hobbits! Since commuting was impossible due to lockdown, the team asked me to help them pick out books for this purchase. This was when I became fully involved with the library and how mutual friends moved up the ladder to become good friends.
We could have easily chosen random books from Amazon to be directly delivered to our doorstep at the cheapest of prices. However, we recognised that we want to connect with local bookshops that are not only well-stocked but are also known to provide the best of services. In the hope that the library would continue to get cash donations in the future, we decided to start with the pretty little Ukiyo Bookstore for this first purchase. Ukiyo had just organised a very lit Lit Fest last October, yet they remained ever humble and helpful. Throughout the lockdown-induced inconvenient WhatsApp exchanges, we had the freedom to change our minds as many times as we wanted, and we could be our shameless selves too. Even after all that, the store later donated a compact box full of good books that impressed us much. All thanks to Martin, the man of Ukiyo, who made sure that the box contained award-winning books and those books we could not afford before. Such love!
Things were slowly opening up around July, and that was when it occurred to us that I could visit Chaengdai as their delivery girl and do the cataloguing. All we waited for was to tag along on a private vehicle which would be strong and big enough to brave the molten mountain chocolate roads, maintain the pointless social distancing and also have space for our books. When an opportunity opened, I was activated. The socialite in me started contacting everyone for donations in kind and cash. My close girlfriends sent in generous donations even during hard financial times, simply because they were the best people on earth. The last bits of humanity left in me made me donate four books of mine. The traveller in me gave me sleepless nights. The excitement of escaping the dusty, dirty city to a misty magical place of mountains and books kept me awake. But just a few days before the trip, the second lockdown was declared. It hit me hard. I started sleeping again.
However, in early September, things became better and the same opportunity opened. In less than a week of confirming dates, we were able to reach out to willing donors with the help of our shamelessness. We used my girlfriends’ cash donations to buy books of our choice from Ukiyo again and also from Reader’s Book Store, which was another important store the library had been in contact with. We also picked up book donations from not less than five people, all in a couple of days. The way all these worked out so well made me realise that the right people will show up to help at the right time, with grace and genuineness, no matter the situation imposed on them.
My stay in Chaengdai was like a dream. Since I went with my close friend, who is originally from the village, I was the only actual guest. My only task was to deliver some books and do the cataloguing, which are things I’d happily do any day, but I was treated like royalty. It was my first visit but the hospitality and welcoming vibe made me feel so much at home that five days went by comfortably. It took us five days because cataloguing happened between long-drawn hours of power cuts. I could even join my travel partner’s project of documenting folk songs and shooting music videos. Consistent low batteries on all electronic devices gave us time for late night coffee brewing, music breaks, dinner parties, and even a picnic. The otherwise painful task of typing in ISBNs and figuring out genre of every book was not too exhausting after all. At the end, we had 376 titles and counting, because a few books were still in Tamenglong town with those who had already started borrowing.
So what does it really take to build a library? Not money, nor infrastructure, not even trained personnel, but simply good, concerned, and willing people. In teaming up with Chaengdai folks, life lessons were learned, friendships were forged and memories were made. Not even a pandemic could stop us. My experience clearly says that whether you initiate a project, help an existing one like I did, or just simply donate, a little help goes a long way. Those who have some power and connections to revive the dead state and district libraries can also take up necessary action. We all know how important it is for people to have easy access to all basic facilities like health, water, good roads, education and so on. Imagine how beautiful it will be to see everyone read and learn about the world from the place where we live among our own people. Chaengdai is slowly getting there one book at a time, and it is never too late to do our part in building libraries.