Sanjay Raja protests the murder of Ajmal Sawand by setting up a Sindh Reads book stall, that distributes books for free | Photo provided by Sanjay Raja
Sanjay Raja protests the murder of Ajmal Sawand by setting up a Sindh Reads book stall, that distributes books for free | Photo provided by Sanjay Raja

When Professor Dr Ajmal Sawand, prominent educationist and Assistant Professor at the Sukkur IBA University, was killed in Kandhkot in a tribal feud last month, the enraged civil society organised protests all over the country.

One such protest was arranged at the Karachi Press Club (KPC) where dozens of participants were gathered to condemn the brutal murder and seek justice for the slain professor, who also had a doctorate in artificial intelligence (AI).

At one corner of the KPC on the day of the protest sat a man on the footpath with dozens of books. His name was Sanjay Raja and he was recording his protest differently. Raja was neither chanting slogans nor did he have a placard in his hands. He was carrying books and was offering them for free to spread knowledge, wisdom, awareness and peace.

According to Raja, “I want them [the assailants] to know that they can take a precious life but cannot take away the love of knowledge from people.”

In a digital era where most have shifted away from reading, Sindh Reads is actively attempting to instil the culture of reading by providing free access to books and financial assistance for education in different parts of Pakistan

Under Sindh Reads, a campaign launched in 2020 to promote book-reading culture and establish community libraries, Raja distributed hundreds of books to the participants at the KPC that day. This was not the first time that he has chosen books over placards to protest against ignorance and barbarism. When a school in Sehwan was torched by miscreants to disrupt education, Raja had set-up a free book stall at Frere Hall to spread the light of knowledge.

A journey of satisfaction

Sindh Reads in a one-of-a-kind initiative to bring much-needed change and highlight the oft-forgotten need to read in society. It is an inspirational journey of a civil engineer who hails from a small town of Sindh and sets off on a mission to give back to society. Raja explains that Sindh Reads aims to develop and promote reading among people, establish community-based libraries, use books as souvenirs, set-up study circles, add modern literature to the already established libraries and enhance the reading skills of schoolchildren.

“We gift ajrak to people as a souvenir. Wouldn’t it be great if we add a book along with it?” he asks.

When a lockdown was imposed in the country in 2020 and people were confined to their homes looking for a healthy activity to keep them distracted from depressing news, Raja thought to send books to people who love to read. He took pictures of the titles from his repository of books, uploaded them on his Twitter account and asked his followers to choose whatever book they like. He promised them that their chosen books would be sent to their doorsteps in a few days.

“At first, people were sceptical about my offer,” Raja shares. “They thought why someone would send them books for free.”

In the beginning, only a few people showed interest. Gradually, more and more people contacted Raja to get their favourite book.

“Within a span of four months, I delivered at least 400 books to different people all across the country,” Raja states.

The financial position, location or gender of the readers does not matter to him; he just appreciates readers.

Raja had received a phenomenal response and tons of appreciation from people. His eyes beam with pride and satisfaction as he walks Eos through his journey.

“I can assure you that our people love to read; they just don’t get the opportunity, resources and environment for it.”

As the sale of books dipped during the initial months of the pandemic, Raja used to get nearly 100 books with an investment of Rs 12,000 from his own pocket.

“The irony is that those who have books, do not read them. They keep them safe in their bookshelves. These books are forgotten and then lost in the dust,” he laments.

The dusty treasure trove

The need to share and donate books cannot be emphasised enough, Raja argues. He encourages people to donate books that are sitting in their bookshelves so they can reach the right people.

“Books are not meant to be decorated on bookshelves. They should neither be kept inside locks. They should be accessible to everyone,” he says while lamenting how the Metropole Street Library remains locked.

Through the Sindh Reads initiative, Raja has distributed 28,000 books so far, all across Pakistan, including Hunza, the Khyber Agency, Swat and various areas of Sindh and Balochistan. He receives the greatest number of book requests from Naushero Feroz, Larkana and Tharparkar, and the lowest from the tribal areas of Sindh.

“These numbers tell us much about the priorities of people,” he shares.

Moreover, Sindh Reads has donated books to nearly 25 libraries across the country. It has played a pioneering role in setting up a library in Pir Jo Goth and in Umer Kot district in honour of the renowned Sindhi poet Mama Juman Darbadar. Sindh Reads has also helped revive the libraries of Kotri Girls College and the Sindh University Campus Thatta.

“The bookshelves were installed in the college and university library, but they were empty,” Raja says. “I was surprised to see those vacant shelves because these institutions offer degree programmes that requires extensive research and references.”

He adds that Sindh Reads has also sponsored the second literature festival of the Sindh University Campus Thatta.

Sindh Reads also provides colourful activity books to young schoolchildren to develop their interest in books from an early age. It also provides stationary, books and copies to deserving children.

“We have also installed a bookshelf in Naudero with an offer: keep one book and get one free. We have also set-up two salon libraries in Badah.”

Raja has recently visited those salons and was happy to see that of the five people waiting for their turn, two were reading a book. “It was great progress,” he remarks.

An advisory board consisting of Farzeen, Akhter Banbhan, Saeed Sangri and Saad Memon help run Sindh Reads smoothly.

Reading culture

Raja believes that reading culture is not dying in our society because it was never truly there in the first place. We have to develop it. The responsibility lies with parents first, he explains. They encourage their children to read yet do not read books themselves.

“Children do what they see, not what has been preached to them. Therefore, parents need to put their mobile phones away and pick up a book during their free time. This is the best way to teach a child to stay away from screens and read when they are bored,” he argues.

There is also no denying the responsibility of the government with regards to this matter. But there is a need to stop complaining and simply take action. Those who have libraries can open them to their neighbours and friends. Those who have a collection of books can pass them onto others. If every household in a society or apartment donates at least one book, they can easily establish a society library on their own, Raja suggests.

Priorities in check?

The dilemma is that libraries have never been a priority from common people or for those having some authority. You may have hardly seen an election campaign promising to establish libraries or a mega-housing society offering a library in its state-of-the-art facilities. Raja is working to achieve this milestone and is hopeful that a housing society offering a library will soon be established in Hyderabad.

“Unfortunately, a library programme launched by the Benazir Bhutto government in the early 1990s was discontinued soon. No such programme has since been launched on a mass level to establish and promote libraries,” he says. The local government must step forward in this regard, Raja recommends.

“There are more than 1,100 union councils (UC) in Sindh. There should be at least one library in each UC,” he adds. “Moreover, there should be a proper analysis based on population size and area to determine the need of libraries in the area.”

The door to success

Libraries are a gateway to success for people who want to read, study or prepare for an exam. They offer companions in the form of books and allow readers to travel to different worlds and time periods.

Raja is confident that people would go to libraries if they could access them easily. Through Sindh Reads, he wishes to build at least one library each month and offer scholarships to students pursuing postgraduate studies. He has also collected school fees and laptops for deserving students.

“There is a need to launch a rigorous campaign to help people realise the importance of reading and learning,” Raja says. “We can do it together. The government needs to provide a conducive environment for it. But unfortunately, cheating has become part of our culture.”

Raja wants to leave a positive image of the people of Sindh on his fellow countrymen.

“If someone from Hunza receives a gift of a book with a sticker of Sindh Reads, he will know that the people of this province love to read,” he explains. Raja also carries books in his car and has pasted a poster asking people to stop him and choose a book for free.

In an era where technology is blamed for distracting people from reading books, the biggest distraction that stops our people from reading is their very basic needs such as food, employment, access to electricity, water and gas. It is no secret that well-informed nations make well-informed decisions. Perhaps, this is the reason why these basic needs are never met and why libraries and book reading have never been a priority for any government in Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

She tweets @Tanzeel09

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 28th, 2023


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