SOCIETY: WORDS TO THE MASSES

Published December 24, 2023
The Alif Laila Book Bus and the Rickshaw Library aim to give children from different backgrounds a continued access to books 
| Alif Laila Book Bus Society
The Alif Laila Book Bus and the Rickshaw Library aim to give children from different backgrounds a continued access to books | Alif Laila Book Bus Society

Once a month on Saturday mornings, a loader rickshaw — its flanks masked by psychedelic posters and fun messages — parks itself along the railing of the small park in Sector U of Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority (DHA).

Arriving precisely at 10 in the morning, the driver and a staff member of the Alif Laila Book Bus’ (ALBB) Rickshaw Library jump down to raise the shutters, displaying built-in shelves full of a kaleidoscopic collection of books, games and stationery.

The books are tattered and much thumbed, but they are a-plenty — they are an invitation to read, to turn the pages in search of pictures, to be gawked at and, more importantly, to be simply felt.

Children — kids of drivers, maids and daily wage earners — trickle in from the adjacent staff quarters, from the mohallas [localities] beyond the security barriers. Amidst whispers, nudges and giggles, one brave soul walks up to climb inside the rickshaw, only to re-emerge a few minutes later. He beckons to his playmates.

Small mobile libraries in Lahore are opening up a whole new world of knowledge and recreation for communities and turning books and words into a lived social experience

It is probably the first time in his life that he has come up so close to a storybook with illustrations and drawings, hence the need to share is compulsive. Curiosity writ large on their faces, some others follow suit, hesitantly.

Two hours later, as the ALBB Rickshaw Library packs up for the day, it leaves behind a trail of light, if not learning. It also leaves behind a fellowship of sorts between two polar social units — for close on the heels of the hesitant under-privileged children arrive some of their most advantaged peers from the surrounding houses.

Equally curious about the rickshaw and its contents, it is also probably the first time in their lives that the bungalow children are getting a taste of some real social diversity. This makes the presence of the Rickshaw Library in Lahore’s elitist residential area a win-win phenomenon.

As a fringe benefit, the rickshaw’s monthly visit routinely draws in an amazing number of members of the community: architects, artists, craft-savvy housewives, grandparents and the odd climate activist all gather in the park, bringing their own expertise and empathy to a unique community initiative.

The project is unique because the community invited the Alif Laila book-bank not as part of any structured learning programme but to use the small library collection as a turning point to turn books and words into a lived social experience. Taking a cue from the Alif Laila Book Bus’ magnanimity, the U Block community has affected a socio-cultural change.

Ever the city with a reputation for food, fun and festivity, the gradual population of Lahore’s public spaces with books is a phenomenal cultural coup d’état that is overtaking city pavements, parking lots and bazaars.

Small loader rickshaws branded with a variety of company logos and sporting colourful images can be seen parked on any given working day around the city. They make odd bedfellows with the hooting vehicular and pedestrian traffic which, caught unaware by the presence of this third force on the roads, is intrigued to the point of enquiry.

The tiny set-ups have brought in a colourful ambience and a one-of-a-kind entertainment to the smog-ridden city. People of all ages — from senior citizens to little boys employed in the tea stalls and paan kiosks, even children trickling in from elite schools — are fast becoming a collective clientele for whatever reading material these small-time libraries offer.

Admittedly, the numbers have been small to start with, but a palpable excitement rides the airwaves, and people are increasingly drawn by the curio effect. Some just come to browse, but others actually come to return and borrow books.

“We do not charge anything,” says staffer Bisma at one of the set-ups. “People do come and return the borrowed books, but there is always the odd case of no return.” This in itself is a training of sorts, according to Basarat Kazim, the CEO of ALBB.

“We have to trust people, especially children, with the written word,” she says. “A couple of books lost down the road do not matter because, in the long run, we are ushering in trust and a sense of responsibility. One unreturned library book lying in some hovel may eventually become that essential opening to literacy for another family member.”

While ad hoc selection of sites is an option, most of these mobile libraries have conducted detailed research in selecting areas where a roadside presence of reading material can change the social ethos, and where a supply and demand paradigm can be nurtured.

More and more organisations are joining the bandwagon. Taking their lead from the ALBB and Hobby Clubs model, Library on Wheels is a Chughtai Labs venture initiated two years ago and boasts three vehicles that can be spotted in the parking lots of their labs on different days.

The vehicles take turns covering the lab’s presence all over the city, from elitist housing communities to peripheral settlements such as Harbanspura and Shadbagh. Dr Amjad Saqib’s NGO Akhuwat is also now a party to the Chughtai venture. Idara-i-Taalim-o-Agahi’s Kitab Ghar is yet another trickle-down effect of the one good deed set in motion by ALBB. Everyone has scheduled parking spaces, one spot a day, so that all city areas get covered in rotation.

Where the streets are too narrow for the ALBB mobile library to go, the company has arranged for carrier-bicycle libraries. It even has a fleet of camel libraries in Sindh and Balochistan. Limitations of space and general apathy to the book culture notwithstanding, Lahore’s roadside libraries are entire thrift sets of basic literacy-friendly options on the move.

With content ranging from books and magazines to digital, these new kids on the block are geared to revolutionise Lahore’s cultural philosophy.

Despite housing some of the best stocked libraries in the country, Lahore has not really been able to cater to the literacy requirements of a burgeoning population. Due to apathetic planning or perhaps the onslaught of the digital craze, Lahore’s libraries have failed to attract the masses. Hence, books need to be brought to the people.

This is exactly what Nita Baker envisioned 40 years ago. She had no idea of the trail she was blazing when she managed to get a parking space for a discarded double-decker bus in Gulberg’s Main Market. Neither did Syeda Basarat Kazim, who later stepped in to safeguard Baker’s legacy.

Together, they named their venture the Alif Laila Book Bus, building on the fantastic world of wonders that books are a key to. Putting their heart and soul into the venture, Kazim believed that the trust deficit society generally harbours for some of its citizens, be they senior citizens or small children, can be removed.

All that is required is easy access to reading material. And this, in essence, is what is birthing Lahore’s new culture.

The writer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content writer. She has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme.
X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2023

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