A book revolution in Gujarat's culture city

One of the oldest cities in Gujarat, Navsari has proactively started a community-oriented book reading campaign. Devanshu Desai looks at the avant-garde methods used to promote book culture.

18 Jan 2014 | By PrintWeek India

A book changes so many peoples’ lives – we often hear this. But have you heard about a handful of people joining hands and revolutionising the world of books and libraries?

This has been made possible… Where?
In Gujarat, in a small city next to Dandi, called Navsari, which is known as ‘sanskar nagari’ (culture-city).

In this city of Jamshedji Tata and Dadabhai Navroji, a unique and peaceful revolution is being created by books, book-reading and libraries. And, if everything goes according to the plan, in a few years, Navsari will be famous in the world for its book reading culture and its libraries.

It is said about Gujaratis that they are more interested in ‘look culture’ than in ‘book culture’; that Gujaratis spend more money on paan than on books! That the ‘Gujjus’ read only one ‘book’, and that is their passbook or chequebook! … In short, various disparaging comments have been made. But if a person harbouring such sentiments visits the Sayaji Vaibhav Library in Navsari, they will be amazed!

A unique movement of street libraries has sprung up in Navsari in the past decade. Navsari and its surrounding areas have a population of around 300,000. There is a 115-year-old Sayaji Vaibhav Library in the main city. Apart from this, a number of streets, like Kabilpore, Kaliyawadi, Aashabaug, Thakkarbapa Niwas, Rustomwadi, Gandevi Road – they boast of libraries too. This includes 15 to 20 such libraries, which have mushroomed in a short span. Every two months, a small, new library is started in a new area.

Fifty-thousand school-going children are associated with activities like book reading contests, etc. The credit for all this goes to two book lovers of Navsari – Mahadevbhai Desai and Jayprakash Mehta.

So how did all this start?
An architect-engineer, Mahadevbhai Desai, who is the president of the library tells the story:

“In the ‘90s, the library was almost completely decrepit. The building had almost collapsed. I was travelling to Mumbai by train and reading Bhagvatikumar Sharma’s novel, Suryalok. In the novel, the dream of the hero was to renovate and modernise the old library of his town, and make it a ‘granth tirth’ in the real sense of the term. After completing the novel in a hotel room in Mumbai, I decided to do the same for our Sayaji library.”

After returning to Navsari, Mahadevbhai started a conversation titled ‘My Favourite Book’. This happened on the first Saturday of the month, where two young people discussed books that appealed to them. On the second Saturday, younger children participated and spoke about the books they liked. The third Saturday was reserved for women participants, and the fourth Saturday was open to all. And so, by the end of the year, around 900 such book conversations took place. And much more importantly, 2000 books were read!

Mahadevbhai said, “We were disciplined; we were punctual and we never started late. And in this way, we created 4000 to 5000 book lovers in a span of two to three years.”

In this way, ‘My Favourite Book’ conversations gave a platform to young children. In the last 18 years, about a thousand children and 150 housewives participated in these sessions.

Leading litterateurs like Suresh Dalal, Bhagwatikumar Sharma, Kavi Ushnas, Jayant Pathak, Harshad Shah were invited to discuss their favourite books.

This was one of the activities…

So, what next?
Another literary pillar of the Sayaji Library is Jayprakash Mehta. He took voluntary retirement from his bank job, at the age of 50, in order to work for “a social cause”. He is the secretary of the library.

Mehta stated, “In order to guide children towards books and reading, we started a unique competition in 2002. It is called ‘The Best Reader Competition’. This meant, 11,000 children of 25 schools of Navsari participated and 35,000 books were read by them!”

The joint secretary of the Sayaji Library, Swati Nayak said that at the time of the competition, all the children’s libraries in the city opened their doors for the children. “In this way, all their bookshelves emptied out. This ensured that children became lifetime readers and book lovers. Navsari witnessed unprecedented long queues outside libraries!”

Along with the children, parents too started reading. A whole new culture and habit of reading started to evolve in the city.

The treasurer of Sayaji Library, Girishbhai Desai, said, “Because of these developments, we started one more project, which is called ‘Floating Books’.” Mahadevbhai Desai said, under this project 5000 Navsarians bought one book each. After they completed the book, they circulated them among ten friends. Finally the book was donated to the library.

This ‘Floating Books’ project led to 50,000 new book purchases. Furthermore, people cultivated a habit of buying their own books, based on their own reading inclinations.

Desai said, “Due to a regular reading habit, children developed confidence and our enthusiasm increased manifold.” He continued, “In 2005, we organised a role-model reading contest. This may be the first such contest not only in India, but perhaps in the whole world!” In this contest, children had to read books and decide their role model based on it, and study their role model in depth.

This truly was an innovative idea. In this way, a 300-page book was written, based on various personalities of different fields. This book is titled ‘Let Us Learn About Life’. Its only purpose was to let the children understand their role models, better and not just a superficial manner.

This movement continued for seven months and at the end, the celebrations lasted for four days. Thirty-thousand children participated, 2300 of whom read more than 25 books. More than 100 children read more than 80 books. Forty-seven schools hosted book-marches. And, more than 10,000 books were purchased.

As a result of this book revolution, two slogans became popular throughout the city:

“Give us books instead of Pepsi.”

“We will read, and make our parents read.”

More power to the Sayaji Vaibhav Library in Navsari. As Mahadevbhai said, “Today, in every household, all the dadas and dadis, maata–pitaand grandchildren are reading and discussing books.”

Another idea was kick-started in 2007. Under this project, in 150 days, talks were organised at Navsari’s street corners. About 2500 books were discussed. The amazing thing was, rickshawallahs stopped their rickshaws and heard these talks. In toto, 13,000 students from 800 schools organised these talks in different mohallas and housing societies. At the end of the project, the noted Gandhi Katha reciter, Narayanbhai Desai, and other writers were present.

Later, taking into consideration the school vacation, a new movement, “Come, let us go to the Library” was initiated. Deepakbhai Parikh, convener of the book-connect programme, said that they decided to give one notebook free to all the students. This enabled students to read five books during the vacation in order to procure one notebook. There were many students who secured their entire year’s stock of notebooks by reading 30 to 40 books during the vacation! There were 55 students who read more than 30 books.


The book project continues
The joint secretary of Sayaji Library said, “We are planning to organise 500 reading camps throughout the city this year. Many other cities in Gujarat have been inspired to do such activities in their city libraries.”

What keeps Sayaji Vaibhav Library going is the number of ideas that are constantly being generated. And so, in 2010, approximately 50 hours with a Vishwakosh began. Mohanbhai said, “Encyclopedias are ignored. They gather dust in a library. Therefore we decided that all the encyclopedias in the library will be read by students for two hours a day.” In this way, the children in Navsari had access to a lot of information on myriad subjects, plus they learnt about the planet.

Novel ideas
Another novel idea was the scheme of street libraries that the team of Mahadevbhai Desai and Jayprakash Mehta started, during the 45th session of the Gujarati Sahitya Parishad. Each street library had a space of at least 150 sq/ft, one bookshelf and around 500 books. Each library is managed by children. This includes, a team of eight students and one captain. The captain changes every year. The first to provide the space for this library was Jalaram Mandir of Kalia Wadi. This is where the Swami Vivekananda City Library was started. Deepakbhai and Pankajbhai are the two directors of the institution.

Pankajbhai said, although this street library is six months old, a majority of the children in this area have read all the books!  He said, “Now we will exchange books with other such libraries.”

We met Manjari Parekh, homemaker, who narrated her experience. Her son, Dishant, an eighth grade student had a problem. She said, “He used to be very angry all the time. He would fight with everyone for trivial and petty reasons. I did not know how to deal with him and was utterly confused. Then an idea occurred to me. I borrowed a book about holistic child development from the library and gave it to him. After reading it, he developed such a profound interest in reading that his entire personality changed! He would eagerly wait for a Sunday and borrow a new book. This changed the atmosphere of the entire household. Soon, everyone started reading and discussing books.” Manjari Parekh is a member of the organisation of her community. She has promised to give space in order to start a street library in her area.

Jayprakash Mehta pointed out how they have started a street library in the Navsari jail too.


Books in every street corner
The coordinator of street libraries, Nileshbhai Thakker, who runs tuition classes, has a library of more than 1000 books. At that time, they met 12-year-old Fatima in the class. She comes from a lower middle-class family. Today, she has purchased 51 books for her personal library in the past one year. She said, “I have acquired good friends, I started getting first rank in my studies. This is all because of reading books. And even when at times I get lesser marks in my tests, I don’t get disheartened. This is because reading has taught me so much!”

All these success stories have ensured that more and more people are joining the movement. Vijayant Apartment Housing Society of Lunsikui area has also promised to give an office space to host a street library.

One of the recent success stories is Readers’ Point library. Kunjal Desai of Readers’ Point observed that their street library is managed entirely by children. She said, “We have started the library only four months ago. What is remarkable is how the children in this block wrote a play and staged it during the Navratri festival, all on their own. This is due to the library, which chiselled their habit. Now the children share global stories with their grandparents.”

Like the Readers’ Point, there is a project called ‘Pustak Setu’. Under this project, a team of 10 to 12 children is created. Every week this team visits one successful person in Navsari and discuss his/her personal books and library. The children fix appointments with doctors, engineers, lawyers, artists, businessmen, etc.

The day this author [Devanshu Desai] was in Navsari, the team was visiting the home library of professor and joint secretary of the library, Dr Kirtida Vaid. The team consisted of students of seventh to eleventh grade. On this occasion, the team was Sahil Sheikh, Ruchi Sanghvi, Karishma Bhatia, etc. When we listened to their stories, we realised how books have transformed their lives.

100 street libraries in five years
Today, the Sayaji Vaibhav Library, apart from housing one-lakh books, also has an audio-visual library. The library is open 365 days. It does not charge any fees from members of the street libraries. Mahadevbhai said, “We have only one dream: to create 100 street libraries in the next five years. This means, every child in Navsari becomes a member of a library. Navsari hopes to gift such people to the world.”

Mahadevbhai said, today patrons in the area are ready to donate money for a mandir or masjid, but very few are willing to provide funds for a library. He said, “We started getting just Rs one lakh a year from the government. But since the last year, we are spending Rs 14 to 15 lakhs for the library and other related activities.” Mahadevbhai Desai’s aim is to start more street libraries. He said, “Each new library will cost Rs 50,000, but we have great faith in our ability to achieve this goal in next four to five years.”

However, after looking at the functioning and activities of the Sayaji Vaibhav Library, the philanthropic Parekh family of Navsari, Narendrabhai and his son Prashantbhai, donated Rs 31 lakh in 2005 to it. This money was invested in rebuilding the library building. Later, a doctor family of Navsari, Asmaben, Zarinaben and Hanifaben, gave Rs 10 lakh. Mahedavbhai Desai said, “This only goes to prove that there are people who come forward to support a worthwhile activity in Gujarat.”

When author Bhagvatikumar Sharma visited Navsari, he observed that now Navsari has achieved the title of ‘Granthtirth’ (abode of books).

Desai said, “We were really extremely happy when the author of Suryalok said, “Navsari has realised the dream of the character in my novel. And the readers of Navsari have done so for real.”


This feature appeared in Chitralekha magazine’s Diwali Ank (the Diwali special edition) – Deep Utsavi 2013. It has been translated from Gujarati into English for PrintWeek India by Ramu Ramanthan. Photos: Prakash Sarmalkar/Chitralekha. Published by permission.