“More than often, we were asked why are we carrying books to places? Strange isn’t it. We don’t question a person selling air purifier or fairness creams. As a nation, we see celebrities and people at high ranks promoting everything but books which is pretty shocking,” says the bibliophile duo from Bhubaneswar who once made national headlines for travelling to 20 states, covering 10,000 km for a period of 90 days as part of their ‘Read More India’ campaign.
Sharing a bagful of bittersweet memories related to their journey with MCL, Akshaya Rautaray and Satabdi Mishra of ‘Walking BookFairs’ tell us how they feel passionate about promoting reading and making people experience the joy of reading. The duo who left their lucrative jobs to start their bookstore on wheels sincerely believe that nothing can replace the charm of paperbacks.
Shedding light on their last year’s most interesting truck journey, Akshaya says, “It wasn’t easy. The first challenge that came our way were the strange stares and questions that we had to face because Satabdi was driving the truck. A lot of people could not understand why we were doing such a thing!”
To this, Satabdi adds, “The biggest challenge was to find a wide open space to park the truck and spread out the books for public display. We have so many cars in every town and city that wide open spaces are soon disappearing.” Recalling an incident in Uttar Pradesh, Akshaya informs, “We had these policemen forcefully entering our truck asking for a bribe after we parked our truck.But then we were so tired, we didn’t have the patience to deal with the constables and ended up agreeing to their demands.”
Parking was not the only issue they faced. Finding food on the highways was also sometimes very difficult. Though millions of rupees are being spent to construct highways and users pay toll taxes, there are no public drinking water taps, no clean public toilets or resting rooms for travellers on highways.
So, what were their major observations during this entire journey, we ask? To this, Akshaya informed how young people in universities are no longer interested in buying books because they find everything online. They do not understand that internet became available a few years ago and in some places there is no internet yet. So books are needed for reference. The duo found that many schools and colleges do not have libraries, story books or books other than those prescribed in the course curriculum. Most people including parents and teachers focus only on scoring marks in schools, getting degrees in colleges and getting jobs but do not read books apart from those they carry to their institutions, which is sad.
Pic Courtesy: walking Bookfairs
The two, however, also had their share of wonderful experiences, “True, we met young people who don’t read books but we also found many who have already written a book of their own. In many places, we were happy to see people waving at our truck and looking at our books.“
They remember meeting an old man in Telangana who bought a book from them and when they thanked him, he literally shouted and said, ‘Don’t thank me. I should be thanking you.’ That was pretty touching, recalls Akshaya.
Pic Courtesy: walking Bookfairs
However they were happy that they did what they wanted to despite all odds. They always wanted to reach out to more people with books and they were happy to meet thousands of people across 20 states of India. Some of them were book lovers, some were not. Some had never seen books. But it was wonderful to see all kinds of people come together at one place, look at books and read them. School children, in particular, were most interested in books.
So, what is their take on the reading culture in Odisha compared to other states, we ask and Satabdi is quick to reply, “We have travelled 10,000 km through all 30 districts of Odisha with books in the last two years. We found that people in small towns and villages are more interested in books but they do not have books. Very few young people in urban areas are interested in books because they are not introduced to reading and books in schools or colleges. As a result they do not experience the joy of reading. Once more people have access to books through more bookshops and libraries, more people will start reading as well.”
To this, Akshaya adds, “We call Bhubaneswar a smart city but there are less than 10 public libraries in the city. If we are talking about free WiFi, then why not free reading spaces?”
Odisha or any other state in India can only progress when each man, woman and child is empowered. True empowerment comes from knowledge and knowledge comes from books. Development does not mean giving each farmer a mobile phone or television. Development is giving each man, woman and child a book.