Circles: Starting the Indian Revolution (Part 1)

Libraries and More

In January when I was in the Bay Area, one of my meetings took place at an unusual venue – the Mountain View Public Library. Unusual because most meetings tended to be at Starbucks or some café. (Fun fact: The US has more public libraries than Starbucks or McDonalds.) When I arrived at the library, I was amazed at how big it was. There were also meeting rooms where one could have privacy. There were also computers with Internet access. The library was much more than a home for books; it was a resource for the community. And perhaps the person I needed to thank was Andrew Carnegie.

During 1883 to 1929, a total of 2509 libraries were built from money donated by Carnegie. These libraries – across the US, UK and Ireland, and Canada – became knowledge hubs and meeting points for local communities. Here is an overview from NPR on the impact: “Public libraries became instruments of change — not luxuries, but rather necessities, important institutions — as vital to the community as police and fire stations and public schools… Temples of learning, ambition, aspiration for towns and cities throughout the United States.”

I thought about my own experience with libraries in India. When I was in college, I visited Mumbai’s British Council Library at Nariman Point often. They had a very good collection of books. I discovered the Asiatic Library at Fort quite late in life. For some reason, it didn’t seem as attractive – dark and gloomy. (Or maybe that was my mood the day I went.) One of the best libraries I have visited has been the Kavi Narmad library in Surat – the collection of books is huge, there is a separate children’s section, and there is a large well-lit room for reading newspapers and magazines. Friends talk about the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi, but I have never visited it.

Most libraries are places of silence – they did not encourage community. They are lonely places – and perhaps that’s the right focus for libraries. Besides the fact that India lacks an adequate infrastructure of public libraries, what we also miss are places where people can gather and connect with each other.

If we had to start India’s political and economic revolution that I recently wrote about, it would be very important to bring people together and change minds – one at a time. For this, there would be a need for neighbourhood cells all across India with a dual purpose – creating the social infrastructure and an organised cadre.

It was in this context that I started thinking about the shakha (meaning, branch) – popularised by the RSS in India. Friends who had attended the RSS shakhas in their youth spoke positively about the fun and game activities and the bonding – and of course, the indoctrination. But when I asked if they would send their kids to the shakhas, the answer was a universal No. While the physical shakhas may not be as active as they once were, how could we rethink the concept of the shakha to bring people together in neighbourhoods and foster a common bond between them? Could a new version of the shakha – the local “Circle” – become the foundation for building India’s social infrastructure?

Tomorrow: Part 2

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.