Vrishank Sai Anand was four-and-a-half years old when he went up to his mother and suggested that they organise a book donation drive for underprivileged children. He had been listening to his mother talk about how many children across the world do not have access to books since he was a toddler, so this was not entirely unexpected. Yet, as the 11-year-old narrates the incident during our interview on Zoom, a sense of awe and mild disbelief descends on us. A four-year-old talking about books in the 21st century? “Vrishank was an early communicator,” says his mother Rajalakshmi aka Raji. “In fact, he was able to speak when he was 18 months old.”
The Dubai boy is the youngest volunteer at Storytime, which is a network of 145 volunteers spread across the globe. Founded in India, the network enables communities which reach out for help — like schools in rural areas — to set up reading spaces for themselves by providing resources, funds, books and furniture. Vrishank has helped donate more than 2,000 books through five book donation drives with the help of his mother and school, GEMS Modern Academy. He estimates that the books donated by the Dubai chapter of the network have helped set up at least seven libraries in India although an exact number is hard to come by as the books are shipped across the country. “Vrishank has been supporting us since he was in kindergarten,” says Storytime’s founder Noel Benno, adding that they have set up 47 libraries in 11 states for under-resourced schools and communities. “He took the initiative to conduct book donation drives, and has been one of our champions.”
Connecting through books
Right from the start, Vrishank and Raji communicated with each other through the language of books. “I am an avid reader,” she says. “I have this habit of reading out loud and I continued to do that when I was expecting.”
Before shifting to Dubai, the family resided in Singapore where Raji used to take Vrishank to the neighbourhood library in his stroller. “Singapore has this wonderful system of community libraries and you could find a library just across your street. And during summer vacations, you could check out as many as 40 books!” she says. “Our communication was always through books and I told him many stories about how easy it is for us to go to Amazon or Kinokuniya to buy books and that not every child is so privileged. He was mature enough to realise that the world is not equal.”
When the family shifted to Dubai in 2014, their first task was to find a good library. “We used to take the metro and visit the Old Library in DUCTAC, Mall of the Emirates,” says Vrishank. Around this time, Raji discovered Storytime, thanks to a random Google Search. “I am always on the lookout for opportunities to volunteer in the education space. So I reached out to Noel and asked how I could help.” Vrishank’s suggestion to donate his books couldn’t have come at a better time — the two were eager to do more.
Initially, the duo’s first book donation drive started as more of an individual effort. “We put up flyers, pamphlets and a box and knocked on neighbours’ doors for books,” smiles Vrishank. They managed to collect about 70 books but realised they needed to muscle-build the initiative. “When we managed to collect 70 books just by approaching our neighbours, we realised that there was great potential to collect more books,” he says. So they approached his school and explained what Storytime’s initiative was about. “Coincidentally, it was also Literacy Week at my school and my supervisor graciously agreed to conduct a book donation drive and sent out a note to all parents of kindergarten and primary students about it. My father and I went on stage to explain the initiative to students.” The school held the book donation drive at the year-end school camp and Raji and her husband went and picked up about 300 books. The school continues to conduct such book donation drives by reaching out to their community of students and parents, and has managed to collect 300-400 books each time.
Books for all
The next formidable challenge was to ship the books to India at a reasonable price. “When we visit India about twice a year, we only carry these books and nothing else — between me, my mother, my father and my grandmother, we are able to carry the books,” says Vrishank. The family hails from Chennai in South India, so the first time they travelled with the books to the city, they also visited two government schools in Velachery and Tondiarpet to personally handover the books. “We visited the students of Grade 2 and 4 and I remember they started reading the books as soon as they got them,” he says. Over the next few years, books from Dubai were donated to set up libraries in Perambur, Arumbakkam, Pallathur (all in Tamil Nadu) and Chandapura in Karnataka among other places. “Sometimes we keep the books at my grandparents’ place in Chennai and a Storytime volunteer picks it up from there. Later, they send pictures of the libraries we helped set up,” says Vrishank.
In 2020, Noel’s former classmate Lalcha reached out to him about providing funds, books and infrastructure support to the L. Gamnoum Village Public Library in Manipur. Shipping the books from Dubai was impossible since Covid-19 had been raging across the world. “Vrishank attends the theatre school The Hive and its managing director Malavika Varadan heard about Storytime and our initiative,” says Raji. “She started the campaign #yourstorycounts to encourage the school’s children to write and submit their stories. The Hive and Malavika donated one book per story....” The campaign ended with a total of 270 entries and they funded more than 300 books. Lalcha, who spearheaded the initiative from Manipur with a few local youngsters, sent in a curated books list. “Noel, Malavika and I identified a wholesale dealer in India to buy the books from,” says Raji.
More recently, an alumnus of a small government school in Kalimpong, West Bengal, reached out to Storytime for support. Raji and Vrishank say The Hive team offered to store the books in their space till the logistics of shipping them were figured out. “Finally, a former student’s father, Mr Paul, who works in the cargo industry came forward to ship the books to Kalimpong. After the books were shipped, we realised that the library space needed shelves, tables and chairs so Malavika, my husband and I pooled in money for that,” says Raji.
Vrishank and Raji aim to support Storytime’s vision of setting up 100 such library spaces by 2025. They have other plans in mind, too. “Our dream is to set up a mobile library in India, and to make it sustainable,” she smiles.
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