The Jamia Library which ironically completed its centenary in 2019 and is named after Dr Zakir Hussain,  the third President of India, was shut down after the violence on 15th December, 2019, where the police beat up and tear gassed protesters.

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Jamia and Gandhi

About six days later, on December 24th, two student decided to set up a makeshift library outside the premises. Sahil Ahmed and Tanya Sablok named the library ‘Read for Revolution’. They began by reading aloud books on Satyagrah (civil resistance based on holding on to truth) and Hindu-Muslim unity. They read from books like Hind Swaraj, Jamia Aur Gandhi (Jamia and Gandhi), and The Constitution.

“We wanted to have a non-violent Gandhian way of protesting,” Ahmed said in a report in The Hindu. Ahmed is doing a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict. Many students, artists and citizens gather to spend time reading at this library on the pavement. The books are often stacked on the boundary wall and the readers sit on mattresses on the ground and read.

220px-The_Story_of_My_Experiments_with_TruthA student called Abdul Rashid, who was reading Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, My Experiments with Truth, said in a report to  The Citizen: “We cannot win this battle by violence. How can we even counter the state violence inflicted upon us? We are barehanded while the police are equipped with all kinds of weapons. So, the best way is to come out in large numbers and protest peacefully, sing songs, chant slogans and read books. The government will have to bow down if we keep protesting for our rights.”

He added, “Mahatma Gandhi’s message was to live with honesty and fight with the means of non-violence. We are following his path. We will fight till we can. This is our peaceful war against the illiterate government.”

The acclaimed book Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin propounded that peace could be had through education. That was published in 2007, remained on the New York Times best seller list for four years, won the Kiriyama Prize, given for creating better understanding among people and nations, and then the book was drowned in a flood of controversy.

Perhaps Mortenson’s  is  a voice that can be used to showcase what this new library is doing in Darra Adam Khel, a small town near Peshawar that makes its living by trading and making weapons in Pakistan.

The Darra Adam Khel Library houses 2500 books and was built only last year.  Says the founder of the library , Shahnawaz Zeb : “Times are changing and we should change too…We need to take the guns away from our younger generation and arm them with books instead.”

Very early on, my eight-year-old self understood that spoken words were not the same as those written. Spoken words hurt, made noise, sounded ugly, were sometimes false. Written words, when spoken aloud, sounded beautiful; even when improbable, like the antics of the ‘vanar sena’ from Ramcharitmanas recited aloud by my nani, they rang true. What makes words on paper different? Perhaps their ability to be of life, from life, while simultaneously being away from it. Maybe the reflection and thought that goes into it. I can articulate this at forty-seven. But I always knew it.

As I saw it, words, stories, poetry, writing, made up one big stew pot. You chose beautiful, sparkling words. You stirred the pot. You strung them together. They made beauty, made sense, made happiness. All the things that I thought my life lacked: grace and culture, glamour, laughter, excitement, fun, could be picked and savoured from assorted jars of words: books. Reading and writing were ideal pastimes for a lonely small-town girl like me. It let me be at once docile and dutiful; rebellious and willful. My mother and father would peep in to see me furiously scribbling or poring over a book, and feel comforted that I was a good, studious child, even if I was penning mean tirades about them or hiding yet another Agatha Christie inside my physics textbook.

Writing words cleansed me. After I wrote about what people did or said in my diary, it ceased to matter. I could smile serenely and move on.