A library is a place of refuge, especially in a school. As a high school student, I found myself taking shelter amongst its bookshelves often. It was the one room in the building where, for some reason, few kids voluntarily entered. As a result, I spent many quiet and happy hours in the nurturing company of the books there, especially when the noise, din, and oft-inexplicable behaviour of my fellow teenagers got too much to handle.
Many decades later, I still find libraries rejuvenating and restorative, even if they aren’t particularly well-kept or fancy. Not only are they islands of calm, but they are also, by their very existence, a quiet rebuke to the narrow-mindedness and bigotry we find ourselves surrounded by more and more.
It is as though books sitting on their shelves are saying, “How can you say you have a corner on the truth? Look at the multiplicity of thoughts and diversity of perspectives we represent.” Books, naturally, make one think, reason, imagine, and question. Little wonder that authoritarian regimes feel threatened by libraries (a case in point being the continued defunding of the libraries in public universities, such as the ones at JNU.)
Imagine, then, the unexpected shock of encountering a bigot in a library!
For many years now, I have been conducting workshops for high school students on topics like emotional intelligence, empathy, and the dangers of bullying. Many of these workshops end up being conducted in school libraries, because these are the only spaces many schools have available for such programmes.
Not too long ago, after finishing a workshop on the topic of empathy and kindness for 10th graders (in a school library), I was packing up my laptop when the very pleasant and cheerful library assistant mentioned how important it is to have such conversations with teenagers.
I concurred, “Yes, especially in the hate-filled environment these kids are growing up in.”
As we chatted a bit more about how polarised society is, the lady said to me, “You know, if only Muslims were eradicated from the world, all our problems would be solved.”
It must have been my shell-shocked expression that stopped her mid-sentence. With a sudden note of alarm, she said, “Are you a Muslim?”
“A bit late to ask me that now, isn’t it?” I responded. “Aap school me baithke yeh keh rahe hain? Aur vo bhi library may?” (You said that sitting in a school and that too, in a library?)
Slightly flustered, the lady responded, “Yes, but it’s true, isn’t it? Look back at Indian history. All terrorists have always been Muslims, haven’t they?”
Trying to keep my voice steady (for this sort of bigotry never fails to startle), I said, “It wasn’t a Muslim who killed Gandhi, was it?”
“No, that’s true…”
I said, “What have Muslims done to you personally that you hate them so much?”
“I don’t hate them,” she said. “But that is the image that is created of them.”
“So you are letting someone else’s opinion become your reality!” I said, making a massive effort to stay calm. “You are living in a country whose constitution honours all citizens equally, ma’am. You cannot make statements like this, especially not in a school.”
But judging by the blank and uncomprehending look on her face, I might as well have been speaking in some ancient and unknown dialect.
As I walked out of the library, I remembered a speech I had seen on YouTube just the previous evening. It was an address given by the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, in Washington D.C. in 2016. In it, he had said:
“To have a dialogue today with most Israelis, even for me, is an impossible job. Many times, I find myself (talking to) ordinary Israelis, good people. They would volunteer anywhere. But when you start to talk to them about the Occupation, after two minutes you want to tear your hair out! You don’t know what to do! You don’t know where to start! The brainwashing is so deep, and the denial is so deep! And the ignorance! They know nothing! Anyone in this hall knows so much more about the Occupation than the average Israelis (who) know nothing, and what they know is wrong!”
Levy might as well have been talking about the average mainstream-media-nourished Indian, a prime example of whom I had just encountered. The most disturbing facet of the conversation with this lady was how pleasantly earnest she was in her bigotry. There was no anger, no ad-hominem attack, just a very sincere belief that an entire community of Indians is intrinsically evil.
Whatever else Narendra Modi’s legacy might be, it will most certainly include the creation of an entire sub-stratum of society that, under his watch, genuinely believed that a whole community in India was fundamentally bad. This ecosystem was nurtured by a steady injection of hate and misinformation, not unlike the drip irrigation methods that desert nations often employ.
The damage that has been done to the minds and hearts of millions over the last ten years is deep. It will take time to heal, recover and rebuild. One hopes and prays that the results of the elections in the coming months (both at the state and at the national level) will create an opportunity for facts and empathy – the antidotes to misinformation and bigotry – to somehow enter the national discourse once again in a steady, sustained, and significant manner.
The alternative is too horrific to contemplate.
In the meantime, let’s set up libraries – however small – with books that will keep our minds and hearts open, and let’s keep sharing with others what we have learned from them.
Rohit Kumar is an educator, author, and independent journalist, and can be reached at [email protected]