11 November 2022: Walking the talk
Last month, I signed up for a particularly ambitious project. I painted a wall mural at a commercial property. I’ve been teaching myself how to paint wall murals and I’ve completed a couple of those already, but this was way outside my comfort zone. There were times when I had such gripping fear of failure that I wanted to run away. But I stayed put. I did one little bit at a time. And I’m super proud to share the final artwork.
But how is this relevant to my work?
As a part-time art educator, it breaks my heart to see young children face similar fears. They’re either super conscious of their art work, or they’re so convinced that they can never be ‘artists’ that they give up without even trying. It is my job to gently nudge them out of their shells, to encourage them to take one step at a time, until they’re confident of their abilities. Putting myself in their shoes helps me understand how they feel, so I can best help them when the time comes. So over the last couple of years I’ve been sharing my artwork on social media. It is not easy, but it is my version of walking the talk.
I am currently raising funds for our free library, where I conduct art workshops for children. To contribute, please visit: https://bit.ly/3UfZeyM
18 October 2022: Where’s the space?
Spiti Valley, where I work, is a sparsely populated area. It is spread over an area of 7,101.1 sq km and has a population of 13,000 people. That makes the population density 2 people/sq km (it’s 10,000/sq km for New Delhi). One would imagine that in a place with such a low population, finding a good space to set up a library would be a cakewalk. However, it is more a case of “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”.
In 2018, Lonely Planet named Lahaul & Spiti as one of the world’s top ten regions to visit. This, combined with the opening of the Atal Tunnel, has led to a massive tourist inflow in the valley. In order to leverage this boom, hotels and homestays are being constructed at a never-before speed (in 2021, INR 64 crores were allocated for the development of homestays in Spiti). Especially in Kaza, our base in Spiti, it feels like every inch is under construction.
Ironically, as construction speeds up, so does our difficulty in finding a library space. As a small organization, we cannot match the sky-high rentals that commercial establishments can offer. Even if we do find an affordable place, most people back out because it means heavy footfall (primarily children).
We scrambled to find a place last year to run the pilot. And we considered it a miracle that we found a place this year, on a one-year lease. But this is just the beginning. The problem will get more complex each year. Here’s hoping that we keep running into people who believe in the importance and magic of free libraries!
10 September 2022: How do we take books there?
Logistics has been an interesting challenge for us. Given that the roads to Spiti Valley are extremely difficult, the question “how do we take books to Spiti” teases us every year. And each year we come up with interesting solutions to this problem.
The books are painstakingly researched and procured over a period of months. Then these are catalogued and packed. Each book is meant to serve a purpose; fill a gap in our existing collection. So when even one of these gets lost or damaged in transit, it is heartbreaking for us.
In the past we’ve tried several different options, including sending them via Himachal Roadways buses, India Post and local transporters. We’ve requested people who are driving down to Spiti to take a few boxes in their cars. And on one occasion, we even recruited the Indian Army to help us!
This year, we hired a camper (a pick-up van). We loaded 50 boxes of books, stationery, art supplies and toys (approx 1,000 kgs in weight) from our office in Dharmashala. We secured the boxes with tarpaulin and thick rope to avoid any damage from rain.
It took us two days to reach Spiti (it was the driver and me). We stopped at small dhabas en-route for chai-parathas. We got stuck for three hours due to landslide. We listened to over 20 hours of music. And to top it all, since I have recently recovered from a leg injury, there was mild anxiety about covering the five-hour stretch of road which makes you feel like you’re sitting inside a mixer-grinder. This stretch also doesn’t have any phone/ internet network, so if you get stuck, it could be hours or even days before you can get help.
But in the end, it all worked out. I reached Spiti safe and sound, on Friday. And I’m happy to report that not even one single book was lost or damaged. Over the next couple of weeks, these books will be used to set up a free children’s library in Kaza (Spiti Valley), where children will explore the magic of reading.
10 August 2022: A Girl and her Dream
When I was growing up, little girls weren’t told that they could be ambitious. A path was set out for them and deviations weren’t allowed. Sometimes when I think about my growing up years, it feels almost miraculous that I was able to get into an MBA and a corporate job, let alone giving it all up to take a road less taken.
It wasn’t easy. There was self-doubt at every step. I was a literature student, how could I possibly compete with lakhs of students in CAT? Much to my surprise, I got through IMI. But there were personal and financial pressures. And there was a huge, unseen readiness gap too. I worked very hard to bridge that gap not just through B-School, but also through the first few years of my corporate job. In a lot of ways, it felt like I had to rewire my brain completely.
There were so many time when I wanted to quit. But I knew that if I did that, I would be used as a bad example. Little girls might be told that if they tried to pursue their dreams, they would end up a failure, just like me. Even the thought of that was unbearable, so I had no choice but to tough it out.
And I’m glad that I did. Because I can see the conversations shifting. Even though we’re a long way to go, little girls aren’t told to stick to the template as rigidly. There’s room for them to dream and explore. They’re given the support that they need to be the best version of themselves. And the best part – some of them say that someday they’d like to have an adventure too, just like me!
21 July 2022: How Spiti Chose me
Spiti Valley, the place where I work, is a tough terrain. Not only is it difficult to reach, but the high altitude and harsh weather make it even more challenging to operate there. So it is hardly surprising that I often get asked why I chose Spiti as my work location. Here’s why. In 2017, I quit after my 7-year corporate stint with Bain and Kearney. That was the first year that I had travelled to Spiti. It was an unplanned trip and I barely knew anything about the place. We hadn’t planned our time well, so at nightfall we had to seek shelter in the middle of nowhere. The cold pierced our bones. But when we reached Spiti, it all seemed worth it. The place was unlike any other place that I had ever been to. Not only was it unbelievably beautiful, there was something about the raw, endless landscape that moved me. I knew something had changed inside me, forever. It has been five years since I first visited Spiti. With every passing year, I’ve been spending more and more time there. I hadn’t gone there with a plan to set up libraries, but it happened slowly, organically. Things kept falling in place and each visit kept morphing me. It felt like Spiti had chosen me. So here’s my story. I work in Spiti, because Spiti chose me.
29 June 2022: Purpose
I faced a lot of challenges when I moved away from the corporate world to being the founder of Let’s Open a Book.
To begin with, my work environment changed drastically. I no longer worked in a plush, air-conditioned office. Travel was no longer luxurious, because I could only afford buses and shuttles. Geography posed a huge challenge, because even breathing at an altitude of 12,500 ft was about twice as much effort. Finally, free children’s library space is a fairly niche segment, so it took me a while to acquire an in-depth understanding of the work that I wanted to do.
So then what kept me going?
What kept me going was the change that was happening inside of me. I was feeling a sense of purpose so deep that it overwhelmed me at times. It kept me awake at night; in the mornings it energized me to keep going. It made every challenge worth dealing with. All my work and life choices started revolving around a single question – how will my choice contribute to my purpose? A few people told me what I had found was rare and that I should protect it at all costs. Others thought that I was being an idealist and that I would be disillusioned quickly.
It’s been five years and I continue to ask myself the same question, every single day. And I hope it continues to be my guiding light for a long, long time!