Ruchi’s Journey

May 28, 2024

I love creating ‘aha!’ moments for children through book recommendations. While children who come to our library have the agency to make their own selections, and we never force them to read books that we have selected for them, I love it when my recommendations tickle them, inspire them or make them thoughtful. These ‘aha!’ moments go a long way in nurturing readers. My book recommendations start with considering the child’s age, language preference, reading ability and the kind of literature that they’ve been engaging with. But it involves more than that. It is about finding a book which is right for that child at that moment. This is not just different for each child, but it can also be different for the same child on different days.  

In addition to the things that I mentioned above, I observe a few other things. For instance, what’s a child’s general temperament? What do they seem to be feeling in that particular moment? Are they struggling with something (for instance, in the past, children have talked about being bullied)? What feelings do I want a book to evoke in them? Do I want them to step out of their comfort zones? It is a little bit like trying to find perfect music track based on your mood. And although it comes intuitively to me, I’ve been told what I do is complex analysis.  

However, beyond all this, the most important aspect is authenticity. The books that I recommend to our library members are the ones that I have read myself and have truly enjoyed or have been moved by. I feel that this authenticity is what actually encourages children to read the recommended books. And of course, nothing feels better than children coming back to report that they liked the recommended books too!    

P.S. This photo was taken at our Manali library. The book that I’m holding is one of my favorite books, which has helped me create several ‘aha!’ moments with children and adults alike. You can help me create these ‘aha!’ moments by making a contribution: http://surl.li/stvfc. You can also send us a gift via Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/39earyn3  

Please visit our website www.letsopenabook.org for more information.

May 23, 2024

Just like with any other start-up, being the sole founder of Let’s Open a Book means I play multiple roles. I’m the organization’s storyteller, library educator, resident artist and art teacher, dance teacher, trainer, operations head, fundraiser, accountant, social media manager, PR person, cleaner etc etc all rolled into one. I am required to switch between these roles multiple times in a day and more often than not I play these roles simultaneously. Add to that the fact that when you’re operating in a place that’s at 12,500 mts above sea level, the body functions at only half its usual capacity. During the initial years there were so many days when I would be so overcome with exhaustion that I needed a nap right in the middle of the day!

Thanks to our team-building efforts over the last couple of years (big shout-out to Payal Sondhi and Ruchira Raj), we are a team of three full-time people now. Our two full time librarians manage the Spiti library, and given the limited resources that we operate with, they also play multiple roles – they clean the library space every morning, fetch parcels from the post office, make their own coffee and engage with the children (among other things). Because of their support, I’ve been able to broadly organize my work into two buckets – on-field and off-field. When I’m on field (in Spiti), my work involves training the librarians, leading operations, liasioning with the stakeholders (government officials, locals, children), reading to the kids, taking photographs, and so on. During the winter months, when I’m not in Spiti, I focus on planning, fundraising, procurement, reporting and managing our social media. I also do extensive research to procure books for our libraries, manage donor relations and invest in my own capacity building as a director, manager and an educator. Since we currently do not have a librarian for our Manali library, I also run the library part-time during the winter months.

There is still quite a bit on my plate and it is often overwhelming, but thankfully I do have more help now. Other than our librarians, we’ve got other friends and supporters who help out in a voluntary capacity. I know it’s going to be a while before we are able to build a dream team, but we’re definitely off to a good start! P.S. The photo is from a couple of years ago, when I conducted an art workshop for government school children in Spiti Valley. If you would like to help me take meaningful art interventions to children in remote parts of the Himalayas, please consider making a donation: http://surl.li/stvfc. You can also send us a gift via Amazon: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg Please visit our website www.letsopenabook.org for more information.

April 2024: Pack Your Bags!

In a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be on my way to Spiti. As I prepare for the long, challenging journey ahead, I think back to all the times I’ve travelled to Spiti.

My first trip to Spiti was in 2017. At that time, I was completely mesmerised by the breathtaking views. Over the years, as my trips became more and more work oriented, I had less and less time to enjoy the views. Since the journey is full of uncertainties, weeks of extensive planning became necessary. Because It is hard to find even basic things in Spiti, we had to procure everything in advance and pack them properly. I would then take these with me to Spiti (in the past I’ve travelled with as much as 1,000 kgs worth of materials). All my focus was making sure that the materials and people travelling with me reach the destination safely.

Thanks to the systems, processes and friendships that we’ve built over the last couple of years, this year all the materials would’ve reached Spiti by the time I arrive there. Since there would be no materials to carry, I can once again shift my focus on enjoying the views, just like the first trip. And I’m really, really looking forward to that!

P.S. This picture was taken in the streets of Kaza, where our free library is situated. If you would like to support my work of nurturing critical readers, consider contributing to our crowdfunding campaign: http://surl.li/stvfc. You can also send us a gift via Amazon: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

March 2024: Holi and Consent

A couple of days ago, we celebrated Holi at our Manali library. It was wonderful to smear gulaal on everyone’s faces! We shared mithai and listened to music afterwards.

But our Holi was special for a particular reason. We played ‘safe’ Holi. This meant that no one was forced to do anything that they didn’t want to do. And each time someone wanted to apply colours on the other person, they asked for permission. We also applied gulaal with a lot of love and care, so that it didn’t accidentally get into eyes or nose.

This was possible by having a conversation with all the participants before we started the celebrations. We talked about the importance of safety and consent. The children were familiar with these since we practice those at the library everyday. We emphasised the need to practice these every single day. And that a ‘no’ needs to be heard and respected.

I know it worked because there were no tear-stained or scared faces at the end of the day. Here’s looking forward to many more such celebrations!

P.S. You can help us in building and sustaining safe library spaces in Spiti Valley and in Manali (Himachal Pradesh, India). Make a donation: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1 or send us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

February 2024: A Distant Dream (or not!)

10,000. That’s the number of books that have been read at Let’s Open a Book’s Spiti library in the last six months. I’m preparing for our first board meeting of the year when I realize this, and I take a moment to let this sink in. There are some more numbers which catch my attention – 45 children have finished reading their 1st 100 books and 19 children have finished reading 200 books in the same library space. We have had a footfall of 1500 and the total number of the members has tripled since last year.

It is almost unbelievable that we have managed to pull this off in one of the remotest parts of the country, at an altitude 12,000 ft. In a place where we’ve been told that “no one reads”, over and over again. We’ve had members walk to the library amidst heavy snow. Children who are unable to visit the library on weekdays have spent entire weekends at the library, working patiently towards the 100 and 200 books milestones. Our librarians have made visits to children’s homes, when they’ve been sick, to drop off books for them to read.

Of course a lot of nudging, hand holding and conversation has gone into the making of this. But LOVE has constantly been the key ingredient. And so shall it remain. Here’s looking forward to the next 10,000!

P.S. We’re currently raising funds for our libraries in Spiti and Manali so we can continue to spread the love of reading in remote corners of the country. Support us by making a contribution at this link: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our Amazon Wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

(The picture is from a few years ago, from a time when 10,000 books would have sounded like a distant dream!)

February 2024: Winter Chronicles

Moving to a place where winter temperatures can dip down to sub-zero had never been on my list. In fact, I hated being in cold places. Ironically, though, the two places where we work via Let’s Open a Book – Spiti and Manali, both experience freezing winter temperatures.

I spent my first winter in Manali this year, and it was far from easy. As someone who grew up in a much warmer place like Kolkata, I had zero experience of surviving amidst the cold and snow. So I asked the locals for advice. That’s how I bought a local wood fired heater (also known as a ‘tandoor’). I stocked up on enough wood to last the entire winter season. However, it took me a few weeks of trial and error to really figure it out – how to differentiate between different types of wood and how to start a fire. I learned how to sustain the fire while making sure that the wood was being used efficiently. It is a legit survival skill!

The tandoor really helped in heating the space properly (the electric heater is unreliable due to voltage fluctuations and power outages). But the adventure didn’t end there. On one particular day when it snowed quite heavily, a layer of snow accumulated on the terrace. This, together with the heat inside the room, led to tiny droplets being formed on the ceiling of our library room. I had a mini panic episode, thinking the droplets were going to land all over our precious books.

Then there were the more obvious things – for instance, most of my wardrobe now consists of fleece and wool. Food habits had to be modified. And the most difficult bit of all was that the freezing temperature combined with the altitude disrupted my mind-body balance, so I had several sleepless nights in a row.

It’s almost the end of winter in Manali now. Looking back, it has all been worth it. Because all through the winter months, even amidst heavy snowfall, children showed up at the library to read. And for that and that alone, I would do this a thousand times over!

This photo was taken on the terrace of our Manali library last week, where, for the first time in my life, I truly embraced the cold and the snow. You can help us keep this library open through all seasons by making a donation: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

January 2024: B’s World

11 year old B has recently started coming to our Manali library. He is shy and sincere. He arrives exactly at opening time, picks up a book of his choice and keeps reading attentively until closing time. He also borrows a book every day, to read at home.

B hardly ever talks, except yesterday, when he poured his heart out. He opened up about how his family, which has recently migrated from Nepal, has been struggling to make ends meet. His father works as a daily wage laborer despite his chronic back pain. His mother worries constantly that they may not be able to go to school anytime soon. He spoke about how hard it has been because when they first arrived here, they were staying at a cousin’s place, who would sometimes bully him. And that he didn’t want to share his worries and feelings with anyone, because he didn’t want anyone to be stressed on his account.

We then talked about journaling – how he could write as a medium to vent his worries. And that as an 11 year old, his primary responsibility was to focus on his own well-being and study well. As heartbreaking as it was to have this conversation with him, I know that it helped. He smiled at the end and said ‘मेरा मन खुल गया’.

Most children that we cater to at Let’s Open a Book don’t have a safe space to seek guidance or simply talk about their feelings. The child in this photo isn’t B, but it reminds me of another time when I had a difficult conversation with a child. You can help children like B have access to a safe space where they can just drop in and feel heard, by making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. To send us a gift, check out our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/daM23HWB.

December 2023: Running a Free Community Library

A question that I often get asked is “How did you figure out that you wanted to run a free community library”?

It was a process that unfolded slowly, organically. It helped that I had been a voracious reader when I was growing up. And that I had had volunteering experience in the free libraries space. But it was only when I took a break from my corporate career that the clarity set in. I remember thinking to myself – “what is it that really makes me happy? If there was no other consideration (financial sustenance, career progression etc), what would I be doing right now?”

And that’s when I knew that I wanted to run a free library. Because working in the library space, getting children to be excited about books is what makes me truly happy. In library work, there are these ‘aha!’ moments, when I knew that a book has deeply resonated with a child and their reading journey has started. These moments bring tears of joy to my eyes. Even talking about it gives me goosebumps.

Of course, at the time, it seemed completely mad that I wanted to do this. That in today’s day and age, when ‘no one reads anymore’, I wanted to run a library. A free one at that, with physical books in it. In a remote Himalayan village. And it was unthinkable that someday I’d get paid to do this. But since I was already taking a break from my corporate career, it felt like there was nothing to lose.

So here I am, running a free community library in Spiti Valley. Our library houses over 3,000 books for children and adults. I make a humble living, which is enough to support my simple mountain lifestyle. I still think it is quite mad, but I also know that I’m the happiest that I’ve ever been! hashtag#founderlife

P.S. The photo was taken in Spiti Valley, where our free community library is. If you would like to support our work, please consider making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/daM23HWB

October 2023: It’s Time to Wrap Up

Another Spitian summer is coming to a close. Night-time temperatures have started dipping to sub-zero and the first snow of the season has already fallen. Water, electricity and phone network issues have all started cropping up, as is common for this time of the year.

I have been winding up my work here; it is only a matter of days before I head down to Manali. Most of the heavy lifting has already been done, so there’s been plenty of time to reflect upon the events of this year’s fieldwork. This year, which has challenged me on both personal and professional fronts. This year, which has been a year of immense growth.

We often sit in the sun, drinking copious amounts of tea, discussing the winter logistics (the library will be open all through the winter months, amidst all the snow and excruciating cold, thanks to our librarians). We talk about our plans going forward. I sometimes take breaks to add finishing touches to the wall mural that I’ve been painting at the library.

And I’m doing one additional thing that I haven’t done before. I’m taking the opportunity to explore various nooks and corners of the Spiti Valley. It surprises me that even though I’ve spent a considerable amount of time here, there is so much that I haven’t seen and experienced before. And that it is for the first time that I’m able to soak in all the beauty at a lovely, leisurely pace – the quaint villages, the rugged roads, the dazzling blue skies and the divine sunsets.

The picture is from 2017, the year I started my exploration in Spiti Valley. Here’s looking forward to many, many years of exploration ahead!

P.S. I’m building a free community library in Spiti Valley, to help children explore the world. If you would like to support my work, please consider making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/daM23HWB

September 2023:

And what a day it was! We had 150 people show up, a huge number by Spiti standards. This was about five times the number that we were prepared to host, and fifteen times of our average daily footfall.

Most of them were children, who started showing up in groups an hour before the opening time. Some of them joined us for prayers, which were offered by young monks from Kaza Monastery (some of these monks are also members of our library). They stayed hours browsing through books and enjoyed the little treat on offer, of pasta and juice.

The team was a bunch of very exhausted people at the end of the day. We were tired to the bone, but so, so happy that everyone who had come had left smiling. I even cried literal tears of joy.

Sharing my favourite photo of the day – of the impromptu reading that I did before the (happy) chaos started. It was the story of a princess who finds her own happiness 🙂

P.S. You can show your support for our new library space by making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1 or by sending us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dQRdudy4

September 2024

Our new free community library space, which we’ve been slowly setting up over the last month, opens in a few hours. The inauguration is going to be a humble event, but I’m anxious. I’m sitting here alone, mentally reviewing the arrangements for the day. I can’t help but think of all the unchecked boxes on my long to-do list, of things which we wanted to have for our new space but couldn’t, due to various constraints.

Payal Sondhi reminded me over our call last night that this is a labor of love, and I couldn’t agree more. Over the past few weeks people have been pouring love into this space – by painting murals, by fixing hardware, by carrying boxes in and out, by sending gifts, arranging books on shelves and even by mopping floors. I know that when kids walk into the space, they will feel all the love. And I know that despite all the imperfections, they’re going to find the library to be beautiful. I’m proud of what I’ve built.

I think of my own imperfections, and how I’ve worked on those over the years. But I know that the bravest thing that I’ve done is learning to love myself and to embrace my imperfections graciously. I’m so, so grateful to have people around me who think I’m beautiful despite all my flaws. But most importantly, I know that I’m proud of who I’ve become.

P.S. The picture was taken in our old library space. You can show your support for our new space by making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1 or by sending us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dQRdudy4

September 2023:

I was recently felicitated for the work we’re doing at Let’s Open a Book. This happened at the La Darcha fair (Kaza, Spiti Valley), a multi-day festival celebrating the historical trade relations between different Himalayan regions. The award was presented by MLA Shri Ravi Thakur. I was one of the 30 women who were being recognized for their work in the region. The nomination was made by local people who are familiar with our work.

As someone who wasn’t born or brought up in Himachal, this was truly special. It made me feel appreciated, but more importantly, I felt that this was the community’s way of telling me that I was now one of their own. And that feeling was priceless.

We were also invited to showcase a section of our library collection, to spread awareness among the locals. It was really heartwarming to see children huddled together in the corners of our modest stall, exploring books. Some of them even took it upon themselves to talk to the visitors about our library! Kudos to our librarian Prachi Singh and volunteer Ananya Dhanuka, who set up the stall at last minute notice.

Here’s looking forward to more such milestones.

P.S. If you would like to support my work, please consider making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/daM23HWB

August 2023:

Finally, after months of scouting, we’ve found a new library space in Kaza (Spiti Valley) for Let’s Open a Book. It is a four-room space that will have separate reading rooms for children and adults. This is a significant upgrade from the one and a half rooms that we had previously been operating from. The building primarily uses mud as its base material, which means that it’ll stay warm during the freezing winter months. And we cannot get over the amazing view that the team room offers, where we have our tea breaks.

Of course, there are challenges to deal with. To begin with, while the space itself is quite beautiful, it is located on one end of Kaza. This makes us wonder if the distance would be too much for the readers. Also, given the geography and extreme resource constraints, setting up the new space has been a rather slow process as we navigate day-to-day challenges. And we’re doing this in phases, so that the current library space can keep operating without hiccups until the new space has been inaugurated. This means that every team member has been shouldering a lot of responsibilities.

We are really, really grateful for the kindness and support that we have been receiving from people who believe in the power of free libraries. Locals have been helping with vehicles and manpower whenever possible. And others are sending love and support in the form of cash and kind contributions, so we have the basics in place.

It’s a long way to go, but for now I’m going to sip my tea and enjoy the view 🙂

P.S. If you’d like to send some love to our new library, please consider making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our Amazon wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

Manali Floods

Anyone following the news knows that things have been bad in Himachal for the past few days. When the mobile and internet networks started working yesterday after over 48 hours of complete blackout, horror stories started pouring in.

We recently moved our operations base to Manali, so I happened to be here right in the middle of all the action. And I’m not going to lie, it has been quite bad. It rained non-stop for days. My neighbor who stopped by to check on me (Himachalis are amazing people) showed me how the river was completely overflowing and had ‘eaten’ into the highway (it was visible from our terrace). Thankfully I was in a safe, comfortable space. I had enough food and water. But the best part? I had enough company.

Our Manali office houses a small library with limited hours, but we decided to extend the hours when the blackout started (without electricity or the internet, there was absolutely nothing left for the kids to do. They couldn’t go outdoors to play and we’re getting bored and anxious at home). There was no way to pass on the message, but 4 kids still managed to drop in. We played carrom, scrabble and ludo. We read stories and practiced spelling. I personally read voraciously to keep myself sane – of course I had enough books thanks to our little library.

This picture was taken two days ago, once the sun was out after all the rains.

If you would like to support our little Manali library, consider making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1. You can also send us a gift from our wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

Chasing Happiness

As the founder of Let’s Open a Book, I’m constantly making big and small decisions. These days we’ve been wondering “how do we send boxes of books to Spiti” or “how do we hire the right librarians”. A couple of months ago it were questions like “how do we make our intervention more structured and impactful” and “how do we build robust systems and processes”.

While I have a strong support group of advisors and friends who help me with day to day decision making, sometimes there are decisions which have deeper, long term impact. These decisions can change the entire trajectory of our work (and of my life). Of course I can still reach out to my support group at times like these, but the decision is ultimately mine.

On days like these, there are two simple questions that I ask myself. First, “how does this decision directly impact the children that we engage with”. This question has brought me a lot of clarity at critical moments, especially when it comes to people and partnerships. It has helped us stay on track with our mission, making sure we don’t go astray.

The second question is more personal in nature. I ask myself “will doing this make me happy”? I’m not thinking about momentary, transactional joy here. It is about how it all fits in the bigger scheme of things which bring me joy and satisfaction. If both of these things align, I go ahead. If they don’t, then I know I need to find a better option.

P.S. You can support our work by making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1 or by sending us a gift from our wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

A little over a month ago, we set up an operations office in Jagatsukh (a village about 5 kms away from Manali, Himachal Pradesh). While the main objective of this set-up was to support our free community in Kaza, Spiti Valley, we decided to convert the hall of the new premises into a small free library for the local community.

We didn’t have any funds for the new set-up, so we used spare things from our Spiti library. This included books (sometimes we get multiple copies of books sent by different donors), old shelves, storage boxes and a carpet.

It is not easy to set up and operate a free community library, so we were prepared for the on-ground challenges. For instance, we do not have a dedicated resource person for managing the new space, so we are only able to keep the library open for a couple of hours everyday.

But what we were totally unprepared for was the support that we received from the local community. Every time we talk about our plans with the community people, the response is always a mixture of awe and appreciation. The library is not even officially open yet (the set-up is quite time consuming, especially with limited help), and we already have a dozen members. We read books and play carrom on Saturdays (the only game we have at this library so far). And we’ve been receiving queries from people of nearby villages who want to visit the library themselves or with their children.

it is going to be a while before the library is properly up and running, but we know it’s a baby step in the right direction. And we will continue reading books on weekdays and play carrom on Saturdays.

P.S. You can support our libraries by making a contribution: https://bit.ly/40H2Qx1 or by sending us a gift from our wishlist: https://lnkd.in/dsNWPkFg

‘आज बहुत बर्फ पड़ रही है, आज बच्चे नहीं आए’ (it’s snowing a lot today, so none of the kids have showed up) – Kalzang tells me. She says this quite hesitantly, so I reassure her that it is completely ok. I also realise that it has happened for the first time in months. In a place where winter temperatures dip down as low as -38 degrees C, this is quite a feat.

This is the first year when our library is open all through the winter months, so we’re learning as we go along. We are brainstorming ideas to make sure that the library space is as warm and cozy as possible. We are experimenting with heating systems which take into consideration the environment, unreliable electricity supply and of course, fit into our tiny budget (we are yet to figure out the ideal solution).

But there are other things that we’ve figured out. For instance, we realised that children love toys and games days, so we now have two of those every week, instead of one. We couldn’t find anyone to bake us a cake for Christmas, so we made hot chocolate in-house and got samosas for everyone (over 45 children showed up for our little Christmas party). True to the Spitian spirit, our librarians Dolker and Kalzang brew a cup of hot tea for anyone who wants it. And of course, we have a lovingly curated collection of books open to anyone who walks in.

I’m sitting hundreds of miles away as I write this, but the photos and stories that I receive every morning warm me up from the inside. I hope and I pray that this warmth makes its way into the hearts of Spitians throughout the long winter months.

P.S. We are currently raising funds for our free community library. So if the warmth from our library reached you through this post, please consider making a contribution: https://bit.ly/3UfZeyM

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    

The wall mural is at The Tranquil Inn, Manali.

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!

This photo was taken at the library space that we set up this year, a couple of weeks ago.

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.

This photo was taken at Batal (4000 mts), about halfway between Manali and Spiti.

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!

This photo was taken during one of my trips to Spiti Valley, a very remote corner of India. I run a free children’s library there, where little girls can read stories those who dared to dream.

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.

P.S. This photo was taken during my visit in 2019. The adventure continues!

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!  

This photo was taken at the home of one of our library members in 2021, during an outreach visit.

Let's Open A Book