Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The tree of books

Close your eyes and let your thoughts take you away from the city where you live. Your destination is a nondescript village deep in the Indian hinterland. You find yourself gliding through the air and looking down at an enormous tree. An unusual one. Instead of seeds, this tree sprouts books. Thousands of them. Thin and thick and big and small. The book covers - red and blue and green and more - glint in the morning sun.

You marvel at the beauty of this remarkable tree, encased in books of every hue. And yet, there is a faint smell of rot in the air. The books are ripe and ready for release, but have nowhere to go. You'd been so dazzled by their lustre that now you notice, for the first time, the quagmire that surrounds the tree. Barren and marshy land with no signs of human life.

And then, at the periphery of your vision, you spot movement. You take a closer look. It's a boy. And next to him, a girl. And then another child. And many more children standing at the edge of the bog. Looking longingly at the books in the distance but unable to approach the tree. They stare unabashed. Helpless and sad.

A woman approaches. She stops at the edge of the marsh. But unlike the children, she sees you floating near the tree of books.

"Will you help us?" she says.
You look at the woman and then at the children, who haven’t noticed you yet.
"How can I help?"
"The children in the village need the books but can’t reach them."
"This must be a dream. I’m floating in the air."
"That may be so, but you are from the city and can help."
"But how?"
"Help spread the treasure of knowledge."
"Huh!"
"Blow on your thumbs and then blow on the books."

I do as I’m told, unsure of what would happen next. Nothing happened at first. And then, the sound of rustling filled the air. The book closest to me broke free of its moorings and floated away. I gaped at the little red book, with a skittish lamb on its cover. Then I blew some more. More books escaped. And like newly freed seeds, they swirled and fluttered in the air like confetti at a wedding.

I watched as the first few books glided across the bog. The children were radiant as they leaped in the air to pluck the seeds of the tree of knowledge. The woman turned to me and mouthed a thank you. As I turned to leave, she spoke again.

"Spread the word! Our children need many books."

This post was inspired by Rohini Nilekani's talk at TED - click here for YouTube link. As founder chairperson of not-for-profit publisher Pratham Books, Nilekani hopes to give each of India’s 300 million children a good book to curl up with. In her 15-minute speech, she compared India to the United Kingdom, where each child has access to an average of six books. Statistics suggest that in India, one book would be shared among 20 children. The problem is getting good yet cheap books and making them available to children in the poorer pockets of India. Nilekani shared her experience and some incredible achievements. But her ultimate goal of a book in every child's hand is still a challenge. I hope this post will inspire some readers to be a part of the solution.

(Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012)

Popular Posts