Mehru N Nisa meets the young female scribe who crowdsources book to establish libraries for the underprivileged
For the inmates at Daarul Muhsinaat, an orphanage in Singhpora Pattan, the thought of having a library was an unreal one until Covid-19 happened.
“The girls started to become extremely tense because of the closure of schools and as much as I tried, I couldn’t teach them every subject,” Fahmeeda Mir, warden of the all-girls-orphanage, said. The Kashmir schools were shut for seven months when the Covid-19 lockdown took over, thus creating a sense of anxiety and distress. Inmates found it suffocating to spend days at ‘home’. Their boredom, however, came to an end when a library was set up in the orphanage by Karvaan Book Project in partnership with Sadaf Mir, a volunteer with Teach for India.
With the aim of providing books to students lacking access to the internet and libraries, Karvaan was founded by Furkan Latif Khan, a Kashmiri journalist, in 2016.
Khan, an ardent reader, said that the reading habits develop late in Kashmir which leads to a delay in the kids’ personal development and the schools here play a major role in this aspect. “As a kid, it was very difficult to access libraries and books even in schools because they mostly encourage studying syllabus books.” She believes families and schools must encourage children to read books beyond their curriculum from a young age.
Khan used to walk from her school to an NGO-established library in Srinagar, where she could pick and choose from the books donated by people.
In 2014, she realized she could do something close to her heart for the Kashmir children who lack access to the internet or books. With a focus on underprivileged students, she wanted to give the children something which she personally lacked while growing up in Kashmir.
Soon, she started with a few donated books. “I too used to read from the few books that were available in the library built by the NGO but then I learnt a lot from that reading”, Khan said. Initiated in 2015, Karvaan actually took off in late 2016. Using the internet to connect with people, she managed to collect 1000 books in a month, quite a few from Kashmir.
Khan said the internet played a key role on the crowdsourcing front unlike reaching out to the children. “I don’t think the internet plays any role in children’s education here because we don’t have it,” she said. “When the whole world went online, children in Kashmir were studying in orchards. And the internet classes which some schools did have were just buffering. There are children in far-flung areas of Kashmir who haven’t even heard of the internet, let alone used it.”
The effort was well received, In 2017, Karvaan won Digital Empowerment Foundation’s Social Media for Empowerment Award in the category of crowdsourcing. For Khan the status of the internet in Karvaan is of a medium to exchange stories.
Khan believes a lot needs to be done to inculcate the reading habit in children. “I wanted to talk to you to tell Kashmiris that reading stories or fiction is not a waste of time. It is as important and as enlightening as reading the curriculum books”, Khan said. “I want every Kashmiri to read books and stories from around the world; stories that tell us about different people and if they like the books.”
Khan believes that since Kashmir has its own forms of storytelling, the people here should connect more to the stories around the world “because fiction is not something that is created out of the air.”
So Far, So Good
In around five years, Karvaan has delivered books to plenty of schools across Kashmir. She said every single experience was memorable. Her visit to a school in Kreshi Bal, near a city wetland Srinagar, was an outstanding experience.
“The children there were so bright, it was amazing,” she said. “They took me on a tour of the wetland and showed me the different migratory birds around.”
Unlike boys, however, girls take time to open up to her, during her visit to these schools. “The way gender plays out in our society is very interesting,” she said. “Whenever I go to a school, boys are always excited from the beginning but the girls remain at the back – peering through doors, sniggering and wondering what’s happening. Then after spending an hour or two with them, they gradually come to me and ask me about myself and the project. And by the time I leave, girls are the most excited.”
Karvaan’s is expected to expand outside Kashmir. “But my focus would always be on the children of the valley and if at some point I decide to go beyond Kashmir, I’d look out for children who do not have access to books or the internet; it doesn’t matter where they are from,” she said.
Khan is looking forward to doing workshops in schools on the importance of storytelling and poetry in the near future.