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A dropout’s gift of books Library of hope

A 25-year-old unemployed man who was forced to quit college after his father’s death is keeping alive the career dreams of scores of students by providing them access to books they cannot afford.

Mohammad Jafar Qureshi was at the forefront of an initiative to set up a one-room library at Saudagar Patti, an economically and educationally impoverished part of Cossipore in north Calcutta.

Three years later, Faizan-e-Madina library is the lone source of reference books, educational journals and magazines for many local children.

“Besides Urdu to English, Hindi to English and Bengali to English dictionaries, the library has books on English, Hindi, mathematics and sciences till Class X. There are also magazines to help them prepare for competitive exams and journals on employment opportunities,” says Jafar, seated on a thin carpet in the 100sq ft room housing books neatly arranged on wooden shelves on two of the walls.

Most of the books in the library have either been donated or purchased by Jafar and his friends at a discount. “Books are very expensive. We do not receive any grant or subscription to purchase books or upgrade the library,” says Mohammad Amjad, a tailor from the locality who joined Jafar a few months ago in his crusade for education.

“There are close to 100 schoolchildren who come here for reference books. We do not charge them anything,” says Jafar’s friend Saddam Hossain, who is studying hotel management in a private institute.

Many children who don’t have privacy at home come to the library to study. It helps that the library is open from 9am till 9pm. Jafar and his friends take turns manning the facility.

In the evening, elders gather to study the Quran under the guidance of an imam.

Jafar, who failed to land a job after dropping out of college in 2011, earns a living giving tuitions. A course in fire-safety management hasn’t improved his employment potential, which makes him all the more determined to help others escape his plight.

Jafar’s mission started three years ago on a vacant, unclaimed plot through small contributions from the underprivileged residents of the area. Someone provided a few bricks, another offered a can of paint or half a sack of cement. Most contributed small amounts of money.

The library has since grown to become the beacon of hope for children of a predominantly Urdu-speaking neighbourhood that doesn’t have an Urdu-medium school.

The majority of young people in the area haven’t even heard about the various government scholarships for minorities and girls. Hardly anyone has access to a computer, let alone online information about such schemes.

Most of those from the previous generation used to be employees of the defunct industrial units along BT Road. “The units shut down one by and one and these people lost their jobs,” recalls anthropologist M.K.A. Siddiqui, author of Life in the Slums of Calcutta.

The decadence is reflected in law and order problems. After dusk, petty criminals gather in the vicinity of the library to drink and indulge in gambling. They create a ruckus whenever Jafar and his friends try to evict them.

“A section of the residents feel we are responsible for the trouble. Since they are scared of the criminals, they blame us,” says Jafar. “But we are not too bothered about the resistance because many parents here are realising the importance of educating their children. We are more concerned about upgrading the library,” adds Jafar’s friend Amjad.