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Lounge Heroes: A roadside library by Ngurang Meena hopes to fuel the urge to learn

This government school teacher and social activist has started a streetside library and an adult education centre to empower women and youth in Nirjuli town

Meena, 30, works at the government’s Rajiv Gandhi University Secondary School, teaching social science and English to classes IX and X.
Meena, 30, works at the government’s Rajiv Gandhi University Secondary School, teaching social science and English to classes IX and X.

It’s a cheery day in Nirjuli, a townof nearly 5,000 in Arunachal Pradesh’s Papum Pare district. Children are standing in a small group near a wooden shelf set up on the street, reading books. Sudha Murty’s Three Thousand Stitches shares space with I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (co-written with Christina Lamb) and Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father. It’s a roadside library, started by Ngurang Meena for both children and adults two weeksago.

Meena, 30, works at the government’s Rajiv Gandhi University Secondary School, teaching social science and English to classes IX and X. Six years ago, she founded the Ngurang Learning Institute, an adult literacy centre. In 2016, she was joined by her sister, Reena, and her fiance. It is targeted at tribal women—those who are oppressed, widowed, or simply have not had the chance to continue their education.

She sounds excited when we speak. She has just received a message on Facebook from Delhi-based Bee Rowlatt, the author of Talking About Jane Austen In Baghdad, who wants to send some books for the library. She has spent over 20,000 of her own money to set it up, buying some books and using some from her collection, but offers of help with funds and books are now coming in.

She was inspired by an article about a similar, 2017 initiative in Aizawl’s New Market area and MZU Park by a librarian, Lallaisangzuali Sailo. “I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across a mention and I wondered why this has never been done in Arunachal," says Meena. The library is meant for all age groups and contains around 80-100 books across genres, including textbooks.

As a teacher, the falling graph of education in the state saddens her. “We have the second lowest literacy rate after Bihar. And this has become worse after the advent of the mobile phone as the youth simply doesn’t want to read. During the pandemic, I find them hooked on to games and videos. My heart aches on seeing this."

She recalls being fascinated by adventure novels, such as Treasure Island, and comic books as a child, even though the family didn’t have ready access to libraries and bookshops. Books ignited her mind. Motivated by her late father—Ngurang Pinch, a politician and former chairman of the Arunachal Pradesh Agriculture Marketing Board, who died in 2017—she was the first girl in the family to complete her education. Meena hopes to nudge other children on to this path as well. So the library, which she sets up daily unless it’s raining, has quite a few motivational books and biographies.

Since it’s such a new concept for the state, the elders are somewhat hesitant to pick up books. But children under 10 are fascinated. Meena, or someone from the family, greets them with sweets and insists they read for at least 15 minutes. Hand sanitizers are available. The streetside library is already planning to start lending too. “A lot of people warned me against it, saying that the books might not come back. But I am not worried. My late father and I had collected a rich stock of books and I can keep replenishing the library with that," she says.

Meena and her family are also busy finalizing content for the three-month course scheduled to begin at the adult education centre in October. The aim of the centre is to create “employable skills" for tribal women and help them empower themselves through education. The plight of her mother, who is from the remote village of Nyapin in Kurung Kumey district and finds even basic documentation challenging, inspired them to set up the centre.

Both initiatives have been funded by the family. “Next year, hopefully, the centre will get registered as a not-for-profit organization," says Meena. When it started in 2014, it barely got 10-20 students; now that number has gone up to 100. “Forced and early marriages, and polygamy, are still prevalent in the state and women are not supported in their quest for an education," says Meena. Until recently, husbands would threaten her for teaching “bad things" to their wives. “We were telling the women how to take care of their documentation and grooming them. The husbands felt very insecure on seeing their wives feel empowered," says Meena. Last year, however, men started taking up the courses too.

The centre has also organized two editions of a special series called Catalysts of Courage, the second in November last year. The topics of discussion ranged from the need to educate women about laws to the way forward for youth in tribal societies.

Students attend the centre in batches. Some come in for a couple of hours, others stay longer, learning essay writing, spoken English, letter writing—there is no charge. One such student is 24-year-old Jaya Ampi, who has been studying at the centre for over a year. She has seen a steady improvement in her reading abilities. Married early, Ampi had to drop out of school to help finance her husband’s education.

“Women study only till class VIII or IX and then get married. Soon they become so involved in the daily chores and problems that their own aspirations become invisible," says Ampi, who has also been encouraging friends and acquaintances to study further. Earlier, she would shy away from seemingly simple chores like going to a bank or reading out simple instructions. “Women should not be shy. They should study and become independent. Trust yourself first, and the rest will follow," she says. Change is on its way.

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