Every day at 3pm, a building in Ramgaon village in West Bengal’s Jaigaon, Alipurduar district rings with the sound of laughter. For this is when children in the age group of 3-14 start arriving there, heading to the shelves stacked with around 300 books in English and Hindi. The younger ones opt for board books or the universal favourite, Peppa Pig. The slightly older children choose from an array of fiction and non-fiction. One picks up Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, most head for encyclopaedias and books on science such as National Geographic’s Answer Book: 10,001 Fast Facts About Our World.
This library, on the border of West Bengal and the Bhutanese town Phuentsholing, has been raising readers for a year. It’s the passion project of a Buddhist monk, Lopen Sange Kalden Lama, who runs the Mahabodhi Dharma Centre in the village, which has a population of around 70,000.
He grew up there, yearning to read. “However, our family’s financial situation wasn’t such that we could afford books. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I had resolved that if I ever had enough funds, I would start some sort of reading centre for children,” says the 36-year-old.
At an early age, he left to study at the Namdroling monastery in Mysuru, moving on to the Shechen monastery in Nepal to study philosophy. There he received the title of Lopen, or acharya. Lopen Sange then shuttled between Bodh Gaya, Bihar, where he helped out at the monastery, and his home in Jaigaon. In 2016, with support from friends and extended family, he established a Buddhist centre in the village. Once that got going, he decided to revisit his dream of a space for children.
The journey has not been without its set of challenges. Initially, his family couldn’t grasp the need for a library. But they came around. Lopen Sange’s friends offered ideas and even donated the initial set of books.
Last year, when he started the library within the Mahabodhi centre, with support from the Assam-based collective Maati Community, Lopen Sange was clear that he wanted to steer clear of religious books or those on theology and encourage the children to focus on good thoughts and positive thinking. The aim, then, was to expose them to as many genres as possible, supplementing the knowledge they were receiving in schools. The children, who learn English, Hindi and Bengali in school, are encouraged to write in whatever language they are comfortable in, even Nepali and Tibetan.
“Today, the library gets children from all backgrounds. Some are orphans, who stay at the centre, while a few others come from economically weak backgrounds. Some children come from far beyond the village as well,” says Lopen Sange.
With schools shut through the pandemic, it has been the only learning space for children. Priya Vishwakarma, 12, who has been visiting since the library opened its doors, laps up books on “life sciences”. A student of the village’s St James School, her family—mother, father and elder brother—has been encouraging, aware that the extra reading is helping her studies as well.
Social media posts by the Maati Community have helped spread the word on the library, and books have started coming in from as far as Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. Lopen Sange’s friends in Bhutan too are keen to donate books once the situation normalises somewhat.
For Santosh Vasili, 9, the library is a place not only for reading but for interacting with friends. “I spend at least an hour here, catching up with friends and making new ones,” he says. Vasili’s favourite topic is the solar system.
The library even celebrates occasions. “If it’s a child’s birthday, we organise a small celebration. Especially during the pandemic, this library has emerged as a safe community space for children. Having said that, it is not just frequented by kids but by adults as well. Our oldest visitor is 70 years of age,” says Lopen Sange. “It’s good to see the library get so much love from the village.”