“You know, each time I walk into the New York Public Library, I feel the presence of Saraswati, the goddess of learning.” That was Akumal Ramachander, a mentor and a dear friend, calling from Bangalore, to wish me for the New Year. We had spoken a few weeks ago when he was visiting. We spoke about several things, both mundane and profound, as our conversations go. But after I hung up the phone, I realized that he is actually right. Saraswati does live in America, and a brief visit to any university in the U.S. will demonstrate this. While the popular image of the U.S. is about Wall St., Fifth Avenue – all made popular thanks to Hollywood and the massive culture machine that is undeniably the most aggressive and sophisticated in the world, most people consider it only the land of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; but there is wisdom in realizing that Lakshmi, follows Saraswati not the other way around. Where there is no learning, there can be no real wealth.
Between trying to convince me to become a vegetarian, a task he takes rather seriously, and enquiring about my health, we spoke about my upcoming exams, his health, philanthropy in India, recent elections in Delhi and upcoming national elections. Then, the conversation went back to Saraswati, or her manifestation in the American public sphere. The simple truth is that America is a super power because it is not only free and democratic, but also because there is free flow of knowledge, he added; and I couldn’t disagree. There is access to any form of knowledge, if people are willing to seek it out. Public libraries lend upwards of 25 books per patron, in fact, my school library lends 150 books at a time, to graduate students and I learnt that recently, when I reached the limit for number of books I could borrow. This is in some ways ‘exceptional’ if I may use the term, without its arrogant connotations. I doubt if any country in the world has such a well-established culture and infrastructure for knowledge dissemination.
What about libraries in India? As a teenager wanting to read books, I remember struggling to find good books. My only choice, living in Bangalore, considered the most cosmopolitan city in India and the IT capital, was to go to the British Council Library ( one of the few decent ones in town) or to my college library. Suffice it to say that both did not measure up. The number and topics of books were limited, so was the availability of books. Nothing on the scale of Inter Library Loan (ILL) a national network of libraries, where one can order quite literally any book that one needs, free of charge. As one of my friends says in jest, if I had access to all the books I wanted in my teens, I would be orbiting Mars by now. Well, not really. My ambitions of being an Astronaut didn’t last more than a week. But on a serious note, the lack of access to books in India is shocking. Even in a big, developed city; with infrastructure, presence of big universities and billionaires who can make a difference, if they wish to.
Contrary to the publicity that Indian philanthropists get for their generosity, I doubt if there is a genuine effort towards giving and philanthropy, towards the common good. There are a few exceptions, like the Infosys Foundation, Azeem Premji Foundation, Tata Foundation – but these are a few and do not represent the wealth that is present in India. There is not a single philanthropist who matches the vision or courage of Bill Gates of Warren Buffet, though they have wealth which is significant, perhaps not comparable. What is stopping them from committing half of their wealth towards education or healthcare for the poor? Why does an Ambani build an obscenely ostentatious house, estimated to be worth about a billion dollars, when half the city he lives in squalor? Is it a culture of greed that we are witnessing? Or one of callous disregard for learning, knowledge and human life itself? The less said about the government libraries, the better.
While there are incredible programs that are operating in India, to increase literacy, provide education scholarships and what not, the focus on higher education, providing resources to literate people to increase their knowledge and skills are few. However, here is an inspiring example of ingenuity, creativity and passion to make sure that kids have access to books. As Room to Read’s website points out : “Of all the world’s illiterate people, 35% live in India, and despite recent economic growth, India still lacks the basic resources to educate many of its people. Schooling is free and compulsory from ages 6-14, however inadequate facilities, lecture-based curriculum and gender bias cause 40% of students—mostly girls—to drop out before secondary school.” While that is a sobering statistic, and one that should be a call for everyone concerned to shake their inertia and do something about this, there seems to be little by way of effort from the Indian civil society itself to address this problem.
So, does philanthropy – both at the level of society and the corporate level have any role in addressing this? I believe so, but there needs to be more education and awareness for there to be action. As a cynical friend pointed out recently, that there is no civil society in India, just society. This is one extreme perspective. The fact is that with growing awareness of social issues, involvement of youth in creating public discourses impacting society at large, there is a sense that things can change. So, does it mean that there is an anti-intellectual climate in India? Not at all. There are great centers of learning, many learned people and a vast reservoir of talented and creative youth. The problem, as I see it is that much of this is untapped. The sheer lack of resources, lackadaisical attitude of government and the common man towards equipping the towns and cities with good libraries and venues of intellectual discourse is an unfortunate. We need more libraries, theatres, art galleries and more to create a really intellectually vibrant society. A society that goes beyond reading self-help books – India is apparently the leading market for self-help books in the world – to reading things that actually matter. Self-help and Astrology books don’t build a nation or its intellectuals. They can, on the contrary, do much damage.
So, how do we encourage Saraswati’s presence in our libraries and colleges? The answer may not be simple or easy, but I am sure that as inheritors of a great intellectual tradition, I am sure we can figure that out. Until then, we can admire and learn from some great institutions of learning and libraries such as the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress – institutions that are incomparable, and supported by the common man and the state.