Travelling library: The two Indians on a road trip to promote books

Akshaya Ravtaray and Satabdi Mishra

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Akshaya Ravtaray and Satabdi Mishra want to take books to India’s remote corners

What is the most amount of books you have carried while travelling?

Whatever your record, it’s unlikely that you have beaten Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Ravtaray.

The two friends are on an ambitious 10,000 km (6,213 miles) road trip in their minivan, and have taken an eye-popping 4,000 books with them.

They say they are on a “mission” to promote book reading across towns, cities and villages because they believe that “more Indians need to read books”.

‘Tiring journey’

The duo began their journey in early December 2015 from Bhubaneswar in the eastern state of Orissa.

The BBC caught up with them in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh which was the 16th stage of their trip.

It has been an tiring but exhilarating ride for the two, who told the BBC they “achieved what we set out to do”.

They have met hundreds of people, ranging from writers to book lovers to first-time book buyers.

Library on wheels

“We have sold around 2,000 books so far. And we keep getting our stock replenished in big cities,” Ms Mishra says.

But selling books is not their primary goal. They also lend them out, and say their biggest ambition is actually to engage people in conversations about the importance of reading.

“We see so much happening around us, things like intolerance. That mainly happens because people don’t read. Reading books opens your mind and allows you to appreciate different thoughts,” Mr Ravtaray says.

He talks about a school teacher he met “who had only read 15-20 books related to his curriculum in his 20 years of teaching”.

“Now clearly there is a problem. People, teachers, have to read more for their students, much beyond the subjects they teach. We need more libraries than shopping malls, but the reverse is happening,” he says.

Too expensive

Ms Mishra says books have become too expensive, and independent book shops are increasingly closing down.

“The situation is much worse in small towns. We found that many don’t have even a single library,” she says.

“It’s not that people don’t want to read. But books have become inaccessible for many people.”

Mr Ravtaray and Ms Mishra want to change that. Apart from travelling to promote reading, they also run what they call “a simple book store” in Bhubaneswar.

“We give 20-30% discounts throughout the year because our store is simple and we don’t have many expenses. We don’t have air conditioning or even electricity, we use solar power,” Ms Mishra says.

“And we provide a space where people can read all day, without having to pay or buy anything.”

Regional books

Their minivan is stocked with books written in English and also regional languages.

“I felt that people are more drawn to books in their own language. I just hope more regional writers prosper and the writing becomes better,” Mr Ravtaray says.

They made a similar journey around Orissa in 2014 and were surprised by the response.

“Just like this journey, most people who came to us in Orissa were first-time book buyers. We had kept the cost low. No book was more than 200 rupees.”

Ms Mishra said that they usually choose public spaces like bus and railways stations in Orissa’s tribal areas to showcase books.

“That works because people in smaller towns feel intimidated by big shops.”

Mr Ravtaray is of the opinion that books have to reach India’s “remote corners if we are to prosper as a society”.

“We as a country need to know more about the world we live in and that can only happen through reading. We have a funny situation these days, rich people write about poor people, but poor people don’t get to read their work.”

“Our journey is a tiny effort to change this situation. We are trying to make books available to as many people as possible.”

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