Interviewing Andaleb Qureshi : The Brain Behind The Unique Concept Of Human Library In Mumbai

When you think of a library the visual that comes to mind is that of a large room filled with shelves of books. So when Andaleb Qureshi started her version of a library it was a library with a big difference.

It was a human library. A library where you don’t read books but where you read people. The brainchild of Ronnie Abergel from Denmark this concept came into being 17 years ago. The Human Library is an international organization and movement that first started in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000 with the aim to challenge prejudice against social contact among people. A brutal attack on a friend, who was stabbed at a nightlife who luckily survived, made Ronnie and some of his friends decide to try and do something about the problem. The first Human Library in the world was born to raise awareness and use peer group education to mobilize Danish youngsters against violence.

The human library organization is currently active in over 60 countries.

So when Andaleb Qureshi chanced upon this concept she was excited and decided to launch it in Mumbai. A chemical engineer with a masters in engineering management from the USA, Andaleb was on a sabbatical when she stumbled upon the human library. “I have always been in the pharma industry and felt I needed to do something different with my life. I took a break and travelled for some time. When I returned I came across this human library on Google and was intrigued by it. I felt it was the need of the hour in a metro like Mumbai.”

Wasting no time she got in touch with its founder Ronnie who guided her and encouraged her to start it. “I was surprised that no one from Mumbai has reached out to him yet, because this is the metro that has so many people from different cities, so many diverse cultures coming together, so we are the ones that need to be talking about it. We need to learn how to not judge each other, how to be open to more life experiences. So that’s how the first human library event in Mumbai came about to be.”

This was at the bookstore Title Waves in Bandra on 28 may 2017. “People loved the concept. There were so many people who wanted to be human books, but then they are a bit apprehensive about sharing personal information about their lives. Out of 36 people who were really eager to be human books, we had to cut it down to 11 — because though people want to participate, I don’t think we have developed the culture of sharing our difficulties and problems yet — that is still a hush hush affair, but I am hoping people will open up.”

The human library works towards the same initiative: to create a personal dialogue between a ‘book’ and a ‘reader’ to challenge stereotypes.

Indore became one of the first cities to host a human library event, and Hyderabad followed suit. Now there are human libraries in Delhi, Poona, Surat, Chennai, Bangalore and someone is planning one in Tibet soon.

Explaining the procedure Andaleb shares, “Human library is a place where books are replaced by human books
(people), coming from varied backgrounds, which perhaps are attached to certain prejudices or stereotypes or interesting/unusual careers or simply have an interesting life story to tell. The visitors are the readers who check out the catalogue, and borrow one of the books, in the book depot for a limited time period which usually is 20 to 30 minutes. Anybody can be a book! Hence, there are no specific qualities we look for in a human book, other than their will to share their story and leave a positive impact on their readers.”

Each book can be borrowed by a few readers at a time. The group including the book and the readers then resign themselves to their assigned station for intimate narrations of the stories that the bookshave to tell. Questions lead to discussions on aspects from the story that the readers resonate with. It allows the readers to understand the books as people with real experiences, real emotions and real viewpoints. What’s important is that the books at the human library are anonymous and only identified by the titles they give themselves. Readers too can chose to remain anonymous.

Talking of her books who have made a positive impact she says, “During our last event we had a book who had a history of sexual abuse and he wasn’t comfortable with any type of physical contact. No hugs. No handshakes. It so happened that during the session he was so touched by a reader’s response to him that he got up and hugged her! This was a momentous moment for all of us. It is such gratifying moments that keep me going. “

All the books are taboo topics confides Andaleb, “Bisexuality, sexual abuse, rape, molestation , alcoholic parents , childhood issues and many more. It is these stereotypes that we attempt to break. Hence before every event we give some guidelines to both the book and the reader. The book is told to be honest and the reader to be respectful and
empathetic. For a reader it’s important not to be judgmental as this is unfair to the book.”

In fact when human library came into existence 17 years ago it began with groups attached to a certain stigma so that they could lessen violence prevalent in society then. Today it is extended to opening channels of communication where stereotypes are broken and lives understood. As Andaleb says, “It is therapeutic and mind changing.”

The event is seeing such a huge success that the organizers have had to close the last two events early. In fact due to the massive turnout they have planned on taking on line registrations for the forthcoming event in August so that they can control walk-ins. It’s a free event and there is no money for anyone.

This is a space created for readers to interact and engage with the books-unafraid and unedited. There is no scripted conversation as the conversation is real says Andaleb. It allows a two way dialogue between the story and the reader. The books initiate the interaction and then invite questions from the readers. The stories are generally around the
sensitive times that they have gone through largely experiences that are prejudiced.  Andaleb explains that the human library gives a platform to these books so that they are accepted in society which was earlier denied to them.

One key to the success of the human library is the commitment to what is referred to as “a no-judgment zone.” This is a place where difficult questions are expected, appreciated and answered, and readers are encouraged to choose from a wide range of book titles, including those that make them uncomfortable. A guiding principle of the human library
is the understanding that our similarities and differences are really two sides of the same coin. As Abergel has said in an interview, “It is time to face our fears and confront our stereotypes. To embrace the diversity of the world will allow us to feel more comfortable in it.”

Sharing her experience is two time reader Abhishree who says she enjoyed the experience so much that she went a second time. “I found the experience very uplifting and am surprised that the books tell their story with so much honesty.  It was so inspiring that I loved it and more so because a lot of stereotypes were shattered. And this helped me understand that if I am ever placed in a similar circumstance how I should be dealing with it. “

A Book Talks

(Though almost all books chose to keep their identities under wraps we poke to a book who chose to reveal his identity. In an interesting interview he shared candid details of life.)

38 year old Tushar Ajgaonkar, whose book title reads ‘Child Labour To Labour Of Love” begins, “I am the son of a Konkani alcoholic father and a Bengali illiterate mother. I have led a very interesting life as though my dad was a very intelligent man he went wrong with his life. My mum was  tenacious and a very strong woman who single handedly raised me and my sister. My dad was a chef and had received his education from Dadar Catering College.

He was an escapist and couldn’t face life. He had no sense of responsibility towards us and in order to buy his drinks he sold off everything at home including the vessel in which we stored drinking water! We were left with nothing except three walls of our house as the fourth one had collapsed! I tasted milk in my tea only when I was in class 11. One day he left us never to return. I was relieved as I was fed up of the domestic violence at home.

I was in grade 4 and both my mum and me started to work. My mum worked as a labourer in a brewery and I worked as a labourer on a construction site. She came home every day with bruised hands and ?13 in her pocket and I got ?50. Nobody asked me to work but I wanted to do it as I assumed myself to be the man of the house . I wasn’t a child anymore. When I was in grade 6, I started giving tuitions that fetched me ?300 per month. Over the weekends I would sell chikki, vada pav and popsicles on the street’s corner.

Though I didn’t like to study I was a topper in school. In fact I am a mensa member with an IQ of 99%. After grade 10 I became a waiter in a resort where on my last day at work, I met a Samaritan who had come there for dinner. He noticed a spark in me and asked me to call him if I got anything more than 80% . I got 83% and decided to call him. He funded my education and I graduated to be a computer engineer after which he wanted me to go abroad too. But by then I had changed my mind and wanted to be a film maker. Ever since my childhood I loved all kinds of stories. So this was a way to tell my stories. I joined an advertising agency and then moved on to making short films. I love to escape from reality and stories are my refuge. I have made over 200 films now- for corporate and even documentaries. I am here to tell stories. I am a medium.

The bottom line for me is believe and it will happen. I am now working on a film loosely based on my life.”

Tushar is now married and has a 3 ½ year old son. He feels that he has benefitted from the many Samaritans who he met in life and who invested in his future. They were from all communities and is of the belief that there are good people and not so good people. And all have something to teach you.

Photo: Andaleb Qureshi/Facebook

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