Satabdi Mishra – The Ambassador of Reading

Written By

Ushasi Sen Basu

Satabdi Mishra Loading

Most people agree, at least in theory, that books are important. Books are therapeutic, help us develop empathy, teach us about the world, and might even lengthen our lives!

Satabdi Mishra is a book lover; but unlike most of us, she has decided to get out of her armchair and take her love for books, and indeed, the books themselves, to the rest of the country. “I think books are important in many, many ways, but above all else books empower us and give us the true freedom to be who we are. And, it is this freedom that empowers us to realise our true potential as human beings and create a more beautiful world with less boundaries.”

But for all these benefits, recreational reading (be it online or from paper books) is something only the privileged can afford. Even among those few, it is a habit that is rapidly going into decline. “For people who say ‘it’s not going extinct, it’s just going online’, all I can say is there are thousands of households in our country which have no access to the internet. That is why a physical book and the act of reading become all the more important, it is much beyond pleasure, it is also essential and empowering.” Satabdi states firmly.

Born in Odisha and raised primarily in Madhya Pradesh, she talks fondly about her childhood. “I was one of the privileged few in this country who had the opportunity to read books while growing up. As a child, I was more of an introvert and found comfort in books. My love for books grew along with me and I think my real education has come from books and life. Sadly, not many children have the privilege to read books in India today.”

Satabdi studied Mass Communication and Journalism, and joined the advertising world as a copywriter, but only briefly. “I realized it is all a bunch of lies and works to propagate capitalism, patriarchy and insecurities. Disillusioned by this, I quit my job as a copywriter and started freelancing as a writer and photographer.” She explains. Satabdi worked as a volunteer for a local NGO as well, before taking a break from work outside the home to raise her son. Ultimately, love made her turn away from the fast-paced ad world and pointed her in the direction that she eventually took.

The seed of the idea was sown while living in Koraput, a small town in Odisha. The local children of the area seemed fascinated by the picture books that her son was reading. They wanted to see more. Thus began Walking Bookfairs in 2014. Satabdi Mishra and Akshaya Routray, her partner, decided to walk through nearby villages with their backpacks full of books. They would stop and display their collection on the most convenient footpaths or at bus stops so common people could look at, handle and read books for free or buy them at a discount. The founders wanted to address the lack of access to books, bookstores and libraries in many places in their state. They wanted to open a bookstore that would be accessible and affordable for more people. But, without the resources that such an endeavour would entail, they decided instead to use any clear, clean and shady spot out in the open instead.

They eventually bought a second-hand Maruti omni to take their library further afield. They travelled through various districts of Odisha to reach the remoter areas hitherto untouched by affordable storybooks.

In 2015, Akshaya and Satabdi embarked on the ‘Read More India Tour’. Satabdi recounts, “We started Walking BookFairs to take books to more people everywhere and as a travelling bookstore we wanted to travel around India. So, we planned a pan India tour. We bought a new pick-up truck and built customized bookshelves in it to hold books. We collaborated with three major publishers who supported part of our expenses. And we went around taking books to thousands of people across 20 different states of India.”

The mission was to take books to more people from the beginning. And the ‘Read More India Tour’ emphatically did that. By the end of it, thousands of people had held books in their hands, some for the very first time. The bookstore also functioned as a free library for those who could not or didn’t want to buy books, thus truly welcoming everyone in an egalitarian way. The tour was also meant to inspire like-minded Indians to create more bookstores and libraries. “Only the two of us cannot reach out to the millions of people in our country who have no access to books. We need more young people, old people, to create more bookstores and libraries everywhere, in villages, small towns, cities.” Satabdi declares passionately.

Since the inception of Walking Bookfairs, the duo has begun to understand the relationships that different kinds of people have with books. “It is the educated, privileged parents in urban areas who drag their children away from books. The people in rural areas are always interested in books, both in reading and buying them.”

As part of the Read More India Tour, Walking Bookfairs had great sales in the metros, in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. This was partly because they have a significant support base of booklovers on social media. “But,” Satabdi continues, “we also meet many people who are disinterested in books. Most parents are apathetic towards books and do not want to buy story books for their children. We have seen many big schools that do not have libraries or do not stock fiction/story books, only curriculum based books. As a result, there are many students who belong to privileged backgrounds but have never been introduced to books. They are so limited in their understanding of the world around them and go on to become citizens who know nothing about politics, economics or sociology and cannot come up with any solutions for all the thousand problems we have in the world and lack any empathy or understanding or sensitivity because they have not read any story books!”

Hopefully endeavours like the ‘Read More India Tour’ can persuade people to change their minds, and inspire existing booklovers to become ambassadors of reading, just like Satabdi and Akshaya.

Asked what her current favourites are in a sea of books, Satabdi answers: “There are many. ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ a powerful book of short stories by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is something I am recommending to everybody. And ‘A Bridge of Migration’ poems by Yogesh Maitreya.”

And, how would she liked like to be remembered, say if she were featured in a future edition of ‘Goodnight Stories for Rebel girls’? “As a fearless woman who loved reading books and drove a truck full of books around to places where nobody dared go!” Satabdi signs off.

Here’s wishing Satabdi and all her ilk, lots of luck and readers in the future. May her tribe increase!

 

UPDATE: Walking Bookfairs is raising funds to save their brick and mortar store, please contribute & share: http://bit.ly/2w6BXIg

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ushasi Sen Basu, 37, lives in Bangalore and is the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of SiyaWoman.com. She published her debut contemporary literary fiction novel, 'Kathputli’ in early 2017, in both Kindle and paperback formats. Ushasi has been a professional writer and editor for over a decade. She also has an unpopular blog called The Crib that pokes fun at everything, including herself. Ushasi (aka Shashi, "U" and 'You-Over-There') loves literature and music, and dances like nobody’s watching. She is the mother of a five-year-old girl, who is the joy of her life and grudging guinea pig for many of her parenting experiments.

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