If you were at Phoenix Arena in Hyderabad on March 25, you might have seen close to 80 people engaged in deep conversation – like a two-way story session for adults.
Except that there was nothing fictional about these stories: the ‘Human Library’ had ten ‘books’ who were telling their own story to ‘readers’.
The ‘books’ were real people talking about their experience to visitors for 20 minutes – about child sexual abuse, surviving domestic violence, what is it like to be an army man’s wife, what is it like to be a theatre artist who advocates no borders between countries, about religion and sexuality and more.
The library was put together by Harshad Fad, a 24-year-old media management student in Hyderabad. It was the one of the first Human Library events in the city. Another event has been held in IIM Indore, previously. The library works the same way as any other library – except that both books and readers are real people with real stories.
Readers pick a book they want from a catalogue and then, they can check the book out for 20 minutes. They can ‘read’ it: the book tells a story and they can ask questions too.
One of the books, for instance, was Akram Feroze, a Hyderabad-based theatre artist. The 28-year-old had undertaken a journey called ‘Theatre at Borders’ in 2015, which required him to travel through the Indian border and perform theatre questioning its existence.
“When you say something like a country shouldn’t have borders, you are definitely going to upset some people. Some may even call you anti-national,” Akram says. In one such instance, midway through this journey, Akram was arrested in Jaisalmer and detained in Rajasthan for a few days in August 2015. He was released after People’s Union for Civil Liberties got involved.
Akram feels that events like the Human Library help cast away prejudice to a higher degree because the interaction happens face to face. “Identity is an emotional issue for anyone. When you tell someone that there should be no borders, you are potentially threatening a part of their identity. But when you talk in person, people see that my identity lies in my own beliefs, even if they may not agree,” he says.
Akram also says that while he doesn’t hope to change people’s minds altogether, such a dialogue helps him start a discussion. “People were questioning out of curiosity, not out of prejudice. You can tell,” he says.
Harshad and his team
The first human library event happened in Copenhagen in 2000 and was organised by Ronni Abergel. The movement, which has now spread to about 70 countries, aims to shatter stereotypes and raise sensitivity about various issues – right from single motherhood to the refugee crisis.
Harshad came across the concept online and realised that it had not picked up too much in Asia. There had been just one human library event in India, at IIM Indore. So, with the help of his college mates, Harshad took it upon himself to make Hyderabad’s first human library event possible.
The March event had ten books which covered a variety of issues.
The names for the books were chosen by the individuals representing them. Many of them, Harshad says, came forward with the help of the NGOs that he and his team contacted after deciding the broad themes they wanted to cover.
“I think it helps when you name the people as ‘books’ in such a setting. People are more willing to engage and listen than they would be otherwise. It helps start a conversation, a thought process,” Harshad says.
“In a country like India, our language, culture and beliefs change every 50 km. How will we understand each other if not through dialogue?” Harshad questions.
The event was free for everyone to attend and in many cases, they were so deeply engaged with the ‘books’ they chose that they exceeded the checkout time.
But considering that many of the topics being spoken about – like child sexual abuse and domestic violence – may have been painful for the people who acted as books to repeatedly recount, Harshad’s team of six ‘librarians’ ensured that they got a 5-10 minute break between sessions and were comfortable speaking again.
For Harshad and his team, the response has been overwhelming not only from readers but also from the ‘books’. The domestic violence survivor for instance, said that she felt much more hopeful after the event because people were willing to listen to her.
As for the readers, Harshad said that many people could relate with the ‘books’. For instance, a woman from the LGBT community said that she had felt better after speaking to a man who spoke about his homosexuality.
After the success of their first event, Harshad and his team are planning a second event on April 22. The library catalogue this time around will not only include the books from the March event, but also new ones. The new themes they are looking to cover this time around are racism against people from northeast and Africa, food delivery boys, people who have set up startups, among others.