Vasanti Prabhu lovingly caresses the Enid Blyton book that she finished reading in one sitting. From the smile on her face it is evident she enjoyed the unfolding mystery.

‘I’ve fallen in love with the Five Find-Outers,’ says the 11-year-old, referring to the popular characters in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. ‘I’m hoping to read all the books in the series.’

Flipping the book open once again the grade 5 student, who lives in a little village in Dhule, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, India, fishes out a postcard that is stapled on to the first page and sits down to write on it:

‘I enjoyed reading this book. A lesson I learnt is that it’s so important to have a good set of friends – like the Five Find-Outers – who will stick with you through thick and thin. Thank you so much for donating this book to my school’s library.’

Vasanti then runs off to hand the postcard to her father, who works on sugar cane fields, and asks him to post it the next day.

The postcard is addressed to Pradeep Lokhande in Pune, Maharashtra. He donated this book among 200 others only a few months ago to Vasanti’s school.

More than 300km away in Pune, Pradeep leafs through a stack of over 1,000 postcards that he has received over the years. ‘It’s always nice to get a letter. These are notes of appreciation from poor students,’ says the 50-year-old, who has over the past four years set up 3,190 libraries in schools across Maharashtra, thereby helping more than 850,000 underprivileged children enjoy the pleasures of reading.

‘In each book that is donated, I include a self-addressed stamped postcard inviting the first reader of the book to tell the donor what they thought about the book and how much they enjoyed it.

‘Their responses and thank-you notes are an amazing source of happiness to the donor and encourages them to donate more for this initiative.’

Pradeep, who works as a rural market researcher promoting consumer products for several multinational companies, began this initiative of setting up libraries in schools in 2010.

The father of two girls – Kadambari, 23, and Yuganti, 16 – Pradeep says that the idea came to him during a trip with his wife Shrimantini, 42, to a small hamlet in Dhule district.

‘My wife is a voluntary social worker and we were in the village to conduct an educative session about how children should take more care [over their] hygiene.

After the session, one little girl came up to Shrimantini and asked if she had a book on snakes. ‘I was taken aback to hear her request until I later learnt that she wanted the book because she was fascinated by reptiles and wanted to learn more about them,’ says Pradeep.

The couple didn’t have such a book but Shrimantini promised the little girl that if she did find one that she would get it for her.

On the trip back home, Pradeep began to think about the girl’s request. ‘How about setting up a library here for kids who have 
a thirst for knowledge and reading?’ he suggested to his wife.

Shrimantini promptly agreed. ‘It’d be a great way to give back to society,’ she said.

Even before he reached home, Pradeep had decided on the name for the initiative – Gyan-Key Vachanalaya (which means ‘library to knowledge’, in Hindi). ‘Books definitely fit the bill,’ he says, ‘and they are a great way to enter the world of knowledge.’ Over the weekend, Pradeep met with a few local school teachers and headmasters of village schools who told him that even a set of around 200 books would be enough to begin with in poor schools where libraries are non-existent.

Pradeep knew that the situation regarding school libraries in India was worrying. According to Libraries and Librarianship in India by Jashu Patel, only 37 per cent of rural schools across the country have any kind of a library.

In many schools, a few books in a classroom classifies as a library in absence of any standards and guidelines, says Pradeep.

‘I feel books are the best gifts we can give children – the next generation,’ he says. ‘If even one child reads and gets inspired by a book, I guess my dream would be fulfilled.’

Pradeep, who had earlier raised funds and sourced used computers that he donated to schools, approached a few friends with a simple request: ‘Donate just Rs5,000 (around Dh290) and I will set up a small library in a primary or secondary school.’

‘The people I approached knew me from my earlier initiative and they liked the idea, as they knew it would change the atmosphere in schools where children from impoverished families study,’ says Pradeep. Initially, five people donated money for the initiative. 
‘I created a list of books by popular local writers so that the children could connect with the stories,’ he says. ‘I also went to the schools and spoke to children, asking them what kind of books they would like to read.’

Based on their responses, Pradeep put together a package of around 200 books including Reinventing India by one of the country’s best scientists, Raghunath Mashelkar, former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam’s Wings of Fire and Marathi writer Bhanu Tai’s Badalta Bharat.

He then emailed some of his contacts in the publishing business and asked them if they could supply him with books at a discounted rate.

‘A few of them agreed to sell me books at cost price,’ he recalls.

Using the funds he had raised, he bought the books, loaded them into his car and set off to deliver them to five rural schools in Dhule. ‘Seeing the joy and glee on the faces of the children when they picked up and flipped through the books nearly brought tears of happiness to my eyes,’ he says.

For many children, it was the first time they were holding a book other than their school texts.

The social activist also made it a point that all his donors get feedback from the recipients. ‘Apart from providing a book to children, I also wanted them to learn the value and importance of saying a polite thank you to the person who made it possible for them to read the book,’ he says.

To that end, Pradeep included a stamped postcard addressed to the donor in every book. The first child to read the book is supposed to write down his impressions about it and what he learnt, and then mail it to the donor.

‘Initially, many people didn’t believe that a paltry sum of Rs5,000 was enough to set up a library. But when they saw the response for themselves they were impressed. I would show them a presentation, share the thank-you letters from the kids and sell them the idea of how their small contribution could go a long way in quenching the thirst for knowledge among these poor kids,’ he says.

The feedback letters also worked wonders for the project. So touched were the donors that they not only decided to give more money towards the cause but took it upon themselves to find more donors for the project.

Prakash Chabriya, executive chairman of Finolex Industries, Pune, was so impressed when he received a thank-you postcard from a child, that he didn’t think twice before writing out a cheque of Rs7.5 million (Dh446,600) for the project.

‘I really loved the idea. Imagine how many thousands of children, who had no access to books before, would suddenly have them,’ says Prakash. ‘I thought that even if 10 students were inspired by these books and became scientists or other professional leaders in India, it would be wonderful. Even if one of them becomes India’s Albert Einstein, my life’s mission would be accomplished,’ he says.

Elated with the funds, Pradeep went off on a book-buying spree and put together sets of 200 to 400 books (depending on the size of the schools), which he personally delivered to schools across the state.

In the process of selecting and sourcing books, Pradeep stumbled upon many interesting ones that were available at throw-away prices.

‘There were several publishers who were willing to sell books on personality development, self-help, communication skills and inspiring life stories for rock- bottom prices to get rid off their stock,’ he says.

The Lokhande family chips in with the project that is now very close to Pradeep’s heart. ‘My wife and elder daughter are constantly trying to raise funds.’

From their network of friends and acquaintances to business houses, they have made it their lives’ mission to spread the word about the cause.’ Pradeep says he is happy to see that more and more children are taking an active interest in pursuing reading – something that he says he missed during his younger days.

‘My father was a peon in a government office and did not earn enough to buy us books other than our textbooks. While growing up, I used to crave motivational books. But my father had no money for such luxuries and back then the concept of a library was unknown in my village, Wai, in Satara.’

He says that while today he can afford to buy books for his own children, the less-privileged children in village schools rarely get a chance to read a good book other than their academic texts or maybe some local magazines.

‘When I go to villages and donate books to poor kids, their ecstatic faces remind me of my own childhood, when I did not have that opportunity. I hope these books not only expose these kids to the world of knowledge, but inspire them to reach greater heights in life.’

So, when Pradeep receives postcards from the children expressing their gratitude, he considers them a great reward.

But it is not only the kids who write to Pradeep. Quoting from a letter that he received from a parent, Pradeep says, ‘There have been positive changes in my son’s behaviour since he started using the school library. Thank you for the books.’

Pradeep, who has around 1,000 books in his home library, admits he is not an avid reader.

‘But my wife and oldest daughter Kadambari love to read and are always on the lookout for authors who are inspirational and could make a difference to the lives of the kids.’

Pradeep makes it a point to take out time for his pet project. ‘Every day I spend at least four hours either making calls and seeking donations for Gyan-Key, or coordinating with publishing houses, and sometimes even delivering books to schools in remote villages across Maharashtra.’

He does admit, however, that getting donations is not easy always.

‘Often I may have to knock on five doors to find one success.’

Pradeep also has to often spend several hours answering questions from donors about the veracity of his project. ‘Recently, one of my donors told me that he wanted to donate some money but said he was not sure it would go to the right cause.

‘So I suggested that he could make the cheque in the name of a publisher and not to me. I also told him that once the children, the end beneficiaries, read the books they would write to him.’

The man agreed and gave him a cheque, says Pradeep. ‘Last week he wrote to me saying that he was elated after receiving a postcard from one of the kids, thanking him for giving them the key to knowledge. He is now keen to make another donation.’

Pradeep maintains a proper log of accounts where all the donations are listed. ‘Because people are putting faith in me and funding my project, I have to be accountable,’ he says, adding that as a matter of policy ‘I refuse to take any help from the government for this project as I don’t want to get entangled in tedious paperwork and bureaucracy’.

Pradeep firmly believes that ‘to change rural India, it’s important to change the mindset of secondary school-going children. They are very vibrant and if exposed to the world of knowledge at a young age they will learn to dream big’.

Buoyed by the response so far, he plans to spread the movement to other parts of India. The neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are on his radar for now.

‘And if everything goes well, we shall pan out to nearly 85,000 villages across India,’ he says.

‘It’s a simple initiative but one that can have rich dividends for the next generation.’