When Daegan and I were in Mumbai we woke up early and met a friend of mine who took us to the Sri Siddhivinayak Ganpati Temple. It was an amazing experience and one of the most interesting things was watching everyone else. So many people were clearly getting a lot out of the visit. It was making them happy and enriching their lives to be there.
Later that day, my friend took us to the Asiatic Society Library. After checking our bags, we went inside.
Photos were not allowed inside so we didn’t take any, and creative commons photos of the interior don’t seem to exist but you can see a few here. It’s a beautiful place – a library in the classic sense. Almost silent, smelling of old books. There are no comfy chairs, only wooden chairs and tables designed for studying at. They are very serious about security there to the point where when I tried to show Daegan how an old fashioned card catalogue worked we were scolded for touching them. The security didn’t extend to cats, though. A cat wandered among the study tables as we sat there, clearly very much at home. He didn’t seem out of place at the least.
When I’d been there for a while, I turned to my friend and said: “Yaha mera mandir hai.”
This is my temple.
In many ways this is was a joke. I don’t have a religion. When pressed on the question I will say I am agnostic. I have no idea whether or not there’s a god. I don’t go to a temple regularly. I don’t follow a holy book. But I do try to be the best and kindest human I can be. After all, I don’t know what’s on the other side but I figure if there’s something more than nothingness, that “something” hopefully cares about people being good to one another.
Now clearly there is no worship going on in a library, and no higher power that’s being worshipped. But there are other similarities. Seeing a beautiful library for me is almost like Darshan. I will go and pay my respects to the library (and sometimes my fines) and then I get prasad in the form of books and knowledge. And the blessings that knowledge gives can be huge. Even now, I am on something of a pilgrimage, visiting all 100 Toronto libraries, one by one. It wasn’t until today, though, I realized that I’m something of a missionary as well.
A few weeks back I was talking to my friend Omar about various plans we have to help some of the Syrian refugees we know. We started working together to place all of the Chromebooks we purchased through a crowdfunding program Sage did with people who needed them. Since then we’ve been plotting other ways to help out. As we talked he mentioned that some of the families hadn’t obtained library cards yet. I was surprised. In this city a library card can unlock so many things from access to ESL conversation groups to children’s storytimes to books and multimedia in Arabic. Librarians can answer questions and help with homework. All for free! How could someone not be aware of the joy the library can bring in to our life.
I found the email address for someone in charge of outreach at the library and said I’d like to see about scheduling an orientation in our local branch. They got back to me very quickly and within a few days we’d scheduled a session. We were told there would be a librarian and an Arabic translator on hand to help as needed.
Omar and I got to work, him making flyers, and me taking a few around the building to get interest. Sometimes, even with a flyer in Arabic it was not always easy to communicate. We all did our best and understood each other in the end. The session would be after work today.
I quickly finish up a conference call and dash out the door and in to the humid day. I’m running later than I’d like as I’d hoped to get there well before to talk to the librarian.
Luckily it’s only a short walk from home to the Thorncliffe Library I still make it there with ten minutes to spare and meet Omar at the door just as he arrives. We are the only ones there so we connect with the group that the library assembled for us. We have a librarian and two settlement workers from the local neighbourhood office – one of whom speaks Arabic so we’re covered.
Omar fields WhatsApp messages, gathering people. It seems everyone is running a bit late. Eventually we get a small group of about 10 people mixed between grown-ups and kids. The librarian tells about some of the things on offer including some I wasn’t fully aware of. For example, our library offers a number of free museum/zoo passes. You need to line up early for them – sometimes people line up as early as 5:00am for passes to the zoo. There seemed to be quite a lot of interest in that. The folks from the neighbourhood office told about English as a Second Language classes on offer as well as job placement and even citizenship classes. Adults and children could use computers at the library and some of the kids were visibly excited about this. After a short walk through the library, ten people lined up to get their library cards. One little boy was so excited about it he couldn’t sit still. After he got it he asked me to help him learn how to log in to a computer. He didn’t want to use it – he just wanted to know that he could. His teenage sister wanted to hold on to his library card for him but he was too excited. He wasn’t giving it up, though. A few minutes before, this same girl was told by the librarian that not only should she volunteer there (it’s a requirement for all high school students to volunteer a minimum of 40 hours in order to graduate), she was now old enough to work there and should apply.
Omar had put some grown up and children’s books and movies in Arabic on hold. Since he couldn’t speak much Arabic, he offered them to the others who were excited to take them home.
As I watch ten people each being issued a library card, I laughed as I wondered: On some level is this what missionaries feel? I feel like the library and what it offers is such an important part of my life and brings so much good to the community. I was really excited and happy to share it with others in order to make their lives better. In the end people came to my temple and liked it so much they became members.
Have you accepted Melvil Dewey in to your life?