There's no cover art on these books, no fancy lettering, no blurbs extolling their merits. Their readers have no use for the kind of frills that cheer up a bookstore. Not that they're available in stores. The visually impaired have to negotiate a narrow staircase in one of the Blind Relief Association (BRA) buildings, dodge some standing fans and some bags of cement on their way to a first-floor room that houses the only public Braille library in the city. But they get there all right.
Chandreshwar Kumar Kushwaha has been a member of Delhi Public Library's Braille division since 1988 when he was a student at a special government school for the blind at Kingsway Camp. He works as a telephone operator at AIIMS, writes poetry in his free time and takes a shuttle or a 544 from AIIMS to the library at least once a week. He reads voraciously. Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar,' Mahadevi Verma, Jai Shankar Prasad, Maithili Sharan Gupt - he loves them all. He doesn't stop for long on Monday. "I don't have work today. I am going to the Kavi Sammelan at my school in Kingsway Camp," he says cheerfully. The symposium has been organized to commemorate the birth anniversary of Louis Braille on January 4.
Braille, as a system of writing for the blind, is nearly two centuries old; Bharati Braille for Indian languages was devised in 1952. It's been around for long enough but the opportunities for the visually impaired - even those skilled at Braille - to read are still woefully low. DPL's library is a stand-alone as other Braille libraries are tucked away in educational institutions and, therefore, accessible only to their members.
The Braille division of DPL opened in a small room at DPL's main building opposite the Old Delhi railway station in 1963. It moved to Lakshmibai Nagar in 1966 and from there, to the BRA campus in '79. For a library that started over four decades ago, its collection is a tad limited consisting of about 15,700 'volumes' in English, Hindi and Sanskrit combined — a sizeable section of them textbooks. But they occupy all the space. When rendered into Braille form, books expand physically. The pages are thicker. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, not J K Rowling's longest offering, occupies five volumes, Kalidas's Shakuntala is in 15 volumes and the first two books of Mahabharat, new in the catalogue, in 52. "A 250-page book will be in five volumes of Braille," says Saraswati Nautiyal who's been with the library for 37 years. The catalogue is in ordinary print to save space.
"The library sources books from presses around the country with a bulk of it coming from All India Conone side only. It was expensive," she says. The transcription unit is defunct. AICB got the first machine, a Braillo 400 SR, in 1997 and started ' m a s s - p ro d u c i n g ' Braille books, including textbooks for students and a rather eclectic mix of fiction (Mark Twain, Premchand), non-fiction (A P J Abdul Kalam's Igfederation of the Blind (AICB), Rohini. AICB has what it claims are three "state-of-the-art" Braille printing presses procured from Norway at Rs 40 lakh per machine. Nautiyal had initially served as a 'transcriber' for the library with three others. They'd create Braille copies first by hand and later with a Brailler. V K Verma, visually impaired and employed there since 1989, proofread the copies. "It would take six months to make one copyof onebook andthecoursewould be over by the time a textbook was ready. Also, we could write on nited Minds) poetry, religious literature and magazines — all without permission from the original publisher, all, technically, violations of copyright. AICB's secretary general, J L Kaul is willing to go to jail to defend his right to continue. That crisis hasn't arisen yet but the situation hasn't improved either. Books for the blind are still rare but Kaul's working on it. "We can't read in print, we shouldn't need permission to create Braille books," he says. At least, he has legitimate customers in DPL and numerous institutions that order from their catalogue.
Delhi Public Library's Braille division, started in 1963, is the only public Braille library in the city.
Operating from the campus of Blind Relief Association, it has a collection of 15,700 volumes but the list of subscribers is small. It currently has 540 members.
A large chunk of its English books come from presses of All India Confederation of the Blind, Rohini.