Mohammad Mohosin's legs were paralysed due to polio when he was just five months old. Growing up, he had to give up on most of his dreams because of his disability. But through grit and determination, Mohosin went on to form the first cricket team for disabled people in Bangladesh.
Now, he captains the national wheelchair cricket team and continues to be a torchbearer for disabled people who wish to take part in sports.
Mohosin shared this inspiring story as a 'living book' during a session with 'readers' of Bangladesh's first Human Library.
"Human Library Bangladesh motivates people like us. I meet a lot of people, but very few want to listen to the tale of my struggle. It was great to be here as a book. Readers were inspired by my story, which in turn inspired me," said a spirited Mohosin.
The word library conjures images of a room brimming with rows of books, desks and chairs, with bibliophiles silently browsing through their favourite books. But is the library just a place where people turn the pages of printed books? What if you could have a conversation with the book?
In a 'human library', there are 'living books' instead of printed books. Human storytellers with their stories of the ups and downs of their lives are presented as books here. 'Readers' are provided with a short synopsis of stories in written form; from those, readers can select the 'book' of their choice.
Volunteers working as librarians introduce readers to the books of their choice. Then the readers sit around with the human book to hear the story from the horse's mouth. Each session lasts around 20-30 minutes.
While almost every library has a 'Silence Please' sign, the sign here reads 'No Silence Please'. What sets a human library apart from a conventional library is the fact that in a human library there can be a two-way conversation between a book and a reader.
How it started
The first such library was started in 2000 in Copenhagen, Denmark. All people, irrespective of race, religion, or caste, can come here and speak.
In July 2017, three young people from Bangladesh - Upoma Rashid, Mushfiquzzaman Khan Apurbo and Rafsanul Haque Hridoy founded a Human Library in Bangladesh for the first time. The three friends felt that they wanted to do something for social change, but were unsure about what to do.
"While browsing through social media, we stumbled upon the activities of the Human Library and that inspired us. Then we sent an email to its original founder, informing him that we were interested in starting such a library program in Bangladesh.
We were a little worried when he praised our initiative and gave his approval. How and where will the books, readers, places and money come from? Then in 2016, we took the stories of the people who would be presented as books. From there, we selected 10 books for our first session," said Upoma Rashid, one of the co-founders of The Bangladesh Human Library.
Don't judge a book by its cover
So far, "Human Library Bangladesh" has organised nine sessions; eight have been held in different parts of Dhaka and one in Khulna. There were 10-12 people as books in each session. Men, women or transgender – nobody is discriminated against when it comes to choosing books. The stories that would appeal most to the people and make them think are chosen.
Upma Rashid said, "We measure everything around us based on socially formed stereotypes. When we see a person without knowing the details of their lives, we start judging them. It is a reflection of our preconceived notions.
For example, when a man with a long beard wears a punjabi, we think of him as a conservative person. We think a traffic sergeant must take bribes. We consider a sex worker a bad person. We frown upon them. At the Human Library, we examine how conventional societal notions work, and how we judge others based on them - our main purpose is to change this attitude."
"When these people (human books) tell the stories of their lives, it creates a reaction among the readers. Then it turns out that the way we are judging these people from the outside, in reality, the story of their lives is entirely different. That's why the slogan of the Human Library is 'Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover'.
Knowing the human book creates compassion and respect among the readers. It does not mean that all readers will experience a similar change. But if there is a change in one person in the society, they will be able to bring about a change in many others," she added.
Extraordinary change from ordinary thought
The first time in 2017, when the library session was organised at 'Gyantapas Abdur Razzak Vidyapeeth' in Dhanmondi, the organisers expected no more than 50-60 readers to be present. But they were shocked to see more than 300 readers gather there ahead of schedule.
According to the rules, each reader could read only one book according to their choice. But the readers were so keen to hear the stories, they asked to read more and more.
One session is arranged every two to three months. Library sessions are held at EMK Centre, Jatra Biroti and in different parts of Dhaka. The books are given different names according to the background of the story.
One of the books selected in the third session was called "A Sunset in My Body". It was the story of a woman who was the victim of domestic violence. A book titled "The World Rests in My Fingerprints" told the story of the trials and triumphs of a disabled person.
Thus, in each session, different stories and books about the struggles of people are selected.
Nahian Bushra is a visually impaired person. Yet she has not given up on her dreams of getting an education. She has already completed her Honours and Masters from Dhaka University, the country's top educational institution. In two sessions of Human Library Bangladesh, she shared her story with others in two volumes: 1. Visually Impaired Person; and 2. A Beam of Hope in the Sea of Darkness.
According to Bushra, "I was very interested to learn about the Human Library. Then when I came here and told the story of my whole life – everyone listened to my life story very attentively. Many had no idea how we, the visually impaired, could continue our studies.
They wanted to know about the struggles of our lives. When it comes to storytelling, it's nice to be able to talk a lot about myself. Then when I got called for another session, I gladly joined."
"Anyone can write to us about their life story. From there, we choose the most appealing stories. We are careful in selecting stories because our audiences are anyone from the ages of seven to 60.
The reader, if very young, might be traumatised by hearing a terrible story. Once a reader got very angry and hit the living book. To prevent such untoward incidents, we get protection from the police in every session," said Upoma.
Asked where the funding for the event comes from, co-founder Upoma said, "Since we started it as students, we didn't have the money for such a big event then.
Entrepreneurs and librarians all work as volunteers without any sense of self-interest, and we discuss our initiative with the authorities regarding allocating space. We have also received funding from Asia Foundation, the British Council, and the British Embassy in Bangladesh."
"I want to spread it everywhere"
At present, co-founders Upma Rashid and Rafsanul Haque Hridoy are actively involved with Human Library Bangladesh. Although around 40 people worked tirelessly in the volunteer team at the beginning, many parted ways due to personal and professional reasons. However, many of them still participate in the sessions as readers.
Currently, 10-12 volunteers are working with the organisation. The two co-founders want to hand over this responsibility to fresh blood. They hope that the Human Library will spread to every part of the country.
Upoma Rashid told The Business Standard about their future plans, "We want to expand our activities in every university in the next two years. We have already discussed this with private universities such as BRAC and Daffodil. We will gradually discuss it with other universities as well."
Human Library Bangladesh plans to hold its tenth session in September this year, with 20 'living books'. The organisation also made a short documentary about 10 people who helped others during the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the slogan "Know Your Heroes", this was a joint effort of the American Embassy and Human Library Bangladesh.