The Man Who Loved STORIES: ABHIYAN HUMANE

Every time someone visits our house, their eyes are riveted to two focus points – one a gigantic mural painted by friends on our living room wall, and the second, rows and rows of books. History and social justice, picture books, YA and middle grade books, comics and graphic novels, crime, politics, the Ambedkarite movement, cooking and baking, pop-up books, design and art, environment fiction and non-fiction books. My late partner, Abhiyan Humane would nonchalantly walk up to a shelf, pull out a book and start talking about unsolved equations in its pages or the impact of weed on the brain (I’d have to hide the book later else he’d lend it out without my knowledge).

Abhiyan was made up of stories, some he inhaled from books, others he made up, the twinkle in his eye a foil to the serious expression on his face as his words spun themselves into narratives. I maybe the author, but he was the storyteller. His lectures at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology would often start with a talk about the stories that Early Man drew on the walls of caves and how storytelling has been core to our evolution.

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Imagination cannot be learned

Telling stories through his exhibition in Goa

Growing up in Mumbai, books were the bricks that Abhiyan used to build a fort to meet head on the abuse, neglect and treatment that the many-headed dragon of caste battered upon him. Comics (and Russian writers, apparently) were the armoury of that fort – where Asterix, Calvin and Hobbes, and Tintin ruled. In fact, once we moved to Bangalore, with no savings and new jobs, we started re-building these comic collections from scratch. I’d go to Blossom Book House after every salary SMS and buy one precious Tintin. And the rest of the month would be spent re-reading it. His birthday gift, the entire Calvin and Hobbes set, stayed next to Abhiyan’s bed for the rest of his short life.

In early 2000, Abhiyan headed off for a Masters in the USA – we’ve spend hours over Skype outraging that The Case of the Exploding Mangoes did not win The Man Booker Prize or he’d ask me to explain for the 169th time, why did I read Harry Potter again and again. He never did end up reading the Potter books, but Abhiyan would often put on the films during dinner and then laugh when I’d parrot the lines under my breath or chuckle at my gasp at a familiar plot turn. He wasn’t a reading snob – he happily traded Narcopolis for The Diary of a Social Butterfly and Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods (nothing to do with his friends calling him Greek God, of course), but it was science that had his heart – books about the cosmos, math, raptors, trees.

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I should have figured what our seventeen years together and not-together would entail, when Abhiyan’s first gift to me was Nineteen Eighty-Four. To Abhiyan the world was dystopian, one where privilege and entitlement obstinately kept the scales tipped, plunging the other side into a nightmarish darkness of inequity. His last few years on this planet was spent addressing that. Along with Anoop Kumar and Mangesh Dahiwale, he set up The Nagpur Collective, a national network of young Ambedkarite scholars, activists, students, academicians and professionals. 

As that friendship deepened, Mangesh wrote about one such evening that they spent talking about the collective, their work and the world. “As we talked through come finer points, he took control of music and started playing a sequence of songs on his iPhone. He started with Nina Simone (this was the first time I heard this name) ending up with “The Revolution Will Not be Televised, through James Brown’s “Sex Machina”, sprinkling Bob Marley and Fela Kuti in between, he set us free.” A musical pattern well known to his students and colleagues who spent hours on our balcony, talking and/ dancing.

Anoop told me that when Abhiyan first visited him at his Nalanda Academy in Wardha, a space where he helps prepare young adults for college life, they talked for hours. And when Abhiyan left, he sent Anoop a message, “I have ordered some chairs for your students.” Because then Anoop was teaching in a Buddha Vihara half-equipped with a few chairs and floor rugs. Little did anyone of us know that space was to become Abhiyan’s calling.

He went back in 2016 with a bunch of his colleagues and students what would become the start of Nalanda Labs. By day four of the summer camp, forty children were coming to the Buddha Vihara to tinker with electronics, computers and of course stories. By the time Abhiyan wound up the camp, it had been home to over hundred children and young adults in the relentless summer heat. There’s a video on YouTube where Abhiyan is lecturing the children while carefully opening a Pratham Books Library-in-Classroom Kit about respecting and loving books, handling them with care and concern, and owning them. As he finished opening the package, he gently pushed the children in front, asking them to open it. Their hesitant hands opened the kit, gasping at the books, a smile flitted on Abhiyan’s face. Go on, he urges, open and read.

Abhiyan talks books to the children of Nalanda Academy-Lab

Of course, it was from him I learned the generosity of spirit when it comes to sharing books. I hoard books, Abhiyan shared them (including some of mine – insert frowning emoji). “Share knowledge, and imagination, Bijal,” he’d shake his head. I took to buying books and libraries to share them with as many children as I could. In fact, when Nandish or Chetan, two auto rickshaw drivers in our part of town would ferry us around, we’d press a picture book in their hand for their little sons (Abhiyan had an affinity for auto rickshaw drivers, co-gifting an entire vehicle to Biju in Kerala, his name is now proudly displayed on its windshield). Soon their boys began joining us on errands, because, hello, book uncle and aunty.

It was Abhiyan who had me thinking about who gets the privilege to write children’s books in India, fuelling my team and my dream to pursue finding #ownvoices for our list. When my colleague and friend heard the news of his death, we were to go to Assam for a picture book writing workshop. They still went, for him – “Abhiyan is the one thing that kept [me] from wanting to call the whole thing off.”

At his memorial, one of his students told me how Abhiyan suggested she read a particular book he lent her. As she finished it, they discussed it at length and then he smiled slyly and asked if she spotted his name in the book. Bemused, she rifled through the pages, until he turned it to the Acknowledgments. “And Abhiyan who makes me believe in the beautiful things in the world. He also eats all the cake I bake while procrastinating,” she recited from memory. Turns out it was my book, So You Want to Know About the Environment. He never told me how thrilled he was to see his name in a book. But he shared that joy with his students.

In fact, it was on a frustrating editing day that Abhiyan dragged me to our favourite neighbourhood dhaba and sat and went through my manuscript and made copious illustration notes. It’s hard to even think that Abhiyan won’t be there when my next book will be published, one that I finished because he would make me sit at my desk and say, “Write now, it’s a nice afternoon. Leave me alone so I can think. And I will leave you alone so you can write.”

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Calm down, it will all happen

He’d often call me from Wardha – “We spoke about comics and graphic novels today. They were so excited. Can you send some, the kids need to read these books!” Off they went, Persepolis, Nimona, Women in Science, et.al. to his students. One of his students told me that Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science was the first book she read from cover to cover. So it continued - Another day, another call, “Send a library to Kerala. To Rajnandgaon. To here. To there.”

That’s what Abhiyan wanted – children to read, devour books, and reshape their life stories – just like he did. Which is why, he took a sabbatical from teaching at Srishti to formally start Nalanda Labs with Anoop Kumar in Wardha last year – an ecosystem to foster and explore the intersections of art-science-technology, the stuff Abhiyan cared about. Enmeshed in the local Dalit neighbourhood, the “lab is designed in a manner that integrates the Arts and Sciences with cognition and hands-on activities that are specifically designed to drive creativity by providing a strong foundation in making and context, in exploring forms and applications, and being radical and experimental in looking at their world.” We spent the last year commuting between Wardha and Bangalore, secure in the one fact that all we needed, was the other. In that one fact, Abhiyan said he found the strength to continue his work.

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Abhiyan Library

4 down. 46 to go.

We spent a whirlwind weekend in and around Wardha - reading stories, living Abhiyan’s dream of setting up libraries in spaces where children have little or no access to books, and laughing with children as they inaugurated the libraries

Abhiyan left this dystopian world too soon, to be part of the cosmos he so admired and coveted. And relentlessly read about. Light and stardust, that’s what we are, he’d say. And what he is now. But his stories live on – in the spirit of his students, his lab and his work. And in the form of the Abhiyan Library, instituted by Anoop, Kapil and the Nalanda Academy, to set up fifty libraries in Buddha Viharas in his name.

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Abhiyan humane

Best friend, life partner, artist/ scientist, chef, cricket buff, homemaker, caretaker, prankenstein, philosopher, amateur dentist, voice of sanity. Foremost, a teacher.

Light and stardust.

1976-2019