InsightsPOSTED November 26, 2015

Akash’s Libraries: Sharing the gift of reading

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Leading up to #GivingTuesdayCA on December 1, I would like to turn the spotlight to a truly deserving family and a story that has captured my heart (and that of thousands of people all over the world) this past year.

I met Arati Bhattacharya and Anu Saha almost a decade ago, as close friends of my sister and now brother-in-law. They are the kind of couple you just gravitate to instantly – friendly, warm, successful, and full of respect and love for each other. A few years into their marriage, Arati got pregnant and everyone knew that their son was going to be the luckiest little kid in the world, just to be born to them.

And then, just a few days after his due date, they went through an unimaginable tragedy. Their son, Akash, passed away in labour.

The plaque to commemorate Akash at one of the recently inaugurated libraries in Rajasthan, India”

I don’t think anyone can truly understand what parents go through in the face of something as devastating as losing a child. Everyone who knew them was beyond heartbroken for their loss, and gave them space to go through the grieving process together in their own way. But no one could have imagined just how powerful their reaction to the unthinkable circumstance was going to be.

Finding inspiration

Arati was a long-time volunteer and board member with Room to Read’s Austin chapter, and over the years, she had worked with the organization in various capacities. She and Anu shared a passion for education, and it was a pipe dream of theirs to open schools in India when they got older, and spend the summers there with their children – doing their bit to share the importance of universal education, and give back to the country where they both have roots. They also built an impressive library for Akash while Arati was pregnant, with books from their own childhood homes, and a host of new ones for Akash to enjoy as he grew up.

As they lay in bed a day after coming back from the hospital, they just knew they had to channel their energy into something productive – making Akash’s memory live on in a meaningful way was going to be the first step in picking up the pieces of their lives.

Akash’s Libraries: Built by love

A few phone calls later, they decided to work with Room to Read and made a personal commitment to build a series of school libraries dedicated to Akash’s memory in places of true need across the globe.

Their plan was to entirely fund four libraries themselves. But just hours after informing friends and family of their plans, they were faced with an outpouring of support – from donations, to in-kind support and even offers to visit the libraries upon completion.

Inspired by Akash’s spirit (and the meaning of his name, which refers to the limitless sky in Sanskrit), and this flood of generosity, they pledged to continue with this mission as long as possible.

To-date, Arati and Anu have raised almost $100,000 – mostly from friends and family – but also from kind-hearted strangers drawn to their story. They have successfully built ten libraries in 2014 in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.

They now plan to build at least one additional library every year on Akash’s birthday. They also hope to eventually expand the reach of Akash’s libraries into Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, and Africa.

One of the most crucial skills you can have as a communications practitioner is to think on your feet and overcome any potential challenges without impact to the work we do for our clients. But real adversity is another game altogether. And it’s how you rise from that kind of life-altering challenge that really shapes you as a person.

When I chatted with them about their incredible initiative, Anu said something so poignant that stuck with me:

“Akash couldn’t have the opportunities we were ready to provide him, so we’d like to provide that opportunity for other children.”

The family today, with Asha’s fur-sister Chutney

You just don’t come across people like Arati and Anu every day – their resilience, generosity of spirit and true passion continue to humble me every day. They have since been blessed with a beautiful and always-happy little girl, Asha, who truly is the luckiest little lady on the planet. Not only does she have amazing parents and an adorable fur-sister, but she has her big brother Akash who is always smiling down on her.

For more information on Akash’s Libraries, please visit their page on Room to Read. Rohini Mukherji is an account director at APEX Public Relations.