Bengalis are known for their affinity for reading. There are many known men and women who have proven this. But then there are people who silently do their task. Take Polan Sarkar for instance. The Alor Ferrywala, i.e the peddler of light, was known as the Walking Library of Bangladesh; he spent most of his life walking from house to house in villages, lending books to them from his stack, and giving them the gift of knowledge.
Polan Sarkar, the Walking Library of Bangladesh, would have turned a centenarian if he had lived for two more years.
Instead, he passed away on March 1st, 2019. And, his sad demise robbed rural Bangladesh of someone who believed in donating knowledge. Polan himself never managed to complete his own school education; his financial situation compelled him to drop out of school in the sixth standard. However, that only made his thirst for knowledge even stronger. But he had already been afflicted by the addiction of reading books.
Eventually, he joined a local theatre group and was often seen in comic roles. But his main role was that of the manuscript writer, script reader, and prompter. This helped him come across the vast trove of Bengali literature. He also continued to read by borrowing books from libraries. Meanwhile, his family ran on the financial aid from a close relative.
However, the benefactor passed away. Polan, too, lost the small zamindaris he used to take care of.
So, he became the committee chowkidar for the Union Parishad; his job involved collecting taxes from the houses in villages. He had to walk from village to village for this job. This is when he first started the distribution of books. When he visited a house, he used to give students books to read. Motivated by his dream to spread education, he even started a school in the village. At this school, the top rankers received books as rewards, a practice that was rare in this part of the country. Government schools in nearby villages also adopted this practice.
When Polan Sarkar was diagnosed with diabetes, he did not let his disease bog him down.
Instead, he took it into his stride, and how! His doctor had asked him to take long walks in order to remain healthy. So, Polan used this advice as an excuse walk to houses with a stack of books, asking the people in those houses to pick books from his collection. He lent them the books for a week or even a month. He also frequently visited the book borrowers to ask them about their progress and lend them new books.
There were five local stores owned in his locality which he chose as alternative book distribution centres. The book-loving owners of these stores have lent books to their customers, relying on them to return them after reading them. Polan would visit these stores with his son once or twice a month to replace the old books with new ones.
Polan Sarkar continued to be the walking library of Bangladesh for 30 long years.
He received no help from any benevolence from an individual or organisation. In 2008, the Rajshahi Zila Parishad helped him build a library. He had it built on a piece of land that he owned. For his selfless contribution towards the improvement of the reading culture in the country, Polan Sarkar received Ekhushe Padak, the highest civilian honour in Bangladesh. From newspaper articles to plays on the stage, Polan’s story has been told and recorded. And it can only be hoped that the man has left behind a legacy that the youth of India will carry forward.