Manoj Pandey is creating a free world for writers and readers by making good literature and art more accessible to the common man.
33 year old Manoj Pandey wishes to eliminate the elitism associated with reading and take literature and art to the doorstep of the common man. Through his 8 month old initiative – Sticklit, he wishes to create the world’s largest public library. Though it may sound like a mammoth task, Pandey and his team work tirelessly to make works of distinguished writers and artists like Shashi Tharoor, Salman Rushdie, Oscar Wilde and many others accessible to anyone walking by a butcher’s shop, a pani puri stall or a postbox. He does this by sticking posters created by artists and writers at strategic locations so that everyone can read it while going about their daily activities.
In conversation with Manoj Pandey:
Why did you first think of establishing Sticklit?
I met a writer from Orissa a while back. He wrote screenplays for B-grade movies in Mumbai to make ends meet. When what he set out to do was write and publish a book.
Some time later I met a guy from the slums of Dharavi. I realized that he will never get a chance to read the Orissa writer’s work even if it gets published as he can’t afford something as simple as a book.
That’s when I decided to try to bring the two dissimilar worlds together.
What does Sticklit do?
I founded Sticklit because I believe that reading has become an elite affair. Through this initiative, I want literature and art to reach the general masses. An average book generally costs around Rs. 300-500. Many of you may be able to afford it but there are so many people who can’t. How will they ever read a beautiful poetry by T.S. Elliot or a quote by Tagore? The common man is so caught up in the race for roti, kapda aur makaan, that they don’t have time to read anymore.
What were the first few months like?
I started Sticklit with freelance illustrator and writer, Nidhin Kundathil. In the beginning, we chose fluid mediums like stickers, posters, graffiti so that we could display it anywhere. We added design and art to make it look appealing to the audience. We basically want to use literature and public space for the greater good through Sticklit.
When you print the works of famous writers, how do you deal with copyright issues?
We staunchly believe in taking all the required permissions so that the entire process can go smoothly. We know that the writers and artists put in immense efforts to create masterpieces and we respect that. Of course, we cannot take permission to print the work of writers like Oscar Wilde and George Orwell who lived before the 20th century.
How do you make sure everyone, and not just those who know English, can read and benefit from your initiative?
We tweak our posters so that everyone can read and understand. If we are sticking it in a cafe, we print it in English and if we are sticking it at a rickshaw stand, we print it in Hindi or any other regional language.
Does your work have a social motive behind it?
Of course, we do. Once, we went to a butcher’s shop to stick a poster and the shopkeeper refused to let us put up the poster. He said, “Boss, mujhe bhi andar le jaana hai?” Though we were sticking only a harmless poem, he mistook it as a political memoranda because he couldn’t read. This gave us an extremely interesting insight about what lack of education leads to. It proves to us the impact an initiative like ours could lead to.
Through our initiative, we also wish to provide a platform to aspiring artists and writers. We want to give them an equal chance. A well-known writer’s work may appear on the front page but an aspiring artist may have trouble publishing his work. We like to give our contributors due credit for their work. However, if any of them wish to remain anonymous, we respect their requests.
You display your artwork in cities, does Sticklit have a presence in villages and small towns too?
Yes, definitely. We believe that villages give our initiative a local flavour. We have stuck posters in big cities like Mumbai and New Delhi and even in small villages like Rampur.
I believe that finding hidden talent in hidden places is very important. Through our initiative, we want to give a voice to writers in these small places who have the potential to make it big. It is as much about the people from the places as it is about the place.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced during your journey?
One of the biggest challenges that I faced was lack of public space. Public space is an illusion. Every piece of property is either owned by the government, a private enterprise or real estate agents. They ask us to pay money for obtaining permission to stick posters on their property.
Another challenge is that India is not a nation that reads. Reading is something that is not encouraged in every household.
How did you overcome these challenges?
When we are asked to pay money for sticking our posters on public spaces, we go ahead and stick our posters without permission. Unfortunately, many people think of what we are doing as vandalism. Sometimes, our posters are torn apart. How do we deal with this? We stick our posters at higher places so no one can reach them!
To deal with the reading issue, we design our posters to look attractive so that they capture people’s attention.
What has inspired you to keep going in this journey?
I draw my biggest inspiration from my love for books and words. It is this love that I want to spread. Through the fundraisers we organize, the signed artworks of renowned artists/writers are sold to raise money that goes towards the funding for Sticklit. Various household names like Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor, etc. have come forward and extended their support for this cause.
What’s the one incident that will always stay with you?
Doing something like this has led to tons of memorable instances. Once, policemen started chasing me while I was sticking posters. It is ironic how when you try to do something useful, people assume that you are vandalising public property or you are engaging in illegal activities.
Here’s another incident that is imprinted in my brain. Once when Riazat (writer) and I were eating at a panipuri stall, a Sticklit poster with his work was stuck on the stall. It was a poem on existentialism in Hindi. Reading the poem, a rickshaw-wala exclaimed, Kavi ne dil ki awaaz kagaz pe utaari hai! While listening to this, Riya had tears in his eyes and I realized that I am doing at least something right along the way.
Sticklit posters are now seen in various other countries. How did that happen?
It is all thanks to the incredible network that we have created. A while back, some students from the London School of Design took quotes about Gandhi and the misery of the India-Pakistan partition after getting inspired by our work and stuck the posters in front of the Imperial War Museum which talks about the glory of the British empire after the second world war. It’s amazing when I hear stories like these. Our movement is now gradually spreading to places like Amsterdam, Philadelphia, and Kathmandu too.
How far has StickLit spread and how many people are a proud part of this initiative?
StickLit has 700 plus posters across 3 continents which may have been viewed and read by thousands, if not millions of people! So far, we have 120 volunteers in the collective and more than 40 people (both novice and household names) have contributed.
What does your support system look like?
My support system consists of all the writers and artists who contribute to our organization. The entire creative community is like a support system. From the writers who write to the artists who draw, everyone contributes immensely to our cause.
Is there a particular quote that inspires you?
“To understand just one life you have to swallow the world’ – Salman Rushdie
Being an avid reader yourself, what are your favorite reads?
Pen, pencil and poison – Oscar Wilde
The soul of a man under socialism – Oscar Wilde
The picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde
What advice would you want to give our young readers who want to break the glass ceiling?
My advice would be – Don’t think about it, do it. Everyone has ideas and dreams. Work towards making them a reality. Stop thinking and start doing.
Do you have any success habits?
One of my success habits is to wake up early.
Another one is maintaining a good work-life balance.
The third is to have faith in humanity. You cannot be cynical about everything and still want to do something for society’s benefit.
What’s next for you and your team?
We would like to turn this organization into a social impact project. We want to partner with property owners who will help us display our posters and achieve our goals. We want to partner with people who can help our organisation grow and increase our production.
Inspired much? Read how this man and his team dress as a clowns to bring joy to sick kids!