January 18, 2021

Vimala Malhotra on Hippocampus and on being a cool mum

She has set up a space that is one of the most cherished library book spaces in Bangalore. Vimala Malhotra talks on the wonderful journey of starting Hippocampus which turned 13 yesterday -a space for book lovers among children in Bangalore.

Vimala shares with Mums and stories her journey of being an entrepreneur, the joy of reading, being a mum and her love for the canines among a few things she is in life.

Read on to find a story on an individual who managed to create something inspiring thanks to various reasons including persistence from her own child.

“I am a small town girl and I grew up in Ranchi -now part of Jharkhand. Our free time was divided between riotous unorganized games in the outdoors, rainy day indoor games – dolls, dark room, and reading. There was never too much money to spare but each month each of us siblings got the chance to visit the one bookstore in town (a good one at that) and buy just one book. Very exciting visits they were though deciding was so difficult! And we treasured our books and reading times.

I am so possessive about my personal collection that starting a library was not even a thought in my head before 1999. But once we decided, there was no turning back. And we tried to create a space that would appeal to a child and did not just send out one message – BOOKS! READ! We had to involve the fun factor too so that reading and visiting the library became a joyful part of their lives.

My husband, Umesh Malhotra and I were in the IT sector – Umesh in software development and me in documentation. I quit working when my son – Tarutr- started school, because I wanted to be around when he returned home each day.

My husband was transferred to California for what was to be a long-term stint but at the end of a year we decided we wanted to be back in India. It was important for me that my son grew up knowing his grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. So that’s what we did.

However, in our one year in California we had access to the most beautiful library, full of wonderful books for children – the likes of which we had not been exposed to till then. My child was then 6 years old and loved it. When planning to head back to India we mentioned to him that we would make a lovely library for children in Bangalore.

We returned to India and went about life as usual. This was in 1999. A couple of years later when he was around 8 years old, my son asked me whether I had actually been serious about starting a children’s library! I guess that was the reminder and catalyst we required and I did the spadework, gathered a lot of good friends and well-wishers and we got Hippocampus up and running by March 2003.

We are now 13 years old this month! So yes Hippocampus owes its birth to a great extent to my son’s persistence for it.

Obviously the other big factor was that we felt the children in India deserved a lovely library too and we would try to give them that inasmuch as we could.

Tarutr – in my head, he is still a child – to the rest of the world I guess he is a 22-year old adult. He is a great reader. I have read to him since before he joined pre-school. When he was a three or four year-old his favourite book was Dr Suess’s ‘Go,Dog,Go’. He could never get enough of it.

He grew up with a very mixed approach towards reading – he pretty much read most of the regular books that children were into but he discovered and got hooked on Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoons when he was around 14 years old. Maybe just because it was lying around and he tried it out of curiosity.

As a young child 8-14 maybe – he would want to read any book he saw us enjoying – ‘Malgudi Schooldays’ is one that comes to mind immediately. He was about 8 when he saw me immensely enjoying the book and he read it as soon as I was done with it.

He grew to love history and he devours books on history. He is currently doing his undergrad course in History and Italian. But whenever he comes home on holidays he always pulls out a Harry Potter volume and reads it.

I don’t know if I can put down just one thing about being a mum. However, if pushed I would say it is just the growing up with your child that you do – you are never prepared to be a mum there is no book or school that can prepare you for it. You just get in there and wing it the best you can for your child and yourself. You may not always make the right decisions. Every new situation that is thrown up is a challenge that only you can handle and though you do learn from the experiences of others – your child and you are unique and so deserve customized treatment, let’s say! But through it all you are learning and growing as a person and that never stops.”

On inculcating reading as a practice with children, she says, “It is important to make reading an important part of your child’s life. 3-6 is a great time to introduce reading and encourage a lot of story reading and storytelling in their free time.

The best way to encourage reading is to be a reader yourself. Try creating an environment at home that promotes reading. Have a collection of interesting books available at home. Take them to bookstores and let them browse around and be comfortable around books and discover how they can choose books on a limited budget or number of books. Ensure they use their school library regularly and if possible sign them up for a membership at a children’s library outside of school.

If you feel you do not know enough about books to suggest to them – talk to the librarian. Write to us (hoo@hippocampus.in). Plan book-based parties for the younger ones. Make reading a fun experience and they will always treasure it.

Children’s lives are so extremely planned out these days – shuttling between school, tuitions, sports, music, weekend and vacation camps-I find that not enough emphasis is given to reading for the pure joy of it. So I would definitely tell parents please don’t let the kids miss out on this wonderful experience as they grow up. Joyful reading will stay with them forever and be one of their best friends.

Visiting a library can be more than just picking up a book – it is about socializing with like-minded children, meeting adults who can speak to them about the books they are reading or missing out on, book discussions – all which enrich the reading experience.

On her love for dogs, she says, “My family loves dogs. For me an ideal afternoon is a good book, rain all around and a happy dog at hand. We have a variety of them from Indian hounds to German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Mastiffs.

Eventually they are all just looking for love and affection regardless of the breed or size. We spend time with them whenever we can. They can be the most calming companions to have – and if you so want it, the most rambunctious too! I have a little farm close to my house (thanks to the way Bangalore is growing) where most of my dogs are. From being ten they have now become just seven. But you just have to go on, be grateful you were able to make life easy and enjoyable for them.”

On Hippocampus’ rural reach program, Vimala says, “We essentially establish pre-schools in villages as this foundation education is not available there. The teachers and support teachers are recruited from the village itself. Their educational background is typically a bit weak however we counter this with intense training programs. From the curriculum, to books, to uniforms and school bags – everything is designed in-house and provided to the children. Obviously the fees are subsidized and where necessary part and full scholarships are provided.”

On the various activities in the urban spaces for children, “Well there is definitely an immense number and variety of activities available for kids. Just the summer camps are a multi-crore industry in India, according to a newspaper study. So it becomes essential to choose wisely. It will ultimately be a chunk out of the precious free time that a child gets – so it would have to be a balance between what they want, what you want for them and pure free time. So definitely involve them in the decision-making so everyone is happy and not stressed out.”

Lastly she has a word on the books vs technology – “Currently from what we have seen – parents still prefer a book in the hands of their child rather than an eBook or other equivalents – enough time for children to move to digital platforms when they grow up and make their personal choices in the matter.”

Mums and stories wishes this wonderful mum and entrepreneur, all the very best in creating more such wonderful spaces.

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