How Austin family’s tragedy turned into libraries

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published June 15, 2014 and was lost to our website. We’re republishing today because we know Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are sometimes hard holidays. We think about this family every year.

In April 2014, Anu Saha and his wife Arati Bhattacharya could not wait for their son Akash Bhattacharya Saha to arrive. Four days after his due date he was born dead, probably after a problem with the umbilical cord during labor. In his memory, the couple asked friends to donate to Rooms to Read, which establishes libraries in schools around the world. They’ve already funded 10 libraries and have plans to add at least one a year on his birthday. Their dog, Chutney loves to spend time in Akash’s nursery.
 LAURA SKELDING/AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2014

On April 5, Anu Saha and his wife, Arati Bhattacharya, held their newborn son, Akash, in their arms for the first time. He was beautiful – long and lean, measuring 20 inches and weighing 6 pounds even. He had Saha’s chin and Bhattacharya’s eyes.

Saha became a father and Bhattacharya a mother.

It was “the happiest moment in my life, ” Saha, 33, says.

“He was perfect, ” Bhattacharya, 32, says.

Saha kept hoping his son, who looked like a sleeping baby, would flinch, would wake up. He did not.

Akash Bhattacharya Saha was born in Austin just a few days past his April 1 due date to loving parents who were ready to give him a life full of books and opportunities.

But it was not to be.

During the early stages of labor, probably the day before, something went wrong with Akash’s umbilical cord and he unexpectedly died. He was otherwise healthy.

Yet, in their grief, Akash’s parents found a way for his memory to live on, for him to live up to the name Akash, which means “limitless” in Sanskrit.

They established a fund in his honor that will create 10 Room to Read libraries this year for children living across the world, with even more libraries planned. At least one new library a year will be donated on Akash’s birthday.

People from around the world have raised more than $50,000 since Akash’s birth. Some have known his parents, but many have not. They have been touched by his story.

Finding Room to Read

Shortly after Akash’s birth, a family friend wrote in an email of the Hindu belief that when someone dies at a young age, they are briefly brought to Earth to complete a final task and specially choose someone to complete it on their behalf. They believe Akash chose them for the task of creating libraries, Saha says.

The idea began with a friend of Saha’s who said, in passing, “If you do anything to memorialize your son, let me know.”

Bhattacharya had been involved in the local chapter of Room to Read and previously served on the board. They had even met founder John Wood when he came to Austin last October. Already pregnant with Akash, Bhattacharya had Wood sign his book, “Creating Room to Read” for Akash: “Dear Akash: I hope you will have a life that is ‘rich in books’!” he wrote.

Wood, a former Microsoft executive, created Room to Read after backpacking in Nepal in 1998. There he visited a village school with few resources. The headmaster asked if he ever returned, maybe he could bring back books. Wood put the request out to his friends and collected more than 3,000 books in two months. He returned with the books, then quit his job and started Room to Read.

Room to Read has established 16,549 libraries, constructed 1,824 schools, distributed 14.5 million books and benefited 8.8 million children. It is in 10 countries: Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa. It only works in countries where there is good community and government support for schools yet there is a lack of resources.

It takes $5,000 to start and fund a library for three years. After that time, the community takes over the library. Room to Read continues to track the library’s progress, however. Of the 517 libraries established in Cambodia, Nepal and South Africa between 2003 and 2007, 98 percent are still functioning. Only about 1 percent of its existing libraries are inactive, meaning for whatever reason the program wasn’t a good fit for that community.

When their friend asked Bhattacharya and Saha if they were doing anything to remember Akash, Room to Read became a natural fit for this child who was to live in a nursery with an entire wall of books, some from Bhattacharya’s childhood, some brand new, some even with Akash’s name on them.

“We were so ready to give him all these opportunities, ” Bhattacharya says.

The day after his birth, they decided they would invite people to give to Room to Read. If nobody gave, they planned to fund four libraries in Maharashtra, India, themselves. They chose that area because of family that lives near there.

By April 9, they had created an online Room to Read campaign to honor Akash. They sent out an email to friends and family: “Our son, Akash Bhattacharya Saha, was brought into our arms without a heartbeat on April 5, 2014, weighing 6 pounds and measuring 20 inches, ” the email began.

After some explanation of what happened, they continued: “We have committed to building a series of school libraries dedicated to Akash’s memory. We welcome you to contribute towards this effort if you so choose but there is no obligation.”

They thanked their friends for their love and support and asked for privacy at this difficult time. They included a link to the campaign and invited the recipients to share the link, but didn’t pressure loved ones to give.

Within the first 18 hours, they had passed the $20,000 mark. People shared it and started helping. Friends from middle school gave. A friend who was getting married asked for donations in lieu of gifts; another friend asked for donations instead of presents for her 2-year-old son’s birthday. Bhattacharya’s sister’s graduate class in Boston pulled money together, as did a national sorority. Co-workers also gave.

“I’m definitely a proud parent, ” she says. “He’s inspired people that didn’t even know us.”

They kept increasing the goal as more people gave. Some Room to Read employees, inspired by what they say has never happened to quite this scale, also made donations.

“The dedication of this family has inspired all of us, ” says Kaitlin Bernhoerster, development associate with Room to Read. She estimates the 10 libraries funded by donations made in Akash’s memory will reach 4,450 children.

“It isn’t like it’s one person, ” Saha says. “It’s 330 donors and counting. It’s more beautiful. So many people gave. It’s a grassroots movement.”

They plan to visit the libraries and scatter some of Akash’s ashes. Each library will have a dedication plaque in Akash’s memory. They hope to continue to support the libraries if need be even after Room to Read’s three-year commitment.

“Maybe this was the purpose of his life, ” he says. “It’s comforting to think all these kids should have a library and these opportunities because of him.”

The future and Akash’s legacy

When they think about all the libraries Akash’s memory will help build, they think about future children and bringing them to his libraries.

“We’d like our kids to know what their older brother has done, ” he says. “They have a brother to look up to.”

The loss and Akash’s legacy will forever be part of their family story.

There are no medical reasons why they couldn’t try to get pregnant again, but they haven’t ruled out adoption, either.

For now, they try to get back to work – she’s a lawyer practicing insurance regulation law, and he works for BazaarVoice.

There are constant reminders of children. Pregnant friends, a co-worker with a baby born at the same time, yet they say seeing children makes them happy, not sad.

There have been hard days. The one-month anniversary of Akash’s birth. Mother’s Day. Bhattacharya’s birthday last month. And today, Father’s Day.

But they will approach Father’s Day like they did Mother’s Day. He made her breakfast in bed and they had massages. “You are a mother, ” he says. “You are allowed to acknowledge that.” It was still a hard day.

As they talk about what to do for Father’s Day, she assures him, “We will be celebrating Father’s Day.”

They lean on each other often and tell each other it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to not be sad.

“Every once in a while when I’m working, it’s nice to sit quietly and think about Akash, ” he says. “It’s very comforting, very heartwarming and calming.”

Creating Akash’s libraries has given them something to look forward to, something to be excited about, yet it doesn’t spare them from the pain of every once in a while having to explain to someone what happened. They sometimes feel like they have to manage others’ emotions, which is why they needed to go on radio silence that first month and even take a trip away to be alone after their family left.

Yet, they love to come to his nursery and sit with their dog, Chutney.

“Thinking about him is always good, ” she says. “We’re not trying to hide from him.”

It’s still a very happy place, filled with books. And they think about the thousands of children who have a new opportunity they wouldn’t have had without Akash, who was “born sleeping, ” as a block in the nursery reads.

“What he’s made happen – he never breathed a day on Earth – but what he’s done is really inspiring, ” Saha says. “His legacy will outlive us.”

Contact Nicole Villalpando at 512-912-5900.

Room to Read

To find out more about Room to Read, go to roomtoread.org. To find out more about Akash or to give in his memory, go to roomtoread.org/akash. To connect with the local chapter, go to roomtoread.org/austin.


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