When was the last time you visited a library? The mere mention of this antiquated idea appears to be an outdated suggestion to the urban Indian, who rarely consumes anything outside his/her set-up of digital devices, much less the idea of travelling to a place where he is asked to take deteriorating books and read them in complete silence. While these are the readership habits of today in the urban sphere, there’s still an inimitable charm that physical libraries hold and when we came across this wilderness library belonging to one of the most isolated tribal communities in Kerala, we were intrigued to dig deeper.
Edamalakudi, the first elected Tribal Gram Panchayat of Kerala formed in 2010, consists of the Muthavans tribe of Kerala. The Gram Panchayat presents a different picture of Kerala which otherwise boasts of a rather rich record, with it being the only Gram Panchayat outside the purview of e-governance, and electricity still being considered a luxury there. The Muthavans tribe of Kerala are largely a deprived community and most members are illiterate, with the nearest Government Tribal Lower Primary School almost 10-15 kms away. It’s in this isolated setting that 73-year-old P.V. Chinnathambi’s enterprise shatters the assumptions of illiteracy and backwardness.
Chinnathambi’s tiny mud-walled structure appears to be a simple tea shop on first sight, albeit in the middle of nowhere, and the handwritten sign on the front is enough to stump anyone. It reads:
‘Akshara Arts & Sports
Selling tea, mixture, biscuits, matches and other provisions, the shop’s humble offerings have satisfied journalist and photojournalist P.Sainath and his company of wanderers. Sainath’s first-person account narration is what first brought this story to the digital world when, after sampling other provisions at the shop, he finally asked Chinnathambi where on earth his library of books was. The entrepreneur smiled as he brought forward two large jute bags meant to hold rice of 25 kg or more, which held the entire inventory of 160 books. He neatly laid down his entire collection before the group whose eyes feasted on it with awe.
Each book in the collection was a literature classic, which included books on politics, but the collection was completely devoid of thrillers, best-sellers or the notorious ‘chicklit,’ which appears to be a bestseller these days. The works of famous Malayalam writers such as Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Kamala Das, M. Mukundan, Lalithambika Antharjanam are present as well as the works of Mahatma Gandhi and Communist Thoppil Basi. When posed with the question of whether the books were actually read, Chinnathambi presented a well-maintained register enumerating the books borrowed and returned.
An estimated 25 families live in the hamlet (or kudi in Muthavan culture) where the tea shop is located, but an impressive 37 books were borrowed in 2013. The library has a one-time fee of Rs 25 and a yearly charge of Rs 2, with no separate cost for the book borrowed. Black tea without sugar is provided for free and only the biscuits, mixtures and other items are paid for. The registry has the names of the borrowers and dates neatly laid out as Sainath had a major epiphany, “Quality literature flourishing here in the forests, devoured by a marginalised adivasi group. This was sobering. Some of us, I guess, were reflecting on the sorry reading habits in our own urban environment.” But the truly humbling experience for the group was yet to come.
One of the three journalism students in the group discovered a ruled notebook with several hand-written pages which had no title yet. This was Chinnathambi’s incomplete autobiography which starts with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, when the author was just nine years old. The writing is said to reveal the first stirrings of his social and political consciousness as he reveals his inspiration to return to Edamalakudi. Murli ‘Mash’ is a legendary teacher in those parts, an Adivasi belonging to a different tribe who had worked with and for Muthavans. He was the one who set Chinnathambi in the direction of returning to Edamlalakudi and setting up a library.
In an age where politicians and leaders leave no stone unturned to take credit for the smallest movements and achievements, Chinnathambi believes he is not doing anything special. The Edamalakudi community has less than a 2,500 population, which is almost the entire population of Muthuvans in the world, while close to 1,500 votes from the Panchayat make it the lowest number of votes in the state.
The fact that a section of this impoverished community is served by one of the loneliest libraries in the world, cultivating a universal love for literature is something which must be lauded and appreciated. But the man who is at the centre of it all remains oblivious to his significance and perhaps therein lies his greatness.