FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Loneliest Library in the World

by

At 73, P.V. Chinnathambi runs one of the loneliest libraries anywhere. In the middle of the forested wilderness of Kerala’s Idukki district, the library’s 160-books — all classics — are regularly borrowed, read, and returned by poor, Muthavan adivasis.

It’s a tiny tea-shop, a mud-walled structure in the middle of nowhere. The hand-written sign on plain  paper pinned to the front,  reads:

Akshara Arts & Sports

Library

Iruppukallakudi

Edamalakudi

sainathlibrary

P.V. Chinnathambi, 73, Tea Vendor, Sports Club Organizer and Librarian

A library? Here in the forests and wilderness of Idukki district? This is a low literacy spot in Kerala, India’s most literate state. There are just 25 families in this hamlet of the state’s first elected tribal  village council. Anyone else wanting to borrow a book from here would have to trek a long way through dense forest. Would they, really?

“Well, yes,” says P.V. Chinnathambi, 73, Tea Vendor, Sports Club Organizer and Librarian. “They do.” His little shop  — selling tea, ‘mixture,’   biscuits, matches and other provisions  –  sits at  the hilly crossroads of Edamalakudi. This is Kerala’s remotest panchayat, where just one adivasi group, the Muthavans, resides.  Getting  there had meant an 18-km walk from Pettimudi near Munnar. Reaching Chinnathambi’s tea-shop library meant even more  walking. His wife is away on work when we stumble across his home. They too, are Muthavans.

“Chinnathambi,” I ask, puzzled.  “I’ve had the tea. I  see the provisions. Where the heck is your library?”  He flashes his striking smile and takes us inside the small structure. From a darkened corner, he retrieves two large jute bags  –  the kind that can carry 25 kg of rice or more. In the bags are 160 books, his full inventory. These he lays out carefully on a mat, as he does every day during the library’s working hours.

Our band of eight wanderers browse the books in awe. Every one of them is a piece of literature, a classic, even the political works. No thrillers, bestsellers or chick lit. There is a Malayalam translation of the Tamil epic poem “Silappathikaram.” There are books by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Kamala Das. Also titles by M. Mukundan, Lalithambika Antharjanam and others. Alongside tracts of Mahatma Gandhi are famous radical polemics like Thoppil Basi’s “You made me a Communist.”

Adivasis generally suffer greater poverty and deprivation and worse education drop-out rates than other Indians.

“But Chinnathambi, do people here really read such stuff?”  we ask, now seated outside. The Muthavans, like most adivasi groups, suffer greater deprivation and worse education drop-out rates than other Indians. In reply, he fishes out his library register. This is an impeccably kept record of books borrowed and returned. There may be only 25 families in this hamlet, but there were 37 books borrowed in 2013. That’s close to a fourth of the total stock of 160  –  a decent lending ratio. The library has a one-time membership fee of Rs. 25 and a monthly charge of Rs.2. There is no separate payment for the book you borrow.  The tea is free. Black and without sugar. “People come in tired from the hills.” Only the biscuits, ‘mixture’ and other items have to be paid for. Sometimes, a visitor might get a free, if spartan meal, free.

The dates of lending and return, names of the borrowers, are all neatly entered in his register. Illango’s ‘Silappathikaram’ has been taken more than once. Already, several more books had been borrowed this year. 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.

Our group, with several members earning a living from writing, was in for a further deflation of the ego. Young Vishnu S, one of three journalism students from the Kerala Press Academy travelling with us, found a different kind of  ‘book’  amongst the lot. A ruled notebook with several hand-written pages. It has no title yet, but this is Chinnathambi’s autobiography. He hasn’t gotten far with it, he says apologetically. But he’s working on it. “Come on, Chinnathambi. Read us something from it.”  It wasn’t long, and it was incomplete, but a tale neatly told. It captures the first stirrings of his social and political consciousness. It starts, after all, with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi   when the author was just nine years old  –  and the impact that had on him.

Chinnathambi says he was inspired to return to Edamalakudi and set up his library by Murli ‘Mash’ (Master or teacher). Murli ‘Mash’ is a legendary figure and teacher  in these parts. He is an adivasi himself, but from a different tribe. One which resides in Mankulam, outside of this panchayat. He has devoted much of his life to working with and for the Muthavans. “Mash set me in this direction,” says Chinnathambi who lays no claim to doing anything special, though he is.

Edamalakudi, where this hamlet is just one amongst 28, has less than 2,500 people. That’s almost the entire Muthavan population in the world. Barely a hundred live in Iruppukallakudi. Edamalakudi, which covers over a hundred square kilometres of forest,  is  also the panchayat with the lowest number of votes in the state, barely 1,500.  Our exit route from here has to be abandoned. Wild elephants have taken over the ‘short-cut’  to Valparai in Tamil Nadu that we had chosen.

Yet, here sits Chinnathambi, running what could be one of  the loneliest libraries anywhere. And he keeps it active, serving the reading and literary hunger of his impoverished clientele. And also supplying them tea and ‘mixture’ and matches.  An otherwise noisy group, we set off in some silence, touched and impressed by our encounter. Our eyes on the treacherous path in the long trek ahead. Our minds on P. V. Chinnathambi, librarian extraordinary.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This piece first appeared on www.psainath.org. He can be reached at: psainath@mtnl.net.in

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@mtnl.net.in

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Michael Hudson
Obama Said Hillary will Continue His Legacy and Indeed She Will!
Jeffrey St. Clair
She Stoops to Conquer: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Rob Urie
Long Live the Queen of Chaos
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Evolution of Capitalism, Escalation of Imperialism
Vijay Prashad
The Iraq War: a Story of Deceit
stclair
It Wasn’t Just the Baton Rouge Police Who Killed Alton Sterling
Brian Cloughley
Could Trump be Good for Peace?
Patrick Timmons
Racism, Freedom of Expression and the Prohibition of Guns at Universities in Texas
Gary Leupp
The Coming Crisis in U.S.-Turkey Relations
Pepe Escobar
Is War Inevitable in the South China Sea?
Margot Kidder
My Fellow Americans: We Are Fools
Norman Pollack
Clinton Incorruptible: An Ideological Contrivance
Robert Fantina
The Time for Third Parties is Now!
Andrew Tillett-Saks
Labor’s Political Stockholm Syndrome: Why Unions Must Stop Supporting Democrats Like Clinton
Andre Vltchek
Like Trump, Hitler Also Liked His “Small People”
Serge Halimi
Provoking Russia
Andrew Stewart
Countering The Nader Baiter Mythology
Ron Jacobs
Something Besides Politics for Summer’s End
David Swanson
It’s Not the Economy, Stupid
Erwan Castel
A Faith that Lifts Barricades: The Ukraine Government Bows and the Ultra-Nationalists are Furious
Steve Horn
Did Industry Ties Lead Democratic Party Platform Committee to Nix Fracking Ban?
Robert Fisk
How to Understand the Beheading of a French Priest
Colin Todhunter
Sugar-Coated Lies: How The Food Lobby Destroys Health In The EU
Franklin Lamb
“Don’t Cry For Us Syria … The Truth is We Shall Never Leave You!”
Frederick B. Hudson
Well Fed, Bill?
Harvey Wasserman
NY Times Pushes Nukes While Claiming Renewables Fail to Fight Climate Change
Uri Avnery
The Orange Man: Trump and the Middle East
Marjorie Cohn
The Content of Trump’s Character
Missy Comley Beattie
Pick Your Poison
Joseph Grosso
Serving The Grid: Urban Planning in New York
John Repp
Real Cooperation with Nations Is the Best Survival Tactic
Binoy Kampmark
The Scourge of Youth Detention: The Northern Territory, Torture, and Australia’s Detention Disease
Kim Nicolini
Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red In It
Cesar Chelala
Gang Violence Rages Across Central America
Tom H. Hastings
Africa/America
Robert Koehler
Slavery, War and Presidential Politics
July 28, 2016
Paul Street
Politician Speak at the DNC
Jeffrey St. Clair
Night of the Hollow Men: Notes From the Democratic Convention
Renee Parsons
Blame It on the Russians
Herbert Dyer, Jr.
Is it the Cops or the Cameras? Putting Police Brutality in Historical Context
Russell Mokhiber
Dems Dropping the N Word: When in Trouble, Blame Ralph
Howard Lisnoff
The Elephant in the Living Room
Pepe Escobar
The Real Secret of the South China Sea
Ramzy Baroud
Farewell to Yarmouk: A Palestinian Refugee’s Journey from Izmir to Greece
John Laforge
Wild Turkey with H-Bombs: Failed Coup Raise Calls for Denuclearization
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail