Saying it with flowers — and books

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 19, 2019 Published on April 19, 2019

When the tiny village of Velam in Kerala is packed with libraries, New Year offerings must include books

Dozens of men and women sat in a circle on plastic chairs under a giant mango tree. The air was warm and humid, and the earth beneath, soft. They were gathered outside the public library of Velam, a small village in Kannur’s Mayyil panchayat in Kerala. Mayyil has the most number of public libraries — 35 — among all panchayats in the country.

On April 15, Velam’s tiny but strong community of readers went a step further to express their love for books. They celebrated Vishu — the Kerala new year — by adding books to the traditional Vishukani.

The kani is a ritual that involves arranging a number of ‘auspicious’ items — mostly flowers (especially the golden laburnum), fruits, vegetables, rice, holy texts, new clothes and coins — in one place, usually the family altar, the previous night. On the following Vishu day, family members make sure that the first thing they see in the morning is the kani display. This symbolises the hope of encountering similar abundance round the year. Though a Hindu custom, other communities in Kerala have adopted it too. At Velam, in the Communist heartland of Kannur, the panchayat has been celebrating Vishu with a pusthakakani — a viewing of books — for the last five years.

“The idea is to reclaim such traditions and not let them be coloured by religiosity,” said U Janardhanan, the panchayat’s representative in the Kannur district library council. In fact, the pusthakakani is an extension of the Vayana Veedu (home reading) concept the library has been promoting. “We identified areas where people face social or logistical issues in reaching the library. We then delivered books to one house in that area and encouraged people to pick up books from there and read,” he added. “Pusthakakani is an extension of that social experience and the participation of the villagers shows it’s been a success,” noted Janardhanan.

On Vishu, hundreds of people, including those who visit the famous Ganapati temple nearby, dropped in at the library for a glimpse of the books on display in the pusthakakani. Volumes on disparate subjects were arranged in neat rows along with peacock plumes, percussion instruments, fruits and vegetables. A traditional lamp flickered at the centre.

The display was ready at five in the morning, as villagers, freshly bathed, started streaming in. Parents brought along their children and clicked pictures of the family in front of the kani.

Library members talked to them about books and the importance of reading. The staff also made use of the occasion to educate visitors on the need to fact-check information they receive on social media. They emphasised the need to fight misinformation campaigns and fake news, and build a scientific temper.

The crowd under the mango tree slowly swelled and library secretary CC Ramachandran invited listeners to share their thoughts. Radhakrishnan Manikoth, a schoolteacher wearing a neatly ironed shirt and a mundu, set the mood by reciting the poem Pookathirikan Enikkaavathille! (I can’t help but bloom), by the late poet and critic K Ayyappa Paniker.

Even as the morning sun grew belligerent, small groups of men, women and children continued to arrive at the library.

“I have travelled across places where books, forget libraries, are non-existent for hundreds of kilometres,” said Al Ameen, a postgraduate student of social work at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “It is incredible to be part of a community where people love to read, and where reading and libraries are a part of everyday experience,” added Ameen, who had earlier studied the library culture in and around Velam as part of a project.

Books also find prominent space at all social gatherings in Velam. “We take books to weddings, political events, and even to places of mourning,” said Janardhanan. “People come together, tell stories, recite poems, and that shared experience helps us build a sense of belonging and camaraderie,” he added.

People, including a large number of daily-wage workers, continued to throng the venue through the day. The visitors looked at the books on history, collections of poems and stories, political literature, works of MK Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many more. A young father directed his little daughter to stand closer to the books so that he could click a selfie. Atop the pile sat a thick volume, the Malayalam translation of Sukomal Sen’s Working Class Of India: History of Emergence and Movement 1830-1970.

“A big book, right?” the father asked me. “I haven’t read it, but I told my daughter that it is our story and she should read it sometime,” he said with a smile, before clicking the selfie.


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Published on April 19, 2019
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