Let me tell you the story of Chinnathambi, a 73-year-old who runs a library inside his small tea stall in Kerala. This article shared with us by The Reader has been written by P Sainath and originally published in the People’s Archive of Rural India and in P. Sainath’s website.

P. Sainath is the founder-editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’. You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

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

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.

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“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.”

“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.

(We) 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.

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.

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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.

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We hope the story of Chinnathambi and his tea stall library inspires you to visit a library today.