Margaret Sekhran says that people do not notice a good library because it is always there, like the KMU Library in Kodaikanal since 1890.
“Kodi was like a health resort then,” says Margaret Sekhran about Kodaikanal of 1965.
She remembers the peace and mist all around, the pleasure she derived walking around the lake where a handful of people sat and played the flute.
“That charm of the hill station is gone today”, she rues. Now, there are more people, more buildings, more vehicles, more noise, more garbage and pollution.
But there is one nook in the hill town that still brightens up the 77-year-old’s face. It is the Kodaikanal Missionaries Union (KMU) Library housed inside the Kodaikanal International School (KIS) campus.
The library is 123 years old and Margaret’s association with the heritage hotspot is 46 years old. She first visited and used the library in 1967. In 1978 she became its honorary member and ever since has been “helping the library in every possible way.”
Life for Margaret has come full circle. When she was a child, her father built a library in a van and took it around Derbyshire. “It was a storehouse of classics,” she recalls.
Today, Margaret as a Trustee of the KMU library takes care of its priceless collection of 7,000-plus books.
“We still have some old valuable books from 1890,” Margaret finds it hard to contain her excitement as she shows me around the tiny little room neatly stacked with rows of shelves filled with books.
“A good library,” she smiles, “will never be neat” and pulls out copies of The Bible in French, Spanish and Hebrew, a beautifully illustrated book on Paris…all from the previous century.
“Most of our books have been donated by missionaries, past and present members, visitors and the KIS. We buy them occasionally, our collection includes a wide genre of books,” she says.
Fond of reading, Margaret has added the “India section” with lots of books on leaders of freedom movement and biographies of several unusual people. She also introduced the “talking” concept where members assemble for two hours twice a week (Wednesdays and Saturdays) to discuss old and new books and for a friendly exchange of opinions.
“Our members are spread across the country,” says Margaret, “and many times even if they are on a holiday or official visit to Kodi, they drop in for these chat sessions.” Many people also bring along friends who become members. “I also want all the new people coming and settling in Kodi to join us,” she says. Margaret is also particular about encouraging reading habit among children and always requests her members to come with their families to the library.
For Margaret it has been an enjoyable experience to see the group of library members develop into a core group of ‘regulars’ with others dropping in and out from time to time. The annual fee of Rs.100 remains static to make it affordable.
“By doing this work,” says she, “I feel I am offering a service.” “It is my endeavour to ensure that every book, old or new, damaged or voluminous, is of use and is not destroyed,” she adds.
At present Margaret is busy cataloguing the library. “It’s a hands-on work and I do it with whoever is willing to volunteer.” She feels it is necessary to make the historic KMU library representative of what it is, who the members are and what are the benefits. “We have three well known novelists as members,” she gushes, “and it is the wonderful individuals who provide the personality of our group.”
The KMU was formed in 1890 to enable missionaries of the various denominations to come together for recreation and to develop mission strategy and outreach in cooperation with each other.
In 1923 an Edwardian style clubhouse was built with a large central hall for social events and afternoon teas, tennis courts, a reading and other meeting rooms. With the decline of missionary activity in India, the KMU was wound up in the 1980s, and the property was turned over to KIS. The KMU library, maintained by the KIS, continued to function from the single room and has become something of a social venue over the years. “It is perhaps the most influential club throughout Kodai’s history,” beams Margaret, a social worker who came to India post-marriage in 1962. Before the KMU Library grabbed her, Margaret started the Ladies Circle in Chennai in 1970 and did lot of voluntary work with refugees and children of slum dwellers. After coming to Kodaikanal, she launched herself on a self-assigned mission of planting shoal trees.
To know the past through books kept returning her to the library. “A library just has to provide,” she says, “it need not be big or beautiful, with more staff or users.”
It is Margaret’s desire to keep adding books to the library’s present volumes. Aware of technology taking over and more people reading online, she says, “I hope physical books will continue to stay for a long time.”
“Library is more than a repository of books,” Margaret describes, “it is a gathering place for people because they interact with each other.” Whether she is interacting with the young or old, regular or new visitors in the library or her pet Dalmatians and the hundreds of birds, trees, butterflies and flowers at home, it is them who make her life interesting.
“If you have a library and a garden, what else you need in life?” she asks. In her opinion both are wondrous places with the power to change lives and help you to look forward.
“They are the future,” she smiles, praying that the KMU library remains one such indispensable spots in Kodi always having what people need.