In a proud tradition, the city is successfully passing on its book-reading baton to the young, Ponniyin Selvan forming the bridge in this rite of passage. Geeta Padmanabhan talks to some of them...

Chennai reads Tamil, as Madras once did — and on diverse platforms. You see it in online discussions, Facebook pages, podcasts, in the sale of audio books, paper ones, in book fair throngs, in mottai madi gatherings, in the 50-seater space of Discovery Book Palace…. Padipagams publish books, Tamilcube.com, Goodreads and yavarum.com popularise them. Life happens for these young when they turn the pages of Tamil books.

Vizhiyan, software engineer

Spark: I grew up among books appa collected, mostly on Marxist thoughts. Sputnik launched my book-reading habit; it took off with Russian stories. In Vellore where we lived, Tamil book fairs were our favourite haunts. Reading came naturally.

The journey: In school it was all Mayavi (Rani Comics) and Poonthalir. Textbooks dominated college time but post-M.Tech I commuted to Chennai for work, which gave me four hours of uninterrupted reading time. Buying (and selling back) second-hand books outside Nungambakkam station, I read entire collections of Sujatha, Jayakanthan and others on commute. Friday nights were reading all-nighters. Travel books, short stories — I became an adar vasagan (voracious reader). And people who read a lot become writers! My first book, written in 2005, follows an epistolary format of 19 letters, has a young man discussing life/love/arts/sports with a woman friend.

I then moved to children's literature, read Yuma Vasuki's translations of children's stories. Finding book space in this genre, I began to write for children. No “moral-of-the-story” I decided. My young readers would look at what I presented with wonder and curiosity. I wanted to give them a creative, fantasy-filled world.

Scene around: Tamil reading never lost its popularity in Chennai, some 20+ groups meet to read, discuss. Our Readers' Circle meets at member homes (or library) to introduce, review books. Special invitees include Devadevan and Kamalalayan.

Quote: “Reading books gives you the ability to read people.”

Guna, engineering student

Spark: My father stocked books, but I read maybe four or five during my school days. When I was in Standard X, recession struck, and jobs were lost. I wanted to know why. I searched Wikipedia for books on world economy, bought the Tamil translation of Susan George's book on third-world poverty, Oru Trillionukku Eththanai Zero, and devoured books on feminism.

Journey: I searched for answers in Tamil books. I dipped into appa's Tamilselvan books, and educated myself on dialectics reading Maurice Cornforth's three volumes. The Dharmapuri incident shook me to know about caste dynamics, Ambedkar's writings helped me.

I am delving into pedagogy now; I give tuitions. Kutharkam

Scene around: Most college students read Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. Chetan Bhagat got read, mostly for movie comparisons. The Tamil books they read are popular ones by Madan and Gopinath. Mine are off the bestseller lists.

Quote: “The greatest happiness I derive from books is I'm able to understand, analyse a social problem better.”

Arun Kumar, Faculty, IT Department, SVCE

Spark: My father R. Kathirvel, AO, Directorate of Agriculture, is well-informed; I connected it to his reading. He brought magazines from his circulation library. After all the technical reading I did during my BE course, I discovered Kizhakku Padippagam books in Raahat Plaza — novels by Pa. Raghavan, Muthukumar, Amudan and Murugan, woven around everyday issues, in informal, spoken Tamil. I loved them!

Journey: In some oblique way, these books made me curious about history — about Anna, Periyar, and the Sri Lankan issue. How did the U.S. become a superpower? Aren't there places in Chennai that go a long way back? I read about Tolstoy, Bill Gates' business acumen, and how the calendar was formed. Tamil historical books can give you amazing information!

Scene: Tamil technical books are popular — engineering and technology are better understood when pursued in the mother tongue, right?

Quote: “People before me, around me — that is my interest.”

Janani Sundaresan, Class X, Balalok.

Spark: I began by reading in English; appa got me interested in Tamil books. We visited book fairs — at the Trade Centre or Pachaiyappa's College. I borrow from libraries or buy them at Landmark. I love self-improvement books, and have read Ezhavadu Arivu by Iraianbu, and Kadavulkalin Pallaththakku by Sujatha.

Journey: I have read all the Harry Potter books. Reading in two languages helps me improve both. Most of the stories are about life, the issues are common.

Scene: I speak Tamil at home. I have learnt knowledge alone is not enough; we need strong values in life. Most stories have values. Silappadikaram tells us why those in power should not make mistakes.

Quote: “If you read only English books, you are missing a lot!”

Vijay Subramanian, Bio-tech student

Spark: Appa has rows of neatly bound volumes — Kannadasan, Kalki… When I was in Class I, he would urge me to read Tamil books, “You read, I'll explain it.” I read Avvaiyar, Naladiyar and later, Silappadikaram, and Ramakrishna's stories.

Journey: We read daily and watched Pattimandram on TV. Ponniyin Selvan was the first book I read on my own. Appa insisted marks would not make my life. I participated in oratorical competitions and debates. I have read the Kamba Ramayanam. When Varthaman Padipagam sold Tamil versions of Valmiki Ramayanam, Vyasa Bharatham and Srimad Bhagavatham on a Rs. 500 offer, we bought it. At one stage, I would demand Rs. 1000 as pocket money to feed my book-buying addiction.

Scene around: I cannot sleep without reading for at least an hour. I read paper books, I read online. Madurai Tamil Sangam has put out a lot of e-books in PDF, accompanied by meanings. Current reading? Vairamuthu's Karuvachi Kaviyam — the story of a girl who fights social forces.

Quote: “I was lucky I could read Tamil books even in the tenth.”

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