The city’s reading rooms are swarming with the young and old alike, growing into community hot spots

Every evening a tiny room by the roadside near the Konthuruthy church fills up with little else but the rustle of newsprint. Wooden benches and desks with drawers line the red-oxide floor bordered by white painted railings. The walls are hidden by stacked magazines and newspapers, and against the dust raised by the occasional car, a steady stream of people troupe in, read in silence for hours and leave.

Open vaayanashalas, or reading rooms, such as these have adorned Kochi’s landscape for decades now and continue to thrive in our digital age. A board on this Youth League Vaayanashala’s door probably explains why: it reads, Arivinte vathilukal thurannuvaikkuga, naadu nallakatte. (Keep the doors of knowledge open; may the land prosper.)

“Reading is the only way to knowledge,” says A.M. Hussain, retired court official and former coordinator of Santo Gopalan Memorial Library and Reading Room run by the youth wing of a political party near Fort Kochi Jetty. The reading room was born in 1968 with a handful of newspapers, but moved to its present home that opens onto the road in 1978. Christened after a Mattancherry party worker who succumbed to illness, Santo’s burly frame still looks on, with Che Guevara’s black and white cut-out, over the almost-thousand readers that visit daily. “Our committee subscribes to only four newspapers, but our readers bring another eight or nine from their homes every morning and leave them for others here,” says Hussain.

For common good

Everyday, for 17 years now, K.V. Mohan has stopped at Santo for an hour on his way to work at the Coast Guard Headquarters, and for few hours more on his way back. He talks to nobody in his time there, but reads eight papers from cover to cover. “It is free reading rooms like these that have given our public literacy. I read the same story in all eight papers to see how each one has approached it. It’s the best way to get a full picture, and one can’t do this at home,” he says. Mohan observes that the room has often been so crowded that people stand on the road to read; yet they come regularly from six a.m. onward.

Literacy aside, reading rooms are often testimony to communities rallying together for the common good. Roy John, Vice President of the Youth League Vaayanashala Committee, says it was begun 53 years ago to provide the children of the locality with books and a place to study. With a yearly Rs. 12,000 grant from the Library Council and a Rs. three and a half lakh donation from the Government, the reading room now has a library with over 12,000 books in English and Malayalam in varied genres, which school and college students access without a fee.

“Over the decades, we’ve seen so many youth study and pass major exams with the resources here. People in our locality owe their careers to this reading room. I used to come here regularly as a child; I learnt to read and write because of these books,” says Roy. Many have paid their debt by donating books, magazines and papers to build these reading rooms. “After entrance exams, students have left their books with us for the next batch to benefit from,” notes Roy.

Janakiya Vaayanashala in Ponnurunni, and Mahinath Smaraka Kala Samithi’s Vaayanashala in Chalikkavattom, are havens for the neighbouring youth. The former has a few cupboards of books besides papers, but the latter houses only newspapers and weeklies. “It is the youngsters who maintain the reading room, stock the papers, and manage its activities,” says Dipin Vineeth, a law student and member of Janakiya Vaayanashala’s committee. “When the academic year opens, we gather sponsorships for textbooks and stationery for almost 400 children from the societies around. We’ve also organised annual blood donation drives, eye and tooth examination camps for the adults,” says Dipin. While the reading room functions in silence all day, seven-nine p.m. is for the children to watch cricket and football on the common television there. “Our latest activity is a society shuttle tournament and a dhol band. This reading room has brought our whole community together,” says Dipin.

Despite how widespread such reading rooms are, they are hardly frequented by women. Iqbal Library and Reading Room in Mattancherry makes a concerted effort to draw womenfolk in with its exclusive room for women, women librarians and even a system whereby books are delivered to women at 160 homes every week. “When women are encouraged to read, the entire family grows,” says Salim Shakoor, library Secretary. The library hosts over 15,000 books in seven languages, including 300 works in Arabic and 2,000 rare books in Urdu.

Rakeeya, a Class XI student, has been frequenting the haunt from Class VII and says the textbooks and question banks have been especially helpful to her. “Not many of us may come and read here but most of my friends will be reading at least one book from here at home always.”

History talks:

Besides being sites of learning and discussion, the older reading rooms in Kochi have also been witness to the city’s history. Mahatma Library and Reading Room in Tripunithura, for instance, was launched on January 13 1933 as a service for the local boy’s school. On January 14, 1934, the Mahatma himself graced the first anniversary celebrations.

Iqbal Library and Reading Room in Mattancherry was established in 1936 by the Kutchi Memon community, first as a school and then appended with the reading room. It is still housed in the Cutchi Memon Association building. In the picture above, Khan Sahib Ismail Hajee Essa Sait (second from left) the library’s first president, stands with the Diwan of Cochin from 1943-44, Sir George Townsend Boag (centre), who visited often.