Sometimes a poem or a story can goad people into action. Words have the power to do that, say some Tamil writers to Akila Kannadasan

One morning, the district collector of Tiruvannamalai walked into a government school for girls in Vandavasi with a cheque. He offered the money to the authorities to build better toilets for the 2,000-odd children studying there. Soon, eight toilets were constructed, much to the delight of students and teachers.

All this happened as a result of a few verses he read in a magazine that week.

The poem, published in Ananda Vikatan in 2011, is about the unspeakable problems faced by girls due to lack of hygienic toilets in schools. It was written by poet A. Vennila, a teacher at a government girls' school in Vandavasi. Says M. Rajendran, the then collector of Tiruvannamalai district, “After reading the poem, I sent a tahsildar to the school to assess the situation. Within a week, I allocated funds to build new lavatories there.”

This is what literature can do. Poems can change lives; novels can build friendships; stories can revolutionise societies. It all comes down to the reader.

Some people may just dismiss a good piece, but there are those who may catch the next train to the author's town just to shake her hand. Writers never forget the latter category of readers.

Says writer Ilampirai, “Once, some women who were daily wage workers came all the way home to say they were touched by my poem Aruvadai Kaalam. I had read it out on stage during a kovil thiruvizha in a village. The poem speaks of the difficulties faced by such women. For the same poem, an elderly gentleman walked up to the stage to present me with ten rupees. It's been many years since this happened. But I still hold the ten-rupee note with me.”

Writer Vimala Ramani speaks of the friendship she developed with Udhaya, a reader based in Sri Lanka. “We exchanged letters for many years,” she says. “Udhaya lived in Colombo. She sold textiles. She would write to me about life in Ceylon. Back then, she didn't even have an address. I would address her letter to the post master; she would collect it from him. I later named a novel after her.” Rupella, the well-known character in pulp fiction writer Rajesh Kumar's crime novels is also named after an ardent fan.

Some readers become part of the writer's family. Writer Sivasankari says that a reader Lalitha is like a daughter to her. “She came to me as a student. She called me ‘amma' and my husband ‘appa'.”

There is another reader that Sivasankari will never forget. “My phone rang late one night. It was a fan from America. She said that her husband had passed away and his body was in the mortuary.” The reader asked Sivasankari's help to deal with the loss. Another reader from Germany called to tell her how after reading her novel Oru Manidhanin Kadhai, he spoke to his alcoholic father after many years. “He told me he apologised to his father for failing to understand him,” she says.

Voluntary organisations sprung into action after reading Nanjil Nadan's essay Idhu Pengal Pakkam in Ananda Vikatan. This essay again spoke of problems faced by girls due to lack of sanitation facilities. It motivated Rotary Clubs in places such as Coimbatore, Dindigul and Puducherry to install sanitary napkin vending machines and incinerators in some Corporation schools.

The imaginary world some writers create are so stirring that the reader yearns to visit it. Su. Venkatesan created one such world in his Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel, Kaval Kottam. “Since I was working on a historical research book on Keezhakuyilkudi, I wanted to create a village based on it,” writes Su. Venkatesan in the author's note.

This was enough to set some readers on a journey to locate the village near Madurai. Smitten by the fictitious village of Thathanoor, some walked into Keezhakuyilkudi, hoping to see the place they read about. “They would ask the villagers if the place was Thathanoor,” says Venkatesan. “Tired of contradicting every curious visitor, the villagers started saying ‘Yes this is the place'!”