Members of a district library hope to find unity and strength through books

The Palakkad district library has been up and running for six months now and it has 1,000 members, a third of them female. This month some of them met to form a women’s unit. Before the meeting started, murmurs about cookery classes and interior decorating among those flipping through magazines in the atrium misled me about who would gather upstairs in the seminar hall. The subject soon fixed on the empowerment of women. Among the women who spoke were an ex-MLA, a retired deputy collector and the present one, advocates, senior and junior teachers of the Moyen Girls’ Higher Secondary School, and heads of self-help groups. No doubt there were many other leading lights in the audience.

The secretary of the library drew attention to the hall we were in and its potential use for film screenings, for a youth club, for workshops in home economics or gardening or childcare or the arts, and for career counselling. He also trusted that, through reading, women would realise their own strength and forge a unity.

Many of the speakers, discussing what a women’s unit might accomplish, suggested the library could be a discreet and safe site for women to get help in managing family conflicts, legal disputes, and professional dilemmas.

The retired deputy collector was sure that we could all do far more than we imagined. She recalled being present when the first public library was opened in Kerala State. She read many books from that library as a girl, she said, all brought home for her by male relatives, but she herself never set foot in it. I too remember, as recently as the 1980s, being discouraged from visiting the lending library in Kalpathy village on the grounds that it would be full of boys. The prohibitions may be gone, but then the village lending libraries also are disappearing, and the present rural reading rooms are too often full of male readers only. One speaker warned that, if the once well-read women of Kerala continue to squander their hours in front of the television, we can blame only ourselves for perpetuating a climate in which we are confined within the four walls of the kitchen and afraid to go out after dark. No more waiting for liberties to be granted, in short. It is time to take liberties.

So here stands our district library, 1,000 members strong, and long may it continue bright and busy. Until those classes, clubs and workshops become active, there are the books, which will take us far. The many libraries I’ve haunted in my life have been full of friends, mentors, advisors, teachers and surrogate big sisters, all shelved neatly according to the Dewey decimal system. From those books I learned what manner of society I lived in, what values I should abide by, what dangers might lie ahead, and what I could hope to achieve. Most important, I learned that even when I was alone in the room, there were many to stand with me.