The book collector

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interview B. Krishnamurthy has set up one of the country’s largest private libraries that houses rare first edition books

On A QUESTB. KrishnamurthyPhoto: M. Moorthy
On A QUESTB. KrishnamurthyPhoto: M. Moorthy

Arignar Anna had a knack for narrating a story. He would take his listeners to far off places before leading them to the crux of the matter. “He would give them extensive background details… and they would wonder where he was headed,” recalls ‘Gnanalaya’ B. Krishnamurthy. It was the same with his writing. Anna’s book titled Makkal Karamum Mannan Siramum was published by his own publishing house Parimalam Pathippagam in 1968. The book spoke about the English Revolution. The second edition, published three years later, omitted the first 74 pages. “Who are we to cut out bits from a great writer’s work?” asks Krishnamurthy, who owns the first edition of Anna’s book. It is among the 85,000 titles in his research library Gnanalaya in Pudukottai.

With over 15,000 titles in English and 70,000 in Tamil, Gnanalaya has a large collection of rare first editions of Tamil books. Krishnamurthy’s quest for books started when he was a teenager. His father once gave him a copy of Thanippadal Thirattu . It was signed by Ku. Alagirisamy, the editor of the magazine Sakthi . Alagirisamy, a man of relentless pursuit, had mentioned that the book was extremely rare and that he hadn’t seen it anywhere else. But there it was, in the hands of a teenager in Tiruchi. Krishnamurthy decided then that he would seek every rare book there was, no matter what.

Search, long and hard

Today, his research library in Pudukottai is the result of decades of hard work. Krishnamurthy has travelled to every nook and cranny of Tamil Nadu in search of books. Behind every painstakingly collected title is a story. He once went to a village near Nagercoil looking for a book. He had a long way to go and decided to hire a bicycle. The man who ran the rental didn’t trust him, so Krishnamurthy gave him his expensive watch in return. “I would’ve even given him my shirt if I had to,” he smiles.

The first edition of a book gives us fascinating insights into the mind of its writer. When he flipped through Swadesi Geethangal , Bharathiar’s first self-published anthology, Krishnamurthy was surprised to find a poem by another poet inside its pages. “My father told me that Bharathi had sent out an announcement asking patriotic poets to send him their works,” says Krishnamurthy. The large-hearted poet published some of the poems along with his works! Krishnamurthy has so many such stories to share. He has decided to record them in digital recorders and place them by the shelf of the relevant book. The 72-year-old was a Government school teacher. For him, summer vacations meant long book-hunting expeditions. He has worked in five districts — “I took a lorry-load of books wherever I went,” he says. In 1999, he built a house in Pudukottai, just for his books.

Gnanalaya has helped produce about 100 Ph.D and 150 M.Phil scholars so far. Today, Krishnamurthy spends over Rs. 2 lakh a year to maintain it. “My wife Dorothy and I spend our entire pension for the library,” he says. There is no support from the Government. “I have written to them but haven’t got a reply,” he says. Krishnamurthy hopes to digitise his library. “But it is not a small project. The State government and Universities here should take it up,” he says.

He sees to it that his books are protected from dust and termites. “I spend Rs. 25,000 on naphthalene balls every year!” Gnanalaya draws visitors from all over the world — there are some that Krishnamurthy will never forget. “I once heard one of them comment, ‘this man must be mad’,” he laughs.





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