A room with a book

June 09, 2018 04:00 pm | Updated December 01, 2021 06:03 am IST

 News and views: Young men at a reading room in Fort Kochi.

News and views: Young men at a reading room in Fort Kochi.

They are called vaayanashalas , or reading rooms. And they are as much a part of Kerala’s scenery as coconut trees and the backwaters. The surprise is that they still thrive, in the age of the smartphone.

There’s an ad film, shot for Kerala Tourism, called A Reading Room with a View, where the camera is set inside a reading room, looking out at the world. Elephants, snake boats, Kathakali dancers , puli masks, footballers — everything emblematic of Kerala passes by the open window. Inside, a young man tapes a Kurosawa poster to the wall. The last frame has the rain pouring down in a grey-green cataract, while inside a man reads a newspaper. On the wall above him are framed photos of Gandhi and Che Guevara.

It’s a beautiful microcosmic view of not just Kerala, but its reading room culture. The Gandhi and Che photos, the newspaper, the cinema poster, the shabby-sweet room — they all add up to the unique political and cultural sensibility of an intriguing land.


Kerala’s reading room is a product of the late-30s and 40s, when the growing communist movement was trying to connect people to the idea of ‘objective’ news, outside of what the village and family headmen were dispensing. It linked up to the literacy movement that gained ground after 1947, and to the growing newspaper culture. Together, these strands created a greed for the printed word that sought satiation in the reading rooms that popped up in every village and town. The movement hit its peak in the 60s, when Malayalam literature found voices that spoke a freer, more accessible language and touched topics once considered taboo.

Often nothing more than a thatched roof and two benches, often grander concrete affairs, these reflective spaces and their role in making Kerala the country’s most literate State can’t be underplayed.

The rooms are run by village or town councils, political parties, or citizen volunteers. They are free, and patrons repay by way of books, study material, or a copy of their newspaper left behind for the next reader. People come in the mornings on the way to work or study, or evenings on the way home. They read five or six newspapers, or magazines, textbooks, paperbacks. They talk about what they’ve read. They wait for the rain to stop. Then they step out, into the world of smartphones.

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