Presently the director of the Kerala Bala Sahitya Institute, Palliyara Sreedharan has received many awards and the label ‘Mathemagician’ in recognition of his work.

Palliyara Sreedharan, a man in his 70s, stands outside an office in an open area next to a plant, wearing a light colour shirt and smiling
Features Human Interest Tuesday, January 17, 2023 - 13:56

Behind Palliyara Sreedharan is a brown board, listing the directors of the Kerala Bala Sahitya Institute. His is the last name, a hyphen next to the date he took charge – August 22, 2016. It is his seventh year as the director now, the longest anyone has held that post since the Bala Sahitya Institute (Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature) came to exist, in 1981. Sreedharan says with a modest smile that he has been keeping it well, selling books worth Rs 2.5 crore in the last year alone by insisting that all government schools take books published by a government institute.

His claim to fame, however, comes from elsewhere. Littered on one end of his desk are a selection of the awards he has won over the years for writing about and popularising mathematics among children. Sreedharan, turning 73 on January 17, has written more than 150 books on math.

“Mostly for children, yes. But there are others – an encyclopaedia in math, biographies of mathematicians, and so on, and all of them in Malayalam,” he says. He has not tried to get his name on a record book, but labels like ‘Mathemagician’ have fallen on him through the years. The love for math, he says, must have begun in those early years of childhood when as an only son, he’d help his dad run his tea shop in Kannur, and be the one collecting payments and paying off the balance.

“Those days, we had rupee, ana, and paisa, where 16 anas made one rupee. One tea cost one ana, which is six paisa. Someone would pay me 25 paisa for two teas, I’d return two anas and a paisa. In this way I learnt numbers and math before starting school. I also got to pick up letters of the alphabet from the newspapers that came to the shop,” Sreedharan says.

In Class 2, he remembers his math teacher asking how many students could count from 1 to 100. Sreedharan had proudly announced that he could count up to 1,000. Now, with a shy smile, he says that after growing up he got to marry the daughter of that math teacher.

A selection of awards Sreedharan received, kept at his office

His first attempts at writing were not on mathematics, but fiction. Sreedharan wrote numerous short stories for magazines. He tried his hands at novels and even theatre writing. But at some point, when he began working as a high school math teacher, he realised that many children found the subject very difficult, and his focus changed. “Back then, we didn’t have the kind of children’s magazines we have now. I thought I should write to make math easy for them,” he says.

The first article he wrote was about the common mistakes children made in mathematics, giving the example of a protractor which showed angles from 0 to 180 in both directions and students often confused the side to use. Teachers who read that article informed Sreedharan that children had found it helpful. He then wrote a series of articles about the mathematics you found in nature – the way you had 12 months a year and how seasons changed in every few months, the way honeybees shaped their honeycombs with exact hexagonal cells making the most use of space, and the way they twirled in a certain angle and speed to direct their mates to where they found honey.

Sreedharan can’t stop giving examples. “Just look at a mango and a jackfruit. Mango will be hanging from the tip of a branch, but imagine if a jackfruit did that?” he asks and bursts into laughter. These thoughts must have conveyed easily to the children he wrote it for. That first book – Prakithiyile Ganitham (The Math in Nature) – did so well that it brought him the attention of SCERT (State Council of Education Research and Training) officials who prepared school textbooks. He should write more, they said. When Sreedharan said he was more used to novels and short stories, they convinced him how useful his math books were to children.

“So I began focusing more on writing books on mathematics for children,” he says. Books like Poojyathinte Katha (The Story of Zero), Ganithashastra Prathibhakal (Great Mathematicians of the World) and Kathayalla Jeevitham Thanne (This is no fiction, this is life) became hugely popular. Sreedharan wrote math books in the form of short stories and theatre scripts and songs.

“It became so hectic that I had to resign six years short of my retirement, in 1999. I couldn’t manage home and school and the books too,” he says. After retirement, he ran the Genius Book Stall for a while, before he was made director of the Kannur Science Park which came under the district panchayat. From there, he came aboard the KSICL.

Awards came aplenty in between, including more than one Lifetime Achievement award. As we speak, someone walked into the office with a brochure of another award he was receiving, instituted in the name of writer Malayattoor Ramakrishnan.

Sreedharan continues to write amid all this. He has written an article for the latest edition of Thaliru, the children’s magazine released every month by KSICL. He is writing another book. There are still a lot of children who find math hard. He gets a lot of satisfaction writing these books, knowing that it will reach them, he says.

Also read: Meet Shantha Devi, a 65-year-old student artist featured at Kochi Muziris Biennale

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