It was 1948, the year that Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead. World over, people mourned the death of the man whose ideas of peace and non-violence took a country to its freedom. In a village called Perumkulam, five kilometres from Kottarakkara in Kerala, a few young people wanted to turn their grief over Gandhi’s death into something useful for the society. A young man named Koozhaikaatuveetil Krishna Pillai and a few others bought and collected around a hundred books and set them up in a little room that Pillai’s family owned.
That is where the story of Bappuji Smaraka Vayanashala (Bappuji Memorial Library) began. The library has had its good and bad days – grand events, publications, years of being shut, revival, shift of venue and so on – until in February 2016 it once again got rebuilt with generous contributions from well-wishers.
More than three years later, people running the library decided to turn Perumkulam into a ‘village of books’ – by building ten little boxes of books at important junctions in the village. In June 2019, Jnanpith award winning writer MT Vasudevan Nair declared Perumkulam a village of books. “I am happy to declare it so and I wish it all the best,” he said on a video recording from his house in Kozhikode.
The little boxes of books are free for all, and people can either read the books on the roadside or take one home while replacing it with another. “Give a book and take a book, that’s the idea. The boxes were inspired by an international initiative called Little Free Library which works with the idea that books should be available to read at every place,” says Vijesh, former secretary of the Bappuji Smaraka Vayanashala.
According to its website, Little Free Library, a non-profit, “inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.”
Incidentally, in 2017, Bhilar in Maharashtra was recognised as a village of books by the state government – a first in India. Unlike in Perumkulam though, turning Bhilar into a village of books was an initiative of the government inspired by the UK’s Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh town known for its bookstores and literature festivals.
The same year, the Bappuji library built its first little box of books on the roadside. Nine more got built in the years that followed – one at every important junction – following the idea they started with: to have books to read at every little corner.
“It is mainly meant for children, to encourage them to read. After the first box got a good response, we decided to build more. The idea is to read the books from there or if they wish, take one home, but after replacing it with another. There are around 50 books in every box,” Vijesh says.
The Bappuji Smaraka Vayanashala is affiliated with the Kerala State Library Council and gets funding to buy new books. It is from these funds that the boxes of books get built too.
Vijesh says that Bappuji library also has a unique group of people named after writer M Mukundan. “It is called M Mukundan Aaradhana Koottam and holds reading and discussion of his works. He is the patron. It is perhaps a first that a fans association is formed for a Malayalam writer!” says Vijesh, who is also the convener of the group.
Watch: Perumkulam, a village of books