A library in the middle of a forest, that is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about during his monthly radio broadcast Mann ki Baat on Sunday. “You would be surprised to learn that this library is situated in a small village in the deep forests of Idukki,” he said.
Located in Idukki's Edamalakkudy tribal hamlet in the Anamudi reserve forest, this small library called Akshara is the result of the love for books and reading shared between two people - PV Chinnathambi, a tea shop owner, and PK Muralidharan, a school teacher.
Akshara’s journey started from a small corner in Chinnathambi’s tea shop in 2012. His small house doubles as his tea shop. With no shelves to spare, Chinnathambi, a resident of Edamalakkudy, lays out a floor mat in one corner of the shop and spreads out the books on it.
“Chinnathambi is an ardent reader. He not only loves reading books but likes to share them with others as well,” says Muralidharan, who is also endearingly called Murali maash (teacher in Malayalam) by the tribals.
“It was during one of our conversations on the state of education and reading habits that Chinnathambi expressed the idea of starting a library,” adds Muralidharan.
In a few days, Chinnathambi and Muralidharan managed to put together a collection of 150 books, and started Akshara in 2012. Today, the collection of books has gone up to over 1,000.
From titles like Randamoozham to Silapathikaram, this small library has a wide range of books spanning across genres from popular Malayalam and Tamil writers. Children can pick from the line of comic books like Balarama.
(Extreme right) PK Muralidharan
“There is no monthly fee or any charges to visit the library. People are free to visit the library and take books. After reading, they can return it,” says Muralidharan.
To access the panchayat, which is located in a densely forested area, one has to travel 22 kms by a multi-utility vehicle (MUV) from Munnar to Pettimudy and then walk 18 kms to Edamalakkudy Societykudi, the headquarters of the grama panchayat. Getting to the library is another 5-hour walk.
Radio is the only source of information or medium to gain knowledge for the residents of this tribal hamlet. This library is their second source of information, Muralidharan says.
Muralidharan, who lives in Mankulam village in Idukki, comes to Edamalakkudy every alternate week and resides there for the week. Whenever he travels to Edamalakkudy, he goes bearing books for the village library.
Some of these books were bought by him and others contributed by well-wishers. Many a time, he has to carry these books on his head when trekking about 12 kms from Mankulam to Mulakutharakkudy through a forest route.
From tea shop to classrooms
The library functioned from 2012 to 2017 at the tea shop until Chinnathambi took ill and could not manage it. Muralidharan then offered to take the library forward. He brought the books to Mulakutharakkudy School, where he is a teacher. Now, the books are neatly stacked on a wooden table in a classroom.
Mulakutharakkudy School is a multi-grade learning centre, where children of different ages and ability levels are taught together, in the same classroom, but with separate curricula for each grade. This approach helps in developing the self-esteem of the children and in cultivating positive feelings about learning.
Sathish TK, one of the two teachers at the school, says this library has helped towards their cause. “Students from the tribal communities are actively participating in reading the books every day,” he says, adding, “There is no proper mobile network and electricity connection in this region, and so there is no way to connect with the outside world. The library provides them with that window, to get more information.”
Edamalakkudy also has the distinction of being the first tribal hamlet in Kerala to become a gram panchayat, in 2010. As per data from Devikulam Primary Health Centre, Edamalakudy currently has a population of only 2,126 people. 24 out of the 28 tribal settlements are currently inhabited in the region. Due to attacks by wild elephants, natives in the remaining four settlements have migrated to other settlements.