Story Time in Kerala

On a warm evening in 1972, when I was five years old and living in a village by the sea—Puthenthope in Thiruvananthapuram—I accompanied my cousin to our village library. The librarian gave me a nice smile and took me to the old wooden shelves where the children's books were stacked. As I quickly glanced through them my eyes rested on an oddly shaped book—Vaalameen Chirikkunnu (The Vaala Fish Laughs). The book was the Malayalam translation of a Soviet folktale, fabulously illustrated and produced. It was the first book I ever read. I don't recall the story of Vaalameen Chirikkunnu now, but even after all this time, I remember the front cover and the horizontal shape of the book which had amused me then.

The early '70s were very tough years. (I later learned that the world had gone into an oil shock, India was at war against Pakistan in Bangladesh, and there was a famine in some parts of the country.) During summer vacations I organised plays on a temporary stage built in the space where my house opened out to the beach. Every evening in those days, kanji (rice gruel) would be served to everyone in the village, and there would be a long queue of people for that. But my friends and I were not worried about the famine at all. We were busy reading books every evening in Jaihind Vayanasala, the village library. The names of almost all village libraries in Kerala are prefixed with words like 'Jaihind', 'Jaibharat', 'Bappuji', 'Noorul Islam', 'Vishwabharati', 'Sree Narayana', etc., because they were all founded in the early 1940s, as part of the freedom movement. In the '70s, these libraries were full of wonderful books—translations of world classics; Malayalam novels by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai; and poetry by Kumaran Asan, Vallathol and Sankara Kurup.

Puthenthope, a fishing village in Thiruvananthapuram

Puthenthope, a fishing village in Thiruvananthapuram. Credit: Vinutha Mallya.

There were three kinds of books available for children: books by Malayalam publishers (demy ¼, black and white, with no illustrations), Soviet books with lots of colourful pictures, and the books by National Book Trust, India. The first NBT book I read was Let us do a Play by Uma Anand. I hoped it would help me create a play for my playground theatre. Other NBT books I remember repeatedly reading were: Rohintra and Nandriya, Bapu, Tales for All Times and The Prince of Ayodhya. When I read Rohintra and Nandriya, I realised that Buddha was not a boy who listened to his parents. Same was the case with Rama in The Prince of Ayodhya. By then I already knew that Jesus was not a goody-goody boy who stayed in the good books of parents and teachers. The grip of NBT books on me made my mother complain to the Malayalam teacher that her son would not listen to her. But I had a ready answer. Neither the Prince of Ayodhya, nor Jesus, nor Buddha, was ever in the good boys' league. Then why should I be, I asked. The Malayalam teacher was helpless!

The village libraries would get their annual grant by March every year to buy books. The annual exams would be over by then and I would slip into a routine of going to the library every evening. It would have a few hundred new books to read—fresh from the store, and not yet sent into the wooden almirahs. Just waiting for me on the table! The librarian would issue only two books at a time. If no one else was around, he would give me three, or even four books. The library opened at 4 pm, and I would wait for the librarian in the library's hall, reading the newspapers over and over. On the previous day itself, I would have decided the books I would borrow on that day, which I would quickly grab and start walking towards my house, passing by my friends who would be engaged in an energetic football match.

I would walk in the direction of the cool breeze coming from the beach, sit there, and, by the time the sun set on the horizon, finish reading both the books. When there was nothing left to read, I would read the cover page, the back cover and the imprint page again. I discovered that some books were published in Kottayam. Nice. Some were published by Progress Publishers in Moscow. This was not a surprise—Moscow was not far from Keralam in those days. (There were references like this in the newspapers too. One writer asked, Moscovil mazha peyyunnathinu mannarkkattu kuda pidikkano?—'Should we hold an umbrella in Mannarkkad if it rains in Moscow?' Another poet wrote, Soviet ennoru nadundathre pokuvan kashinjenkil ethra bhagyam!—'There is a country called Soviet. I'd be lucky to go there!' But, where on this whole planet was 'A-5 Green Park, New Delhi 110016' (NBT's address)? Was it a town on a beach? Must be, I would tell myself. Bearded giants must be sitting at a machine there and churning out such wonderful storybooks for children. I would imagine that their heads must touch the ceiling when they sat in their sea-facing room. I remember a book on animal husbandry (Valarthumrigangal) published by NBT, in the library. On the cover was a photo of a cow against a yellow and brown background. That book didn't have any takers in the library. On many occasions, I borrowed the book simply because there was no new book for me to read. Then there were some books by writers like M. Mukundan, Kakkanadan and Pamman, which the librarian would not give me. 'They are not good for children.'

The children's books in Malayalam that I loved were Kunjikkoonan (The Little Hunchback), and Kunjayante Kusritikal (Naughty Kunjayan). The Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society (SPCS), which is a cooperative society of writers, published a set of 12 books called Samanapetti ('gift box') in 1962. Another Samanapetti was published during the International Year of Children in 1970. My friends and I read all of them. But there were not too many of this kind. So it was back to the Soviet books like Chukkum Gekkum, Kattile Koottukar and Bhouthika Kouthukam. Misha and Soviet Nadu were our favourite magazines. Soviet Nadu (Soviet Land) was the first magazine I subscribed to, and it came from Moscow—by post! I felt so proud. The smell of Lenin's land, touched by the great Soviet people! Photos of children with chubby cheeks, starry-eyed and with blond hair—how happy the revolution made them.

Kunjunni's haiku-like poems were great fun and a big hit. Then we read the adaptations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana by Mali Madhavan Nair. Later, DC Books published Panchatantram, translated by Sumangala. By the time we reached high school, it was very difficult to get books for our age. But many encyclopaedia and science books were available. I loved them. History books from Prabhat Book House, the distributors of Soviet books, were also good reading, especially those by P.T. Bhaskara Panikker. My achan (father) would bring home books from Chintha Publishers. But they were too tough for me to grasp—National Question in Kerala and Kerlam Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, History of the Communist International by M.S. Devadas, and translations of Bengali novels (Kolkata, city of my dreams. . .). Achan wanted his son to read the autobiographies of EMS and A.K. Gopalan.

At that time children in Kerala were reading translations of books like Les Misérables and War and Peace, published by SPCS. Some books were heavy for a 10-year-old to carry. I remember carrying home a two-volume translation of The Idiot, when the parish priest met me on the street and asked me which book it was. I replied, 'Idiot'. The priest was taken aback for a moment. Then, when he had a glimpse of the nicely bound book's title page, he asked, 'Will you be able to read this?' I was sure. Yes! But I could not go beyond a page of that voluminous tome.

I was elected school leader of the church school when I was 10. My duties included reading from the newspaper at the morning assembly every day. At home, we only subscribed to Deshabhimani, the Malayalam newspaper of the CPI(M). On a fine morning, I innocently read out in the assembly, 'Indira Declared Emergency. India under Semi Fascist Rule. All Opposition Leaders are under Arrest. Press censorship is on!' There was dead silence. The teachers looked visibly unhappy. I could not understand what went wrong, but news-reading at the morning assembly was stopped from that day.

There was some underground reading done too—of cheap detective novels printed on low-quality paper, which the library would not keep on the racks. I got these books from a chechi (an older girl) living nearby. She was poor in her studies, but could somehow manage to lay her hands on all these detective novels. They were published by obscure publishers like Amina Book Stall etc. Kottayam Puspanath, who must have written more than a hundred detective novels, was their bestselling author. I hid these books inside my textbooks and read them, but my mother, a better detective, would find them. The books would immediately be thrown into the kitchen hearth. Girls would read the popular romance novels by Kanam E.J. and Muttathu Varkey; both must have written a hundred novels each. However, boys never read them.

Many magazines were available for children. I was a regular reader of Poompatta, Muthassi, Balayugam, Thaliru and Ampili Ammavan. Writers like Sippy Pallippuram wrote for these magazines. Sugathakumari was the editor of Thaliru. I always knew the date of the next issue of each magazine and would make sure that my father bought the new issue on the day it hit the stands at the main bus stand.

But we couldn't get Eureka magazine (S. Sivadas was one of the main writers), which was published by Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishath (KSSP; People's Science Movement of Kerala). Ours was a Christian village and the church school didn't promote the magazine and books published by KSSP. The nuns who taught us wanted us to read Snehasena, a Catholic publication with Bible stories for children. Even that was an interesting read, though many of us boys became committed atheists later. But KSSP's books started becoming available by the time we reached high school. Aayiram Quiz (1000 Quizzes) was the first KSSP book I read, followed by Paddatha Pakshikal by M.K. Prasad, which was an adaptation of Rachel Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring. I read Piramidinte Nattil by M.P. Parameswaran, and then Vaayichalum Vaayichalum Theeratha Pusthakam (The Unending Story of Nature) by S. Sivadas, and books by several others. The KSSP books were not available at bookshops; its members from the nearby village would come door-to-door every year to sell them. They would always come to our house because they knew that my father would buy their books.

Achan would skip his lunch at the canteen to save money to buy magazines for his son. He would remain hungry until 4 pm when he would reach home and eat fish curry and rice. While he ate lunch, I would eagerly begin reading the magazine achan brought home. Later, I would go to Sulekha Book Stall near Kaniyapuram Railway Station, walking through the paddy fields and crossing the canals that connected the backwaters at the periphery of our village. I would walk back reading the magazine I bought there, not getting distracted by the big snails crawling at the edges of the fields, or the fish swimming in the canals. The sun would have set by the time I reached home.

The growth of children's literature in Kerala

From the 1930s until the '60s, Kerala saw radical political changes and social transformations led by agricultural and industrial workers. Political and cultural debates were a major activity during this process, creating a demand for accessible reading material. K. Damodaran, a communist leader and an office bearer of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, initiated the organised library movement in 1937. Today, there are around 12,000 functioning village public libraries in Kerala.

Children's books in Kerala began taking shape in a major way when the progressive left movement generated an interest in reading. Many hands were at work. One of them was Mathew M. Kuzhively's, who was the first to start a publishing house just for children, in 1948. His Balan Monthly and Balan Publications were to be among the earliest such initiatives in India. He was the first to publish retellings of Greek, Roman and other myths for children, apart from his other innovations. The retellings of fairy tales like those by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm then appeared on the scene.

Village library in Puthenthope, Jaihind Vayanasala, founded in 1946

Village library in Puthenthope, Jaihind Vayanasala, founded in 1946. Credit: Vinutha Mallya.

From the 1960s to the '80s there was a boom in wonderful translated books coming from the Soviet Union. Many of us are quite nostalgic about Chuck and Gek, Animals and Friends, and many other books that were read and loved as Malayalam originals. STEPS and Prabhat Book House started publishing children's books in a big way in the '70s.

Later, children's book publishing was turned into a people's movement by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishath. An association of science writers which launched in 1962, the KSSP took hundreds of popular science books to Kerala's villages through a network of school teachers. Their books were published in very large print runs, and many titles sold lakhs of copies. Eureka, their children's science magazine, is still popular.

The Government of Kerala established the Kerala State Balasahitya Institute (Kerala State Institute of Children's Literature) in 1981. Since it was set up the Balasahitya Institute has published over 1,000 titles for children. The prestigious children's magazine Thaliru is also published by them.

Popular magazines for children like Balarama and Balabhumi circulate in lakhs, but they are populist.

All major publishers of Kerala have a children's books list today. The state's biggest publisher, DC Books, has a separate imprint for children's books called Mampazham (mango). It also publishes English titles under the Mango imprint. Other publishers, like Mathrubhumi, Chintha, Poorna, etc., are also involved in publishing books for children.

Featured image: Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society's bookshop in Alappuzha (Alleppey). Credit: Vinutha Mallya.

Rubin DCruz was Director, Kerala State Balasahitya Institute. He currently works with the National Book Trust, India.