Published: 07th January 2021
This professor duo has set up 15 public libraries in the remotest of TN villages. This is their incredible story
Twenty-nine-year-old Thambi met Shiva Shankar, both Ambedkarites, through a mutual friend and together they came up with the idea to set up libraries in rural areas
On January 3, the birth anniversary of educationist and anti-caste icon Savitribai Phule, a big bunch of children in a small village called Arasur in Nagapattinam district were all smiles after they were presented with a gift — a library. Over the last two years, two professors, Mathematician Shiva Shankar, from the Chennai Mathematical Institute and Asai Thambi, a professor at Pachaiyappa's College have been setting up small libraries across Tamil Nadu in some of the remotest areas.
The library — named the Shankar Narayan Memorial Library after Shankar’s father — will bring to Arasur a flood of books, a space for students to study and to be tutored and for aspiring candidates preparing for government exams. There are 14 similar libraries across the state. Twenty-nine-year-old Thambi met Shiva Shankar through a mutual friend and together they came up with the idea to set up libraries in rural areas. Shankar has already set up libraries outside of Tamil Nadu, "I have opened 10 other libraries, one in Kushinagar (where the Buddha died), which caters to the Mushahar community, one in Kerala (run by Kerala Dalit Panthers), 4 in Bangalore," he tells us.
The latest library was set up in Nagapattinam
"The libraries are named after my father on the suggestion of my activist friend Vidya Rawat I was going to call it the Ambedkar Library, but he said that naming it after my father would be a sign that people from oppressor castes are also joining the war against the 'unparalleled social abuse of untouchability (A.J.Toynbee)'. I agreed, even though my father would not have wanted it," Shankar adds. “Primarily, we are Ambedkarites. Shiva has been involved in doing a lot of social work for many years and we decided to take up this initiative together. We are not an NGO, we are just doing this out of personal interest,” Thambi said.
The first library was set up in Thambi’s village in Trichy but despite it being his hometown, Thambi says it was not at all an easy process. The first few were the most challenging to set up, the professor said. “You know how they say, you can set up a thousand temples but setting up a library is the most difficult task. I found that to be quite true. More than anything, convincing people that a library will benefit them can be quite challenging. Getting permission to occupy a public space is an uphill task, in some places we have to fight tooth and nail to get even a small space,” Thambi said. But after the first two or three, they started gaining a bit more support.
Inaugurated on the birth anniversary of Savitribai Phule
Sometimes it is so difficult, that volunteers offer their own private premises to set up the library, the professor said, “They set it up on their terraces. We prefer public spaces but sometimes there is just no infrastructure. Some villagers find it hard to accept the idea even though we tell them that it is for their development.” But in some villages, old temples were turned into libraries and in some, the duo have had to ask the local deity for permission to set up the library! “The villagers pray to the local deity and ask if it should accept the library and only then do they say 'okay' to us. Sometimes they made us ask the deity if it will accept our approval and only when we got a positive response, we were allowed to set up the library. Sometimes, it is a full-fledged religious function,” Thambi said, laughing.
Both children and young adults throng the libraries
Thambi takes field trips and visits the libraries now and then but even before they are set up, Thambi ensures that they have devoted volunteers who will keep the library running and promote it well. “Since they are in very far off places, we don’t have the finance or the manpower to keep visiting. So when people reach out to us and ask us about setting up a library in their town, we ensure that they share similar values and are dedicated to running the library efficiently. If they need any books, blackboards, computers, tuition needs or other infrastructure, we send them the money to buy it,” he explained.
However, in some villages, the library has become a movement, “In places like Theni, the local teachers took it upon themselves to fill the shelves with good books and started to donate and encourage others to donate,” the professor said. Most of the volunteers running the libraries are also teachers and sometimes, social activists. In some villages, self-help groups also run the libraries.
The volunteers make a list of the books that the village needs
When asked if all the libraries had been inaugurated on Phule’s birth anniversary, Thambi said even though that would have been ideal, this was the first time that the logistics worked out on time, so they decided to open it on the day. “Our target is 100 libraries, I have no idea how long that will take. But we are hoping we will be able to do it soon. Through our networks, people keep reaching out to us. We know we have been successful when we hear that people have cleared exams because they had the library. Recently people reached out and said they had cleared the police exam. All this is very heartening,” Thambi said.
Even though they might have given them a tough time, over the last two years, Thambi has heard some wonderful feedback from the villagers, “The nicest memory I have is of some villagers telling me that even though they still didn’t have electricity in their village, they felt the library had brought light to their land.”