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Walking librarian — the Kerala woman who distributes over 500 books a month on foot

Residents of the hilly Mothakkara village in Kerala’s Wayanad district had no easy access to books at the library. Then Radhamani took matters into her own hands.

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For as long as I can remember, reading has been one of my greatest joys. The way authors build a world through their writing and manage to capture a reader’s imagination never fails to amaze me. I believe that reading stays in our minds far longer than what we see.

When I was a child, I would read all kinds of stories to my father, who loved listening to them. He did not get much of an education and therefore, couldn’t read. I took it upon myself to read entire books to him. I would give him updates about events around the world by reading the news. I would even read the text on wrappers and anything with packaging delivered to our home from the grocery store! On my father’s behalf, I would write letters to our relatives and friends and then read those letters out loud so that he could check what I had written. That was perhaps how my love for reading began, and it grew as I grew older.

It was the same love that made me choose the job of a “walking librarian” at Pratibha Public Library, an offshoot of Library Movement in Kerala. The library was built in 1961 in my village Mothakkara, in the Mananthavady taluk of Kerala’s Wayanad district. This region is home to beautiful rivers, small waterfalls, farms and a wide diversity of birds and plants, and surrounded by lush green mountains.

Pratibha Library in the Mothakkara village. Photo: Kabani
Hilly terrain of Wayanad. Photo: Brian Rapsey, Positive Footprints – World Nomads

Although the library has been around for almost 60 years, people in the village – women in particular – had no easy access to books until a few years ago. Despite their love for reading, their tight schedules, busy farming lives, and the distance and time to commute to the library made it difficult for them to visit regularly to borrow books. Their reading was limited to Mangalam, Manorama and other weekly magazines.

Since 2012, when I started working at Pratibha Library, I have been delivering books to the homes of the library members six days a week. I give them two new books each time, collect them after eight days, and keep a record in the library register. I work based on the guidelines that the library council provides for book distribution and delivery.

Radhamani, the “walking library”. Photo: Brian Rapsey, Positive Footprints – World Nomads

By now, I have become familiar with the tastes of various members through continuous interaction. Every week, I look at the library’s collection of books and try to find books that would appeal to the members’ tastes. The library has over 11,000 books in the Malayalam, English and Hindi languages, and we currently have 102 members, including some senior citizens. I carry around 25 to 30 books every day – a mix of different genres – in a cloth shopping bag, so that members can select books of their choice. The cool weather in Wayanad makes it conducive for walking.

The ardent readers of my community now spend more time with books once they reach home from work. People who work outdoors, in the fields, also take books from me while I’m on my way to their houses. Now, no longer forced to restrict their reading to weekly magazines, people have started reading books of different genres regularly. My ability to create opportunities for them to read and bring smiles to their faces as they welcome books arriving at their home gives me great pleasure.

Recording details of books delivered to a member in a register. Photo: Kabani

All these years, I have been delivering 500-550 books a month on average. That changed with the pandemic in 2020 and the subsequent lockdown enforced to minimize its spread. I am no longer able to reach all areas as some have been declared containment zones. I am now able to deliver only 300-350 books a month. Yet, it’s been heartening to see the positive effect that reading has had on some people amidst the chaos that the pandemic brought along. Most members who were feeling stuck at home and low during the lockdown, find peace through reading the books that I deliver to their homes.

During this phase, I also started providing books to all the indigenous tribal children. It is a delight to see their excited faces when they see me with new books. Some children call me over the phone to confirm my next walk towards their houses!

Over time, I have developed strong bonds with all the reading members. Some give me wonderful reviews on books that they find interesting and urge me to read them. I note down the titles of those books and make sure that I take them home next time. In a way, these members create opportunities for me to nurture my passion for reading. On a member’s recommendation, I recently read a book titled ‘Aadujeevitham’ by Benyamin. It impacted me deeply, and Najeeb – one of the characters in the book – will live forever in my mind, giving me strength and motivating me not to give up but fight in adverse situations.

Radhamani outside Pratibha Library, ready to start her daily walk. Photo: Kabani

I love everything about my job. It gives me an opportunity to expand my worldview by having interesting conversations and book discussions every day. I love sharing books and daily life with people. My job has taught me the most important lesson of life – what you give is what you reap. I treat all the library members with affection and care, and I earn respect from all in return.

My experience as a librarian also helped me as a tourist guide, an additional role I took up in 2014. When I realized that I needed to learn more about a field that was completely new to me, I extended my love for reading to travelogues, travel books and books about different destinations across the globe. The confidence that I gained by interacting with members of the library helped me in my interactions with guests from around the world. That, in turn, helped me improve my English!

Radhamani on one of her regular walks through the village to deliver books. Photo: Kabani

Some people hesitate to take membership in our library as it costs them ₹ 25. Those who can afford the registration fee pay for themselves. There are also those who love to read but cannot afford the fee. I pay their registration fee from my earnings so that everyone with a passion for reading gets books to read.

Some members feel that I should be paid an additional amount for walking to their houses, but the excitement on the faces of readers when they see me with my books are my rewards. I feel very content that at 63 years of age, I am able to walk up to 4 kilometers every day, delivering books to people and being their “walking library”.

The author is a frontier campaigner for sustainable community development programmes in her village Mothakkara in Kerala. She is a biodiversity conservationist and a ‘travelling librarian’ who makes books accessible to women and children in her village. She commutes across the village, working with cooperative banking societies to develop financial plans for families. Views are personal. 

Voices of Rural India is a curated platform for rural storytellers. For perhaps the first time, it brings you stories from India’s rural communities, in their own voices. 

This article has been republished with permission. Read the original article here and in Malayalam here.

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