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The Legacy of PN Panicker

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By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

For the last several years, the Valley of Words has been announcing its shortlist in eight categories (Fiction , Non Fiction and Translations from Bhashas of Bharat in Hindi and English , besides the two bilingual categories of Writings for Young Adults and Children) during the PN Panicker Book Reading Month (June 19-July 19) to help readers  of all age groups and interests make their choice of books to read in the monsoon months.

This column is about PN Panicker, the National Book Reading Month, the eight award categories, the Jurors for the Award and the selection process. Over the next four weeks, this column will also share the list of the best books – some of which have already been reviewed in this column – others will appear in the run up to the Festival scheduled on 16/7 November at Dehradun.

PN Panicker, the founder of the Granthasala (library) movement, was born on 1 March, 1909, at Neelamperoor in the then princely state of Travancore, and started his first library in 1926 (Sanadanadharmam Library) when he was serving as a primary teacher in his hometown. This was the time when India was still striving for independence and education was a luxury, but this man’s vision ignited a movement that would transform many lives forever. Few teachers have shown that passion and commitment to reading: perhaps even he was not aware of the potential of the movement he was creating – for in time Kerala became the most literate, as well as the most literary state in the country.

A community of readers, a network of libraries

Panicker’s passion for reading newspapers and books began from a young age. But he didn’t just read for himself; he took it upon himself to share the news with people of all ages who couldn’t read or write, gathering them under a grand Banyan tree. This marked the first step towards building a community of readers. He was in fact the true proponent of the Biblical injunction ‘let knowledge grow from more to more, and thus be human life enriched’. Before Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) became entirely digital, this was emblazoned on each of their print editions. But while EB was a commercial venture, Panicker’s movement was, what we call in today’s terminology, ‘entirely crowd funded’.

Not satisfied with one library, he envisaged a network of libraries, for books were meant to be circulated, and this led to the formation of the Thiruvithaamkoor Granthasala Sangham (Travancore Library Association) in 1945 with 47 rural libraries. The slogan of the organisation was ‘Read and Grow’. When Cochin and Travancore were merged into the new linguistic state for Malayalam speakers, it became Kerala Granthasala Sangham (KGS). The itinerant library enthusiast travelled to the villages of Kerala promoting the value of reading and was instrumental in bringing over 6,000 libraries into this network and the KGS went on to win the prestigious ‘Krupskaya Award’ from UNESCO in 1975. But setting up of libraries was not an end in itself. People must learn to read and critique books, and thus began the mass literacy campaign in Kerala, which was replicated across the country. He also took note of what would be of interest to the neo-literates, and so he set up Agriculture Book corners in rural hamlets.

Panicker’s legacy: Reading Day to Reading Month

Following Panicker’s death in 1995, the Kerala government designated June 19th as “Vaayanadinam” or Reading Day. This day is celebrated with a week-long series of activities called Vayaana Vaaram or Reading Week, between June 19th and 25th. But this got a boost when, in 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the National Reading / Digital Reading Month in Kochi, calling on all Indians to propagate the message ‘Read and Grow’.

Let me now explain how the Valley of Words (VoW) and the National Digital Library of India, based out of IIT K, and the REC, which funds the book awards, are making a humble contribution to this movement. The VoW Foundation receives nominations in eight categories for books published in the last calendar year till the 15th of March, each year, and draws up a long list based on the first reading by VoW’s community of readers and volunteers, published reviews, sales from select bookstores and feedback from the participants of previous editions of VoW. This long list of ten books is then shared with the Jurors, who are usually VoW awardees in that category. Where the winner recuses himself /herself for personal reasons, VoW invites an earlier juror: thus, this year the VoW Awardee for 2021 Ishtiaq Ahmed, currently Professor Emerita at the University of Stockholm was requested to chair the English Non-Fiction Awards. Ahmed’s book on Jinnah has contributed to the scholarship on the partition of the sub-continent, the horrific violence in its aftermath, and the respective roles of the two principal organizations, the AIML and the Congress. The English Fiction jury was headed by Prof Surekha Dangwal, a distinguished professor of English and now the VC of Doon University.  The Doon University also asks its faculty and students to share their critical comments on the short-listed books. This helps get more than one perspective about the book under consideration. For Hindi Fiction and Nonfiction, Neelesh Raghuvanshi, the last year’s winner for her book ‘Sheher Se Dus Kilometre’, and our Board member, and AIR’s top Hindi commentator Laxmi Shanker Bajpai were involved with the short list selection. Raghuvanshi’s book is a riveting tale of life in the outskirts of Bhopal from the viewpoint of a person on a bicycle. The way time and spaces are measured on a bicycle is so different from the helicopter view, or the view from an airconditioned sedan. The smells and the conversations on corner crossings can only be captured when you travel life in slow motion.

Celebrating Diversity

Translations from Bhasahas of Bharat into Hindi and English are salient features of the VoW Awards. Amrita Bera and Lalit Joshi delved into the books in their respective categories. Bera had translated Manoranjan Byapari’s ‘Bhaga Hua Ladka’ in Hindi. This is part of the three-volume autobiography of a Namashudra runaway from East Bengal who learnt to write the Bangla script as an undertrial in the Presidency Jail. A chance meeting with Mahasweta Devi when he was pulling a hand rickshaw transformed his life: he became a chronicler of life on the margins. Joshi had translated Kanyadaan: Hari Mohan Jha’s classic from Maithili. The book was published in 1928, and it has taken nearly one century to capture the life and times of a bygone era, whose echoes still resonate in some ways in the bucolic life of Mithila.

The last two are the bilingual categories – writings for young adults, and for children. Mandira Shah, who wrote Children of the Hidden Land, a mystery series set in the Imphal valley has curated the shortlist for the Young Adults category, and Achintyarup Ray, the bilingual author (Bangla and English) of Jhupli’s Honey Box has put his seal on the five best books in this category.

Next week’s column will be on the ten top translations from Bhashas of Bharat into Hindi and English, for this shows the diversity of writings from across the languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of our Constitution. So, keep reading and   sharing what you have read with the larger community. This will be the best tribute to PN Panicker. And donate your books to the neighbourhood library so that it remains in circulation.

Sanjeev Chopra (born 3 March, 1961) is a retired IAS officer of the 1985 batch, from Kapurthala, Punjab. He is a resident of Dehradun. He is a former Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration and has written a book, “We, the People of the States of Bharat: The Making and Remaking of India’s Internal Boundaries”, published in 2022. He is now the patron and honorary consultant to a literary festival, the Valley of Words International Literary Festival, held annually in Dehradun. Chopra has held the Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship (Cornell), the Robert S McNamara Fellowship (World Bank) and positions at Royal Asiatic Society, London, the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute (Harvard).