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83-YO Kerala School Dropout Creates Unique Dictionary in 4 South Indian Languages

A school dropout from Thalassery in Kerala, Njattyela Sreedharan spent 25 years writing a unique dictionary with four Dravidian languages — Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu.

Way back in 1872, Hermann Gundert created the first Malayalam-English dictionary. More than 150 years later, 83-year-old Njattyela Sreedharan recently published his dictionary which is a compilation of four major South Indian languages — Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. There are a whopping 12.5 lakh words in this unique dictionary. Sreedharan says, “For each Malayalam word, you find a corresponding word in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. It is truly my labour of love.”

This was his life’s work, wherein he invested over 25 years painstakingly compiling it, in his hometown — Thalassery in Kerala. What is worth mentioning here is that Hermann was also in Thalassery when he compiled his dictionary all those years ago!

“I think it is his spirit that entered my body and made me work on this project,” begins Sreedharan. What is even more surprising is that Sreedharan did not even complete formal schooling. He dropped out of school when he was in Class IV itself, but it was his passion for words that pushed him to accomplish this.

“After dropping out of school I worked at a local beedi-making factory,” he says. Despite working at the beedi factory, Sreedharan took up the Eighth Standard Public Examination (ESLC) privately and cleared it. “Subsequently, I got myself a job at the Public Works Department,” he adds.

Even though Sreedharan has been working on the dictionary since 1984, it was only in 1994 when he retired from his job at PWD that he decided to spend all his time putting together the dictionary. “I would spend hours in my room pouring over words and working on it. It gave me so much satisfaction and happiness,” he recalls.

A sheer will to learn

Sreedharan with his labour of love.

While he did not have much of a formal education he enjoyed reading and always picked up interesting books. What he also liked was to travel and meet people from different places and interact with them. He also learnt the four South Indian regional languages all by himself.

“Interacting with the local people of these places helped me learn the nuances of these languages,” he says. “Once people learnt my passion, they opened up to me. Everywhere I travelled, I was always welcomed and people were always curious and ready to help in my compilation work. Whether it was during my stay in Mysore or in Andhra.”

He mentions how sometimes he would easily find the word meaning in two out of the four languages and would not rest until he managed to find it all. “I would often correct the errors in dictionaries that were used commonly,” he says.

Speaking about how at times he would find the meaning of a particular word in two languages and struggle to find its meaning in another two languages, he shares, “One such word that I struggled with was in finding a Telugu equivalent word for ‘vayambu’, which means an ayurvedic plant in Malayalam. It took me close to six years to find it.”

There have been many such eureka moments that Sreedharan cherishes. “It’s like a game and the thrill of finding the meaning in all four languages is unparalleled. There have been instances when the word meaning has come to me in a dream and I would literally jump out of bed to make a note of it,” he says.

Dreaming of Words

Dreaming of Words.

While such comparative studies are usually undertaken by universities and students, Sreedharan embarked on this journey all by himself with no financial backing whatsoever. He says, “It was very difficult to find a publisher. I visited so many private publishers and institutions and was turned away by all of them.”

It was documentary filmmaker, Nandan, who decided to capture the life and struggles of Sreedharan in his documentary – ‘Dreaming of Words’. In the video, Nandan highlights the difficulties that Sreedharan encountered when he was looking for a publisher.

After several ups and downs, the dictionary finally saw the light of day in November 2020 when the collective efforts of the Senior Citizens Forum in Kerala paid off. The work on the documentary was completed just before the pandemic and it is currently being shown at various film festivals across the globe. It will be made available online soon.

Priced at Rs 1500, this dictionary pans over 900 pages and if you would like to get yourself a copy, you can call P Kumaran at 9895410120 and place your order.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)