For the last 41 years, one man in Karuvatta in Kerala’s Alappuzha has been walking 12 kilometres, from house to house, every day. His only companions are two bags full of 60-70 books, and lunch packed from home.
P Sukumaran is a ‘walking librarian’, who visits about 35 houses in the Karuvatta and Kumarapuram grama panchayats to deliver books to women and children. He works for the Kumarapuram Public Library, where he first began a job as a librarian in his early twenties, in 1979.
“I love books, and I find happiness in walking and reaching out to readers, delivering books and periodicals,” the 61-year-old tells The Better India.
“I get a lot of perks during my daily walks. For example, I get to enjoy nature and greenery on my way. Also, I am a person who loves to talk a lot about the things I have read, and going to different houses gives me a chance to interact with and share this knowledge with others, including children,” says Sukumaran, who has a Bachelors in Economics from SD College, Alappuzha.
This public library, which was established in 1950 and runs in a small two-room building, was once known to be among the finest in the area, but had been in a state of decline for a while, owing to a dwindling number of visitors. That’s when Sukumaran decided to introduce the initiative of walking and reaching out to readers by distributing books.
“The library needed people, and the people needed some fine books. So, I thought, why not have the library reach the people? That’s how I began this journey 41 years ago,” he explains.
From Monday to Saturday, Sukumaran walks around 12 km daily. He starts his day by going to the library at 8.30 am, and around 10.30, he leaves to start delivering books. He carries his lunch with him and later returns to the library by 4 pm. He says he doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle, and prefers walking over any other mode of transport.
“When I was studying in college, I used to work as a newspaper boy and walked long distances everyday to make deliveries every morning. I’ve been used to walking since then, and I never get tired,” he says.
Sukumaran says his mission is to inculcate the value of books and the habit of reading. “I am an avid reader and I started reading from a very young age. I used to read around 11 newspapers everyday. I believe that reading makes you wise, it helps you understand the world better and makes you a better human being. So, I am on a mission to do my part as a conscious human being.”
Sukumaran’s efforts to reach out to his readers has helped the library thrive through many difficult times, and the number of memberships in the library has increased ever since, he says.
Most of Sukumaran’s readers are children and women. He goes to every house to not just deliver books, but also interact with them. He reads all the books that he lends out, and says he tries to give the reader a text that will suit their taste.
He says, “I don’t go to these houses just to deliver books. I spend some quality time interacting with readers and discussing the books. I ask them questions or seek their opinions, especially to children, to make sure that they have read the book properly and understood it.”
Building a society that thrives on humility
Life has never been easy for Sukumaran, who has been living in a rented house for the past 15 years with his wife and 12-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with autism.
As a librarian, he lives on a meagre monthly allowance of Rs 3,100 from the Kerala State Library Council and a 30 per cent commission he gets from the book sales. “I’ve always wanted to build a house of my own. But my son needs proper treatment and medication, so most of my earnings are spent taking care of him. But I am happy with whatever I have right now.”
He adds, “I am very passionate about my work. My daily walks and interactions with the readers make me forget about all my personal struggles. It energises me, and I find happiness in it.”
Meanwhile, P Gopalan, secretary of Kumarapuram Public Library and Sukumaran’s elder brother, takes care of the library when the latter goes out every day to deliver books.
He says that the building used to house around 20,000 texts at one point, but has since lost about 25 per cent of them. “We lost a lot of books during the 2019 floods in Kerala. A big tree fell over the library building, breaking the roof and destroying around 6,000 books. Now we are in the process of getting new ones, which had been delayed due to the pandemic,” P Gopalan says.
“We run our library in a small two-room building, which is not big enough for it to function. We even have a few rare books, and people still come in search of them for reference. But it saddens me that our library doesn’t have enough space or facilities to accommodate them,” Sukumaran adds disappointedly.
When asked about his brother’s work, Gopalan says, “He is a very passionate and energetic person. He’s an avid reader and someone who always sticks to his ideologies.”
As we conclude our conversation, Sukumaran notes, “The habit of reading could do wonders to people. So, it is essential to read more, get inspired, and build a society that thrives on humility.”
Honouring his work and dedication, in 2016, Sukumaran was awarded the I V Das memorial award by the Kerala State Library Council Staff Association.
If you want to contact or offer financial assistance, you can call P Sukumaran at 9747451348.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)