Known for its UNESCO-approved heritage sites, Mahabalipuram is a popular destination for travellers from around the world. Located 60km from Chennai, the town (also known as Mamallapuram) is also known for its fishing community most of whose members live in the famous fishermen’s colony.
Situated a stone’s throw from the colony, Otthavadai Street is a cacophony of sights and sounds. Budget guesthouses share the road with stores selling hippie-chic clothes and cafes that whip up a mean filter coffee. Tucked away in the midst of colourful store fronts, Apollo Books, run by former fisherman and bookworm Apollo Kumaresan, is a treasure trove of books.
With a meticulous collection of books and a new kids’ book festival, Apollo is on a mission to introduce locals, particularly the fishing community, to the joys of reading.
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“I love reading and I’ve been collecting books since I was young,” says Apollo, who was born in a fishing family and grew up learning the ropes of the trade. While his brothers joined the family business, Apollo gradually moved away from fishing and opened the eponymous bookstore in 2007.
Yet his inclination for reading hasn’t distanced Apollo from his peers and associates. In fact, the book store and its various activities have emerged as a means to get the community interested in reading.
Since its opening, the bookstore has emerged as a sanctuary for the town’s readers, both locals and tourists. From self-help titles and activity books to fiction, mythology and current affairs, you will find an array of reading material lining the shelves. Tom Sawyer and the Famous Five share space with Sita and Sun Tzu, and many international titles are found in vernacular translations.
The books are available for sale and on rent — you can even swap books here. In addition to
English, you will also find books in foreign languages including Dutch, German and even Hebrew. If a certain title is not available at the store, Apollo is happy to source it on request.
Apollo is heavily invested in encouraging locals, particularly the children, to develop a love for reading.
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“I have grown up in a fishing community, and most of the parents have never gone to school themselves,” he says, adding that he was fortunate to have been able to receive an education. “My two sons love to read, and it was my older son whose interest got me thinking about the festival.”
At the first edition of kids’ books festival organised this January, over 500 children attended, along with a sizeable number of adults. “My friend Stefano Beccari (Swedish sculptor and founder of Global Stone Workshop) helped me convert The Alternative art gallery into a space for the events and reading,” Apollo says, adding that he found a lot of help from friends and travellers in organising the festival.
Apollo’s initiatives make a great difference in a town where literacy remains a challenge and getting your hands on English books is a rare luxury. “I stock a lot of Western authors,” he says.
Mahabalipuram is populated by vacationers through the year, who often drop by Apollo Books and make friends with its affable owner.
Apollo Kumaresan’s own love for Mahabalipuram is second only to his abiding affection for books. “I was born and brought up here,” he says. “This is my town.” He offers to take you around, tell you about the places to see, and if you haven’t already loved Mahabalipuram at first sight, a conversation with him will seal the deal. He also organises community projects in town, including an annual beach cleaning campaign that invites locals and travellers to pitch in.
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The success of the first kids’ book festival has encouraged Apollo to try his hands at other things too. He also wants to initiate an arts festival for children in the town.
Dedicated to uplifting his community, Kumaresan hopes that his initiatives will encourage locals to develop a taste in reading. “I want this town’s children to grow up loving to read and collect books.”