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PN Panicker

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 Britannia(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 organization 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  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 book stores  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 getting 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 AIRs 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 had been 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 P N Panicker . And donate your books to the neighbourhood library so that it remains in circulation .



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