A reading language

What does a culture with near-100% literacy in its local language make possible? A vibrant community of writers, readers, and loads and loads of books. Welcome to Kerala.

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Outside the big cities, a very small minority of Indians – only seven to eight million – read in English. India has an overall rate of 65% literacy – measured in people’s own mother tongues. But where India drops into the Indian Ocean, in the state of Kerala, home of Malayalam literature, literacy is close to 100%. Not surprisingly, the population of Kerala – some 31 million – reads books.

Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for [2008 Booker-prize-winning White Tiger author Aravind] Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.

Paul Zacharia, one of the best-known contemporary writers in Malayalam, says: “In the Indian picture, Kerala’s book readers are a record. They are the product both of the literacy movement and the earlier library movement spearheaded by a one-man army called PN Paniker [the founding father of the literacy movement in Kerala]. A whole world of grassroots readers keep emerging from the villages.” …

In a recent report in The Hindu, Ravi DC, CEO of DC Books, Kerala’s leading publishing house, said the sale of Malayalam books has been growing by at least 30% a year. At the sixth international book fair, which DC Books organised in Kerala in November 2008, sales had doubled in a year. And, he added, “the demand for books in rural areas is on the increase”. The marketing strategy was now based on the concept that “books should go to people instead of people coming to book houses”.


from “Kerala: mad about books,” by Mridula Koshy, Le Monde diplomatique, June 2009; cover image from M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Bandhanam, DC Books :: via languagehat.com

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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