June 16, 2024

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Mayalayam books | Bus to books, Kerala transport staffers’ literary journey

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When a group named Vayanasala Samskarika Kootayma (Library and Cultural Group) got two Mayalayam books published and released last year, the organisers could be forgiven if one of them jokingly tapped a member of the audience on the shoulder and said, “Ticket, please”.

Vayanasala is no ordinary cultural group: it’s a book club of over 200 employees of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) — from mechanics and drivers to conductors — that has been running for the last five years.

Both the books released were written by transport employees, while the book club is now ready to launch a collection of 20 short stories that it shortlisted from the about 100 entries that a competition open to the general public threw up.

It all began when P.V. Ratheesan, a KSRTC mechanic in Kasaragod, north Kerala, started a WhatsApp group five years ago “with book lovers among my colleagues”.

“The objective was merely to discuss Malayalam poetry, short stories and novels,” Ratheesan told The Telegraph on Monday.

Now a registered body under the Societies Act, the group with 214 members — each admitted after making sure of their interest in the cause — is waiting for state transport minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar to launch its short story collection.

The stories were handpicked and edited under the guidance of the group’s editor, K. Pradeep Kumar, a KSRTC bus conductor. One of the 20 stories selected has been written by a KSRTC employee.

Several of the 100 entries were from authors with one or more published titles to their names. First prize winner K.S. Ratheesh has published seven books.

The book club has members from most of the 94 KSRTC stations in the state. “We hold regular reading sessions based on books purchased directly from publishers, who give us hefty discounts considering our interest,” Ratheesan said.

The group buys multiple copies of each title and ships them out to their members through KSRTC drivers and conductors.

“We pass on the discounts to the members who buy these books and incur virtually no cost in shipping since our members (drivers and conductors) are anyway shuttling across the state,” Ratheesan said.

“After we have read them, we share our thoughts via WhatsApp, text messaging, voice or Google Meet.”

Currently, the members are reading Indian Rainbow, a memoir by Lt Col Dr Sonia Cherian. The group has so far bought more than 2,500 copies of various books.

“We are more proficient in Malayalam and hence the discussions are centred on Malayalam books,” Ratheesan said, adding that some English books, particularly classics, are also discussed.

One of the two books the group released in January 2023 is a collection of poems by KSRTC bus driver Baiju Iringalam; the other is a collection of short stories by Valsala Rajan, an employee of the Regional Transport Office in Kanhangad, Kasaragod.

Although not a KSRTC employee, Valsala was included in the group by a conductor, Anitha.

“I have been a regular KSRTC passenger for several years. While shuttling between my home in Cheruvathur (Kasaragod) and Taliparamba (Kannur) where I worked for several years, I met Anitha and became friends. She added me to this WhatsApp group in 2021,” Valsala said.

The group is now waiting for the government’s response to a request to open public libraries at all the 94 bus depots in the state. “We hope to launch these libraries from where passengers can pick any book, read and leave it back,” Ratheesan said.

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