The summer holidays at Madras Mama-Maami’s changed everything for Chitti. Their neighbour, Fathima Akka, had decided to start a free library on her verandah. Madras Mama helped Fathima Akka’s vaapa build a roof over the verandah with bamboo poles and coconut thatch. Chitti helped Fathima Akka in arranging the books in bamboo racks.

Fathima Akka’s umma and Madras Maami laid straw mats on the floor and set two mud pots in a corner – one filled with water and the other with buttermilk. Fathima Akka gave Chitti a book about a little girl who had amazing adventures in space. Chitti had always wanted to be an astronaut and fly around in space. She loved the book. And then she found another book that she liked and then another.

Every day, the children of Nallanna Mudali Street trooped into the library and spent hours poring over the books. In the evenings, the sea breeze blew in from the Marina, gently ruffling the pages and sweaty hair.

“Gather around!” Fathima Akka would call out. With round eyes and mouths hanging slightly open, the children listened to every word that Fathima Akka read. Then, the kids took turns reading out loud. At first, Chitti struggled to read. She felt shy to read in front of the other kids. What if they laughed at her when she made a mistake?

“Everybody makes mistakes every now and then – even grown-ups,’ Fathima Akka had smiled. “It’s perfectly okay.”

Slowly, Chitti got better and better at reading out loud. When she changed her voice to sound like different characters in a story, there were claps and shouts of “Super, Chitti!”

“Fathima Akka,” Chitti said, as she taped the cardboard box full of books to take back to Chinnapalayam. “Reading a book is like making a friend, isn’t it? I’m going to take all my new friends to meet my old friends back home!”

Chitti sat by the window, staring out. It had been two whole days since she had spoken to her friends. The gloomy weather matched her mood. The sky turned dark and it started raining. Chitti suddenly remembered. I forgot to pull the tarpaulin sheet over the tractor. Oh no, the books will be ruined in the rain! The light summer shower turned into a downpour. As the rain pounding on the roof matched beats with the goats bleating in the backyard, Chitti pulled the grocery bag over her head and shot out of the house towards the fields.

Through the sheets of rain, she spotted three small figures under the tamarind tree, battling a flapping tarpaulin. Lachu held an umbrella flipped inside out. Chokka wore a bamboo colander like a hat. Muthu looked like a walking raincoat. Chitti hurried to help. Job done, the four flashed each other a thumbs-up before rushing back to their houses.

The next day, the sun was out and the gang was back on the tractor. Chitti inspected the books. “The books are safe and dry, thanks to all of you. I’m sorry I was too bossy . . .”

“We are sorry we were rude . . .” Chitti had done some thinking the previous night. She hated brinjals – a book on brinjals wouldn’t make her want to read it. But because Fathima Akka had given her a book about space adventures, Chitti had become friends with books. Nobody knew better than Chitti what Lachu, Chokka and Muthu liked best.

She pulled out the large hardbound The Big Book of Awful-Dreadful-Frightful Monsters, cleared her throat and began reading the first story, “The Invisible Thakali-Manathakali Monster and the Mystery of the Glowing Footprints.”

Once there was an invisible Thakali-Manathakali Monster that left behind glowing footprints during its midnight sleepwalks.


“Did it blow fire through its nostrils?”

“Did it have glowing red balls for eyes?”

“Nobody knows . . .” Chitti whispered.

“Why not?” her audience whispered back. “Nobody ever saw it . . .”

Chitti replied, in a still softer whisper.

“How come?” asked the audience, in a barely audible voice.

“I told you . . . it was invisible!”

Chokka and Muthu looked at one another, while Lachu chortled. “Hoho! Good one!”

Excerpted with permission from ‘Chitti’s Travelling Book Box, Kavitha Punniyamurthi, illustrated by Niveditha Subramaniam, Hole Books.