A bust of the Malayalam-language writer SK Pottekkatt stands at the entrance of SM Street in Kozhikode. Once you get off the bus, or park your car on the other side of this pedestrian zone, you enter a quintessential marketplace: hawkers selling all kinds of knick-knacks, a resident badgering you about pickpockets, tight quarters – ordered chaos. Pottekkatt set his Kerala Sahitya Academy Award-winning novel, Oru Theruvinte Katha, The Story of a Street, on this street, known as Mittai Theruvu or Sweetmeat Street, painting vignettes of characters from “The Street”.

On the left side of Pottekkatt’s statue are wall sculptures with excerpts from his writings, complete with portraits of his characters – and in front of them, a few concrete stumps that serve as seats. If you’re a foreigner who can’t read Malayalam or are visiting SM Street after coming across it on TripAdvisor, you won’t understand the significance of Pottekkatt’s statue, let alone recognise who he is.

The bustle of the street, coupled with the desire to bite into what Kozhikode is perhaps most famous for – halwa – will make you forget you ever saw a statue of a man you don’t know. In this city, its history of food takes precedence. But Pottekatt’s statue calls attention to a history of literature, a localised, normalised, and inadvertently stifled history. When a team of students, professors, local administrators, and politicians worked together to secure the UNESCO City of Literature tag for this city, they argued that these histories have coexisted longer than we think.

Statue of SK Pottekkatt facing SM Street, Kozhikode. | Image credit: Diya Isha.
Wall sculptures of Pottekatt's writing at the entrance of SM Street. | Image credit: Diya Isha.

The catalyst

In October 2021, Ajith Kaliyath, the Urban Chair Professor at Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA), contacted Beena Philip, mayor of Kozhikode, suggesting that six of the state’s cities could become part of the Kerala Creative Cities Network. For Kozhikode, Kaliyath proposed the City of Literature tag, and his rationale was that the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF), founded in 2016, was seeing a rise in visitors every year. Philip said she laughed when she responded to him during their phone call, “I said, ‘Ajith, other than KLF, we have so much more – in our culture, in our heritage, even in our day-to-day life.’”

It didn’t take much convincing. After their conversation, Kaliyath contacted a friend at the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague (CZU). Ludmila Kolouchova, a research assistant who was then a master’s student in Urban Planning, arrived in Kozhikode to work on the initial stages of the proposal to become a City of Literature that the Kozhikode corporation had to send to UNESCO. Kolouchova established contact with Prague and Edinburgh, two cities in the Creative Cities Network.

Soon afterwards, the mayor’s Social Development Goals (SDG) Fellowship Programme, a joint initiative by KILA and CEPT University, added Irene Anna Antony, a student working on her urban planning thesis, to the project. Antony’s thesis utilised the Cities Culture and Creativity (CCC) framework provided by the World Bank and UNESCO to evaluate and map the enabling environments for translating Kozhikode’s cultural and creative assets into social, economic, and spatial benefits. It aimed to uncover Kozhikode’s literary heritage, all the while looking at what the local government could achieve with this history.

Antony’s study not only served as the foundation of the envisioned UNESCO proposal but also reinforced what Kaliyath intended to achieve by encouraging more cities in Kerala to join the Creative Cities Network. His role at KILA involves exploring ways to cultivate stronger relationships with urban local governments, equipping and providing support to them. “Particularly with adults, you can’t really teach them, you can only excite them,” he said. “If they get excited, then they will look for resources. They will look for opportunities.”

Antony’s study and the uncovered data convinced many who had been sceptical earlier to come on board. Among them was Mohammed Firoz, the Head of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the National Institute of Technology Calicut (NIT-Calicut). When Kaliyath, a fellow alum, contacted him requesting that he assemble a team of students for the project, Firoz thought it was a wild idea. “I said, ‘Yeah, okay,’ but I wasn’t serious about it,” he said.

Kaliyath wanted Firoz to integrate this assignment into one of his urban planning courses. “I told him, ‘It’s a workable idea, but we won’t execute it the way you set it out.’” Instead, Firoz borrowed the UNESCO framework and developed it to suit the objectives and guidelines of his academic studio. The final result of the project was nothing like they had anticipated.

The course of events

On the first day of the studio course, Firoz chalked four themes on the blackboard in his classroom: Literature, Gastronomy, Health, and Culture. He asked his students to add their names to the theme each one was most interested in, with one condition – the Literature team must include two Malayalees, as data collection required Malayalam language skills. A group comprising two Malayalees, a Kannadiga, and a Bengali came together. “We thought it was an exercise. We didn’t think it would achieve what it did,” said Bharath Reddy, one of the NIT-Calicut students who worked on the project that eventually transformed into a proposal to UNESCO.

The NIT-Calicut team structured their study to include three phases. After identifying Kozhikode’s literary heritage and documenting assets like libraries and bookstores, they conducted an assessment to uncover existing drawbacks and gaps inhibiting the promotion of the city’s rich literary heritage. The final phase focused on formulating strategies to address these gaps and enhance Kozhikode’s standing as a City of Literature.

“Through some of our interviews, we learned that [Vaikom Muhammad] Basheer and Pottekkatt used to spend time in the Mananchira Square – walking, writing, you know, having their time and all that,” said Promiti Mallik, one of the participants. “However, as an outsider visiting Mananchira, I don’t experience that effect. If I hadn’t been told about it, I wouldn’t know. It would just be a park for me.”

To inform their study, Athira Ashokan and Lavanya KP, along with Reddy and Mallik, conducted case studies on other Cities of Literature around the world, including Krakow, Edinburgh, and Prague, highlighting the distinctions in their promotional strategies. They interviewed local stakeholders like publishers, literary organisations, educational institutions, libraries, and community members passionate about fostering and promoting literary endeavours within the city.

One of these interview was with NP Hafiz Mohamad, a writer born and living in Kozhikode. The team’s interview with Mohamad was one of their first, conducted at a time they were overwhelmed with the vast amount of data, documents, and books about the history of Kozhikode’s literature, almost none of which was digitised. “We found ourselves unsure of where to begin,” said Reddy, “but after that interview, we got a direction on how to proceed. The abundance of information started to make sense….”

Over two and a half months, they conducted more online and offline surveys to gauge public interest in literature, reading habits, library engagement, and enthusiasm for literary events. “When we went to the public library the first time, we didn’t expect people to be there at all,” Reddy said. “Maybe old people. But there were a lot of youngsters in the library.”

This research also sought to identify what these youngsters and other readers wanted from a potential City of Literature. Almost all of them unanimously expressed a desire for spaces within the city dedicated to reading, extending beyond traditional locations like libraries. “Youngsters don’t want a confined space,” said Mallik. “And when we talk about a City of Literature, we don’t need spaces to be confined.”

This young readership doesn’t necessarily translate into the representation of the youth in the organisations and entities that contribute to the literary atmosphere of the city, altering not only the reading preferences of the young generation but also influencing the publishers and literary organisations they find themselves engaging with, the majority of which are not local to Kozhikode. Nimil Mehmar Hussain, a former student of Firoz and the coordinator of this UNESCO project at the corporation office, notes that the younger generation prefers reading world literature that steps out of traditional genres, including Manga and Manhwa. Hussain believes that the UNESCO tag can encourage this generation of readers to engage in the literary history of Kerala before looking outward, spurring their interest in local literary works.

This is not to say that the city’s inhabitants are oblivious to this history, but rather that it has been unwittingly taken for granted and normalised, like the ever-present yet faded wall sculptures on SM Street. “There were many libraries, and they were so much a part of the normal culture that they weren’t even seen as something to be looked at or questioned as different,” said Ashokan. “The presence of these libraries [in the city were] just taken for granted.”

Once the NIT-Calicut team GI-tagged all the libraries, they learned that there were 62 public libraries within the corporation boundary of Kozhikode. Most of these libraries are situated in a circle with a radius of 1.2 km, ensuring that almost everyone has access to a library within a 1.8 km radius. “I felt like, ‘Oh my God, [the city] has a huge literature heritage that was just buried for a long time,’” said Ashokan.

After Hussain compiled the proposal using the data gathered by the NIT-Calicut team, along with other interns who joined him later, among them Indulekha MS, Akansha Ramnath Ghumare, and Anusree VB, he and Philip travelled to Delhi, actively advocating for the project over four days. Their itinerary included meetings with officials from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education. “We needed the backing of the state as well as the Union government,” explained Philip. Only after meeting the Ministry of Education officials did they learn that they needed to receive approval from the Ministry of Culture as well.

Philip adjusted their schedule and met the Ministry of Culture officials the following day. “When she left for Delhi, the mayor didn’t book a return ticket,” recalls Firoz. “She’s not a conventional politician,” he added. “We did put together the proposal, but it’s a whole other thing to see it through. She’s the mayor, but she was walking from department to department to deliver documents like a clerk. Can you imagine that? You don’t expect that of a mayor, but that’s how determined she was.” The proposal received endorsements from national institutions like Sangeet Natak Akademi and Sahitya Akademi. It also garnered official support from V Muraleedharan, the Minister of State for External Affairs, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

UNESCO additionally mandated endorsements from prestigious institutions, and the National Institute of Urban Affairs, NIT-Calicut, and IIM Kozhikode also gave the green light. “Everyone was so supportive. All the major printing presses, publishers, and renowned writers from Kozhikode rallied behind the initiative,” added Philip. “You wouldn’t believe it, but when Firoz presented the slides that his students and Nimil had prepared at KLF, attendees from a larger and more attractive programme, taking place on another stage, slowly began to trickle towards us.” The last slide of this presentation read, “Let us expect that the next KLF 2024 will be in the UNESCO City of Literature: Kozhikode.” It wasn’t so much as a hope as it was a promise.

But does Kozhikode have a literary aura?

When I travelled to Kozhikode to meet the mayor, I also wanted to visit some of the places that the NIT-Calicut students and Hussain had outlined in their KLF presentation: SM Street, Mananchira Square, Kuttichira, to name a few. Before I walked onto SM Street, I stepped into a dingy second-hand bookstore a few metres away from its entrance. Two youngsters in their 20s were talking to each other about the books they had picked from the store.

“My budget today is only 400 rupees,” complained the young man to the young woman as she nearly knocked over a haphazardly stacked wall of books. The owner, also one of the two men working in the store, propped up the stack with his hand without so much as looking at it, as if it were muscle memory, a normal routine of dealing with customers. It wasn’t an organised bookstore, but as is the case in most of these establishments, the bookseller knew where everything was. But this isn’t enough for Kozhikode to feel like a City of Literature.

A year ago, I went to Iowa City, another City of Literature, for a summer programme. Whenever I talk about the visit, I mention that I didn’t see a single person making an Instagram reel – what I believe is the antithesis to reading. Almost every stranger I ran into at Iowa City was either reading, had a book in their hand, or was talking about something they’d read. Many of them were perched on coffee tables, desks, or leaning against a park bench, typing away their magnum opuses.

Some of the small store owners I spoke to were graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who had ended up living in the city. You don’t ask these questions or notice these details in a city like Kozhikode. Perhaps you would have in one like Kolkata, renowned for its strong literary tradition. Kaliyath said Kolkata did try to secure the City of Literature title. “Something transpired between the state government and other agencies, but we don’t have the details,” he said.

In fact, one of the questions often directed at everyone behind Kozhikode securing the tag was this: “Why didn’t Kolkata get it instead?” implying that it’s the obvious choice for a City of Literature in India. “Every place has a history,” said Kaliyath. “Not just Kozhikode…Firoz sir always defends Kozhikode for getting the tag by talking about the strength of its literary history. But there’s another reason. The people here are deeply involved in creative pursuits. They embrace these fields and make it part of their lives. I’ve heard stories where many years ago people working here used to embody the characters from various literary works. That level of involvement in this field, the deep penetration of creative disciplines into the lives of the people, was apparent after our research.”

Firoz dismissed this resounding question altogether. “Kolkata obviously has the literary resources and infrastructure,” he said. “No doubt about it...but Kozhikode’s literary history goes back to the 10th century.” His point is that Kolkata doesn’t have a monopoly on the contributions to the literary history of India.

“Kozhikode showcases a diverse literary landscape, extending beyond fiction and knowledge to include culinary arts and food-based literature. It’s also inclusive. We have a library specifically for the blind, and the survey we conducted reveals a surprising inclination towards literature among diverse groups in Kozhikode, including housewives, unemployed individuals, and even professionals like doctors, showcasing a permeability of literature across different strata of society.”

Adapting the idea of a ‘City of Literature’ to the Indian context

This permeability translated to an organic evolution of ideas for the development of Kozhikode as a City of Literature. During her fellowship with Philip, Antony used to frequent a small photocopying shop near the corporation building. The man working there took an interest in the project, following up with her almost every day. “At a time I was struggling to gather relevant data for my study, he gave me an old directory of Kozhikode...it fit into my study like a puzzle,” recalled Antony. The shopkeeper is one of the many local stakeholders now considering joining the steering community that the mayor has brought together.

While Antony eventually managed to collect data, its organisation proved challenging and didn’t lend itself to easy compartmentalisation, as the Western standards of the idea of a “City of Literature” don’t seem to acknowledge the less evident ways in which a city is saturated with literary heritage. “The culture in European cities might have triggered the conceptualisation of a ‘City of Literature,” said Kaliyath. “Culture and creativity were highly valued, possibly more than economic growth. These cities grew through stages which prioritised the quality of life, seeking greater access to theatres, clubs, and libraries.”

Not many cities from Asia are part of the City of Literature or Creative Cities network. The challenge in becoming a part of this network lies in translating the European framework to suit an Indian or Asian city context.

UNESCO’s parameters, like the number of libraries, authors, and economic benefits, may not directly apply to Asian cities, which complicated how Antony quantified the data she collected. An example of such data is Kozhikode’s Kolaya culture, where people would gather on someone’s veranda to discuss a range of topics, including literature. Although this common practice illustrates how the city had spaces for rhetoric, it couldn’t easily be charted like the libraries and bookstores in the region. With Kozhikode’s entry into the Creative Cities Network, Kaliyath believes that the process of adapting and customising the concept of a City of Literature to fit the Indian and Asian context will evolve, allowing more cities to qualify for the tag.

Steering committee meeting at the Council Hall, Kozhikode Municipal Corporation. Source: Nimil Mehmar Hussain

The big picture

Initiatives like the Creative Cities Network become especially significant at a point when Kerala is rapidly transitioning into an urban society. According to Kaliyath, this makes it increasingly challenging to recognise the individual cultural tenets of Kannur, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Kochi, Kollam, and Thiruvananthapuram. In an ideal scenario, these cities shouldn’t compete for the same resources and risk becoming indiscernible, losing their distinctive appeal and thumbprint. The rapid transformation of urban landscapes could also lead to the loss of cultural heritage, which is often followed by a decline in social cohesion and community ties.

This is why KILA borrowed ideas from the UNESCO City of Creative Cities Network to create unique pathways for each city. (In fact, KILA’s proposal led Thrissur to join the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC)).

Lahore, Pakistan, is the only other city in South Asia that has received the City of Literature tag, which underscores the quality, quantity, and diversity of publishing in the city, the presence of educational programmes focusing on literature, the role of literature in the city, the hosting of literary events and festivals, and the existence of libraries, bookstores, and cultural centres that promote literature. Each city awarded the tag has to renew its membership in the Creative Cities Network after four years. Since it promotes the city’s cultural life, there is enough incentive to do so, as the title also attracts local stakeholders to actively support and invest in the city’s cultural life.

But a question still lingers: Yes, there’s a heritage, but how can Kozhikode be a City of Literature for the present generation? The students at NIT-Calicut proposed many infrastructural changes, ranging from literary walks and children’s literature festivals, to literary gatherings at SM Street and discussion sessions at Mananchira Square, all attempting to encourage the zeitgeist to supplement the city’s literary history. The team asserted that title alone won’t do. “...We want it to feel like a City of Literature,” said Mallik.

Some of the proposed projects acknowledge the rich history that Kozhikode has cherished for the longest time: its food culture, known for bringing people together informally and facilitating conversations. During their research, the NIT-Calicut team unearthed a diverse array of cookbooks, food science literature, and cultural/travel food writing in the local literary scene, highlighting how food is woven into the city’s latent literary heritage.

So the city corporation is keen on reviving the Kolaya culture, following the recommendation of the NIT-Calicut team. Their plan involves repurposing Anakulam Samskarika Nilayam, a cultural centre in the city, an initiative which also doubles as a space for local publishers to conduct cost-effective book launches, eliminating the need for expensive rented locations. “We’ll set up chairs around the pond and establish a small tea shop offering tea and biscuits,” said Phillip. “Just biscuits. For lunch they can go elsewhere and continue the conversations they began [at the cultural centre].”

Food is visually appealing, and the rise of social media platforms has led to the widespread sharing of food experiences. Even as this phenomenon took place, popular Malayalam films like Ustad Hotel and Salt N’ Pepper, whose title songs feature visuals of famous eateries across Kozhikode, such as Sagar, Paragon, and Bombay, only further reinforce this culinary milieu. The impact of Ustad Hotel was so significant that you can still see multiple eateries with a banana-yellow painted wheel serving as a restaurant signboard, just like the one featured in the movie.

When the protagonist of the film, Faizi asks his grandfather Kareem, the owner of the eponymous restaurant, Ustad Hotel – “hotel” being a misnomer for many eateries in the country – if he’s changed what he’s adding to the Sulaimani they were drinking, Kareem responds, “I’ll tell you what I’ve added to the tea, but what’s more important is the feeling in your heart.” He adds: “Every Sulaimani should have some ‘mohabbat’ in it. When you drink it, the world should slow down and stand still.”

In his article, “Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Indian Literature,” poet and scholar K Satchidanandan noted that Basheer spent the last three decades of his life sipping “Sulaimani” under the shade of a pet mangosteen tree, listening to ghazals and talking to “pilgrims” who visited his house in Beypore. A cup of Sulaimani in Kozhikode represents layered history. The tea leaf might be the most evident ingredient, but it will not taste as good without the spices, a direct manifestation of the multilingualism which accompanied the port city, forever altering how people ate, wrote, and read.