Tucked away in a corner of the Directorate of Public Libraries in Chennai are stacks of books in the Tamil language neatly tied up in bundles. The collection features the ancient Tamil grammar book Tolkappiyam, literary classics such as Kurunthogai and Pathupattu, and several copies of former Tamil Nadu chief minister MG Ramachandran’s autobiography. In just a few months, these will be shipped to Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Public Library, a symbol of the island nation’s Tamil cultural identity.

The books were collected from people across Tamil Nadu through an ongoing state government drive to help replenish the volumes the Jaffna Public Library lost in a massive fire in 1981. The initiative with a target of 1 lakh books was inaugurated by Chief Minister E Palaniswami on October 24. The state’s director of public libraries, S Kanappan, said he expected at least 50,000 books to be collected by December-end.

Established in 1933, the Jaffna Public Library housed some 95,000 books including miniature editions of the Ramayana, the only copy of the Yalpana Vaipavamalai or history of Jaffna, and ancient palm-leaf manuscripts of cultural significance to the country’s Tamil-speaking community. All these rare books were destroyed in the 1981 fire, which was blamed on a Sinhalese mob. The incident is often cited as the immediate trigger for the civil war that erupted in 1983 over the demand for a separate Tamil state in the country’s northern and eastern regions.

The library was rebuilt in 1994 and opened to the public in 2003 – six years before the civil war ended. Since then, there has been a global effort to replenish the books lost in the fire. In 2005, two Sri Lankan Tamils set up a digital library of over 16,000 documents that is now one of the largest Tamil archives available online.

The Tamil Nadu government also decided to make its contribution to these efforts, but with public participation. The government said in a press release on October 24 that “rare books and documents on Tamil culture will be obtained from schools, colleges and other private institutions as donations” and will be given to the Jaffna Public Library as well as to the University of Malaya in Malaysia.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswami (right) launched the book donation drive on October 24. (Credit: Public Relations Office, Government of Tamil Nadu)

Involving the people

Kanappan, who is overseeing the book drive, said the government plans to collect rare books and palm-leaf manuscripts as well as new books on Tamil literature, grammar, religion and culture.

Explaining why the government had decided to source the entire collection from people, Kanappan said, “The aim of the government is not to simply purchase books and hand over to the Jaffna Library. It is trying to get Tamilians to participate in the restoration of the library. This is also to strengthen our friendship with Sri Lanka.”

Books collected from various districts will be sent to the directorate’s office in Chennai, where Kanappan and his team will categorise and pack them. The Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation will then ship the books to Sri Lanka.

Kanappan pointed out that the directorate had taken on this “big project” with no additional funding and not as a part of its regular work.

This is not the first time India has gifted books to the Jaffna Public Library to strengthen ties with Sri Lanka. In July, the Central government donated some 15,000 books on literature, Indian culture, geography and religious books to the library, its chief librarian Suganthy Sadasivamoorthy said.

In December 2015, the library had inaugurated an “Indian Corner” as part of a project with the Indian High Commission. This corner includes books on Indian history and culture, biographies of Indian leaders, and Tamil children’s books.

S Kanappan, director of public libraries, is in charge of the initiative. (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan)

Tamil brotherhood

According to Kanappan, public libraries in Chennai collected some 1,000 Tamil books in the past week. He also said that Tamil Nadu Teachers Education University vice-chancellor S Thangasamy had promised to donate 10,000 books.

District libraries used the National Library Week celebrations between November 14 and November 20 to publicise the initiative in schools, colleges and reading circles. Consequently, the Karur district library received books worth Rs 25,000 from donors in just a few days. These included rare volumes donated by students and teachers that had been in their families for years. “The response has been overwhelming,” said the librarian, Sivakumar.

The Bharani Park School in Karur donated new books worth Rs 15,000. Its prinicipal C Ramasubramaniam said, “Through books, we show the brotherhood of the Tamil people of Tamil Nadu with the people of Jaffna and Malaysia. We have heard that the Jaffna Library was one of the best libraries in the world with very rare Tamil books. But due to the civil war in Sri Lanka, the library was burnt. We feel it is the duty of every Tamil person across the globe to support and rebuild it.”

Tamil books received as donations. (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan)