Alappuzha: A 40-minute sail from Muhamma, a quaint village here to picturesque Kumarakom in neighbouring Kottayam, crisscrossing the majestic Vembanad on the State Water Transport Department (SWTD) boats is a dream ride in itself. Of late, as the vessels serenely glide over the water, the tourists and daily commuters are greeted by a unique literary experience, for the passenger boats double up as floating libraries in this idyllic stretch. At least two passenger boats, operating in the Muhamma-Kumarakom sector across Vembanad Lake, have opened libraries for passengers on board, while plans are underway to open a similar library on a vessel that operates in the Kumarakom-Maniyaparambu sector.
These floating libraries owe their origin to a proposal put forward by a group of students from the A B Vilasam Higher Secondary School in Muhamma. A few months ago, the students, under the aegis of the National Service Scheme, approached K S Shanavas, SWTD Muhamma Station Master, with a proposal to open a mini-library on the boat jetty. It was Shanavas who, in turn, asked them why a floating library could be set up on the boats itself, that could take the passengers to the world of literary wonders during the near one-hour ride.
Accordingly, the SWTD vessel S-52, which operates service to Kumarakom, was zeroed in and a floating library was set up on board on November 9, 2023. The shelves, laden with books that span cultures, genres, and periods among others, soon began to offer readers a chance to explore literary landscapes as varied and enthralling as the waterways themselves.
“The daily commuters received the initiative well. The scent of the rich, earthly soil, the gentle ripples caressing the sides of the boat, and the distant calls of exotic birds from Pathiramanal island nearby – all enhance the experience of reading. The two libraries together have about 800 books in both Malayalam and English, ranging from fiction to science books and comics for students,” says Shanavas.
Buoyed by the success, the SWTD officials soon approached CMS College, Kottayam, requesting to open a similar library on yet another boat – ‘S-55’, which plies the same route across Vembanad Lake. The college was more than happy to cooperate and on January 23, the second floating library too was thrown open to the commuters.
“Unlike travelling in a bus or car, reading while sailing on a boat gives you a pleasant literary experience. What motivated us to be part of the initiative is that we could extend the joyous feeling of reading to the marginalized sections, who are otherwise on the fringes of literary engagement,” said Varghese C Joshua, Principal of CMS College, adding that the collection of books for the boat library was generated by the student volunteers of the college NSS unit.
“Contributing books had never been an issue considering the massive stock in our possession, but ensuring their shelf-life was a concern. The salinity in the wind that breezes past the Vembanad lake was a key concern but this could be addressed by arranging a specially designed book rack with the support of philanthropists,” he pointed out.
According to him, these boat libraries are nothing but floating houses of culture for thousands of commuters, including school-going kids. For the college, it was enormously gratifying to have the opportunity to be part of shaping a cultural offering in a region that lacks good library services. “Books have a long history of overcoming barriers to reach themselves to an eager audience. And they continue to live up to that reputation, despite the rapid and sweeping changes in how we read and share books,” he said.
The tourists, meanwhile, appear more inclined towards capturing the idyllic beauty of the villages on both sides of the water routes here. The first boat from Muhamma commences service by 5.45 am, much before the morning sun washes over Vembanad, while the station closes down for the day in late evenings following the arrival of the last boat from Kumarakom at 8 pm.
“It’s sheer joy to see the passengers, unmindful of their hustle and bustle outside, devouring books of their choice even as a boat departs or approaches the jetty. And if there are kids, the air gets filled with the steady hum of voices reciting out loud. Some read to younger siblings, others to themselves,” adds Shanavas.
People who commute between Alappuzha and Kottayam districts through the route also attest to the positive impact the new venture has had on their daily travel. “Books, Vembanad Lake, and boats. It doesn’t get any better!”, says Vipin Das, one of the passengers. The youngster, who regularly commutes between the two districts for work, hardly gets any time to read except for this waterborne library.
Taking note of the immensely positive responses from the public, the AB Vilasam school has once again approached SWTD to open a library on board the boat that operates to Maniyaparambu, a settlement in the interiors of Kumarakom.
Pathiramanal – home to exotic birds
Meanwhile, the authorities are also in consultations with a couple of parties regarding yet another one on board their special boat, which carries passenger groups to the Pathiramanal island – a major tourist attraction. The island, surrounded by backwaters and accessible only by boat, has become a popular destination for its rich avian diversity.