KMU Library building
The enchanted world of Kodai's charming library offers both books and fellowship (Photo courtesy KMU Library)

Kodai’s ‘Talking Library’: Part Salon, Part Reading Room, the KMU is the Stuff of Kodai Legend

‘In this library, you have to talk.’ Many long-term residents will remember this pronouncement from the late Shanthi Raghavan, holding forth at the Kodaikanal Missionary Union Library in the 1980s. 

Not far from the hustle of honking cars and busy shops in central Kodaikanal, on the Kodaikanal International School (KIS) campus, lies a charming refuge. Now called the Kodaikanal Fellowship Library, it is commonly known by its erstwhile name, the Kodaikanal Missionary Union (KMU) Library. Open to the public, the KMU currently has around 180 members, of whom 60 were actively using the library prior to the pandemic. 

Shelves full of books
Shelves full of books, at the KMU Library (Photo: Aruna Rajkumar)
A quiet corner at the KMU
A quiet corner at the KMU (Photo: Aruna Rajkumar)

Time has always stood still here, in a sense. Built nearly 100 years ago, this Edwardian stone structure has not lost the aura of an English cottage. Set back behind a fenced wall of ivy plants and surrounded by the lush foliage of trees, shrubs and flowers, it is an enchanting, peaceful place, and even more so once you enter the building. The line of windows across the front of the enclosed verandah brightens up the inner stone walls, the burnished solid wood furniture and a few shelves of children’s books—this is the kind of setting that might transport a young Kodaiite to CS Lewis’s Narnia. 

Except through the back of the cupboard awaits a different kind of magical land: a living room from across the ages with some of the most interesting guests any tea party could wish for. If only these walls could bear witness to the laughter, liveliness and energy of the past 100 years!

The check-out desk in the KMU Library reading room
The check-out desk in the KMU Library reading room (Photo: Paul deJong)

A literary treasure trove

To the right of the tea and biscuit corner in the verandah is a tall slender door that opens up to the actual library. On the wall behind the librarian’s desk, a whimsical decal on the wall depicts the silhouettes of cats looking up at a lamppost. When the sun shines on Kodai mornings, light streams in through the large bay window, lighting up tall shelves overloaded with books. 

‘The library is a treasure trove of books, especially old ones. Browse and be fascinated. There are unusual books about the flora of the Palani Hills, rare first editions mixed in with the others, leather-bound and gold-tooled spines catch your attention, amazing biographies call out to be read, rare history books sit perched on top of the shelves, and there is a complete collection of Asterix comics,’ says Jayashree Kumar, a former KIS staff member and the current custodian of the library. 

‘Looking for a particular book, you often find some other book that is way more amazing,’ says former volunteer and current member Esther van Seggelen. This very diverse collection of mostly donated books—the librarians have recorded around 5000 in the database and estimate another 5000 may still need to be added to it—is part of what makes this library unique.

KMU Library books being organized in the KIS archives
KMU Library books being organized in the hall adjacent to the library while its interiors were being painted, some years ago (Photo courtesy Jayashree Kumar)
A reader at the KMU Library
A reader at the KMU Library (Photo: Paul deJong)

Curating the good times: Former members and custodians

The KMU’s sociocultural aspect, as a salon of sorts for people from eclectic backgrounds, is also what sets it apart. The library’s members have included writers, educators, and young working professionals; Manipur’s iconic human rights activist Irom Sharmila and her partner Desmond Courtinho too, when they lived in Kodai. You never know who you might meet, when you visit this library.

‘I dropped by the KMU one morning some years ago, and the library was buzzing with an assortment of locals and a few visitors,’ says Lathika George, writer and long-term member. ‘Among them was a handsome young man from London. He was on a quest: “Does anyone remember the Maharaja of Nabha who was exiled here sometime in the 1920s?“ he asked. There was silence and then Mrs Gowrishankar held her hand up. “I do. I remember the little turbaned boys running around the garden, perhaps your father or uncles,” she said. And then went on to share her memories of Maharaja Ripudaman, who had been exiled here (for non-cooperation with the British), and of summers in Kodai when she was a schoolgirl. The young man—his descendant—was thrilled. “I was told to come here. That this is where I would find someone who knew or remembers them. And they were right!” That’s the essence of the KMU.’ 

Members at the KMU at a recent meeting
After a long period of quiet, meetings began again, recently: from left to right: Dixeena Prince, Jayashree Kumar, Beulah Kolhatkar, Aruna Rajkumar (Photo: Paul deJong)

The sofas and armchairs used to be arranged inside the library, around the bay window. Members got into conversations and subjects ranging from climate change—a heated debate that resulted in the two sides agreeing to disagree—to the latest local events, setting the world right, as one member noted, in some instances. (The Kodaikanal Gandhi Prize is an example of one instance where a conversation expanded from the KMU to an important contemporary concern and, this year, to other parts of India.) 

The sitting area was later shifted out into the verandah to make room for worktables and more books inside, but the magic of the ‘talking library’ has continued until the present, despite the passing of Patience Roberts, Shanthi Raghavan, Roy Paulraj and Margaret Sekhran, custodians of the library over the last few decades.      

Shanthi was known for her good sense of humour, many members recall. She and her husband, KC Raghavan, moved to Kodai in the early 1980s after he retired. Amita, the wife of library committee member Sankar Chatterjee, recalls Shanthi’s introduction of a reading group and how she brought birthday celebrations into the library. Grace Wardell’s 100th birthday ‘limerick party’ is a particularly memorable occasion; everyone who attended was asked to make up limericks.

KMU limerick by Grace Wardell
A limerick by the late Grace Wardell, the first woman editor on London’s Fleet Street and a former member, is displayed at the KMU Library (Image courtesy Lathika George)

‘Going to the KMU was a twice weekly joint pilgrimage undertaken by the Paulrajs and the Raghavans,’ says Rita Paulraj, wife of the late Roy Paulraj. (The KMU used to meet on Wednesdays and Saturdays; at the moment, it only meets on Thursdays). ‘This was the Kodai interested in reading. Readers would trickle in between 10am and 1pm, pick up one or two books, check in with my serious-looking husband behind the desk and settle down for a chat. For me, chatting was accompanied by a cup of coffee and two Marie biscuits for Rs 10. And by 1 o’clock, it was time to go home and start reading the books I had picked up.’

Margaret Sekhran, who took over the position of custodian in the 1990s, brought new energy to the library till she passed away in 2016. Donating many of the older mission-related books to seminaries in Bangalore and Madurai, she made space for more current fiction, Indian authors, and books on philosophy and spirituality. But she made space for more than just books. ‘Margaret had a zest, a genuine curiosity for all people,’ recalls Esther. ‘Even when she was sick, she would go out of her way to show interest in others.’ 

Margaret Sekhran, former KMU Library custodian
The late Margaret Sekhran, former KMU Library custodian, is remembered fondly by all who knew her (Photo courtesy KMU Library)
Peggy Rustomji at her 92nd birthday
The late Peggy Rustomji in fine form at her 92nd birthday celebration at the KMU in 2019 (Photos courtesy KMU Facebook page)

How it all began

Old books about Kodaikanal often mention the original library, which was set up in the late 1800s at Rock Cottage, one of the first homes built in Kodaikanal, located near the lake on Lower Shola Road. 

A simple reading room, its membership was limited to the missionaries and their families who spent the hot summer months in Kodai. The idea behind the KMU (formerly known as the South India Missionary Union) was to create a common meeting place for the growing number of people in missions living on various compounds in Kodaikanal. According to a 1940s guidebook to Kodaikanal, by 1910 there was concern among communities about ‘losing civility and unity’ among the newcomers to Kodaikanal. ‘We must get together,’ they said.

A group of early settlers in Kodaikanal
A group of early settlers in Kodaikanal (Photo courtesy KIS Archives)

Slowly, membership was expanded to other Kodai residents, including Indian families who had built vacation homes or relocated permanently. By 1927, a group called the Kodaikanal Fellowship was offering community lectures in English at the KMU. These were open to all and had the purpose of ‘bringing together European and Indian residents of Kodaikanal on a basis of fellowship and understanding’. This spirit continues on after the 1980s, when KMU handed the library over to KIS for caretaking.  

A diverse space

‘The KMU was always very inclusive. That is one of the beauties of the library that we still retain. Everybody is welcome,’ Jayashree remarks at a recent meeting of the KMU committee. 

Out on the verandah Sankar Chatterjee,  who was born and raised in Kodai, sits with a few others in the solid armchairs, each with a cup of tea or coffee and a few biscuits. ‘Other Kodai clubs require hefty fees from their members, whereas the KMU Library fees are minimal, and only required if you wish to check out books,’ he points out. ‘The library has a special identity as the melting pot of Kodai.’ 

Billie Kolhatkar laughed then, joking, ‘I suggest we call it a KMU potluck or a fondue—anything to do with food!’  

Indeed, food has played a big part in the KMU legacy. George Penner, a local entrepreneur who grew up in Kodai, recalls getting great food at the Wednesday teas from the ’60s through the ’80s, sponsored by various missions in the community. Joe Fernando, another long-time Kodai resident, recalls the ‘mission teas’ fondly. ‘All the ladies would bring their best baked stuff,’ he says. ‘It was a real paradise for kids.’  

Christmas 2019 at KMU Library
A classic KMU Christmas carol celebration, in 2019, was the last one before the pandemic began (Photos courtesy KMU Facebook page)

Elaborate afternoon teas evolved into potluck meals for various library events. Dixeena Prince, the main coordinator for the potluck lunch at the annual Christmas carol performance, says, ‘I would be bombarded with emails letting me know what dish members wanted to bring. Prasanna Ghosh of Pastry Corner would provide tea and coffee, and Zea Fareed would make sure there were soft drinks and water. Local business people chipped in.’

The end of the year was especially festive. Pre-Covid, you could count on a boisterous group of Kodai residents to belt out ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ at the KMU, among other traditional carols, with a pet dog in attendance. 

contemporary donations at the KMU
A batch of contemporary donations at the KMU this year (Photo: Paul deJong)

What next?

While the meetings ceased mid-March 2020, this doesn’t mean the library itself stayed closed. Nor has it meant that donations have stopped as nearly 150 contemporary books were received recently from a prominent book reviewer in Bangalore, also collections of John Milton’s and Shakespeare’s works printed in the early 1900s, and equally vintage botanical guides to the flora of the Palani Hills. 

Members speak of their love for the library and their desire to see it continue successfully into the future. Esther’s twin daughters ‘will always love the library,’ she says, even though they have now turned to digitised books on tablets. Before the pandemic, Prashant Kakaraparthi and his wife, Soumi, used to bring in their daughter, Satya, on Saturdays, when she was only two years old. ‘My daughter is now a voracious reader,’ says Prashant.     

‘We need younger members to keep KMU lively,’ says Aruna Rajkumar, a committee member, noting that several current members are aged and housebound. Prashant counters that young parents struggle to find time to read, much less visit a library, and Sankar feels that since many members are retirees, younger people are not interested. Zarreen Babu, a library member for many years, says with a sigh, ‘I don’t know what will happen to us. Fewer and fewer people of all ages are interested in reading these days.’ 

KMU members often congregate outside the library
KMU members often congregate outside the library once they have checked out their books, for a cuppa and conversation (Photo: Paul deJong)

The KMU still holds promise as a forum for everyone to come together, however. ‘The library is a warm, welcoming space filled with friendly people,’ says Vahishta Mistry, a regenerative farmer based in nearby Pethuparai. ‘My first visit was when a plant swapping event occurred outside the library,’ recalls TKC’s Food editor, his wife, Neha Sumitran. ‘I enjoy the lovely feel of this community space. Reading is a good antidote to a fast-paced life. If you stick with it, it slows you down like a walk or meditation.’ She suggests the creation of book clubs and updating the book selection regularly, to keep the library relevant. 

This diverse collection of books continues to grow, and one hopes the diverse group of members will return soon. The current state of limbo due to Covid precautions will hopefully change into a new, dynamic chapter of the library’s future.

This September, the committee tentatively reopened the library only to members who are willing to follow Covid precautions, each Thursday from 10 am till 1 pm. New members are welcome from January 2022 onwards. Annual member’s fees are Rs 400 for adults and Rs 200 for senior citizens (suspended for 2021). See KMU’s Facebook page for more memories, and updates.

Paul DeJong

Paul deJong is a volunteer at Kodaikanal's KMU Library. He has taught English to college students in four different countries for several decades, and lives in Perumalmalai.

1 Comment

  1. Hi,
    I would like to become the member of KMU library. Kindly let me the procedure. Currently I stay at bahri beautiful country villa down the hills. Occasionally i travel to the observatory at Kodi as I retired from the Indian institute of astrophysics, as a librarian cum Archivist. I was a consultant to the Kodaikanal observatory archives until recently.
    I am also interested in any voluntary service befitting my experience..

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