A school dropout with an immense love for literature, Shukkur hosts a popular book club at his tea stall. Not only does it draw visitors from nearby villages but also writers like Perumal Murugan and Vivek Shanbhag

Sharmila.Ganesan@timesgroup.com

Like most authors in this country, Kannada writer Vivek Shanbhag is used to addressing various shades of grey hair at literary events. So, the sheer number of young faces in his audience itself would have been enough to make Kerala’s Padayangode village stick in his recent memory. Added to that was the unusual venue — a shamiana plonked behind a nondescript tea shop where a bunch of women passionately dissected his 2015 novel ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ this February. Though he doesn’t understand Malayalam, the ardent tone telegraphed Kerala’s open embrace of literature.

Shukkur, the 58-year-old tea shop owner who hosted the event and pursued Shanbhag for months for a visit, is the “one-man army” behind ‘Veranda Chayappedika’ or ‘The Tea Shop Veranda Book Club’. It is a monthly literary gathering in which this Left-leaning father of four invites various eminent Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil authors to discuss their books with around 70-odd rustic readers for close to two hours, during which tapioca chips, biscuits and “chukku kaapi” (dried-ginger tea) supplement the flow of ideas.

Before each discussion, Shukkur makes sure to announce the title of the book to his over 3,000 followers on Facebook and sells its copies in the neighbourhood so that people come prepared. Over the last four years, he has organised 34 such discussions and is always careful to get out of the way after giving his welcome speech because the school dropout in him has never quite felt authorised to participate in them.

Forced by financial compulsions to drop out after his fifth standard, Shukkur has almost resolutely consumed the world through books and tea-shop discussions about books since his teens. In the Kerala of the ’60s — when the state’s veins flowed with communist ideals buoyed by Russian literature — Shukkur was working as a shepherd at a cashew estate. Here, he would routinely accost students on their way to college and coax them into lending him novels. In return, he would write them poems, chiefly about love. It was during this time that a sentence leapt out like a mission statement at Shukkur from a translated Russian autobiography titled ‘Nora Abhinyan’. “I need to strain to walk along with you,” it said, infecting teenaged Shukkur with the need to spend his life in service of literature. Later, as a quarry worker, deconstructing everything from romantic pulp fiction to leftist politics (as deduced from translations of Bengali books) with friends would become Shukkur’s go-to pain-killers after a hard day spent breaking rocks.

Then, at 18, Shukkur fell in literatureinducing love. “I had moved to Karnataka’s Madikkeri to work as a salesman. I was in love with a girl then and started writing about love but the intensity was such that I started to lose my mind,” says Shukkur, whose father burned his unfinished manuscript on seeing the impact it had on his son’s mental health. Shukkur’s road to recovery was long and smelly. He moved back to Kerala and took up selling fish door to door. It also elicited an award-winning collection of poems from him called ‘The Life in the Depths’. But later, the upturned noses of his kids who saw the job of selling fish as “inferior” would make Shukkur open a tea shop instead. In his free time, Shukkur would sell books in schools, offices and markets. “I noticed that the habit of reading was slowly dying out,” says Shukkur, who found that though the village libraries stocked books, they made no effort to promote the habit of reading.

That set the idea of monthly discussions at his tea shop rolling in 2015 and now, the venture — inaugurated by noted Malayalam writer N Prabhakaran — has grown from a 30-odd gathering of chiefly writerly people into a sizeable affair where his social media followers drop in from nearby villages. What propelled his tea shop veranda book club to local fame, was the presence of Tamil writer Jaymohan who writes in Malayalam as well. “We discussed his novel Nooru Simhasanangal (A Hundred Thrones),” says Shukkur, who recalls being profoundly disturbed by the ending — a marginalised mother running naked on the street after being rejected by her son.

Since then, Shukkur, also the author of a romance novel titled ‘Veranda’, has hosted noted writers like Paul Zacharia, P F Mathews and Shanbhag. This month, his veranda is preparing to welcome not only Malayalam novelist Johny Miranda but also Tamil author Perumal Murugan who recalls such “tea kadais and barber shops being the sites where Dravidian, leftist ideas permeated to the people in Tamil Nadu”. Shukkur suspects that his own tea shop may have transmitted at least one such idea. “Several libraries are now holding similar discussions in Kerala,” he says.