When Modi called Ponmariappan

Ponmariappan, who has been running a free library at his hair-cutting salon in Tamil Nadu, was featured on Mann Ki Baat on October 25.

For Ponmariappan, who has been running a hair-cutting salon in Thoothukudi in southern Tamil Nadu for six years, it came as a bolt from the blue when he discovered that Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi would mention him on his radio talkshow Mann Ki Baat and also interact with him briefly on October 25.

The reason Modi chose Ponmariappan was that he also runs a free library in his tiny 10×10 shop in the city/s Millerrpuram area in which he stacks some 1,500 books in Tamil for customers to read.

Speaking to A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com, Ponmariappan, said two days before the radio programme was aired he was invited to the All India Radio studio in town. He said he went there expecting books for his library or appreciation for running a free library.

He was sitting there having tea when officials told him that the prime minister of India wanted to speak to him. He had gone to AIR Thoothukidu at 5 pm and the prime minister’s call came at 7 pm.

“He addressed me by my name and asked me how I was in Tamil. I addressed him as ‘Respectful Indian prime minister’ (madhippukiriya Indhiya pradhamar) and said I was fine in Tamil.”

“He asked me how I got this idea of starting a library. I told him I had studied only till the 8th standard, I didn’t get a chance to study further. Lots of educated people come to my shop. I thought I must also study, so I started a library for that purpose.”

“He then asked me which book I liked. I said Thirukkural. He asked me these three questions in Tamil,” Ponmariappan beams as he recalls the experience.

Before starting Sushil Kumar Salon and Beauty Care in 2014 he worked at an export company. A year after starting the salon he launched the library with a few books.

As he saw some people reading the books while they were waiting for their turn, he slowly started increasing the number of books. When the number of books reached 150, he made a bookstand to display them.

Even though the 39 year old didn’t finish his school education, he was clear that his three children would go to school. His elder daughter is in Class 10, his younger daughter is in Class 8 and son, after who he has named his saloon, is in Class 2. All three children attend an English medium school.

The books in his library were mainly for students when they wait in his shop. He has a register in which people note down which book they were reading and also jot down their favourite lines from the book.

At regular intervals Ponmariappan holds a lucky draw for customers who write in the register with the winner getting — not surprisingly — a book.

He also has an MP3 player on which he plays motivational speeches for those who don’t read.

The director of a Chennai library who heard of him donated 50 books to his library. He now has 1,500 books in his library, all in Tamil, on subjects ranging from history, literature, poetry, essays to general knowledge.

For a shop measuring 10×10, it is difficult to imagine 1,500 books being stored there. Ponmariappan says he has only two chairs for customers who want to cut the hair and he is the only barber. The rest of the space has been utilised for books. “You will see books in every direction in the shop,” he says proudly.

“I get 25 to 50 customers on a normal day. In these pandemic times customers are very few, but they still come. Most young people use trimmers at home,” he says with a grin.

Customers can only read the books in the salon. “I don’t allow them to take the books home, as it will be difficult to keep track of them.”

Whenever he sees young people checking their mobile phones in his salon, Ponmariappan advises them to read a book instead. “When you tell them affectionately, they listen,” he says.

He also has a microphone, which he uses at low volume so that the people outside are not disturbed. “I let students read from the books on the microphone so that their stage fear goes,” he adds.

“I have been coming here for four years,” says C Dhanabal, 27, one of his customers. I read books on agriculture and Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan in this salon. I also discuss the books with Ponmariappan. He recommends books when I ask him.”

Ponmariappan says he never thought of Prime Minister Modi till he spoke to him. “I am very happy that he called me. There are lots of good people who are doing good work in various fields. I hope he calls and appreciates them too.”

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