An educated woman’s attempt to tide over some of the hurdles facing Tamil children in their journey towards an education that fosters the heart as well as the mind. Alyssa Mosher reports.
Salai Selvam only wants kids to be kids. As a feminist, a journalist, an educationist, and a member of different Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), she understands the difficulties Tamil children face today.
"Children, you all know, all over the world, they are same," Selvam explained. "The children here and there, your country, are the same … and what we expect from the children is different. If we take the children here in the middle class, they don’t see a child as child … They must be in a perfect way what we the adults do."
Selvam says Tamil children think like their parents these days. They sit up straight with their hands at their sides. They wear fancy clothing. They do well in school. They can’t bother with being kids and having fun.
"When I was a child, we played hundreds of countryside plays," Selvam said, "But I can’t see anything now … I have to teach them if I wanted to play."
Not only is it hard to find Tamil children playing, but Selvam says they don’t even enjoy reading and writing in school. She wants to change that. She wants kids to be kids while reading and learning with those from all classes. Koolangal (Pebbles) Children’s Library is just the place for that.
Koolangal library is more than just a library. When I stepped into the small room, the children gathered around their teacher who read a book in Tamil. They all sat cross-legged below her, heads bent to their back. It didn’t take long before they noticed we had entered their sanctuary. It looked like they had never seen anyone like us before. Their eyes simply goggled at us. They asked us questions in Tamil, but quickly understood that most of us didn’t understand a word.
They pushed each other around in order to show us the gymnastics they learned. One kid somersaulted on top of his friend. Another stood on his head for at least a minute. Small groups of children took each of us into a corner. They attempted to teach me Tamil, but I wasn’t very good at it. They laughed whenever I got it wrong – which was often according to one boy who kept correcting my pronunciation. His smile could have brightened a thousand rooms.
The front wall of the library was covered with the children’s hand-drawn pictures. There were five houses, three suns, and about eight frogs – all different colours. Every child wanted to show which picture they drew. A case full of Tamil and English books lined the other side of the wall. It looked completely unorganized. Despite that, the children found an English book and read it aloud to me. Their teacher said they can read English books even though they don’t always understand
Selvam says that Koolangal is more than just a library for children. It also offers books and workshops for parents and teachers to help them learn about children and how they should interact.
"We want them [children] to expand or improve themselves and be a successful person," Selvam explained.
According to Selvam the biggest challenge is actually getting the children to read. She often has to push them to read on their own or out loud or even in a group. Despite this though, the children are enjoying themselves. They keep returning to this unconventional library. With that, they are acquiring a reading habit at a young age, something Selvam says is crucial.
"Though my mother is a teacher, we had such an educated family, we don’t have that reading habit,” she explained reflecting on her past. “[If] we started from the childhood, then we get into the habit."
As a feminist, Selvam believes she has a responsibility to carry out this new morality and culture with the whole generation of children. Despite the criticisms she gets from some citizens of Madurai, she will continue to help the children any way she can. This library may only be the beginning for Salai Selvam’s work.
Koolangal Children’s Library is located outside of Madurai in Avaniapuram. It is open Saturdays and Sundays and all holidays. All children are welcome.