The first time the word ‘vayanasala’ rolled over my tongue, I was seated at the Malabar Muslim Mosque and someone was telling me about the community library in his village in Singapore. It was fitting that I would encounter the word at the oldest reference point for Malayalee migration in Singapore[ii].
Even to the ears of a fourth-generation Singaporean Malayalee, and one who had never heard the word before that day, it made sense immediately. I was able to piece together the meaning of “vayana” – “read/reading” and “saala” which means ‘a place’ in Malayalam. Often English equivalents are used to refer to common words such as school, office, or canteen in Malayalam. Hence, I had never heard the word, ‘vayanasala’ used in Singapore amongst my family nor peers prior to that day.
It is an important word in the Singapore Malayalee community as the early migrants were known to have set up community libraries in their villages around Singapore. Many of these libraries ceased to exist from the 1970s onwards when the Malayalee population[iii] in the respective villages dwindled, as a significant group of Malayalees migrated to England, and others returned to India. The remaining few were moved out of their villages into multilingual housing estates as part of the government’s urbanization plans.
All but two libraries remained: Naval Base Kerala Library[iv] which was born in the biggest Malayalee enclave, Sembawang, from 1950s-1970s and Udaya Library which was home to a smaller Malayalee population in the villages around Bukit Timah[v] in the same period.
Ironically enough, for a community-run library that advocated literacy, there seems little documentation on the library save for a few mentions in the press in the later years on drama performances.
It has thus been a Herculean task to find surviving printed materials such magazines, brochures on Udaya Library and the descendants of the pioneers who started the library in a small town of Bukit Timah village which only had about 1000 residents, most of whom were Chinese or Malays.
It was precisely its elusive nature and the people whom I have spoken to over the last few weeks who seem to know the social aspect of the Udaya Library but not the early history, which fascinated me and prompted this piece.
Udaya Library had a rich history, and it was founded by people who deserve to have their story told and recorded in the history of Singapore.
Udaya Library in Bukit Timah Village
Most people believe that the Udaya Library was built to serve the needs of the Malayalee bachelors who worked at the Ford Factory, Hume Industries and Eveready Batteries. Many of them were said to have lived in the nearest village, which is referred to as 8 ½ miles, Mendoza Village or Bukit Timah Village by residents and the press.
It was a small village of about 1000 residents, out of which there were about 50 Malayalee families who lived close to Udaya library.
It is believed that the library was on an unnamed street in the initial years and that the late Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew named the street, Jalan Udaya[i] in honor of the only library of the village in late 1950s.
Jalan Udaya was a short and narrow road of just one kilometer long that wound through the heart of the village. The library sat the top of the lane independently away from a stretch of kampong homes that were built in close proximity to one another.
Mr Ronnie Tan, Senior Archivist, who lived in the village, recalls walking past the library everyday on his way home from school, that it “…was a small set up – a single-storey rectangular building made of wooden planks and zinc roof. It was painted light yellow.
The library was always closed when I walked by it and so I never went in.”
According to him, the building was the size of a HDB two-bedroom apartment with a door and one that looked identical to many of the other residential homes in the village. “In fact, if not for the signboard that stated that it was a library, I would not have known that it was not a home.”
Inside the library, there were tall glass cabinets lined with books donated by the community and brought in by India as well as English and Malayalam newspapers on open shelves.
“In the early days, it (Udaya Library) did not have a huge collection of books.
Some of the books that my father would bring home were yellowish and often worn out. The books would arrive in brown bags,” says Ms Agnes D Pushppama, whose father, the late Mr Nanoo Dhamodharan Pillai (Mr ND Pillai), was one of the key people responsible for setting up the Udaya Library and keeping it alive for several decades.
The Founding Members
Without much documentation, the founding and background of the founding of the library was a difficult one to map out from the initial interviews that were conducted with current members.
It was only when I was able to track down the family of the late Mr Nanoo Dhamodharan Pillai (ND Pillai) that I was able to unearth the story that no one else whom I had interviewed seemed to know.
According to Mr ND Pillai’s, daughter, Ms Agnes D Pushppama, a rather prominent member of the Malayalee community had mooted the idea of starting a community library at the Bukit Timah Village to Mr KN Vasudevan Nair, the village’s resident barber who ran Shoba Hairdressing Saloon.
The man was said to have asked Mr KNV Nair if he knew someone reliable who might be interested and would be able to run a library for the village.
Mr KNV Nair, in turn, broached the topic with Mr ND Pillai who was a Foreman at Hume Industries. Mr ND Pillai was also the son-in-law of the wealthy landlord of Bukit Timah Village, Mr Joseph Png. Udaya Library was later built on Mr Joseph Png’s land.
Being a voracious reader, the idea of starting a library in his village was an appealing one to Mr ND Pillai who went on to establish and run the library for the rest of his life, until his demise in 1991.
From the descriptions of the long-standing members of the library, he was the heart and soul of the library. And, despite being a widower with seven children to take care of, he never failed in keeping the library running and looking into its day-to-day operations and serving onboard the executive committee as the general secretary.
According to his daughter, the library was initially called Kairalee Library, and later in 1958 registered as a society under the name of Udaya Reading and Library. Within a short span of time, the name was changed to Udaya Library for reasons I was not able to ascertain.
Udaya Library did not just serve to whet the literary appetites of the community; it also served as a meeting point for the Malayalee ladies in the village to come together in the day, and the families to mingle and support one another in their adopted land.
The library is said to have drawn members from all over Singapore. Mrs Sarojini Nayar and her husband, Mr Thangappan Nayar who lived in Tanglin Halt, for instance, were drawn to the huge collection of Malayalam books at Udaya Library and would make twice-a-month drive down to borrow the books.
“Our visits to the library would always end with a visit to Mr KNV Nair’s home which was behind the library.
I remember jostling with Mr Nair to read Avakasikal (The Inheritors), the longest Malayalam novel written when it was first published. It was written by MK Menon who was living in Singapore and was set in Malaya.
I remember discussing the novel at length during my visits.
And of course, these visits to the library always ended with a round of good Kerala fish curry and wholesome Kerala dishes prepared by Mrs KNV Nair.
It was always fun to get together with fellow readers and talk about books.”
Another member, Mrs Rajamma Pillai, who arrived in Singapore as a new bride in the late 1960s also recalls the food that was served at the annual Onam celebrations rather fondly.
“It was the most authentic Kerala food that one would find in those days in Singapore. We had a lot of fun during our gatherings and picnics together.”
The bibliophiles and avid readers hosted many authors and speakers on their premises. The late HE BMC Nayar was said to have been a patron of the library in the early days, shares Mrs Sarojini Nayar.
“My older brother, Kaniyapuram Ramachandran, who was an MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) in Kerala and Ambassador BMC Nayar were classmates in the university. They were great friends and remained so till their deaths.
So, when Mr Nayar was posted to Singapore as the First Secretary at the Indian Embassy, he was in touch with my family. And we told him about our Udaya Library.
Mr Nayar himself was a prolific writer and lover of books. He visited our library’s varshigam (anniversary). It must have been 1978 or 1979.
I remember the year clearly, because my son Anil Nayar, who was just in primary school sang an Onam song in Malayalam which impressed him so much.”
Perhaps it was these fond memories of the library, which was the heart of the Bukit Timah Malayalees that has kept the name of the library unchanged for the last 64 years and kept the spirit of the library going despite the many challenges that were thrown in its way.
A New Home
In the 1980s, the government resettled the villagers in Bukit Timah to neighboring towns, Bukit Gombak and Hillview.
Initially, the library moved to a small room at Bukit Gombak Community Club. The space was barely enough to display the 3000 books that they had managed amass by then.
“My father (Mr ND Pillai) was adamant in not letting the library go and wanted to keep it alive. Someone in the community helped my father with the paperwork and in seeking help from the MP to find a home for the library,” recalls Ms Agnes D Pushppama.
With the help of MP Mr Chai Chong Yii, Udaya Library moved to a spacious unit on the ground floor of Blk 11 at Hillview.
In keeping with the true ethos of Udaya Library to promote literacy amongst its members, Malayalam and English classes were conducted at the Hillview premises by volunteer teachers from the library.
In 1982, the members celebrated the 25th anniversary with Mr Chai Chong Yii, the first MP for Bukit Batok gracing the occasion as their Guest-of-Honor. Mr Chai continued to a strong supporter of Udaya Library and Ms Agnes D Pushppama shared how it was Mr Chai who had asked her father and the executive committee to consider running tuition classes in the evenings to promote literacy on their premises.
At their new premises, the members were especially active in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s in promoting the language and culture through other ways too, such as by staging Malayalam drama productions, with its then President Mr MM Dollah taking the lead in many of these.
“The library was a very quiet location with no land telephone line either. Unlike the Kerala Association which was a hub of activities in the evenings with members dropping in, we were not in a central location to attract people to come there to socialize.
It was mainly patronized primarily by readers. I wanted to change that when I became the President, and we became quite active in staging Malayalam dramas.
I also introduced English lessons for adult learners and Malayalam classes for children. The charges were nominal at $5.00 a month and the classes were run by volunteers who were members of the library,” elaborated Mr MM Dollah who was the President of Udaya Library from 1985 to 1998.
The Travelling Udaya Librarians & their Friends
The old saying, ‘if the mountain will not come to the Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain’ was true in the case of the members of the Udaya library.
Ms Sujatha Nair recalled how her father, Mr ND Nair and older brother would “deliver the books neatly packed in plastic bags to the Malayalees in the area” and that too on public transportation.
It was a service that was fondly remembered by other interviewees too like Kunjamma Jacob, Ani Milton and Rajamma Pillai who recounted how Mr ND Pillai and Mr Aziz too would deliver books from Udaya Library to their homes.
Funds for the library were also collected during these visits.
“They will come to collect money. I don’t think they were funded per se. So those days, (they) come. And each house will give something, and they would write a receipt. Pillai Uncle (Mr ND Pillai) is the one who used to come,” shared Ani Milton.
Naval Base Kerala Library (NBKL), the only other community library set up by the Sembawang Malayalees stepped in to help to raise funds for Udaya Library in 1990. Mr Bimel Ram, then Secretary of NBKL, shared,
“We organized a variety show titled ‘Kala Sandhya’ at the SLF Auditorium in Thomson Road. All the artists who performed were local Singaporean artists such as Jawahari, Shanthi, Jayan and many others and all of them did it without any remuneration.
It was a sell-out show with tickets being sold out a week prior to the show.
Udaya Library reciprocated with life memberships for all of us who were part of this fund raising.”
Becoming Homeless Once Again
Unfortunately, the home that Udaya Library found was not a permanent one. The Hillview area was slated for the Selective En-Bloc Redevelopment project by the government in 1999.
They now had about a hundred members.
In 2000, Udaya Library and its books were once again homeless. Without space to store the books that they had collected and cared for, for so many years, the books were donated to the members of the Malayalee community.
But that was not in vain. During the course of researching for this story, it was heartening to hear and see the books from Udaya Library in the homes of Mrs Rajamma Pillai and Mr Gangadharan Kunnon.
While the library was homeless, the books were not.
By then, many of the founding members of the library had passed on, others were in their late 70s and 80s. The next generation of executive members continued to keep the Udaya Library spirit running through cultural and social and cultural activities.
It is this can-do spirit of the Udaya Library, symbolized with the rising sun over the mountains in its logo, designed by its founders, that keeps it moving.
Unfortunately, I never discovered who designed the logo.
“Udaya Library is still running. We have no premises or books. But we are still running. We continue to have yearly meetings.
We have about 50 members now. Our last big event was in the year 2000 where about 50-70 members turned up. Things have quietened down these days.
I grew up hearing stories about Udaya Library and how my father and his friends kept it going. How they brought over books from Naval Base Kerala Library when they donated them to us.
As long as I am alive, I will keep this association going. My team and I will keep the Udaya Library name going!” said the current secretary of Udaya Library, Mr Raveendranathan Darwin who is in his 60s.
For some it is the last thing that remains of their grandparents, parents and for others. It is the strong sense of allegiance to the community to not let an organization started by our pioneers die down, that keeps them going – and going strong.
The name of the mystery man who mooted the idea of the library – the prominent Malayalee man – was not found in the course of this research. Sujatha Nair postulated that it could possibly be Mr V P Abdullah, the Editor of Kerala Bandhu, Singapore’s Malayalam newspaper.
Event photographs that I unearthed show many prominent men in its midst, Mr KN Unnithan, the owner of KNP Trading Company, Mr MA Sathar, a well-connected social worker and Kerala Bandhu staff, Mr Peter Vincent, a trade unionist, as well as Mr KMS Hamid, a businessman.
Whilst examining the oldest committee photograph available, I also discovered the presence of another prominent Malayalee of that era, a Mr PS Pillai, the fearless union leader who lived in the same area. He was identified in the photograph by his family members in India and the UK.
It could have been any one of them or perhaps it is someone else whom I have yet to discover.
The mystery remains unsolved for now.
What is clear is that Udaya Library may have the smallest membership count compared to other Malayalee organizations established by our pioneers in the same time period, but it is a rich bastion of memories, and bears the imprint of many members of the Malayalee community who lived in the western parts of Singapore.
Udaya Library is an integral part of the Singaporean Malayalee identity and that of the Bukit Timah Malayalees. And their memories are no less significant nor poignant.
Perhaps, now is a time to look at the logo of Udaya Library closely. The message and hopes of the founding members for the next generation lie in there – that like the rising sun over the mountains, Udaya Library too would always be open to new beginnings and filled with hope for a new tomorrow.
As we approach Udaya Library’s Blue Sapphire anniversary, it is perhaps the right time for the next chapter to commence. Time will tell.
About the Author
Dr Anitha Devi Pillai (www.anithadevipillai.com) is an applied linguist, author, and poet. She is an academic at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.
One of her primary areas of research focuses on the Malayalee community in Singapore on which she has published extensively and delivered talks on for the last 10 years.
In 2013, she won a National Heritage Board, Singapore grant in 2013 to study the literacy practices and ethnic heritage of the Singapore Malayalee community and subsequently was the first author of From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2017). Some of her other publications include From Estate to Embassy: Memories of an Ambassador (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2019), Sembawang (translator) (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2020), A View of Stars (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2020), A Tapestry of Colors 1 & 2 (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2021), and The Story of Onam (National Heritage Board, 2021).
Links to other publications and talks on the Singapore Malayalee community are listed below:
- The Changing Status of Malayalam in Singapore (2021)
- The Story of Onam (2021)
- The Story of Onam (2021) (Webinar) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=durKUvmljrs
- Home is a three-syllable word (2019)
- Mother Tongue (2019) https://www.academia.edu/41654993/Mother_Tongue
- Singapore Malayalee Association is 100 (2017)
- Malayalee Community and Culture (2017)
- Malayalees in Singapore (2017)
- Researching on the Singapore Malayalees – Interview on Asianet (2017)
- Language Socialization Patters (2011)
Ang, Q. (25/12/2021). How a kampong vanished from the map. The Straits Times. p.16.
Census 2020. (2021). Statistical Release 1: Demographic Characteristics, Education, Language and Religion. Singapore: Singapore Department of Statistics.
Home. (19/05/1991). 7 Malayalee groups to join forces to boost language, culture. The Straits Times. p.17.
Pillai, A. D. & Arumugam, P. (2017). From Kerala to Singapore: Voices from the Singapore Malayalee Community. Marshall Cavendish International Asia.
Protem Committee for the Promotion of Malayalam Language in Singapore. (1991). Nritya Sandhya. Protem Committee for the Promotion of Malayalam Language in Singapore, Singapore.
Leong, W.K. (28/04/1999). Does Hillview want redevelopment? No, we want to stay put. The Straits Times.
Nair, P. (04/11/1994). Have a date with Rajani this evening. The Straits Times. p. L30.
The Movie Page. (29/05/1992).Malayalam drama contest on Sunday. The New Paper. p.30.
Tan, R.S. (n.d.). Live in 8 1 2 Milestone, Bukit Timah Village. Singapore Memory. Retrieved March 17, 2022.
The Straits Times. (8 Apr 1968). Work camp for Nantah. The Straits Times. p. 4.
The Straits Times. (12/04/1996). Tale of greed and family break-up. The Straits Times. p. L14.
Wong, M.C. (10/01/1997). Pride and pretense flayed in comic play. The Straits Times. p. L19.
I am very grateful to Ms Agnes D Pushppamma, Ms Sujatha Nair, Mr Raveendranathan Dawin, Mr Bimel Ram, Madam Kunjamma Jacob, Ms Ani Milton, Mrs Rajamma Pillai, Mr and Mrs Sumit and Shobha Pillai, Mr MM Dollah, Mrs Sarojini Nayar, Gangadharan Kunnon, Mr S Devendran, Ms K. Leela, Mr Thomas Mendoza, Ms Reetha Pillai, Mr Ronnie Tan, Mrs Ratna Nair, Mr Sujith Sivaram, Prof. A. Veeramani, Dr Loh Kah Seng, Ms S. Anitha, Ms Sumi B. Thomas and Mr B. Aravindakshan Pillai for their interview, for feedback, and help rendered with other aspects of the research and translation. My sincere apologies if I have inadvertently left out anyone inadvertently in this list.
I am particularly grateful to Ms Agnes D Pushppamma, Ms Sujatha Nair, Mr Raveendranathan Dawin, Mr MM Dollah, Mrs Ratna Nair and Mr Gangadharan Kunnon for permission to use their photographs in this article. Please note that the copyright of the photographs lies with the owner.
[i] Jalan Udaya appeared in maps from 1966 to 1988.
[ii] The earliest evidence found to date in my research on Malayalees in Singapore is the existence of Malabar Muslim Mosque in 1819. It is likely that Malayalees were already on the island when Sir Stanford Raffles discovered it, or that they arrived with/soon after Sir Stanford Raffles’ discovery. (Pillai, 2017, p. 17.)
[iii] According to the official census of population, in 1957s, there were 21,783 Malayalees in Singapore. The number plummeted in 1970 to 17,371 and to 12,451 in 1980. (Pillai & Arumugam, 2017, p. 334). According to the latest 2020 census of population, there are 26,693 Malayalees in Singapore (Census 2020, 2021). These figures are of Singapore citizens and permanent residents who are referred to as resident population in the census of population report. It does not include non-resident Malayalees who are employed or studying in Singapore.
[iv] Naval Base Kerala Library was registered as a society in 1954. Members of NBKL believe it was founded a few years before it was formally registered.
[v] Some of the other villages in Bukit Timah road stretch where a spattering number of Malayalee families lived in the 1950s-1970s era were in 6th Milestone, 7 ½ Milestone, 8th Milestone and 10th Milestone.
[vi] The members in the photographs were identified by descendants and senior members of the community who were active members of Udaya Library. I have tried my best to ensure the accuracy of the names and the dates. If you have further details about the images in this article, please do contact me.
[vii] HE BMC Nayar (B Mohana Chandran Nayar), served as the First Secretary at the Indian Embassy, Singapore for several years. He later became the Ambassador to Singapore from August 1993 to July 1995. He was an accomplished author as well as penned several novels. He visited Udaya Library with his family when he was the First Secretary and kept in touch with its members during his tenure here.