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A School Dropout, This TN Barber Promotes the Reading Habit

As a child growing up in New Delhi’s RK Puram in the late 60s, a visit to the barbers was something I used to look forward to. I was fascinated with the valve radio playing out Ameen Sayani’s singsong voice in Binaca Geet Mala on Radio Ceylon and would miss my turn a couple of times to listen to more songs. We did not have a radio or transistor at home then.

These days, hair cutting saloons have an assortment of entertainment options – from TV to FM radio to glossy filmy magazines – as standard norms in the middle-class localities across the country. But this Sushil Kumar Beauty Hair Salon in Tuticorin in southern Tamil Nadu is, well, very different.

It has a well-stocked library of Tamil and English classics, best-sellers, and self-help books, from which customers waiting for their turn can pick up and read.

Want to play a game on your phone or chat with someone, you are politely advised to go outside the saloon and enter once you are done with the phone. Yes, use of a mobile phone inside the 10X10 feet saloon is not encouraged or even allowed.

And, if you pick up a book to read, you can get a 30 percent discount in haircut and other grooming services on offer at the saloon. But there is a catch, you need to write down at least one paragraph (review) about what you have read.

Wonder why a review?

Explains shop owner Pon Mariappan, 39, a school dropout, told Tricity Scoop over the phone, “I understand the value of education and how much reading habit helps in acquiring knowledge. Which is why I try to promote the reading habit among youth in any way I can.”

If you dig a little further, he will tell you that he wanted to be a well-educated person and dreamt about working in an office. “But I had to leave school due to financial constraints and pitch in for family and start working,” he said.

It was in 2014 that he opened the hair cutting saloon and wanted to do something different to catch the attention of the people. “Everyone has television and music. I am not against it but thought I must do something that will also be useful. Which got me thinking and the excessive use of mobile by everyone gave me the idea – of trying to wean them away from the phone for a little while and make them spend it in reading,” he said on how the idea was born.

One way was to give an incentive – price discount works well on everyone. “So, if a waiting customer wanted a discount, he should pick up a book and read it, as many pages as he can. But to make sure he has read, I would like him to write a small paragraph, to check he has read the book,” he said.

“It is not a test, but sort of feedback,” he added.

“I began collecting books, from second-hand bookstores and scrap dealers. Some donors had also come forward to help with the idea and I started with 50 books and slowly kept adding books. Over time, it has grown into a mini library,” he said. “I also save some money and buy books every month,” he said. DMK Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi has donated some 50 books after learning about Pon Mariappan.

Today, the mini-library has grown into a collection of over 1500 titles.

For the time being, he does not allow customers to take books out of the saloon. “See, if the customer has begun reading a book and has found it interesting, he would come next time also and read it from where he left off. That would be a success of mine – of doing business as also kindling an interest in reading which is on the wane these days, he said.

“But yes, if I can get more help, and more books, I can even begin lending books for customers to take home and return it the next time they come for a haircut. But that would increase workload, but I will do it for students who cannot afford to buy books,” the hairdresser promised.

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