On reading

Bulathsinhala Kade exists, but not in this name. Its real name is Liyanage Stores, but no one at home called it by this name. Dr. Bulathsinhala, our family doctor, was right in front of this shop, and it was natural for us at a small age to associate the shop with his name. It would have been as forgettable as any other shop if it were not for its vegetable wrapping paper. Every day Amma went shopping for produce, I used to wait eagerly at home to read the wrapping paper. In later years, I realised the paper used were in fact pages from Time, Newsweek and the occasional Asiaweek. At home we used to religiously buy the Daily News or Island. The wrapping paper was another vocabulary, glimpses into a foreign world I didn’t entirely understand at a young age, but appreciated for how very different to the media at home it looked (better fonts and layout), sounded (more sonorous words) and read (a better flow and form). As a child, I didn’t like my vegetables, but found greater sustenance in how they were wrapped. I grew up to study English literature in school and later, in University, but the satiation of reading wrapping paper was rarely matched by the material I read there, and in later years, at work.

This is why I treasure so much the end of the year and the Tamil and Sinhala New Year. They are the only times I am lax in answering emails, and pay less attention to material I am forced to read for official correspondence and work. They are weeks I pick up what I want to read, instead of what I hate or have to. Navigating the spaghetti of printouts, magazines, torn out pages and books around my house that fall into this category is only ever painful when I’ve forgotten the location of something I want to pick up. On this first day of a new year, the reader I hope will pardon me for sharing some of the best books I’ve enjoyed over 2011, and why I hope in post-war Sri Lanka we all learn and love to read more.

I’ve written about The Incomplete Thombu by Sri Lankan Tamil artist T. Shanaathanan online, noting that “It is art, but in the form of a book that deftly entwines it with architecture, drawing, the memory of loss and an eerily compelling exploration of what makes a home, a home by those who have left it behind, or lost it to the war. Short excerpts in the book by those who have lost their home are always poignant, sometimes humorous but never vindictive. There is a fragile, essential humanity to these stories that with a light touch reveals so much the war took away from residents in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. There are 80 stories captured in the tome and they range in tone, identity, location and age. The drawings by the subjects themselves are very powerful depictions of loss – not just of property, but at times, of hope itself. But in the stories there is also hope regained. Here we see facets of life before, during and after displacement that for those who haven’t experienced it, deeply humbling. Shanaathanan’s gifted ability to render in art the essence of each story makes the intensely personal more broadly appreciated, and you can spend hours flipping through this book, reading its contents and looking at the drawings.” It is for me one of the defining books from Sri Lanka, on Sri Lanka. The central challenge in recommending this tome lies in how tactile it is. It is a book that needs to be held to be read, a book where the choice of paper used for each stage of the story is as important as the 80 odd stories. I cannot imagine The Incomplete Thombu on my iPad, for the book is more than written expression – it is itself a text, embracing other compelling texts. Reading this book is to reflect upon our own understanding of home, what we hold dear, and what we would do if a similar deracination, indignity and loss as the children, women and men captured in this book underwent, chanced upon us.

In a similar vein, but far more telegenic and as a consequence, controversial, was The Cage by Gordon Weiss. I received perhaps the first, or one of the first copies of the book in Sri Lanka. A review of mine posted online, I was told by the staff of a leading bookstore chain in Sri Lanka, was apparently responsible for hundreds of requests and orders. The Cage is not gospel, and my review flagged several flaws. But as I noted in my review, “The Cage is a page-turner. Gordon’s prose is lucid and compelling. This is not a book you can easily put down once picked up. There are around 60 pages of notes and background reference material – Weiss has clearly done his homework. The book is anchored to the final few weeks of war, but holds lessons more broadly applicable, and covers issues as diverse as geo-politics and international relations to international humanitarian law and its application in the Sri Lankan context. Weiss is also clearly well versed in the art of communication – for example, demonstrating a rare insight into how to humanise a large tragedy, he compares throughout the book the size of the sand spit where the war ended and tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in to the size of New York’s Central Park, London or Hampstead Heath. This is powerful writing, because it communicates far more effectively the cramped landmass than any figure in square kilometres or miles can”.

Starkly similar to this description of Nandikadal is I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Izzeldin Abuelaish. I read the book cover to cover in one sitting. Particularly annoying is that the book’s description of unimaginably inhuman conditions in the Gaza Strip is that it is so easily comprehensible for anyone who followed the end of the war in Sri Lanka, and the subsequent conditions of internment for Tamil IDPs in Menik Farm. It should not be so. Reading about this degree of violence should shock and shame. Abuelaish’s simplistic and repetitive optimism in an overarching humanism as the answer to all this fails to inspire, but his descriptions of ground realities in the Gaza Strip are moving accounts of life in conditions so far removed from what we take for granted, it seems incredible, unreal.

I will speak with Abuelaish later this month at the Galle Literary Festival. Also at the Festival, I will speak with Sashi Tharoor, whose writing not only have I grown up with, but grown to admire. His pantheon of fiction is well known and loved, but it is a collection of his more serious writing, Bookless in Baghdad, that I keep going back to. First recommended by a friend who was in fact in Baghdad at the time, Tharoor’s writing is profoundly piquant. From a deep humanism to witty turn of phrase, Tharoor deals with a range of issues – from politics, literature, art, religion and technology to education, gender and international relations – that are vital to democracy and citizen. Never polemical, Tharoor expands the imagination. There is nothing more a good writer can hope to achieve.

I picked up Karama! Journeys Through the Arab Spring by Johnny West before I went to Cairo in October 2011, and was coincidentally witness to the anti-Coptic riots that gripped Cairo. Escaping the worst of the rioting by running through the smoke filled pedestrian subway system under the now iconic Tahrir Square, I came back to my hotel room to the distant sound of gunfire and West’s book on my bed. Reading it that eventful night was anachronistic, for Arab Spring’s promise captured in the book seemed a world away from what I heard and saw from my balcony. And yet, West’s book helps one understand the historical wellsprings of discontent and the more immediate triggers that drove people in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to rise up against dictatorial, violent regimes. Karama stands for honour or dignity, and here again we see parallels to Sri Lanka where consistently stripping it away from Tamils, for being nothing other than Tamil, leads to a violence that changes polity and society. West isn’t naively optimistic but the book is anchored to the renewed power of the ideational and the aspirational. The freedom to think, imagine and express are compelling counter-forces to decades of rule by closed minds, largely directly at closing minds. As West notes “The Arab street is alive like never before. And I don’t mean bustle – it’s always been bustling. I mean fresh with ideas and debates, with a new ability to breathe freely, and even, sometimes, with the quiet buzz of hope”. I wonder whether we can say that same of the post-LTTE North and East of Sri Lanka today? An increasingly commercial marketplace is touted as a marker of post-war development, when in fact, those that reside are still hostage to fear and old ideas, with little or no power to imagine, express and debate their own.

Why read? And why read more than what we often have to, as part of our work? I often go back to the experience of Bulathsinhala Kade’s wrapping paper to help answer that. My son, now five, will never experience reading in this manner. For him, reading on a Kindle or iPad today, and the virtual paper of tomorrow, will be as natural as picking up a paper-based book. But that he will read, in whatever format he chooses to, brings great joy to his mother and I, both voracious readers. To read broadly is to engage with a world beyond our comfort zones, to challenge ourselves with new ideas, to learn to engage, even silently and privately, with people, places and processes that make us who we are. To read is to challenge the limits of imposed definitions, and received wisdom. Reading can be escape, but it is also about facing up to a world – fictional or real – that helps us better understand our own place and role. And whether from that understanding we emerge enervated or energised, reading is hope, an act of disobedience and defiance in a country where the healthy debate of ideas carries life-threatening consequences even post-war.

I read so much today because I couldn’t put down what the vegetables of my childhood were wrapped in. In 2012, I hope you too find nourishment in the words of others, and choose to pen your own.

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Published in the print edition of The Nation on 1st January 2012.

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