Reading what I wanted to

A recent conversation with a close friend centred around our deep love of reading, reminding me of a life-long relationship with books. The first I recall were inherited from my sister, taking me to worlds far beyond the confines of my home in Ratmalana, from the subterranean passages leading to Kirrin Island on to enchanted woods, escaping the suds of Dame Washalot. To this day, I recall with perfect clarity how much I wanted to eat toffee shocks. By way of comparison, I cannot remember a single thing of what I memorized for my exams in school. Sybil Wettasinghe’s books were recited by my grandmother, prefacing ‘Muvan Palassa’ on SLBC’s AM broadcasts. Both were keenly anticipated and lovingly received. At S. Thomas’, the class and special subject prizes were in the form of vouchers from Lake House, at the time located near Regal Cinema. It was a cavernous space from a child’s perspective, and I loved getting lost amidst the shelves. The Caves bookstore in Fort, and the row upon row of second hand booksellers in Maradana were frequent haunts as well. The Peoples Publishing House, near Hotel Nippon, was frequented for literature from the USSR, published in the same format as Readers Digest, but with an unsurprising Communist bent, decrying the West through fiery prose and defiant art. I imagined Akka as Ethel, but loved her too much to put her through what Crompton’s imagination subjected William’s sister to, in Just William. Of the thirty-nine in the series, by my A/L’s, I had managed to find and read around two dozen. The search for the rest continues. From the Case Files of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys to the Choose Your Own Adventures series published by Bantam Books, from dozens of Ladybird books to a subscription to National Geographic before I hit my teens, perhaps the complete absence at the time of any other source of entertainment led to a voracious reading habit.

When two years ago, the house I was living in on rent was burgled twice, I was upset at what was taken, yet more relieved that not a single one of my books was touched. The twin incidents also revealed how little in Sri Lanka we value books today, which for a society that has inscribed verse in rock and history on ola leaves for centuries before the Gutenberg press, is more than a little ironic. On the one hand, the reading we encourage our children to do the most is linked to syllabi in school. Nothing beyond is really encouraged, since it is often perceived to steal time away from what needs to be consumed, instead of what is liked to be read. Compounding this, Colombo is about the worst capital in South Asia for books. They are expensive, the selection is terrible and the largest bookshops we have are dwarfed by what those in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or even Nepal. One of my fondest memories as an undergraduate student in Delhi was speaking with the beloved Balraj Bahri Malhotra, who sadly passed away last year. Malhotra-ji, in his late 60’s at the time, was emphatically and entirely dismissive of what I actually wanted to buy when I visited the eponymous Bahrisons in Khan Market, instead insisting on the purchase of Anurag Marthur’s An Inscrutable American, noting – correctly as it turned out – it would appeal to me. He knew by heart both the content and location of every single book in his shop. You just do not find that kind of character or have that kind of experience in any bookshop in Sri Lanka. I recall once going to Vijitha Yapa’s at Unity Plaza many years ago, asking to be shown the fantasy section, only to have a female assistant visibly turn red and walk away hurriedly. Though Pratchett was in stock, no one in the bookstore knew who he was, or in what genre he was a master of. For any book listed in school syllabi, you will be shown a specific location. Ask for any recommendation around a good read, or for books akin to something you’ve read before from an author, genre, period or around an issue, and you hit a blank wall.

This is emblematic of a deep-seated problem with our primary and secondary education system. The average school bag of a child today is heavier than what many airlines would allow as cabin luggage. And yet all the printed material transported to and from school daily is largely geared towards one purpose – rote learning and regurgitation. Reading becomes a chore, disliked because of what need to be memorised. Instead of escaping to imaginary, foreign worlds, reading is this constant, nagging reminder of how much one needs to consume in order to beat the competition in class, get a scholarship, ace an exam or win a prize. Understandably, if reading is only ever engaged with as laborious homework or a chore, escape to the non-literary world of gaming, online content, and video through console, computer, smartphone or tablet is inevitable.

The lament that children don’t read, or don’t read as widely as they should, is a constant refrain. Instead of deriving pleasure, if children chiefly consider reading as something required of them by parents and teachers, we are in effect creating barriers to lateral, critical thinking – the root of innovation, entrepreneurship, solutions generation, creativity and indeed, active citizenship. As a child and teenager, I only ever asked for and was invariably given or gifted books. My parents were interested in good grades, but never once penalised or punished me for reading well beyond myopic, outdated, mind-deadening syllabi. Only years later did I realise the value of the freedom they allowed me.

The books I read in school and university, far beyond what I was tested on, are today some of my most prized possessions. The spines are brittle, the covers faded and the pages yellowing – but the feel and smell of these books remind me of my first encounters with difference and diversity, of world’s beyond where I was and told I was part of, characters so vividly drawn I wanted to be them or run away from, of countries and weather, beyond the tropics, I yearned to travel to and experience. Through books beyond the world of exams, I learnt about what lies beyond, and indeed, is far more important than grades and class placement. I only wish more children today, especially as tragic news of suicides after the release of O/L results reaches us, were allowed by their teachers, parents and care-givers to read whatever they wanted to, as much as they desired.

To read widely is to appreciate and more fully embrace the potential of life. We need to tell our children this.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 2 April 2017.

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