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Wednesday, 1 December 2010

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My fifteen universities

Sometimes I tell them that I studied at the same university as Maxim Gorky. Some of them shake their heads thinking that I have a Russian degree

People ask me if I were at Peradeniya or Colombo University. Sometimes I tell them that I studied at the same university as Maxim Gorky. Some of them shake their heads thinking that I have a Russian degree.

My universities were the libraries which I had the good fortune to make use of, over the years. When I look back there have been 15 such libraries.

The first library was my father’s at home. It was a row of wooden crates fixed to one wall of his bedroom and there must have been around 300 to 400 books, both in English and Sinhala. When he noticed my undying thirst for books, my father introduced me to an old books dealer in Galle Fort.

Simply known as the ‘Old Bookstall’, the place was run by an old Tamil gentleman. I would like to think of it as a library too, because we had to pay only five cents to read and return a book. The best part was there being no fine for overdue books.

Next was the St. Aloysius’ College library, which was open to us from Grade 6. There were thousands of books and journals, ranging from National Geographic, Punch, Illustrated London News, Readers’ Digest and many more.

When I volunteered to assist the librarian two more doors were opened leading me into two other libraries: Fr S G Perera Memorial Library which included Fr Perera’s own collection as well as later additions on Ceylon History and the library at the Jesuit Residence, which contained books on almost every subject, including fiction.

I had the good fortune to use the Jaffna library when I worked at Kankesanturai, back in 1968 - ‘69. When I was transferred to Galle I became a member of the British Council library, Colombo.

The British Council at the time, offered books through the post for outstation members. Book post was not so expensive in those days, and I could even order my books by post, as they updated their catalogues which too they sent to us by post.

While in Galle, I had the membership of the Cement Factory library, the Galle Library where Norah Roberts was the librarian, and the Galle Municipal library.

I had also been a member of the library at the Indian Cultural Centre, Colombo, and I had access to the library at the Post Graduate Institute of Archeology, through Prof Raj Somadeva. Whenever I travelled to Talawakele, to visit my daughter, I borrowed books from the library at the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, where members are allowed to take home up to around five books at a time.

One more library I enjoyed visiting for a few weeks, was the Queens library in New York, where I borrowed books from the Pomonok branch in Flushing.

The World Wide Web has become the 15th library for me. It could also be considered not one but many. Wikipedia and Gutenberg are only just two sources. Someday digital technology will give us access to all the books in the universe.

Sometimes it was the library that got me interested in a subject. From the Old Bookstall I got a taste of the novels of the Wild West and to date I enjoy reading them. My school library introduced me to Enid Blyton and the Biggles series by Capt W E Jones. Through the Fr S G Perera library and the Jesuit library I got interested in comparative religion and history of Sri Lanka. When I think back, this is probably where my interest in Sigiriya was kindled.

As I was allowed to use this library even after I left school I was fortunate to borrow and read The Story of Sigiri. I was not aware at the time that one day I too would write my own version of the saga of Kashyapa; my very first book katbitha.

The library at the cement factory mostly had Sinhala books, where I read all the translations done by the Marga Institute in the 70s.

Like Prof Paranavithana’s reference to the insatiable itch of the Sigiriya visitors to scratch their poems on the Mirror Wall, I believe I always had an insatiable itch to read, anything I could lay my hands on. Thus I have read Denise Robins and Harold Robbins, James Hadley Chase and James Joyce, Teilhard de Chardin and Lobsang Rampa, My Life and Loves (Frank Harris) and Mage Premaya, Kalawa saha Jeevithaya (Meemana Premathilleke).

Through this account of my constant contacts with libraries I wish to convey that all of us have the opportunity to read, that we need not buy all the books we want to read, or avoid reading books on the excuse that we do not have access to books and the knowledge we seek.

I do not believe I was exceptionally lucky, may be I was in the right place at the right time, but anyone could find the right time and right place. There are so many other libraries that I had not yet used, like the Colombo Public Library, American Centre, Museum Library, just to name a few.

Some people are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Perhaps I was born with a book in my hand, and I wish that everyone of us could have the opportunity and the good fortune to make use of the libraries around us to read more and more books.

Reading maketh a full man, even after six centuries since Sir Francis Bacon said it, and so it will be, for eons to come.

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