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
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
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
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
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
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
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.