Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The books that we read, the books that read us

My friend Dhanuka Bandara, currently studying in the United States, sent me a comment the other day: “The decline of a reading culture is a serious problem, rather acute in America. I’ve even concluded that this has caused the current crisis in Western civilisation.” I was and still am not qualified to argue on the latter point, but I agreed wholeheartedly with his first point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, after all, to comprehend the fact that we tend to disparage reading, and with it those who prefer to read more than anything else, as the years go by. The decline then is actually a descent, an inevitability that we choose to bring upon ourselves. Sadly.

But then there are problems and there are solutions. To get to the latter, you need to understand the reasons for the former. The issue here is that the current discourse on literacy plays out between the academics and the intellectuals on the one hand and the defiant dilettantes and the bohemians on the other. This dilemma, sadly, is worsened by the tendency of contemporary society to categorise and classify, between what is prescribed and what is prohibited (when it comes to what is read, written, and expressed). The minute you concede ground to this false distinction, and maintain a rift between what you should read and should not, the problem we are talking about here starts to materialise, and we end up becoming a nation of non-readers.

Why is being such a nation such a problem? Simply, that a culture that is opposed to readers is also opposed to writers, and simply, that a culture that is opposed to writers is opposed to creative, independent thinking, the kind of thinking that got us to where we are, culturally and socially, from where we were before. This is as true for those who read and write in the mother tongues as it is for those who prefer English, and in fact it’s truer of the former in very, many respects. A civilisation is predicated almost entirely (not completely though) on the language it thrives on, and once that language is cut off from literature through prohibitions on what we read, only an aberration can result. An aberration because we can no longer discriminate on our own, for ourselves.

Speaking at an official function a few years ago, a former Warden at S. Thomas’ College (I have unfortunately forgotten the name) observed, rather interestingly, that the impending death of the Sinhala language (a death that has a number of pallbearers and doomsday prophets, by the way) could be traced to a deterioration in our mass media. What he meant was that his generation and his children’s generation lived through the culture that saw, and enjoyed, Pissu Poosa, Dosthara Hondahitha, and (later) Tintin, Naana Katha Malliya, and Koombichchi. All these series were dubbed, mostly from Europe, and they managed to teach us the subtle intricacies of dubbing a foreign popular culture into the mother tongue (something I’ll get to in my next article). We revelled in seeing them and at the same time read into the language that was being articulated, unlike today, when children are exposed to a half-uprooted, neither-here-nor-there entertainment and media culture (particularly on television).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are parallels between the way children behave and the way they are depicted by our film and television directors. The difference between the Somaratne Dissanayake of Saroja and Siri Raja Siri and the Somaratne Dissanayake of Bindu and Siri Parakum is really a difference, not of personal conviction or sensibility, but of the attitudes entertained towards youngsters by adults. The children of those earlier films had an agency of their own, and in being themselves they transcended their youth in ways their age could not do justice to. The same could have been said of the television serials which depicted them, particularly Channa Perera’s miniseries that revolved around boy scouts (I am thinking of Punchi Weerayo here). But what did we get with Dissanayake’s later films? Children who have to be picked up and carried around forever, endlessly. (Perhaps that’s why entire sequences are repeated again and again in Siri Parakum: for us to get them, as though our attention spans have slackened.)

In other words, children onscreen had a sensibility they could call their own. They revelled in being the adults they were not, in a rather boy-scout-ish, intelligent way. Naturally, we revelled in being them. They were both book-smart and street-smart, and what they did was often supplemented by what they read. There was no real differentiation between the two, a wholly different world to what has transpired now: a culture whereby children are, on the one hand, pushed to mature beyond their years in terms of what they do, and on the other hand, constricted when it comes to what they read. We are a nation of readers limited in what we are given to read when we are young, which wouldn’t be so bad if this didn’t lead us to that problem I highlighted above: the emergence of a nation of non-writers, non-critics, non-artists. No society can survive without writers, critics, and artists, just as no society can survive without doctors, lawyers, and engineers. It’s a crazy, roundelay issue, come to think of it.

At a recent seminar-of-sorts I had to speak at, I was given a rather clichéd but perennial topic: the importance of reading. I pondered on the topic for some hours before writing down the points I wanted to get across at this seminar. Which, by the way, all congealed into the following truism: inasmuch as the act of reading, and of inculcating the habit of reading, is important, what is even more important are the mechanics that go into that habit, i.e. the questions of what should be read, what should not be read, whether one should remain in a library like one would in an ivory tower, cut off from the rest of society. To the best of my ability I brought out what I felt to be a pertinent fact: that it is as important to be a “kavi karaya” (a poet) as it is to be a “wada karaya” (a doer). I’d like to think that the audience gathered at this seminar-of-sorts got my point, because I intended them to: it was held in a library.

Dhanuka used to write a lot when I started out in this field, years ago. For reasons which I still can’t fathom, though, he left that field. A pity, because in him I continue to see the kind of writer we haven’t had since Ajith Samaranayake. Perhaps that’s a national tragedy at one level: we haven’t had any real, proper critic and writer since Samaranayake, certainly not in the English press. But I rather think that’s inevitable, since we continue to be a nation not only of non-readers, but also of anti-readers.