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Perversity of Pyromaniacs

Part 4 - Thoughts of a Bibliophile

by Sachi Sri Kantha

'Libraries are our fortresses against the infidel and if we do not man their ramparts, it is we who shall have lost the battle and failed to keep faith with the book.'

Though initially I planned to conclude this series in three parts, subsequently I thought of extending it to provide some additional comments and thoughts to include my personal views on

The reason is rather obvious. During the past 25 years, hundreds of analyses by Sri Lankan and non-Sri Lankan academics have been published in scholarly journals on the Sinhalese-Tamil animosity, from various angles such as anthropology, archeology, foreign policy, history, political science and terrorism,. But, a focus on the cause and consequences of the 1981 torching of Jaffna remains largely untouched by the pundits. For the record, I note that I have located one analysis, authored by a Sri Lankan librarian, Premila Gamage, in 2003, which I have yet to read.

Scaling the Puny Compensation

As I have presented in part 1 of this series, Jeyaratnam Wilson mentioned in his 1988 book, that “The President [Jayewardene] pledged 10 million rupees towards the reconstruction of the library from a public fund he controlled, but in the end only a fraction of that sum was given.”

Let me scale this pledge to show what a puny compensation the then top dog of the Sri Lankan Government offered to soothe the hurt feelings of Tamils. On July 22, 1981, I bought a one-way ticket to fly from Colombo to Chicago and upto the Champaign airport of the University of Illinois, on Thai Airlines (the cheapest available economy class ticket then from a foreign airline) for 15,662 Sri Lankan rupees, equivalent to US$ 814. At that time, the currency exchange rate stood at one US$ equalling to 19 rupees and 25 cents. Thus, the 10 million rupees pledge of President Jayewardene for reconstruction of the burnt Jaffna Public Library amounted to only a piddling sum of nearly US$520,000. Considering the loss of 97,000 titles then cataloged in the burnt library, the average overall compensation amounted to only US$5 per book or palm-leaf manuscript. And as Wilson had noted, at the end, “only a fraction” of the pledged sum reached Jaffna.

Another available indicator also reveals the inadequateness of President Jayewardene’s pledge. The Washington Post of October 8, 1981 carried a feature on Trincomalee port by Stuart Auerbach. For this feature, Auerbach had interviewed Jayewardene. And to quote Auerbach, about the Trincomalee port,

“He [President Jayewardene] said an Australian ship brought in about $320,000 in docking fees, purchases of supplies and money spent by sailors on shore leave. Two American ships that called Colombo in March [1981] – the USS Fox and the USS Ranger – were reported by the Sri Lanka Observer, a government-controlled newspaper, to have spent a half a million dollars each during their stopovers.”

Thus, a foreign ship visiting either Trincomalee or Colombo port from Australia or the USA in 1981 generated revenue at the scale of $320,000 - $500,000, and what President Jayewardene pledged to rebuild the burnt Jaffna Public Library, which had lost 97,000 volumes of books due to pyromania, was nothing in excess of that scale; i.e., compensation for indulged pleasure-seeking by inebriated, rowdy sailors! In late 1981, according to another published statistic, “over 300 foreign experts costing $15 million a year” (excluding the embassy officials) were serving time in Sri Lanka and enjoying the hospitality of the then UNP regime [Blair Ericsohn, ‘Confessions of a foreign expert’, New Internationalist magazine, Nov.1981, no.105].

In February 2003, it was reported in the Official Website of the Government of Sri Lanka, that the “Restoration work that was begun in 1998 by the Ethnic Affairs and National Integration Ministry, equipped the library not only with books but with all the modern IT facilities as well. The total project cost Rs.120 million”. [www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca200302/20030214jaffna_libra]

Let me also scale this amount of Rs.120 million in American dollar terms. In 1998, the Sri Lankan rupee had depreciated markedly from its 1981 exchange value, and one dollar was equivalent to approximately 66 Sri Lankan rupees. Thus, the Jaffna Public Library restoration fund allocated by the Chandrika Kumaratunga Cabinet amounted to US$ 1.82 million. But, one should also note that in 1998, the same Cabinet had approved the spending of nearly US$ 2 million per day for the government’s military budget!

Do We have an Assembled Catalog of Lost Treasures Now?

In the features written about the 1981 torching of the Jaffna Public Library, “97,000” has become a statistic to lament on the number of books and manuscripts which went up in ashes. But, do we have an assembled catalogue of the lost treasures in hand now? Not that I know of. If such a catalogue has been assembled (even a partial list!) by Tamil librarians or bibliophiles who were associated with the library, it needs to be made public, even in an electronic medium. I provide below published excerpts from two correspondents, which provide some minimal details:

“Among the destroyed were scrolls of historical value and the works and manuscripts of the universally acclaimed philospher, artist and author Ananda Kumaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof. Issac Thambaiya. The destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture and those of locally reputed medical physicians and politicians.” [Jayantha Seneviratne, ‘The reconstruction of the Jaffna library’, Colombo Daily News, Jan.20, 2002].

“There were newspapers and journals published hundred years ago in Jaffna. There were about 10,000 hand-written documents, Roman Catholic books published in 1586 (some in Spanish). There was a copy of ‘History of Ceylon’ written by Robert Knox when he was in the Kandy prison in 1660, as well as ‘Ceylon during the Dutch Rule’ by Philips Baldeus, written in 1672. Amongst some of the collections housed in the library were 700 books on the famous art critic and Sri Lankan Tamil savant Dr. Ananda Coomarasamy donated by Mr.Thurairajasinham of Malaysia; 850 books donated by Rev. Isaac Thambiah; 100 books donated by Kathiravel Pillai. There were a number of encyclopedias from various countries and publishers, dictionaries, atlases and maps, books on astrology and astronomy. The children’s section had miniature editions of Ramayana epics.” [V.S.Thurairajah, ‘Jaffna Library rises from its ruins’, Colombo Daily News, Dec.12, 2002].

A Viable Architectural Design for Fire-Protection

I provide excerpts from an essay I wrote in 1995, with a title, ‘An Exiled Bibliophile’s Dream,’ which was included in my book, MGR Movies Revisited and Other Essays (1995). Excerpts:

“Robert Holmes, in his book ‘Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980’, made a poignant observation about the reading habits of Lankan Tamils. ‘Only a very small minority find recreation in reading. One of the best informed of the residents in Jaffna, who reads omnivorously told me, ‘Most of the people in Jaffna have no academic interest. They do not read books. Even the wealthy man who has two cars will not have a library. If he is a doctor, he will have a few medical books; if a lawyer, some law books…Only the exceptional person possesses books.’

Though I suspect whether this stereotypical portrayal of Holmes can stand scrutiny in a scientific survey, I agree with the overall context of these statements and the spirit in which they were written. If the publication of ‘Jaffna 1980’ had occurred in 1982 or later, author Holmes would have recorded how Sri Lankan Tamils agonized over the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. This tragic event was a turning point in the Sinhalese-Tamil relationship in Sri Lanka. It was equated with the Nazi book burning campaign of the Jewish scholars after Hitler’s rise to power.

That Tamil areas were badly served in post-independent Sri Lanka in terms of public learning is evident by the fact that the two foremost libraries run by the foreign agencies (British Council and the United States Information Services) had their services only in Colombo and Kandy. The reasons for non-establishment of branches of these libraries in Jaffna and Batticaloa between 1948 and 1983 are not difficult to list.”

I continued further.

“So that what happened in 1981 to the Jaffna Public Library will not be repeated, entire structure for the Center of Dravidian Archives has to be constructed underground. This will prevent demolition from aerial bomb attack and arson. However, to safeguard the deposited materials from fire, which can arise due to electrical short-circuit, as an insurance an architectural feature should be added in the form of a water reservoir. A pond, if designed aesthetically and assured to have water all around the year, can serve this protective purpose well.

The main undergraduate library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (the alma mater for Robert Holmes, as well as me) was built underground decades ago, for altogether a different practical reason. I feel the architectural design of this library could serve as a valid model for the proposed building.

The underground building will also have another important benefit. It will aid in a better preservation of the books and other archival materials. According to Jeremy Norman (an internationally known dealer and appraiser of rare books and manuscripts), ‘Over the centuries books have proven to be very durable objects. If simply placed on a shelf out of direct sunlight in a room with medium temperature and humidity, there is no reason why most books should not survive for hundreds of years’. What a better way to preserve the books in the tropical climate of Jaffna by keeping them underground, away from the direct exposure to the ultraviolet rays of sunlight…”

Towards the end of that essay, I had postulated that “Arrangements should also be made with the internationationally known Tamil academics such as Prof. C.J.Eliezer, Prof. S.Arasaratnam, Prof. S.J.Tambiah, Prof. A.Jeyaratnam Wilson and Prof. M.Sundaralingam that their ‘papers’ will be donated to the Center, after their retirement from active career.”

After the passage of 11 years, I’m not so thrilled to communicate now that among the five academics whom I named then, four – excluding Prof.S.J.Tambiah – have died and their ‘papers’ remain scattered and are on the verge of being less accessible for future scholars. Once I inquired from Mrs.Ranee Eliezer, the wife of Prof. Eliezer, about her illustrious husband’s ‘papers.’ The response I received from her was saddening; ‘Sachi, not all are interested in Professor’s papers like you. For mundane reasons, quite much are being dumped and dispersed, while some lots are being saved for posterity.’ I haven’t had any contacts with the spouses or immediate kins of other three late professors to verify the current status of their ‘papers.’

I concluded my 1995 essay with the following quote from Herman Liebert, the Librarian Emeritus of Yale University. ‘Libraries are our fortresses against the infidel and if we do not man their ramparts, it is we who shall have lost the battle and failed to keep faith with the book.’ Tamils should be constantly reminded that if they fail to rebuild the ‘fortress’ demolished by the infidels in 1981, ‘it is we who shall have lost the battle.’

Cited References

Gamage, P. Political conflicts and Sri Lankan libraries, Library & Archival Security, 2003, vol.18, no.1, pp.43-51.

Holmes, R.H.: Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980, The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society of Jaffna College, Jaffna, 1980, p.7.

Liebert, H.W. Investing in rare books and manuscripts. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 1981, vol.54, pp.299-306.

Norman, J. Collecting rare medical books; a dealer’s perspective. Medical Heritage, Nov-Dec.1985, pp.459-464.

Sri Kantha, S. MGR Movies Revisited and Other Essays, Eureka Center, Fukuroi, Japan, 1995 (Limited edition print), pp.28-31.

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