21 June, 2021

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Enhancing The Delights Of Reading

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The trouble started with Mr Vinasithamby, our Tamil master in school, always attired in vetti and saalvai and in a pair of slippers, while the other Tamil master Mr Shaithananthan – when I last heard he was in Canada – wore white trousers a shirt and closed shoes. I must have been about fourteen when Vinasi decided to unload a line from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies that got me into a bit of a panic, before he returned his attention to Silapathikram or its antithesis Manimehali or whatever he was trying to drum into our thick skulls. I cannot locate the line but it seems Ruskin spoke of “Books of the moment and books of all time”. I was a decent enough reader for a teenager but mostly ‘instantaneous’ stuff and it struck me that there were hundreds of books I would have to know before pretending to be educated. Later, adding the monumental array in other languages that I had not even heard of as a fourteen year old, the task seemed to have multiplied to thousands of volumes to be spread over many lifetimes. 

It was only much later, near the end of my allotted span of three score and ten that I came to see that no way did I need to read it all. First, there is a lot stuff that others think great but I dislike. I loathe the Bagavad Geetha, Paradise Lost bores me to tears and when Milton visited the lost-and-found office and Regained his Lost property it put me to sleep every five lines. Some of his sonnets though are beautiful. I also dislike Eliot, who is pretentious; his “ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular” game. I say be open, don’t be intimated by big names; if a big name bores you, say so and avoid him.

The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Remembrance of Things Past, the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Analects; it’s quite enough if you read a greatly abridged version or summary stories. The same goes, except Psalms 23 and 121, some Isiah and juicy bits of Deuteronomy, for the Old Testament. And except the Gospels and bits of Paul, the same applies to the New Testament. And please always the Authorised Version; the modern versions are garbage as literature. (Imagine this: And Jesus said to Mathew “Machang, let’s go to the junction and put a plain tea and a beedi”!). Similarly you only need to be familiar with a few Jathaka Stories, to get the hang. I have not tried my hand at the Koran, or full versions of Faust, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Spinoza or Hegel in translation – I am basically monolingual – but I have taken the trouble to learn the basics from essays and summaries. You see, I am realistic; this is the only way. Don’t be shy, use this approach to the majority of Ruskin’s “books of all time”; you have only one life. The important thing is to commit diligently to this abridged task as per the spare time life’s chores of doing a job and feeding the brood allows. And oh, I am speaking of reading enjoyment, not your religion or what you need to know about this or that faith.

War & Peace is classic even for teenager but why in pluperfect purgatory did Tolstoy stick a 40-page philosophical critique of then existing (pre-Marxist) theories of history at the end of the book? Old history said great events issue from the actions of great persons. Tolstoy said ‘No’. He said that in a world full of events the interaction between necessity and free-will are decisive. They add up to frame history. A hard Marxist even in my youth this suited me fine but why Tolstoy’s long a rigmarole epilogue? Anyway it’s all better stated in the first part of the German Ideology and in the scintillating prose of the Manifesto. The latter was available to Tolstoy but the former, a collection of writings, was published by David Riazanov only in 1932. 

There are dozens of non-English works I have enjoyed in translation – Don Quixote, Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, the Arabian Nights, the Rubaiyat, some Chekov, I loved Gogol’s Dead Souls and Voltaire’s Candide. Readers of this column, obviously English literate are familiar with Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Sons and Lovers, Grapes of Wrath, Heart of Darkness, and so the compulsory list goes on. However, I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet read the acclaimed Chinese challenger to Tolstoy’s great epic, Cao Xueqin’s (1724-1764) Dream of the Red Chamber. 

And then there’s Shakespeare. No one will disagree that the Bard of Strafford-on-Avon is numero uno among English poets, and there’s no point hiding that in my view the finest in all literature, the Greek, Sanskrit and Persian epics which I know about in translation, included. Not everyone is aware that the plays are poetry, not prose; blank verse in iambic pentameter (a line of verse with five metrical steps of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long stressed syllable, making up ten rhythmic syllables). Intoning in iambic pentameter is key to enjoying the poetic in Shakespeare. Here are a few unsurpassed purple passages. I have highlighted a few of the stressed steps though some of you with a more musical ear may partition it otherwise.

Macbeth, dismayed by his blood stained hand after he murdered Duncan, mummers;

“This my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” 

Othello, preparing to blow out the candle and then strangle Desdemona who he dearly loves groans;

Put out the light, and then put out the light.

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,

I can again thy light restore if I repent me.  

But once put out thy light, 

Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

I know not where is that Promethean heat

That can thy former light restore.”

Cleopatra on the Nile;

“The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water; its poop was beaten gold”.

Juliet’s bedchamber:

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”

Twelfth Night, everyone knows this one.

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die”.

Hamlet – in the cardinal work in all the English tongue – is sick of life;

“O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew”.

Of course not everything Shakespeare wrote is my cup of tea. Of the four great tragedies I am not excited by Lear, for which delinquency I have earned the enduring disdain of Tissa Jayatilaka. To be honest I don’t care for the comedies except As You Like It. (I can even improve on Shakespeare: “Sermons in books; and stones in the running brooks!”). What’s the big deal; Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t resonate with modern audiences. I am one of few Lankan fans of the Histories, especially Henry V and Richard III. Suriya Wicks, Dr SA Wicks’ daughter calls my pontification on two-part Henry IV, Henry V, three-part Henry VI and two-part Henry VII, my “Romp with the Henrys”. Blah!

Reading must be pleasure and this brings me to modern writing. There is an explosion in all languages. English readers are lucky to get the largest share of translations. The number of good, bad and indifferent novels is amazing but many novelists make their tomes fat and boring. Twentieth Century English poetry too does not excite me. Maybe I am old-fashioned; in my notepad the last great English poet was Gerald Manley Hopkins, certainly the finest of the Victorians. “Glory be to God for dappled things: For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow: For rose-mole all on stipple upon trout that swim: Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings: Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough: And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim”.

Wit and a photographic memory help in the enjoyment. Churchill’s skit on Scot’s line when Labour left office is memorable; they departed “unwept, unhonoured, unloved” and unhanged! Bernard Soysa was gifted with a remarkable photographic memory and could declaim entire speeches of great historical merit – Frederick Douglas’s ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ (1852); Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863); Chief Joseph’s ‘Surrender Speech’ (1877); Churchill’s ‘Their finest hour’ (1940); Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ (1947), and a fine declamation about Toussaint Louverture that I cannot now trace. 

There is such a range of other material apart from snooty stuff – Stephen Jay Gould, Gerald Durrell, Richard Dawkins, Edward O Wilson in one corner, Stephen Hawing, John Gribbin, Fritjof Capra and hundreds more in another corner, and more corners to make science, ecology, cosmology, anthropology and much else interesting to everyman. Maybe I am overdoing it trying to sell the pleasures of reading to you adults, so it’s time to change track to a more difficult challenge. What to do about young people? Should one try to do anything at all? Shouldn’t one leave them to craft their own lives and imagination with their digital screens, amazing graphics and fancy joysticks?  You see they’re damn good at it. Microsoft or some such outfit advises that when you have a problem with your iPhone or laptop “Try this, then try that, then try the help menu, then look up the manual, then go online for help, and finally if all else fails, send for a teenager”.    

I have four grand-brats, three are very young and not relevant to today’s column. But one, Yasmin, just turned 14. She is a voracious reader and still finding her way around. Perhaps she needs a little guidance but not obnoxious intrusion. Young people need to find their own way around but they also need a bit of steering. It’s a matter of putting all sorts of fodder in front of the horse and letting it pick what suits its palate. This is true of adults like this columnist as well. 

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Latest comments

  • 14
    2

    I am afraid all the riches you mention have been thrown aside by us. Banda and the subsequent madness has made the country blind and poor ( spiritually).

    I don’t think there is any one in the present government who has any idea about the books you mention( this includes the government servants -so called high officials)

    In this country , tele-drama is the only cultural activity and perhaps vulgar political speeches the only source of information( gossip thrills us).

    The people are low quality, narrow , limited and lacking integrity.

    • 1
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      Dear deepthi silva,
      .
      I have seen many comments by you. Each of us has perceptions of what the world is like, and we are entitled to them. May I make a few observations on what I’ve noticed in manyof your comments?
      .
      There is much in Sri Lanka that leaves us dissatisfied, and I think that we should try to change them. We are disgusted with politician types. However, I feel that your attitudes towards the less fortunately-placed Sri Lankans is unfortunate, including blaming all on Bandaranaike. English-using Ceylonese like us dominated life in what remained a feudal society. It suited us, but there’s no going back there.
      .
      Let us learn from Kumar. He is often urbane and witty, but he’s never nasty. I know little of Marxism, but I admire Kumar’s commitment and consistency. Why not study what he writes in all his moods, and try to emulate his attitudes?

  • 5
    1

    “Silapathikram or its antithesis Manimehali “
    The former rather subtly asserted Jain values, while the latter, its sequel, was explicitly Buddhist (with some Mahayana influence) and rather polemical in its view of rival faiths.
    But to call it an antithesis is somewhat over the top.

  • 4
    0

    The following comment was recently published on a well known and popular website.
    .
    Pest of a pesky. It is your at the time of nomination Kallathoni American citizen and his balls squeezing friend the present Election Commissioner. You seem to be a good puttu thathu batsmen you have been scoring a few good dislike runs including a 50 not out which is still growing. In a joyous cheer, R. J. the one & only. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/shanikas-cartoon-12/
    .
    How could someone who writes like this ever appreciate the English language?

  • 2
    4

    Tarzie Wittachi’s Emegency59 puts Shakespeare to the shadows

    • 1
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      Prof. KD says:
      “Should one try to do anything at all? Shouldn’t one leave them to craft their own lives and imagination with their digital screens, amazing graphics and fancy joysticks?”
      I don’t think there is any need to worry about their skills. Facebook and WhatsApp are full of mangled English and vernacular banalities.
      But Twitter is a revelation. There are young journalists and others with impeccable English ,who are obviously well-read. Perhaps they don’t buy normal books, but read them off their tablets.

  • 3
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    I struggled with my inadequacies before making up my mind to make this comment!
    .
    I was so poor in English that my teachers would lovingly sigh, ‘If only you would know English …’.
    .
    I read light novels. James Hadley Chase was my favourite author. The Bard is too difficult for me to appreciate, even today.
    .
    Yet, I could contribute to this topic. TIRUKKURAL cannot be second to any literature in the world.

    • 2
      0

      Dear Nathan,
      .
      I no longer read many books; I tend to add to what I know. I think that is natural as one gets older, and set in one’s ways. What I think you can be happy about is that you write responsibly, well and honestly.
      .
      I didn’t get hooked on James H.C. Agatha Christie was the major figure, and then, Dorothy Sayers – funny, many other women also who wrote crime fiction. Lots of guys were reading Earle Stanley Gardner, so I read some of those. Also, those humorous books by P.G. Wodehouse. From there, I got straight on to reading very serious books – I want to say something about Tolstoy later.
      .
      However, preceding that: Enid Blyton – now actively DIScouraged. She had written so much, you didn’t get on to anything else. The problem with her was that she didn’t make one think or face upto reality. I hope that most parents have got her under control!
      .
      And, of course, there was non-fiction. Lots of well-illustrated books teaching you about the world.
      .
      I was fortunate in having a well-stocked school library. Today’s children may get such things from the Internet, but playing with friends and discussing with them must be important.

      • 2
        0

        Thank you dear Sinhala_Man,
        My aim was to place on record the contribution TIRUKKURAL made to literature.
        Your kind message tells that I failed!
        .
        Chase was to help me with my absurdly poor stock of words.

        • 1
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          Dear Nathan,
          .
          PART A
          .
          No, you haven’t failed! I was going to come to –
          .
          TIRUKKURAL
          .
          I don’t know Tamil, but when I was a much too mature guy in the University, we were required to learn about it, as part of our SAQ work. “Background” it was called.
          .
          Dr Thillainathan taught it, but we couldn’t really understand him because of what we usually call a thick “Jaffna accent”. Fortunately, there was Dr Poologasunderam, who could be more easily understood. So we asked him some of those things all over again.
          .
          They were both nice, whether they were Professors or Senior Lecturers didn’t matter, did it? The experience of interacting mattered. And TIRUKKURAL is firmly etched in my mind as the greatest Tamil literary work. So it will be, of so much of the literature that is written in languages that one cannot understand.
          .
          For most of us, it is like that. I can speak Sinhalese perfectly well, but I just don’t read much, because it’s so slow. It sounds as though it is like that even for Professor Kumar.

          • 0
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            Dear Sinhala_Man, Thank you.
            TIRUKKURAL is in such simple couplets, its enormous depth go unnoticed!

        • 1
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          PART B
          .
          That doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptional people who manage to do more. My Belgian neighbour had learnt Russian just to read War and Peace – and succeeded. However, he says he cannot really carry on a conversation in the language. I’d say that Russian is now about his sixth best language. That is judging by his English – which is the language that I converse with him in.
          .
          I have to go by what he tells me! Sometimes I sit with him at 6 pm Sri Lankan time, and listen to the French news with him. Some bits he explains to me, during lulls. Some words I can make out.
          .
          That is clearly his FIRST language. He says that Dutch comes next. He tells me that not many of his “Flemish-speaking compatriots” would be able to tell that it’s not his mother tongue, and some of his secondary school studies were done in that language after the family moved to a new locality. although Latin is said to be a “dead” language, it may be that he would be able to speak it if he met a kindred spirit.

          • 1
            0

            PART C
            .
            Apologies for all that bold above.

            He complains that Immanuel Kant wrote such long sentences that it’s difficult to understand him even in German. So, that’s another of his fluent languages.
            .
            He’s read Don Quixote in Spanish, and says he can converse in that. He has about another seven languages. Some of them not European, either. He denies having a special language aptitude – doesn’t realise how gifted he is, in that respect. He says that it’s hard work – and I have no doubt that he has put a lot of effort in, too.
            .
            There was this other place where we exchanged ideas, but didn’t quite agree!
            .
            https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/the-pathology-of-ragging/
            .
            Also, more recently, I’ve exchanged ideas on language acquisition with Buddhist01:
            .
            https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/did-the-sinhala-buddhist-ethnocentrism-select-its-waterloo/
            .
            Towards the middle of the comments there. Wanted to say more, don’t think it’ll get done.

  • 6
    0

    A soothing breeze. After all the confounding political mishmash.

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