By Uditha Devapriya –
Reading is an easy discipline. It requires discipline, yes, but the sort that’s tempered less by coercion than by interest, energy, and enthusiasm. In Sri Lanka, September is demarcated as the Literary Month. That’s Sahithye Masaya in Sinhala. Now in a world where mothers, fathers, and children are celebrated on certain days and nearly every animal, from dogs to cats to pigs, have entire years dedicated to them, this isn’t cause for wonderment. There are of course many ways of talking about a month. Many ways of talking about the habit of reading. This piece is not about September or reading, though. It’s about a bigger issue. The fact that we don’t read enough.
Three years ago, scanning through various editorials in the Sunday papers (because on Sundays back then, that’s what I liked to do), I was entranced by one which delved into an unlikely issue. Back then (September 2014) the Uva Elections had come and gone, Harin Fernando had upset those who had expected the United National Party to lose outright, and Maithripala Sirisena, if we are to believe those who’ve written on the “before” and “after” of the January 8 upheaval, was sketching out his defection (though we’d have to wait two months before he walked out). This editorial wasn’t bothered about the elections, however, in Uva or elsewhere. Titled “පොත්ද? නූඩ්ල්ස් ද?” (“Books? Or Noodles?”) it contended, rather convincingly I should think, that despite the massive crowds which throng at the Colombo International Book Fair (which will be held, this year, from September 15), most of them usually come, not to purchase or even peruse the books on display, but to have the time of their lives, take some pictures, and eat noodles. Interesting. Pertinent. True. And telling.
Sri Lanka prides on itself as a purveyor of free education. Statistics are quoted, being the dazzling figures that they are, in defence of what commentators feel to be an optimistic future, primarily with respect to our literacy rates. What is often forgotten is that the ability to write your name is less a qualification to be proud of than one which would have got a person to become an incongruous leader: the jack among the illiterates, the sighted among the blind. That’s what happens in Woolf’s Village in the Jungle: Babehami, the antagonist, becomes a headman because he’s the only man who was taught by a monk to write his own name. Not exactly an achievement, is it?
The Book Fair, and of course the organisers behind it, have done everything to ensure that it tries to achieve its objective: getting more people to read. To be fair, not everyone who visits it does so to have a good time. And to be fair, the Exhibition has grown in popularity over the years, despite those inevitable price hikes. But even with the rising numbers, the indifference to those hikes, and the various events organised at the Fair to inculcate a love for reading (last year, for instance, the Writers’ Organisation of Sri Lanka held several workshops, while Sampath Bank sponsored a “Katapath Pawura” to promote Sinhala poetry), the fact is that fewer people, particularly younger people, want to read. Why is this a problem?
Because of the fact that no nation, and no community, can keep up with modernity unless it gets its people to flip through a page and learn something. Not just learn, but comprehend, apply, and if possible, add to. Let’s not forget the meaning of literacy as per UNESCO: the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute based on printed and written material. We are a nation of memorisers: we throw out what is taught to us, word to word. What makes this even more pathetic, then, is that even within its limited parameters we don’t take in enough. Modernity is coterminous with looking to the future by anchoring oneself in the past, by understanding that the past is neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy in its entirety. If we haven’t learnt to process a text, though, exactly how are we going to do that?
If we don’t become a nation of readers we don’t and can’t become a nation of novelists, poets, critics, and thinkers. It’s as easy as that. We grow to simply be content with what’s there, available for everyone, preferring ease of access to forward-looking intelligence. Three distinct points, or problems, emerge from this.
One, we end up becoming a repository, and not a disseminator, of information. Two, we become sterile, content in living for the moment, not processing what is heard and seen everywhere (especially with respect to popular culture, which is so rampant that its influence is widespread, inescapable), and blindly accepting of what is without thinking of what was and will be. Three, and most poignantly, we let go of the need to sustain a national literature, and thereby neglect what’s already and historically ours. Of these three the first two have been elaborated by others, while the third has not. I will sweep through the first two, and delve into the third later on.
The contemporary world is (apparently) divided into two cultures: high and low. This dichotomy, so convenient to some, is actually a farce. A corollary of this is the separation of that same culture into the popular and the serious. That too is a farce, evasive, careless. My contention is that culture is derived from what is seen and heard, and by that I include everything: Amaradeva and Khemadasa played on your radio at home; H. R. Jothipala and Sangeeth Wijesuriya played on the bus on your way home.
There’s really nothing different between these two categories, come to think of it; if at all, the former is closeted, the domain of those who go for refined tastes, while the latter is the preserve of you and me, middle-of-the-road public transport users.
But this is irrelevant: one can listen to Khemadasa on the bus and one can listen to Sangeeth Wijesuriya at home. What brings the highbrow and the lowbrow here together is the fact that culture is, at its inception, popular: it is heard, processed, and more often than not sensually felt. And when it is digested, it becomes an influence, shaping one’s ideas, tastes, and prejudices. What then tempers popular culture – the cinema, the theatre, music, even pornography – is our ability to process it, to explain what is heard, seen, and felt. To a considerable extent, reading aids this: criticism and judgments are essential in a country where a popular culture exists and is pervasive, and without reading, there can be no judgments, no criticisms, and no criterion of aesthetic and cultural value. In other words, no ascertainable value, period.
The reason why reading is so important is the reason why criticism is so important: it helps us rationalise our senses, what they feel. One can’t rationalise what is felt that easily, of course, and neither should one take this as an excuse to intellectualise emotions (which is what makes so much of contemporary criticism so sterile, so stopgap). Criticism is basically the transformation of felt matter into discerned matter: communicating a culture to its consumers, cogently and cohesively.
Without reading, without getting in what others have written elsewhere, we can’t produce a community of critics. This, and not what puritans and moralists consider as the death knell of our society, is what ails us: our inability to take in and explain. The puritan will argue that it is the profusion of what he considers as a lowbrow culture which has resulted in us not reading, not understanding. My contention is different: I believe that even that which is misconceived by the puritans as “lowbrow” (H. R. Jothipala’s songs, Sunil Soma Peiris’s movies, Sujeewa Prasanaarachchi’s novels) can be transformed into deserving art, if one reads into it enough. Without the sort of culture of discernment this necessitates, however, what can we hope for?
Needless to say, one can infer with all this that our growing inability and lack of interest in reading is a corollary of our growing inability at reading between the lines. Without a culture of reading there can’t be a culture of writing, to put it simply.
When I revisit that editorial I read three years ago, therefore, what comes to my mind is that all those noodle-eating folk, who wish to have the time of their lives at an exhibition that is supposed to confer something of value to those who pay the 20 rupee admission and patronise it, are missing the point. By a wide margin. So wide that from those sobering reflections I’ve sketched out above, a third comes out: our neglect of our own literature, our own culture. I leave that for a later article, but for now, here are my two cents: without resorting to and nourishing our literature, the written word, we will find it difficult to replenish every other art-form in this country, from drama to music to film. How and why so, I will explore eventually. And soon.