Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What can books do?

What shall I tell you about my recent trip to Sri Lanka? That it is a beautiful country, rich with red soil, green trees and luscious fruits? That their thembili is the queen of coconuts, sweet and refreshing? That the green one is kurumba, more like our elaneer back home?  That signs are in three languages, Sinhala, English and Tamil, and the burghers are people of Dutch descent? That the presidential election of January 26 has left a lot of questions in its wake even as young people write about the excitement of being able to travel in Jaffna at last?
I was there in January-February to participate in the children’s events of the Galle Literary Festival that was held at the historical fort of Galle, a hub of activity in the town, in the southern province. It takes between three to four hours to drive down there from Bandaranaike airport just north of Colombo. In many ways, it’s like the movies because you drive all along the coast looking out on the seemingly endless Indian Ocean, specifically the Gulf of Mannar. Sometimes the sea’s so close you feel that if you step out of the car, you will wet your feet!
And all along the drive, you see evidence of the 2004 tsunami that took about 40,000 lives in Sri Lanka and displaced more than 2.5 million. The swathe of coastline in and around Galle was very badly hit by the black mountain that rose sometimes six metres from the sea that December 26th morning and went as far as five kilometres inland. A railway line runs along the coastline and that morning a whole train went under in that nation’s worst human disaster. This is why, as we drove closer to my destination, I was filled with greater and greater trepidation. How could I talk about the tsunami in a country that had been ravaged by it? Who was I to do that, even if I had written a book for children about it called My Friend, the Sea?
But my friend, Janaki Galappatti, who is Sri Lankan and who was instrumental in inviting me, seemed to think it was possible. And that’s how I found myself, on January 30th, sitting with a bunch of 12 to 14 year-olds mostly come down from Colombo, in a verandah at the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum in Koggala on the Galle-Matara Road. (Matara is Sanath Jayasuriya’s home town.) Across, on the shore side is a hotel known to make the most expensive dessert, studded with gems!
Cross the railway line and you enter a large, rolling, verdant space that is filled with a spontaneous ensemble of birdsong. It is rich and green and heartwarming. In the far distance is a small house, the home of Martin Wickramasinghe a much-loved Sri Lankan writer who had a special interest in Sri Lanka’s craft traditions and history. The complex houses a folk museum that is large enough to hold a variety of interesting objects and small enough to sustain a child’s interest. Janaki told me that in the tsunami, while so much around was destroyed, Martin Wickramasinghe’s home remained untouched.
Activities had been planned to be held under the trees, but the rain came down and so we had to crowd into a red-floored verandah for a reading of the book and a discussion. The children shared what they knew and had heard about the tsunami and somehow, slowly, the talk went from disasters to friendship. What is friendship? Why do we make friends? Do we need friends? Why? What does it mean to lose a friend? Why do we feel so hurt when friends let us down? How would Suresh, of Suresh and the Sea, feel about the sea after the tsunami? Some of them promised to write back to me about it and I hope this post will remind them of that.
The following day, we took a bus to the Sanghamitta Balika Vidyalaya in Galle town, supposed to be the largest government school in Asia with 6000 students and about 250 teachers. Set on low hilly terrain, the campus is magnificent with a forest of trees on the horizon. This morning’s group comprised 8 to 11 tear-olds with one naughty fellow hopping from bench to chair to front to back all through the reading. The rest listened, engrossed, it seemed.
Usually, at readings in other places, almost the first question that comes is: Is this a real story? Is this a real boy you’re talking about? Here, there was silence. Then, when I asked if anybody would like to talk about it, share some experience, a nine year-old I shall call Ameena put up her hand. I had met her earlier through a series of interesting encounters that are stories for another day and we had sat beside each other on the bus. I knew therefore that she knew nobody else in that group of about 30 or 35. You see, they were all from different schools and parts. She was from a local school in Galle and she was very quiet and shy.
Ameena turned around to face the group and spoke softly as loud as she could. She said that she and her two sisters had been away in Colombo visiting a cousin with their grandmother while her older brother, mum and dad had stayed behind in their home on the seafront in Galle. A couple of friends were there for breakfast on the beach and somehow they had got up to move their jeep. When the waves came, several metres high, it washed through her home and carried away her parents and brother. They swam in the sea for a very long time, about half an hour of so,before they were rescued. Her brother later clung to his father who was holding on to a tree. They lost everything. She was a toddler when this happened, but she will never forget it.
I noticed that the naughty fellow who had been making several journeys around the classroom had now stationed himself on a desk, and was listening. And somehow, after this, the mood changed. It seemed as though the children were looking at that event with new eyes, even with respect and care. It was no longer something that had happened in Sri Lanka. It was something that had happened to one of us.
I was proud of Ameena. It was brave of her to talk about something that was so painful for her parents. It was even braver to stand up and address a group of strangers. She shared her experience. And by listening, they shared it too. Perhaps that’s something books can do…?

-Sandhya Rao, Tulika