Surely one of the greatest joys of being grown-up is that you get to buy books for the children you know: nieces, nephews, children, grandchildren, the children and grandchildren of your friends. My first grandchild can’t read yet, but she’s already getting her first library. Mostly cloth books at the moment, the washable, chewable, indestructible kind. But I must confess to a warm glow of satisfaction when I think of the pleasures that await her: the fairy tales, the legends, the children’s ‘classics’, the stories from every country in the world that lit up my sisters’ world and mine, with all of which I hope to stock her shelves as she grows up, and with which I hope to be connected in her memory long after I’m no longer around.
As children of the 21st century in Sri Lanka, however, her generation will have a privilege I never had: they will be able to read and respond to books written and published specially for children, in English, which tell stories straight out of their own experience. Popsicle Books, the publishers who gave us the late Nihal de Silva’s delightful Paduma meets the Sun Bird two years ago, and followed it up with Timothy Seneviratne’s little book about the tsunami, The 3 Friends and the Big Wave, have brought off another success – MilkRice, edited by award-winning author and publisher Ameena Hussein. This is a collection of nine stories for our children, and though the heroes and heroines of the stories are mostly around eleven or twelve years old, who live in Sri Lankan towns, villages and homes, attend schools very similar to theirs, and speak the everyday language of their own homes, their appeal is universal and most certainly includes the thoughtful adult.
Every story in the collection has more to it than at first meets the eye. Faith Ratnayake’s story ‘Meetings’, which begins the book, seems at first reading to be about Raju’s disappointment when the colourful kite he has built – the joy of his life – gets tangled up in telephone wires and soaked in a downpour, so that it has to be abandoned. In fact, however, the tale ends on a note of cheerful optimism, as the narrator Rohan – a boy of Raju’s own age, from a much more affluent home – learns from his new-found friend a timely lesson about resourcefulness and the true value of possessions:
“We stepped back along the path to look at the kite again. I couldn’t help noticing how the gloomy blue thunderclouds showed up its brilliant yellow. Raju folded his thin arms across his chest. I couldn’t believe how cheerful he was. I felt ashamed, remembering the awful fuss I made the first time my bicycle tyre got a puncture. “Can’t help it,” he said with a cheery smile. “Let it be, I can make another one. My mother will manage to get me the materials. It’s worth it.” He grinned cheekily, said cheerio, and ran as the raindrops crashed to the ground. “Where do you live?” I called after him, meaning to be polite, but he had gone.”
Meeting his cousin Gerard later that day, Rohan hears the phrase Raju had used – “It’s worth it” – in a different context. Gerard is on holiday from England with his parents, and he tells Rohan that he ‘needed his own mobile’.
“They’re expensive,” I said. “My Dad will buy one, with games you can play. It’s worth it,” he replied.
When Gerard and his parents go ‘for ices to that place on Flower Road’, Rohan is glad to say goodbye to them. When he sees the kite once again, it is still tangled in the telephone wires but seems still, in the face of adversity, as cheerful and optimistic as its creator.
“Reaching home, I ran upstairs to look out from the balcony. The kite, soggy and ragged by now, still merrily waved its long blue tail.”
A story of quite a different kind, with a different message, is Premini Amerasinghe’s tale, ‘Kalu’s Adventures’. Some of us might recall the old Arabian fairytale about a fisherman who found a stoppered porcelain jar washed up on the beach, removed the stopper and accidentally set free a kindly Genie whom a malicious enchanter had imprisoned in the jar. Granted three wishes by The Slave of the Jar, the fisherman is urged by his greedy, acquisitive wife to ask for increasing wealth and power until at last, on the last wish, he goes too far, and finds himself back with his nagging, resentful wife in their tiny hut on the beach. In ‘Kalu’s Adventures’, the jar of the fairytale is transformed into an antique vase that Karim’s father has brought home to Sri Lanka as a souvenir from Mecca. When Karim and his best friend Kalu Banda blow on the vase and rub it hard to make it shine, a ‘Genie’ appears, but a Genie with a difference!
“There stood a large man with a cheerful face and twirling mustache, dressed up in a white robe, and more astonishingly, he had a magnificent white horse that was pawing impatiently to be off.”
Mustapha, formerly a leader of an Arabian desert tribe, imprisoned in the vase a century earlier by a jealous king, has been brought back to life by the oxygen in the boys’ breath. (A nice scientific touch, that!) Mounted behind him on his splendid horse, Karim and Kalu Banda journey into the past of their own beautiful country, seeing its famous landmarks as they had been a hundred years ago, and absorbing as they go something of Mustapha’s homespun philosophy:
“Isn’t this the same Jaffna Fort where there was all that fighting?” said Karim. “Yes,” said Kalu, “that too is in ruins now. You remember the pictures of those boys carrying guns larger than themselves, and peering out of the windows of large tanks?”
“Why should there be wars, Mustapha?”asked Kalu.
“Don’t ask me. That’s why I am here today. You don’t find monkeys or elephants, or camels for that matter, attacking each other, do you? I think it’s all because of something called an IDEA. We humans get them, but not animals. There are good ideas, which are fine. And there are bad ones. They start off like a puff of smoke, and then become a raging fire. Their whole life centres around the idea, which they now call an ideal. It is really like an idol or false god they worship blindly. They make sure the flames spread so that all the little boys and girls are set on fire by this idea Slowly the fire burns itself out, but by then it’s too late,” said Mustapha more to himself than the others.”
‘Why should there be wars?’ It is a question that must often occur to the children of the present generation in this country, who have never known what it is to have a tranquil childhood, or to read a newspaper that does not have bloodied images on its front page, and statistics of men killed or taken prisoner. Still, this story at least has a happy ending, as the two adventurous boys go home to lunch, and Mustapha, free from his prison, thinks about making a new life for himself as a shopkeeper in Colombo.
Rossana Favero-Karunaratna tells a little story about a small village shop that sells hats made to measure of a very special kind which keep safe the dreams and memories of its customers, and in ‘A Cat, a Rat and a Snake’, Lal Medawattegedera lets us in on the private thoughts of a domestic pet:
“Menakshi is crying in her room. Now that is not a good sign.
I hide under the book cupboard.
There is a bad whiff in the air. I feel it in my whiskers. I feel it in my coat.”
Menakshi’s pet cat is about to be evicted from his comfortable environment because the family is moving to another house, and her mother doesn’t want the cat to accompany them. Between them, Menakshi and her pet devise a strategy that will allow her to keep him, but as it involves two other personalities – a terrified laboratory rat that Menakshi has ‘rescued’ from her school and a snake that would like to consume the rat but is overwhelmed by the force of the cat’s ‘Catosophy’ – putting their plan into action requires some fancy footwork from all concerned. By the end of the story, the cat has come to be regarded as a hero by Menakshi’s mother; and the three animals, inspired by the little girl’s love of living things, have arrived despite their natural inclinations at ‘a common understanding’ – no invading territory, no killing each other – which makes peaceful co-existence possible for them all. A useful message with urgent contemporary connotations, told with great charm and a lively sense of comedy.
In Chandani Wickremasinghe Kirinde’s story ‘The Flying Machine’, a farmer’s son dreams of making an aeroplane. His eagerness to find out as much as he can about aerodynamics at school – “What is a plane? How does it stay in the sky?” – is met with discouragement from a teacher who knows nothing about planes and doesn’t like children asking questions, anyway:
“The master rolled his eyes. He wasn’t too sure himself of the mechanics of an aeroplane. He tried to avoid answering Prasad. “Child, what use is it to you knowing how a plane works. You will never get to go in one. It’s better you first learn how a bicycle works,” the master said.”
Undeterred, Prasad persists. With planks taken from his father’s tool shed, he makes his own plane. He realizes, of course, that what he is creating is only a toy. But more important than the building of a plane is the building of this young lad’s self-confidence and determination:
“The master was wrong about him never being able to get on a real plane. Not only would he get on a plane one day but he would build his own plane he thought as he gave the finishing touches to his toy plane (and) ran with it across the paddy fields.” Prasad’s is indeed ‘a great achievement’! He knows, and the reader knows too, that that day is only the beginning, and that ‘he would not give up till his dreams of flying came true’.
Simon Harris’s story ‘Joseph’s Letter’ reads like a true story: if it is not true, it deserves to be for what it tells us about the power of the pen. When a 12-year-old Sri Lankan schoolgirl finds a pen-friend in Joseph Miremba of Uganda, she is caught up in a real-life tragedy brought about by civil war. Joseph has been captured by Ugandan rebels, and is being trained, like so many young children here and abroad, as a child soldier. When they learn this, Nimara and her friends in school and across the country contrive, by their goodwill and determination, to give his childhood back to Joseph and force the adults responsible for his imprisonment to set him free:
“The plan was simple. She and every girl in her class would write letters to the leader of the Lords Resistance Army, the President of Uganda, the Secretary General of the United Nations and anybody else they thought might be able to get Joseph free. They would keep writing and writing until someone took notice of them.”
Despite the trauma and psychological distress Joseph has to endure, his story and Nimari’s is one to cheer and inspire a young reader, with its intimation of what is possible. The experience changes not only this boy’s life, but the lives of everyone who has been touched by Nimari’s letter campaign.
Three stories in the book that deal with change on a much less heroic scale, Lolita Subasingha’s ‘Metamorphosis’, Kavitha Ganesan’s ‘Rukshan the Brave’, and Neluka Silva’s story ‘The Monkey Man’ all show how events of daily life can bring about profound shifts in attitude and perception. Ajitha, in the first story, learns the hard way that mindless slaying of helpless creatures should rightly create shame in the killer’s mind, not pride; Rukshan, in the second, learns to assert himself without retaliation in a classroom dominated by swaggering bullies; and Amali, a timid, fastidious little girl who finds the sight of a monkey performing tricks to earn coins for his master ‘unbearable’, sees for herself how the poor live when she visits a slum and discovers the nature of the pressures under which the destitute eke out their existence.
Like kiributh, that favourite of the children’s festive table, the stories assembled here present a feast that is not only delicious but sustaining. The next time you need to buy gifts for bright, intelligent young friends, forget about Barbie dolls and computer games.
Give them Milk Rice.