7th July 1996

Literary landmark pushed out of British Council shelves

By Rajpal Abeynayake

You can be more British than the British. This is the oftentimes boorish management of the Biritsh Council library in Colombo has proved. Now, to please the Queen, the British Council library in Colombo is getting rid of its Sri Lanka collection. Mr. Harrison Perera, the librarian in charge, a choleric partonising man, says in his usually condescending worst that the Sir Lankan collection is to be terminated for "very good reasons".

For people who read books this does not, we are afraid, include the librarians of the British Council, the Sir Lankan collection at the British Council has been of particular value. You may, if the grandiose minds at the Council permit, even call the collection as olde world effort, a bit from here and a bit from there, but thoroughly interesting.

The best Sir Lankan collection in the island is of course probably in Preadeniya but that is of hardly any help to us folks in Colombo.

Now one enters the hallowed portals of the British Council these days with trepidation, because the place is being refurbished and all that type of grand jiggery-pokery. The British Council is being made into a repository of the new world reading material designed to keep professionals and other such people happy.

The Sri Lankan collection of course is the most prominent victim of this new drive for techno chic. Says Harrison Perera, in his staccato stiff upper lip argot that the British Council is here to cater to Sri Lankans who want to read British books. Whoops. We'd have never guessed that.

The Sir Lankan section, he adds, was for purposes of the expatriate community, who needed to have Sri Lankan meterial at their disposal (Of course this means that those who availed themeselves of the Sri Lankan section while it was in existence were just freebooters on the largesse that was actually meant for the foreigners.) Just when we thought neo colonialism was a bad word, here comes Harrison Perera to drive a different concept into our minds.

Guess what the management of the British Council in their infinite British acquired wisdom wants to do with its Sir Lankan collection? Says Harrison in his blissful and nonchalant mode, that the "British Council is going to put up the Sir Lankan collection for sale." If you would listen to Harrison Perera, you would think that the British were doing us Sri Lankans a very great favour.

The net result, for the information of rest of us hoi polloi Sri Lankan's is the second best Sri Lankan collection in the country will be scattered in the attics and storerooms of us ordinary people .

The next best thing we guess, to putting the collection on the internet.

We Sri Lankans are of course obviously not a very reading broading type of people. The public library is the national gutter for book reading. It is musty, dusty, and could pass off for a toilet, but if you would really see the toilets there, you would see that the word toilet has been given different meaning as well.

Naturally the British Council is the most heavily subscribed British council library in the entire world. This definitely gives more Kudos to the light skinned gentlemen at the British Council, who of course would probably tell you that they are only a shade lighter than the British, even if that matters.

Incidentally, in this day of the worldwide web and so forth, we shall distinguish the British Council with another accolade. It is also probably the only British Council in the world that is more security conscious than the men at Temple Trees. No notebooks are allowed at the British Council library, and you can have it be known from the (more British than the British) management that the British Council is suffering from a bad case of pilferage. Books are purloined: pages are purloined and schoolboys are found with pages of the Wisden in their pockets.

So the solution has been to ban all kinds of books from the reference section of the library. This is like banning cadavers in the graveyard. Pardon the moribund comparison, but the jet age thinking of the British Council administration engenders such minds boggling thought.

Why quarrel with the British Council, the cultured, refind and composed mind would definitely ask?

It is not that we pick the British in particular. Actually, the British have little or nothing to do with it. Not much argument on the fact that the British Council is not run charitably, or on the fact that the British have British interests at heart.

The germane issue here however is not who runs the institution, but on how ordinarily common sensical the institution is. (Pardon the un Britishlike coinage) The bottom line is that the library does not exist in vacuum. It exists in a community and presumably has at least a partially symbolic relationship with the community it serves.

In short this is a library. In which case why does the management that runs it, British, Sinhalese coloureds Pukkasahibs or whoever they maybe, act like a bunch of simpleton illiterates? It's a question that you should perhaps ask the British, because they are less British.......

Tailpiece: Among other things, the Jaffna libarary will be rebuilt. Torched by the goondas of the pre-Premadasa regime the library, in its destroyed state, become a more potent symbol for state terrorism than any other that was known. Jaffna library is being rebuilt; the general transition that is taking place in the peninsula is of course of profound significance.

Though soldiers such as the late Ananda Hamangoda could look into the eyes of the schoolgirls of Jaffna, Vembadi high or wherever they may be from, it is still moot as to how the schoolgirls look at the gladiators. Is the Sri Lankan army, thoroughly professional though its attitude may be, classified as an occupying army or as a liberating army?

To the school girls in Jaffna, who grew up without the benefit of the Jaffna library most of their lives it might be a searching question. Life in Jaffna is now in the interim in the limbo between rebel state and state.

All citizens of a rebel state are suspect, and as long as the Sri Lankan army was fighting to wrest back Jaffna from the LTTE, most residents of the peninsula were considered as being tainted in some way by being under the gun of the rebels.

Then the unthinkable happened. The villified Sri Lankan army took over the territory that was, to say the least, disputed in all tangible terms.

Reading the Jaffna mind from the confines of Colombo is a difficult exercise, but it is not difficult to fathom what the transition in Jaffna has done to the minds in Colombo's well placed observers.

The peace brigade, for instance, had maintained what is, despite the soft music in the background, a deafening silence.

If the changes now taking place in Jaffna are momentous, certainly the peaceniks are not saying it. They are in a strange limbo themselvs. People, both in Colombo and in Jaffna, are finding it difficult to decide whether the war has ended, what her it still continues, or whether we are just seeing the beginning of the end.

Peace is anti climatic, and this is essentially the problem that the huddled masses who were spectators to this war find difficult to comprehend. A war is fought. Peace happens.

peace is probably happening in Jaffna now in a way that is probably not to the liking of many observers of this conflict. Staccato bursts of violence disturb this peace, but when peace happens in any way, it hardly merits any attention in the international press.

It may be a homily, but good news is not news or are we collectively afraid the honeymoon won't last?...?

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