The bargain books section at the annual Colombo International Book Fair is a haven. All the stalls are tucked away well to a side of the centre of all the excitement. They are almost deserted at times and anxious staff actually ask you if there are people in the main hall…
But to get there, you have to zigzag endlessly to avoid knocking into horizontally extended families and clans. On a seamless tropical night, blissfully dry, but for the invisible dew, I got there as fast as I could. I’m neither stingy, nor a chronic bargain hunter. It’s simply that I dislike crowds, and there are many wonderful books to be had here at bargain prices. The queen of my treasure trove was Charmaine Solomon’s Encyclopaedia of Asian Food (original price Rs. 5000 but mine for Rs. 1500 because of a hard-cover jacket with frayed edges). It may sound like a funny choice for a literary type, but I have decided to broaden my horizons. Other treasures included a book of notes on the music of Claude Debussy, a study of the lost art of Sinhalese ‘election verse’ of the 1930s, and a thriller by Martin Cruz Smith. Except for the encyclopaedia and the thriller, none of the other books cost more than a plate of instant noodles.
Walking back into the madding crowd, heaving gently from side to side, like a boat in a mild sea, due to the ballast in my hands, I felt like a diver with too much nitrogen in the blood. Nitrogen narcosis, a dreaded underwater condition described by Jacques-Yves Coustaud so romantically as ‘Rapture of the Depths,’ makes you feel giddy, elated or happily confused – common symptoms in any bar room. No wonder I felt elated. My dive into the netherworld of the bargain book stalls, regardless of bottom time, rewarded me with delightful finds from a sunken vessel of printed treasures.
No place to sit and read
I looked for a place to sit and read. This is a long-standing shortcoming of the book fair; there has never been any shelter provided for readers. Surely it won’t kill anybody to put up at least a 20 feet by 20 structure for us to sit and read (with a sign board saying ‘reading room’ to keep out loafers) but there is a singular lack of imagination about the whole thing, as exemplified by the free ‘cultural show’ in front of the Sirimao Bandaranaike hall with the principal book stalls. Several young men gyrating clumsily behind an indifferent singer was proof of that. With so much talent awaiting a chance in this country, the organizers are brilliant at picking the worst!
I found a perch outside the SB hall and began wondering why I had picked up the recipe book. Then it struck me – the book fair is really about eating, and this sort of thing can have an insidious effect on anyone. This book is a learning experience, of course. Being an Asian and living in Asia all my life, I still don’t know many of the edible plants, leaves and herbs listed in it. Leaving it aside for later reference, I picked up the book of poems by William Butler Yeats.
“A prayer for my daughter” by Yeats was studied in the Advance Level poetry class. After Donne, Keats and Shelley, he sounded dour, and I didn’t read anything by him after that. Now, after a regrettable break of almost forty years, I rediscovered the poetry of his later years, full of a sombre and melancholic music, with pleasure.
A glance around me, however, showed that no one else was reading. During my many meanderings through successive book fairs at this venue, I have rarely seen anyone reading. When we buy a book, we can hardly wait to get home to read it. I used to read them in the bus. Reading now perched on hard cement, I felt the odd man out. There was something wrong here.
Everywhere, people were eating instant noodles, washing it down with tea or Nescafe. Or they were having ice cream. I have nothing against gastronomical delights, but when you see ice cream cones rather than books in people’s hands, you feel deflated. It’s a safe bet that people on average spent more on food and drink than on books.
Books vs ebooks
Over the past two decades, many people believed that books were fast heading for extinction given the ebook and social media onslaught. Celebrated bookshops began closing in the developed world. But today, we know that books are here to stay. There’s a reading revival in the West, and more print books are published all over the world than ever.
Over the past two decades, many people believed that books were fast heading for extinction given the ebook and social media onslaught
The print medium wasn’t threatened in the same way over here despite the new generation’s preference for electronic media (how many ebook readers are there, anyway?). The book fair should be proof that the printed book still reigns supreme, but what you see is hardly reassuring, and you end up wondering if most people read anything at all.
There were parents and children carrying bags of books. It’s an educated guess that the bulk of books sold were educational and stationery. No publisher has ever revealed just what percentage of their sales come from fiction, non-fiction and text books. It would come hardly as a surprise if the latter brings in the biggest profits.
Organise reading sessions
This view is based on circumstantial rather than empirical evidence. It is backed by deduction and common sense. Someone could prove me wrong, with the proper statistics. Till then, I will hold this view. In the meantime, the fair should organise regular book and poetry readings and hold panel discussions with authors, with giant screens displaying what’s going on to those far away from the event. The money should be there; tickets cost Rs. 20 each hence the crowds are massive. Publishers, please do everything possible to make people aware of the fact that writers are valuable. Today, only award winning authors have any value, and this is a poor basis for a viable circle of writers and readers. Publishers have a duty to raise and widen literary interests. It’s in their interest, too.
Local writers critisized
This applies to English writing as well as Sinhala and Tamil. The chairman of the Gratiaen Panel, speaking at the last awards ceremony, compared Sri Lankan English creative writing with examples he’d selected from abroad, such as Salman Rushdie’s. He said he can think of nothing written here that is of comparable quality. Also, local writers do not research their subjects well enough. He thereby raised an interesting question – do we treat local writing as part of world literature, or we do acknowledge that we have our own standard?
In my own opinion, Sri Lankans should write in English even if they can’t write as well as Salman Rushdie. That doesn’t render what they have to say null and void, and some day, somebody will get there. The same applies to Sinhala literature. I don’t claim to be a wide reader of contemporary Sinhala literature, but my survey, limited as it is, has revealed very little comparable to the linguistic standard (beauty of prose) achieved by writers of the past such as Martin Wickremasinghe or G. B. Senanayake. This doesn’t mean that contemporary Sinhala fiction has no value. But there is room for improvement, which means hard work, hard work, and more hard work, including more research.
A look at what was available this time revealed other problems, too. After all, the principal market at the book fair is for books in Sinhala. It’s the majority language. Tamil and English come second. There is no suggestion here that the book fair should be literary oriented (meaning not just literary fiction). Serious literary works are read only by relatively small numbers.
There is, however, a popular reading culture all over the world based on genres such as romance, thrillers, science fiction, horror, historical romance and fantasy/adventure. There are many books in those categories which are considered to be serious works of literature -- John Le Carre and Martin Cruz Smith in thriller fiction, J. K. Rowling in fantasy/adventure, Arthur Clarke, Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov in science fiction, Mary Renault in historical romance. But much of the rest is generally ‘pulp’ – entertaining, but forgettable books. Thousands of such books come out each year and there is a huge market for them in the West and elsewhere.
Then there are biographies and histories. Both are rare over here. After a thirty year civil war, several military leaders have written highly biased accounts of it. No reliable, unbiased history by any respected historian or journalist is available.
The English fiction readers over here buy them. One can thereby safely assume a Sinhala and Tamil readership, too, but such books rarely get translated. A few of Dr. Clarke’s early books have been translated, but none of his later works. The Dune by Frank Herbert has never been translated into Sinhala. None of Cruz Smith’s books have been translated. We are still stuck with Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Our translators go for serious literature, which is fine, but a very limiting thing. There is no such thing as a local tradition of thrillers, horror and even historical romance, adding to the problem.
W. A. Silva’s ‘Juli Hatha’ (Seventh of July) and Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels such as `‘Adbhuta Agantukaya’ (The Enigmatic Stranger) are the only Sinhala thrillers which come to mind. Martin Wickremasinghe’s ‘Rohini’ and W. A. Silva’s ‘Sunethra’ and ‘Wijayaba Kollaya’ are historical romance and adventure novels. How many such works have been written after that? Even romances in the calibre of Karunasena Jayalath’s ‘Golu Hadawatha’ aren’t written any more. In short, the book fair has become an annual outing for the family, and buying school texts and stationary at discount prices while eating instant noodles or buying tea at fancy prices. No one grudges what goes into anyone’s stomach, but when the ultimate choice is between good books and noodles, and the popular choice seems to be the latter, it’s time for some hard reflection.
An attempt to widen the range of available categories might improve reading habits and book sales, even though sellers of instant noodles might still be laughing all the way to the bank at the end of each fair. Once writers and publishers do their work (it isn’t done yet), it’s up to the readers.
pix by nisal baduge