20 June 2014

And Vasilisa is still beautiful after all these years

People send me book lists now and then. They want to see if I’ve read at least 6 in the list. Sometimes the figure is 10.  Such lists, I am told, consist of the most popular books on earth or those which have had the greatest influence on humankind.  Some lists are devoted to fiction and some don’t make such distinctions.  Such requests come on Facebook. For the most part they consist of books that are written in English or else translated into that language. I haven’t seen a single Chinese book in any of these lists.  There was one time though when I saw a Chinese story, if one may call it that; ‘The good earth’ by Pearl S Buck.  I had read the Sinhala translation but not the English. 

I haven’t seen Sybil Wettasinghe’s DuwanaRewla (‘The runaway beard’ or ‘The running beard’) or her Kuda Hora (‘The umbrella thief’). Nothing of Martin Wickramasinghe or of Piyadasa Sirisena. Haven’t encountered the works of Simon Navagaththegama,  JayatilakaKammellaweera or MahagamaSekara. I can’t blame anyone for this.  No one is omniscient and people are free to pick and choose. 

Some queries are open-ended. One is required to make a list and share.  I have never indulged in these exercises, entertaining and informative though they surely are.  This Sunday morning I was thinking of books I’ve read, loved, treasured and re-read.

‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ enchanted and still does, I realized.  Not the ‘most influential’ or ‘the best’ of course, but just as there are right moments to read particular books there are moments to remember them as well. 

My late mother was not a writer.  She knew books, though. Books.  Yes, they were among the greatest gifts she gave us.  Back then in the early seventies even though she got a next-to-nothing salary as an assistant teacher, she built a library for us at home, mostly courtesy the largesse of the Soviet Union and cheap but high quality books put out by Progress Publishers and sold at the People’s Publishing House, Slave Island.  It may have been a deliberate strategy, I don’t know, but looking back I think learning English was made easy by the fact that she made available to us translations of Russian books in both Sinhala and English. 

‘Lassana Vasilisa’was what the collection of fairy tales was called in Sinhala.  Fascinated me.   Nothing of the experience was robbed by the fact that it was read in Sinhala, when the English version came to my hands.  She brought both books home.  Vasilisa was as beautiful in Sinhala as she was in English.  I wanted to be the Sinhala ‘Fenist the Falcon’ as much as the English one (and had I known Russian, the want might have been even greater) and wanted so much for a Maryushka (Sinhala or English) to come looking for me. 

I was Ivan the Poor, I was Ivan Young of Years Old of Wisdom and I knew I would someday marry Aloyna the Lovely Tsarevna.  I was Simeon the Youngest (of the Seven Simeons) who would sing songs and play the pipe, warming the hearts of people with music and lightening their labour.  We are all the heroes in the books we read, I now realize and it doesn’t really matter if life doesn’t turn out as promised in storybook. 

Yesterday I saw my daughter reading a ‘cheaper’ (in terms of quality, not price) version of ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’.  She told me she had already read the Sinhala version.  I had forgotten that I had got her both some years ago.  She is a re-reader and I am sure she must have been Vasilisa several times and Maryushka too.  I am sure she went passed the Thrice-Nine Lands to the Thrice-Ten Tsardoms and finally met her beloved Fenist.

I don’t know what kinds of lists she will be asked to make or from which she would be asked to pick favourites three decades from today. I don’t know if she will wonder why people have not considered ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’ or Kuda Hora or whatever other treats she associates with childhood and attributes decision and direction in life to.  She loves books. That’s enough for me. For now.

In the end, I feel, for all the rebellions directed at parents, we end up just like them.  My mother, as I said, was a teacher. She showed pathways without seeming to do so.  She was my greatest teacher for all these things and especially for introducing me to the greatest teacher of them all, as far as I can tell, Siddhartha Gauthama.  She introduced me to Vasilisa and this is how I discovered that we are always children and although we leave childhood behind, it remains resident within us.  She introduced me to Jesus Christ for she had attended a Catholic school and loved to sing the hymns she had learned as a child.  That’s how I came to know that this exceptional human being once said ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’. 

I do not believe in ‘god’ or ‘heaven’, but when such notions are treated as metaphors, I see no major contradiction in the relevant philosophies.  In this instance, I am glad that my mother showed me how to open heart to child and child to heart.  I am glad she taught me how to let them come and also to go to them.

Most of all, I am glad she taught me how to acknowledge, appreciate and rejoice in the fact that we are made of the Upali Giniwella and Jinna, Ivan the Poor and Ivan – Young of Years, Old of Wisdom, Fenist the Falcon and Simeon the Youngest.  And of course ways to let heart be open to the permanent residency of Aloyna the Lovely Tsarevna, Maryushka and the unforgettable Vasilisa the Beautiful. 

I hope I am even half the teacher that my mother was, but even if I am not I won’t be too worried. My daughter loves among other things, books included, ‘Vasilisa the Beautiful’.  That’s enough. For now.



Anonymous said...

මට මතකයි මම පහ වසරේ ඉද්දි අම්මා මට මේ පොත ගෙනත් දුන්න.මගෙ හිත ඉස්සෙල්ලම ඇදිල ගියේ පොතේ පිටකවරෙට. මේ පුංචි රුසියානු සුරංගනා කතා පොත මගේ හිතේ ලොකු ඉඩක් ගත්තා.පොතේ ආපු ගොඩක් චරිත රෑට දකින හීනවල හිටියා.තාමත් මේ පොත මම කියවනවා.එතකොට හරිම නොස්ටෑල්ජියාවකින් මගේ හිත පිරෙනවා.අවුරුදු ගාණක් මම හිතෙන් පස්සට යනවා.රුසියානු සාහිත්‍යයට මම ඉස්සෙල්ලම ආදරේ කරන්න ගත්තේ මේ පොත කියවලා.
---Manushi Silva---

Praditha said...


Can any one help me to find this book???? I want to buy a copy. Please help me. I want to know where I can buy this.


Malinda Seneviratne said...

'Friendship Book Shop' on Elvitigala Mw (Base Line Road)...close to the Kirulapona Junction, opposite HNB....should have it. The owner is a friend. Iqbal. If he doesn't have it, he could probably get it for you.

Praditha said...

Thank you soo much Malinda. I'll go there and contact Iqbal :)

Pink said...

One of the Best Fairy tales I ever read... Still can rememebr the young days feelings with this novel.. Me too searching to buy a copy for my Kids..