13 May 2016

Silence is an eraser that sets fire to libraries

I wrote about libricide or the act of setting fire to libraries, books etc., a term that could be extended to include the notion of censorship and self-censorship as well. I mentioned several libraries that have been burnt/destroyed in various parts of the world at various times in history. At least three people, upon reading the article ('Pyromaniac, thy manuscript will not burn!'), pointed out that I had omitted the burning of the Jaffna Library.



One of them, Feizal Mansoor made the correct and wry observation, 'to say this wthout making a reference to the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by the UNP goons is disingenuous'. Unpardonable. For many reasons. 

First, this was not a library in a strange country I had never visited. It was not burnt before I was born. 

I was not an infant when it happened. In a sense it happened before my eyes.

It horrified me then and the horror remained for almost 30 years. In 1998, when the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime launched a pothai-gadolai (book and brick) project to rebuild the library I wrote an article, claiming that if the library was built it would vindicate the regime and cleanse it of all its crimes. The paper didn't carry it, but Ian Goonetilleka, the foremost bibliographer in post-Independence Sri Lanka, told me that I had given too much credit to the then Government.

The death of an old man is likened in some societies to the burning of a library. I lamented in that article the murder of an old man and celebrated what I thought was an honest effort to resurrect him. How could it have slipped my mind?

To be honest, I do not know. It was a blight on our nation. It was a blight on my community because the library was torched by Sinhalese and that act of arson was sanctioned and sanitized by the silence of leaders who were by birth 'Sinhalese'. I did not know until today that the incident followed a TULF rally on Sunday, May 31, 1981 during which three Sinhalese policemen were shot at and two killed.
That provocation is not mentioned much in condemnations of the burning, but the provocation did not justify the act and silence over the provocation does not warrant or justify silence on the act.
It was not just the library. The headquarters of the TULF was destroyed. The office of Eelanaadu, a local paper, was destroyed. Statues of Tamil cultural and religious figures are also said to have been destroyed or defaced.

The library was originally a private collection and was made 'public' in 1959 and launched as such by the then Mayor, Alfred Duraiappah, who, ironically was the first victim of militant Tamil chauvinism in 1975.

That's also a 'silenced' part of the Jaffna Library story. I searched the web. Most references mentioned Duraiappah. They all placed the burning in a larger political/historical context but dropped the LTTE connection. This too is little consolation for my unconscious act of libricide.

We are not perfect. We burn books in our minds. We erase event from memory. We embellish our preferences and take away from that which we dislike. Some of this is consciously done. Some of it is unconsciously done. That distinction is not a good enough 'out'.

I suppose we have to keep in mind that libraries are being burnt, facts erased, memory squeezed at every turn and with every passing moment. This is why we have to be vigilant about erasure, that which others do and that which we perpetrate.

I forgot the Jaffna Library. There are those who 'remember' Jaffna, but forget what was done to the Dalada Maligawa, what happened at the Sri Maha Bodhiya. People remember Kebithigollewa on June 15, 2006, but forget what happened in Pesalai two days later. And vice versa. Selectivity in remembrance amounts to libricide, I think. Silence is an eraser.

I forgot the Jaffna Library. I also forgot to mention the numerous acts of libricide that occurred during the Moghul invasion and of course those that resulted from the conflict between the Mahaviharikas and the Vaithulyavadins. 

On May 31, 1981, the poet M.A. Nuhman reminds me, the Buddha was shot dead in Jaffna, on the steps of the Library. Here's the 'report' (translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom):
In my dream, last night
Lord Buddha lay, shot dead.
Government police in civilian clothes
Shot and killed him
He lay upon the steps
Of the Jaffna Library,
Drenched in his own blood.
In the darkness of the night
The ministers arrived, raging:
'His name wasn't on our list,
So why did you kill him?'
'No, sirs,' they said,
'No mistake was made. Only,
Without killing him, it wasn't possible
To shoot even a fly.
So...'
'Ok. OK. But
Get rid of the corpse at once,'
The ministers said, and vanished.
The plainclothes men
Dragged the corpse inside
And heaped upon it
Ninety thousand rare books
And lit the pyre
with the Sigalovada Sutta.
So the Lord Buddha's body turned
to ashes
And so did the Dhammapada. 


How many times have you shot dead the Buddha, how many times Jesus Christ, how many times Prophet Mohammed, how many times Lord Krishna, how many times have you killed deities and entities you've held sacred?

We are all arsonists and unless we are ready to extinguish all fires, including those we light, we will be promoting libricides of one kind or another and take our children to a 'promised land' called Ignorance. I think we can do better than that. Speaking strictly for myself, I am trying. Hard. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column to the 'Daily Mirror' titled 'Subterranean Transcripts'.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene
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