10 March 2023

A cockroach named “Don’t”

There was always an unwritten rule in our household about books. My brother being just a year older and sister two years younger it was natural that we would share an interest in the same kinds of books. Books purchased were up for grabs and the borrower had a claim over books borrowed. Be that as it may, whoever began reading a book could claim reading rights if, say, the book was put down for a while and someone else picked it up to read. No arguments.  

Books and reading, looking back, seemed to have been important to all three of us. It probably helped that there were lots of books in the house and that our mother would spend whatever money she could spare to buy new books.There were toys. A few. For the most part we invented games. And read.

One day, when I was probably around twelve years old, I saw my sister deeply engrossed in a book. We were at our maternal grandparents’ place in Malkaduwawa, Kurunegala. There were fewer books there. It must have been just after lunch, i.e. after morning cricket with boys in the neighbourhood and before afternoon cricket with them.

‘What’s the book?’ More out of curiosity, than boredom.

‘Don’t,’ she said without looking up.

She read a lot. She had a vast vocabulary, a sharp mind and a sharper tongue. At that age. We didn’t really walk on eggshells around her, but were nevertheless somewhat wary.

‘Don’t…’ she said and I completed the sentence in my head, ‘….disturb me.’

‘I am not trying to bother you — just tell me the title!’ I insisted.

‘Don’t!’ This time the tone was sharp, but she was still focused. Didn’t look up.

‘Just tell me the title!’

A sharp turn of the head and a louder, curt and more insistent answer: ‘Don’t!’

Now why couldn’t she just tell me the title. Just say it and I would be gone. She knew this.

‘Tell me!’ I might have been slightly louder this time.

‘Don’t. Don’t. Don’t! That’s the title. “Don’t!” She shoved the book in my face.  

I can’t remember if I laughed. Probably not. I can’t remember if it was just then or later that I found out what the book was all about. She probably would have told me.

It was about what a young girl shouldn’t do. It was hilarious, that much I remember. Such rules!  It was written in the early twentieth or late nineteenth century. We understood, but laughed.  I’m not sure if our grandmother had got her to read it or whether it was one of the few books in the one or two bookcases in that house, my sister picking it up since she had nothing else to read or do.  

The do-nots of one age are done with abandon in another.  Laws, rules, values, norms. Such there always were and such there always will be. We know this. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. ‘Don’t do it,’ followed by ‘because’ and the inevitable listing of dire consequences. Sometimes ‘don’t’ is followed by the admonishing ‘ever,’ an elaboration of the prohibition followed by ’again.’ 

The ‘do-nots’ change as you grow up. The enforcers change too. Those who questioned ‘no’ use that word later in their lives more frequently than they imagined they ever would. What was freely embraced is disavowed. The word ‘don’t’ creeps into vocabularies and conversations surreptitiously at first and then with utmost ease.

There’s always do and there will always be don’t. And we move in and out, sometimes inhabiting both do and don’t in the timeless universe of indecision, reading and misreading, walking on eggshells fully conscious of ignorance and fallibility, counting on instincts and hoping that convictions are based on more than a smattering of facts appropriately understood in terms of their dimensions.

There’s pirith floating over rooftops, through trees, in commerce with the wind, touching memory-nodes. There’s familiarity that anchors. The occasional reverting to believed truths. Things that are but will not be, sooner or later, do and don’t included. Don’t is an extinction-defying cockroach, but it stays because it adapts, changes with the times.

Sitting here in the year 2023, removed by time and space from a book called ‘Don’t’ and an insistent exchange that ended with laughter, I realise that a single word resolves the issue of don’t and do in their interchangeability and incorrigibility, once and for all. Anicaa. Impermanence. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart