Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Perversity of Pyromaniacs
Part 4: Thoughts of a Bibliophile
Though initially I planned to conclude this series in three
parts, subsequently I thought of extending it to provide some
additional comments and thoughts to include my personal views on
(1) the puny compensation then offered by Colombo’s Political Poo Bahs to
re-dress the unfathomable damage caused by the Southern vandals to Jaffna;
(2) the lack of information about the cataloged books and manuscripts lost
forever due to the perversity of pyromaniacs, and
(3) a viable architectural design for a library to protect the culturally
irreplaceable materials from arson in the future.
The reason is rather obvious. During the past 25 years, hundreds of analyses
by Sri Lankan and non-Sri Lankan academics have been published in scholarly
journals on the Sinhalese-Tamil animosity, from various angles such as
anthropology, archaeology, foreign policy, history, political science and
terrorism. But, a focus on the cause and consequences of the 1981 torching of
Jaffna, remains largely untouched by the pundits. For record, I note that I had
located one analysis authored by a Sri Lankan librarian Premila Gamage in 2003,
which I have yet to read.
Scaling the Puny Compensation
As I have presented
in part 1 of this series,
Jeyaratnam Wilson had mentioned in his 1988 book, that “The President
[Jayewardene] pledged 10 million rupees towards the reconstruction of the
library from a public fund he controlled, but in the end only a fraction of that
sum was given.”
Let me scale this pledge to show what a puny compensation the then top dog of
the Sri Lankan Government offered to soothe the hurt feelings of Tamils. On July
22, 1981, I bought a one-way ticket to fly from Colombo to Chicago and upto the
Champaign airport of the University of Illinois, in the Thai Airlines (the
cheapest available economy class ticket then from a foreign airline) for 15,662
Sri Lankan rupees, equivalent to US$ 814. Then, the currency exchange rate stood
at one US$ equalling to 19 rupees and 25 cents. Thus, the 10 million rupees
pledge of President Jayewardene for reconstruction of the burnt Jaffna Public
Library amounted to only a piddling sum of nearly US$520,000. Considering the
loss of 97,000 titles then catalogued in the burnt library, the average overall
compensation amounted to only US$5 per book or palm-leaf manuscript. And as
Wilson had noted, at the end, “only a fraction” of the pledged sum reached
Another available indicator also reveals the inadequateness of President
Jayewardene’s pledge. The Washington Post of October 8, 1981, carried a feature
on Trincomalee port, by Stuart Auerbach. For this feature, Auerbach had
interviewed Jayewardene. And to quote Auerbach, about the Trincomalee port,
“He [President Jayewardene] said an Australian ship brought in about $320,000 in
docking fees, purchases of supplies and money spent by sailors on shore leave.
Two American ships that called Colombo in March  – the USS Fox and the USS
Ranger – were reported by the Sri Lanka Observer, a government-controlled
newspaper, to have spent a half a million dollars each during their stopovers.”
Thus, a foreign ship visiting either Trincomalee or Colombo port from Australia
or USA in 1981, generated revenue at the scale of $320,000 - $500,000, and what
President Jayewardene pledged to rebuilt the burnt Jaffna Public Library which
had lost 97,000 volumes of books due to pyromania was nothing in excess of that
scale; i.e., compensation for indulged pleasure seeking by inebriated, rowdy
sailors! In late 1981, according to another published statistic, “over 300
foreign experts costing $15 million a year” (excluding the embassy officials)
were serving time in Sri Lanka and enjoying the hospitality of the then UNP
regime [Blair Ericsohn, ‘Confessions of a foreign expert’, New Internationalist
magazine, Nov.1981, no.105].
In February 2003, it was reported in the Official Website of the Government of
Sri Lanka, that the “Restoration work that was begun in 1998 by the Ethnic
Affairs and National Integration Ministry, equipped the library not only with
books but with all the modern IT facilities as well. The total project cost
Rs.120 million”. [
Let me also scale this amount of Rs.120 million in American dollar terms. In
1998, the Sri Lankan rupee had depreciated markedly from its 1981 exchange
value, and one dollar was equivalent to approximately 66 Sri Lankan rupees.
Thus, the Jaffna Public Library restoration fund allocated by the Chandrika
Kumaratunga Cabinet amounted to US$ 1.82 million. But, one should also note that
in 1998, the same Cabinet had approved the spending of nearly US$ 2 million per
day for the government’s military budget!
Do We have an Assembled Catalog of Lost Treasures Now?
In the features written
about the 1981 torching of the Jaffna Public Library, “97,000” has become a
statistic to lament on the number of books and manuscripts which went up in
ashes. But, do we have an assembled catalogue of the lost treasures in hand now?
Not that I know of. If such a catalogue has been assembled (even a partial
list!) by Tamil librarians or bibliophiles who were associated with the library,
it needs to be made public, even in the electronic medium. I provide below
published excerpts from two correspondents, which provide some minimal details:
“Among the destroyed were scrolls of historical value and the works and
manuscripts of the universally acclaimed philospher, artist and author
Ananda Kumaraswamy and prominent intellectual Prof.Issac Thambaiya. The
destroyed articles included memoirs and works of writers and dramatists who
made a significant contribution toward the sustenance of the Tamil culture
and those of locally reputed medical physicians and politicians.” [Jayantha
Seneviratne, ‘The reconstruction of the Jaffna library’, Colombo Daily News,
“There were newspapers and journals published hundred years ago in Jaffna.
There were about 10,000 hand-written documents, Roman Catholic books
published in 1586 (some in Spanish). There was a copy of ‘History of Ceylon’
written by Robert Knox when he was in the Kandy prison in 1660, as well as
‘Ceylon during the Dutch Rule’ by Philips Baldeus, written in 1672. Amongst
some of the collections houses in the library were 700 books on the famous
art critic and Sri Lankan Tamil savant Dr.Ananda Coomarasamy donated by
Mr.Thurairajasinham of Malaysia; 850 books donated by Rev.Isaac Thambiah;
100 books donated by Kathiravel Pillai. There were a number of encyclopedias
from various countries and publishers, dictionaries, atlases and maps, books
on astrology and astronomy. The children’s section had miniature editions of
Ramayana epics.” [V.S.Thurairajah, ‘Jaffna Library rises from its ruins’,
Colombo Daily News, Dec.12, 2002].
A Viable Architectural Design for Fire-Protection
I provide excerpts
from an essay I wrote in 1995, with a title, ‘An Exiled Bibliophile’s Dream’
which was included in my book, MGR Movies Revisited and Other Essays (1995).
“Robert Holmes, in his book ‘Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980’, made a poignant
observation about the reading habits of Lankan Tamils. ‘Only a very small
minority find recreation in reading. One of the best informed of the
residents in Jaffna, who reads omnivorously told me, ‘Most of the people in
Jaffna have no academic interest. They do not read books. Even the wealthy
man who has two cars will not have a library. If he is a doctor, he will
have a few medical books; if a lawyer, some law books…Only the exceptional
person possesses books.’
Though I suspect whether this stereotypical
portrayal of Holmes can stand scrutiny in a scientific survey, I agree with
the overall context of these statements and the spirit in which they were
written. If the publication of ‘Jaffna 1980’ had occurred in 1982 or later,
author Holmes would have recorded how Sri Lankan Tamils agonized over the
burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. This tragic event was a
turning point in the Sinhalese-Tamil relationship in Sri Lanka. It was
equated with the Nazi book burning campaign of the Jewish scholars after
Hitler’s rise to power.
That Tamil areas were badly served in the
post-independent Sri Lanka in terms of public learning is evident by the
fact that the two foremost libraries run by the foreign agencies (British
Council and the United States Information Services) had their services only
in Colombo and Kandy. The reasons for non-establishment of branches of these
libraries in Jaffna and Batticaloa between 1948 and 1983 are not difficult
I continued further.
“So that what happened in 1981 to the Jaffna Public Library will not be
repeated, entire structure for the Center of Dravidian Archives had to be
constructed underground. This will prevent demolition from aerial bomb
attack and arson. However to safeguard the deposited materials from fire,
which can arise due to electrical short-circuit, as an insurance an
architectural feature should be added in the form of a water reservoir. A
pond, if designed aesthetically and assured to have water all around the
year, can serve this protective purpose well.
The main undergraduate
library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (the alma mater
for Robert Holmes as well as me) was built underground decades ago, for
altogether a different practical reason. I feel the architectural design of
this library could serve as a valid model for the proposed building.
underground building will also have another important benefit. It will aid
in a better preservation of the books and other archival materials.
According to Jeremy Norman (an internationally known dealer and appraiser of
rare books and manuscripts), ‘Over the centuries books have proven to be
very durable objects. If simply placed on a shelf out of direct sunlight in
a room with medium temperature and humidity, there is no reason why most
books should not survive for hundreds of years’. What a better way to
preserve the books in the tropical climate of Jaffna by keeping them
underground, away from the direct exposure to the ultraviolet rays of
Towards the end of that essay, I had postulated that “Arrangements should
also be made with the internationationally known Tamil academics such as
Prof.C.J.Eliezer, Prof.S.Arasaratnam, Prof.S.J.Tambiah, Prof.A.Jeyaratnam Wilson
and Prof.M.Sundaralingam that their ‘papers’ will be donated to the Center,
after their retirement from active career.”
After the passage of 11 years, I’m not so thrilled to communicate now that among
the five academics whom I named then, four – excluding Prof.S.J.Tambiah - had
died and their ‘papers’ remain scattered and are on the verge of being less
accessible for future scholars. Once I inquired from Mrs.Ranee Eliezer, the wife
of Prof.Eliezer, about her illustrious husband’s ‘papers’. The response I
received from her was saddening; ‘Sachi, not all are interested in Professor’s
papers like you. For mundane reasons, quite much are being dumped and dispersed,
while some lots are being saved for posterity.’ I haven’t had any contacts with
the spouses or immediate kin of other three late professors to verify the
current status of their ‘papers’.
I concluded my 1995 essay with the following quote from Herman Liebert, the
Librarian Emeritus of the Yale University. ‘Libraries are our fortresses against
the infidel and if we do not man their ramparts, it is we who shall have lost
the battle and failed to keep faith with the book’. Tamils should be constantly
reminded that if they fail to rebuild the ‘fortress’ demolished by the infidels
in 1981, ‘it is we who shall have lost the battle’.
Gamage, P. Political conflicts and Sri Lankan libraries, Library &
Archival Security, 2003, vol.18, no.1, pp.43-51.
Holmes, R.H.: Jaffna (Sri Lanka) 1980, The Christian Institute for the Study
of Religion and Society of Jaffna College, Jaffna, 1980, p.7.
Liebert, H.W. Investing in rare books and manuscripts. Yale Journal of
Biology and Medicine, 1981, vol.54, pp.299-306.
Norman, J. Collecting rare medical books; a dealer’s perspective. Medical
Heritage, Nov-Dec.1985, pp.459-464.
Sri Kantha, S. MGR Movies Revisited and Other Essays, Eureka Center,
Fukuroi, Japan, 1995 (Limited edition print), pp.28-31.