The row of second hand books located on D.R.Wijewardena Mawatha in Colombo have been, for many years, a big draw for those of us who love books and are on the lookout for a good bargain.
Recently I paid a visit there after many months. The initial plan was to quickly sift through what is available and make a hasty exit but I ended up spending a considerable period of time there talking to the shop owners and browsing. Here are some scenes from that day.
Book lovers and collectors are well aware how difficult it is to find proper storage for your precious paper possessions, especially if you live in a tropical country like I do. The hot and humid year around weather conditions are ideal for “book worms” of all kinds to thrive in and I can tell from experience that they are experts in devouring paper, the destruction left behind unimaginable given their tiny appearance.
At one time I made the cardinal mistake of keeping books stored in cardboard boxes and learnt the hard way that it’s a very unwise thing to do. Insects can bore into a thick encyclopedia with the same efficiency as an electric screwdriver bores holes in a wall and what is left behind is not a pretty sight. What a shock it was to see the pages of some of my precious books crumble when I opened them after keeping them stored away in paper boxes for several months.
Wood, I realized, is also not the best friend of books. I ve had books that were stored on a wooden shelf attacked by termites, particularly books that were on the lowest shelf. What we found out was that placing the shelf too close to the wall had allowed the termites to find their way to the books and attack them.
All these bad experiences made me go on a quest to find an alternative to cardboard boxes as well as wooden shelves and it was then that I came across some steel cupboards which were termed “library cupboards” at a furniture store near home. A cupboards is a little over five feet high and has four shelves. It can be closed so not only are insects kept out but also dust. The glass on the two door panels also makes it easy for me to spot a book that I am looking for but right now it’s a bit messy and I need to arrange the books in order.
But my book storage problems are far from over. I still have books filling up all kinds of places; on shelves attached to the walls, by the bed side and on open wooden shelves. I can’t keep buying more steel cupboard because I need space to keep them and that too is limited. At least for now, the two cupboards will have to do until I figure out how to find better and safer storage for my books.
I can’t recollect the exact year but it was somewhere in the mid-1970s that I first saw a poster of the movie Siddhartha. The fact that it featured a topless woman who was standing facing a man kneeling before her with folded hands must have been the reason that the image remained ingrained in my mind through the years. Living in New Delhi, India at the time, I also vaguely remember all the talk of the controversy caused by the nude scene in the movie as the actors were Indians even though the movie was an English production and nudity in movies was considered unacceptable then. (When I looked up pictures of the movie on the internet recently, I found them to be pretty tame compared to stuff that you see today).
Between my memories of the movie scene from Siddhartha and my accidental discovery of a copy of the novel of the same name written by German Noble Prize winner Hermann Hesse, (based on which the movie was made), I felt I had lived in literary wilderness despite reading hundreds and hundreds of books. After reading and re-reading Siddartha and discussing it with a few others who have read it, I am so thankful that I discovered this masterpiece. Its message is eternal and it knows no boundaries.
Hesse wrote Siddhartha in 1922, its first English came in 1951 and since then the book has had many reprints due to the lasting interest it continues to generate among readers across the world. What fascinates me is, how the author, a man born in 1877 in the Black Forest town of Calw in present day Germany dwells so deeply into an eastern philosophy and then makes the readers question one’s own outlook on life.
A misnomer among many is that Hesse’s book is the life story of the Gautama Buddha who was named Siddhartha by his parents which in Sanskrit means “one who has accomplished a goal”. Hesse’s Siddhartha too is an Indian boy born into wealth who embarks on a long journey in his attempt to understand the meaning of life.Their paths cross at one point in the book but then each takes his own path.
For Siddhartha, its a long journey during which he experiments with various indulgences, learns the art of business, love and lust and finally his life comes full circle in his old age with a self-discovery on what life is.
The highlight of the book is the meeting between the Buddha and Siddhartha and the conversation that follows which clearly illustrates Hess’s extraordinary acumen.
Paulo Coelho , the highly acclaimed Brazilian writer whose novel The Alchemist which also follows a young man’s journey of self-discovery wrote an introduction to Siddhartha in 2008 and recalled how reading the novel while committed to an asylum in 1967, had a tremendous impact on his life.
“I did not know that outside the bars of my window, this book was setting alight a whole generation. In the same way it was speaking to my restless soul it spoke to many other young idealistic men and women across the west,’ Coelho wrote of his experience after reading Siddhartha.
Hesse who was awarded the Noble Prize in 1946 has no doubt inspired great many writers with his philosophical approach to life conveyed to the reader through the protagonist in his novel Siddhartha.
The central character of British novelist W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) novel The Razor’s Edge too is a young man who sets off in search for the meaning of life which coincidentally takes him to India in search of a spiritual insight into life. Reading Maugham’s novel, I could not help but compare the similarities between the two books.
If someone were to ask me which is the one book I would keep with me if I had to give up all my others books, I would definitely pick Siddhartha. Hesse’s message is powerful today as it was the day it was written 80 years ago.
I am utterly addicted to the writings of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami which is why I took up the challenge of reading his latest release 1Q84 despite the formidable length and weight of the book. (It’s 925 pages long to be exact and in hard cover is quite a handful). The weight is not very helpful if you are one of those who, like me, are in the habit of reading in bed. I had to alternate my reading position several times during my reading spans cos my hands hurt by holding the book up.
In Japan the books came in three volumes as Book One and Two, both released in 2009. Book Three came a year later. The English translation came, all three in one, to my local book shop last December, and after eyeing it on several separate visits, I finally decided to buy it about two months ago. My initial reluctance to buy it was because I was not sure I would ever finish reading such a big book and as it was only available in hard cover, the price too was steep.
The apprehension caused by the intimidating outer appearance of the book was soon laid to rest once I was just a few paragraphs into the first Chapter. I then knew that getting through the next 30 Chapters would be no problem at all for me. Let me tell you here I am so glad that I got all three books in one because the suspense created after reading the first two would have driven me crazy.
It was only a few years ago that I discovered Murakami’s magic when my sister, upon her return from a visit to Tokyo, came armed with several English translations of books by Japanese authors. Among them was a collection of short stories by Murakami titled “after the quake” and I am not exaggerating when I say, Murakami’s magic began to work on me the moment I started browsing though the book. From then on I was out looking for other books authored by him that may be available locally. And then I discovered “Norwegian Wood” and I was completely hooked. When I bought “Norwegian Wood”, I had no idea that there is almost no one in Japan who has not read the book and that it had become such an overnight sensation upon publication in the Land of the Rising Sun that it made the author flee Japan to Europe to find a safe haven to escape all the adulation. Till then I had also not heard the song “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles, which I subsequently listened to and loved.
“What is it about Murakami’s writings that gets me and so many millions of readers across the world?” is a question that I ask myself from time to time. After all he is a Japanese national and I am pretty sure that most foreigners will agree that despite having so many brands of “Made in Japan” products in our homes, roads and offices, the people and culture seem impenetrable. But again, so many human emotions and, situations are common to all and Murakami’s writings cuts across whatever barriers there are to transport us into his world and make us part of it. His writings are heart rendering, out of the ordinary ( for e.g. talking frogs and cats, a parallel universe with two moons), modern, sprinkled with a lot of popular western culture and very sexy. (Who the hell knew that the Japanese can really heat things up behind closed doors despite their frigid exterior?)
What I can tell you about the latest Murakami novel 1Q84 is that it is set in the year 1984 and revolves around two main characters – a girl named Aomame and a guy named Tengo. (Apparently in Japanese, the number 9 is pronounced as Q). They don’t meet as adults till the last few chapters of the book (they studied briefly in primary school together and left without saying much to each other but they are in love) and finally meet in a parallel universe with two moons. In between she kills several men using a very fine ice pick that leaves no tell tale signs a murder has been committed, (the men are all bad), he ghost writes a book by a teenage girl suffering from dyslexia which become a sensation overnight and causes him many problems, she picks up men from singles bars when she wants to have some physical intimacy while he has a regular older married woman as his lover whose Friday morning visits make up for not having a regular girlfriend.
The book opens with Aomame stuck in Tokyo expressway with Czech composer (Leoš) Janáček’s Sinfonietta playing on the taxi radio which is tuned to a classical FM broadcast. Like a majority of readers (I believe, unless you are a classical music buff), I had no idea who Sinfonietta was until I read 1Q84 and then goggled to listen his composition. (Mind you everyone who’s searched for Sinfonietta on Google lately had done so after reading 1Q84 which is another thing about Murakami that fascinates me) He introduces the reader to so many unknown facts that it awakens my curiosity and makes me want to find out more. And thanks to the internet I am now able to do it very quickly).
1Q84 has been introduced as an ode to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four but I didn’t find any similarity in the two books except the fact that the readers get drawn into different worlds from the one we live in while reading both books. (BTW George Orwell is among my favorite writers ).
Just like all of Murakami’s books I’ ve read so far, 1Q84 turned out to be an unputdownable read for me. The brief chapters, the simple language and the suspense just kept me going. Here I need to say that if not for the guys who translated from the Japanese into English, i.e. Jay Rubin (who has translated many of Murakami’s books including Norwegian Wood) and Philip Gabriel ( who translated his book Kafka on the beach and maybe others ) , I would n’t have been able to be part of this great adventure.
All this praise does not mean that I am not left a little disappointed by the time I turn the last page of Murakami’s Magnum Opus. He’s left some important questions unanswered and since closing the book, I am left thinking up my own conclusions to what happened to Tengo’s lover who vanished without an explanation, (even he’s trying to figure that one out), or as to who killed his mother (she died when he was young and there a lot of mystery attached to it as well). But then again no writer can answer all the readers’ questions and leaving the suspense hanging in the air after one has turned the last page is a great place to start a discussion on a book as book lovers will agree.
I wrote this story some time back for a competition which required people to write a very short story, i.e. in just 250 words. So I came up with this but it’s a true story. I actually met the girl while on an assignment in Point Pedro. As for the competition, I think it got shelved.
Jacinta lives in Point Pedro in the northern most part of Sri Lanka. And she speaks Sinhalese well, a rare feature in a predominantly Tamil speaking area. When I met her I asked her “How come you speak Sinhalese.” Her mother is a Sinhalese, she told me, and so she’s learnt the language from her. Her family has resided in Point Pedro since her parents married nearly 25 years ago.
I asked her how her parents met. She said they met when her father had come to Colombo to find work. Her father had lied to her mother about his race. He spoke good Sinhalese so he told her he was a Sinhalese. He even changed his name from Sekeram to Stanley to get her to believe his story. She did and they got married. When she went to his home, everyone there spoke in Tamil. She then confronted him and he revealed the truth. Jacinta laughs aloud when telling me the story.” You should see them when they fight. My mother still tells him, “You tricked me into marrying you by lying about being Sinhalese.”
After two previous attempts to start a blog, I am starting off again, this time with more determination. My blog is going to a be a mix of things I experience on a daily basis, at home, at work etc. as well as a lot of stuff on the books I read.
I hope reading my blog will help you to think, question and ponder on a lot of things and inspire you as well.