Wednesday, March 25, 2009


In this day and age, when children would rather play computer games and game boy, it is difficult to find an alternative that would hold them spell bound for hours. So it is in this context that I trawled through some recent children’s books and came across a book that had been published last year. Like any other plebian, I judge a book by its cover and the cover was nice, bright and attractive. The book was a collection of stories for children and was called MilkRice – another catchy title, I thought, that gave no indication of what was inside the book, but was still Sri Lankan enough to say a lot.
There are nine stories that cover a range of situations. Instead of repeating each and every story, to fill space let me tell you what I liked.
I liked that all the stories were imaginative, Sri Lankan (I liked that part a lot actually), short, simple and easy to read. The target audience would be I think around 9 years old, perhaps a parent could read it to a 5 year old. Anyway, I also liked that some big names had got together to write stories for children. Authors like Faith Ratnayake, Neluka Silva, Lal Medawattegedera and Premini Amerasinghe, had contributed. I loved the little drawings that accompanied each story, giving it a Sri Lankan touch. I also liked that the stories would give the Sri Lankan child a vehicle to identify what it is like to grow up in Sri Lanka, rather than for them to read stories set in the West and for them to read about valleys and dales, crumpets and jam, rosy cheeks and ski holidays.
I liked that all the stories had a moral, some subtle some not so subtle. For instance, there were stories that spoke about being humane to animals, another story was about bullying. Two stories were about fabulous imagination, another two stories were about difference and how it should not matter to us, and one story about child soldiers. The most sophisticated story was about the child soldiers, the most imaginative story was the one about hats. The story my nephews and nieces loved was the one about the cat, rat and snake. And the story that my little cousin adored having read to her was the one about the aeroplane. All this goes to show that this is a little gem of a collection for Sri Lankan kids. Something about ten years ago, children didn’t have. A book of stories to call their own.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Theravada Man by Manuka Wijesinghe

After having read Manuka Wijesinghe’s first book Monsoons and Potholes which I enjoyed very much even though it was repetitive and a bit of a difficult read, I approached her second book just released early this year, with some trepidation. The launch of the book at Barefoot in Galle at the wonderful Galle Literary Festival was well done, even though the attendance was poor. The skit performed by the extremely talented Indu Dharmasena, Sangvada, Michael Meyler (who knew the man could act as well) and Manuka was hilarious. In half an hour they had reduced this 359 page book into a complete story. Quite a feat!
To my utter surprise the book read well. The story flowed on and on and most important of all kept the reader’s interest. The central figure the Theravada schoolteacher who was referred throughout the whole book as iskolemahaththaya is looking for a wife. Hooked up with an astrologer, they engage in various philosophical discussions that cover all aspects of life until they reach the desired object – the wife. Once married, the schoolteacher’s wife referred to as iskolehamine, as she is also a teacher, produces a number of children, replaces the astrologer as the recepient of various philosophical discussions, and discovers close to the end that she has been nothing but merely a goal post in the iskolemaththaya’s life. There are various kavi’s that are interspersed in the text that even though I read them diligently were rather distractive. Other than for historical documentation, reproducing the kavis in whole did not add more to the novel. In addition the novel has two playlets that they call nadagamas, which while entertaining to read, again was not essential to the story. I fear that both were included because they could not be published anywhere else.
Not having met Manuka personally but heard her speak briefly, I suspect that the book is written the way Manuka speaks. The book is rather breathless as it speeds its way through from beginning to end. There are many interesting philosophical discussions on the way but it almost seems that the book is secondary, and that the writer is using it as a way of transmitting her critique on life and philosophy to the world at large. Sometimes the reader feels battered. Sometimes the reader feels lost. Sometimes the reader feels it could have been said in many more words less.
But the final word is that on the whole it was an entertaining book. Typical of her previous writing there is a cause, but it is less pressing, less intense. I preferred Monsoons and Potholes because it came from the soul. But Theravada Man is better written, more slick and it is only right at the very end, that you ask. And what was all that about?