Given the many cataclysmic events which engulfed the lives of Sri Lankan Tamils during the 30 year conflict in the island, Rohini Pararajasingham’s unparalleled saga of single-handedly saving 35,000 books of the Jaffna University Library in the midst of war in October 1987, has been overlooked.
Holder of a postgraduate degree in Library Science from Madras University in India, Rohini was only 44 when she became Acting Chief Librarian of the prestigious Sri Lankan university. But Jaffna was then in the midst of war. Sri Lankan forces had shelled and strafed the town from a base in Palaly. The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), which took over from the Sri Lankan forces in July 1987 following the India-Sri Lanka Accord, was bulldozing its way into the town to crush the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.
Rohini and other library staff, who fled the town, wondered if their library would meet the same fate as the Jaffna Public Library which was set on fire in 1981 by Sinhalese extremists to destroy 97,000 volumes.
“When the university opened after three months in 1989, I found that there had been no fire, and that the building, though pock marked and vandalised, was basically intact. But I saw thousands of books strewn all over the place, many soaked in rain.
Indian troops had piled up books to serve as stools to sit on! The Indian soldiers were an alien people, who had no sensitivity towards the culture of the Tamils – their thirst for knowledge and their love for books,” Rohini, now 70, recalled with horror.
“But to be fair to the Indian troops, they did not loot. It is the local Tamils who did. They helped themselves to more than 30,000 volumes!” she said, ashamed of the behaviour of a people who she believed lived to high standards of conduct.
Sensing that safety was not guaranteed in Jaffna, Rohini, on her own, decided to shift 35,000 salvageable books to Chavakachcheri, a town to the South of Jaffna, to be stored in a school.
“I collected the books with the help of student volunteers. The Sri Lankan soldiers, who were confined to the barracks, came out and helped us. They had sympathy for us, being fellow natives of Sri Lanka. I transported the books in lorries, even in pouring rain. Since there was no polythene to cover them, I used my saris!,” Rohini recalled astonished at her own derring-do.
And, above all, she bore the transport charges! “I was bitterly criticized for not taking prior sanction for what I did,” she said, with deep sadness but without a tinge of bitterness. “Eventually, I was compensated, and even given a commendation certificate by the university,” she said, glad that her faith in humanity was restored.
Rohini complained to the Indian High Commission about the disrespectful way in which the IPKF treated the books.“I took up the matter with a top official of the High Commission in Colombo, Hardip Singh Puri. But no monetary compensation was forthcoming from India. However, eventually, India donated books to the library as did Australia. But regretfully, the locals of Jaffna, who had looted books, did not return them!” she said.
Fortunately, the IPKF’s operations lasted only a few weeks. Thereafter, the troops were confined to camps.
Living a well earned retired life in Point Pedro, north of Jaffna, Rohini is proud to have saved 35,000 of the 64,000 volumes in the library, but rues the fact that nearly 30,000 were lost. (Dawn)