Rising from the ashes

jaffnaVasantha Sriskantharajah is dreading next summer. It’s not the Jaffna heat that is worrying her, she is used to it. What she is not used to is being away from the collection of books she has seen grow at the Jaffna Public Library through decades of war and recovery.

In April 2017, Ms. Sriskantharajah, the library’s longest serving employee, will retire after completing 33 years of service. “I cannot imagine how that is going to be, these books have been my home for so song,” the librarian tells The Hindu on a Sunday morning when readers, mostly students, trickle in.

It is hard to miss the library’s imposing, white building in Jaffna town, on the road to Kankesanthurai. The library has 30,000 titles — the number pales in comparison to the nearly 1,00,000 books it housed until 1981. One of South Asia’s finest libraries at that time, the Jaffna Public Library was known for its precious archival material and manuscripts.

In June 1981, an organised mob, reportedly of Sinhalese persons, set fire to the building, destroying all that was thoughtfully collected for generations of Tamil youth. The incident delivered a major blow not just to the library, but to the dreams and aspirations it had nurtured. Some consider it a major provocation in the lead up to Sri Lanka’s civil war.

Started by a group of Jaffna youth as an intellectual hub for Tamils, the library initially functioned out of small reading rooms, before its Indo-Saracenic-styled building was inaugurated in 1959 by the then Jaffna Mayor, Alfred Duraiappah.

“There were many rare publications and exclusive copies… everything was destroyed in the 1981 fire,” says Ms. Sriskantharajah, who joined the library as a junior staff member in 1983, after completing a one-year course in library science.

She used to work in its smaller branches that were started to preserve what remained from the fire and vividly remembers organising rows and rows of books that came as donations. With the conflict intensifying, the Sri Lankan Army camped at the nearby Dutch fort in Jaffna. Caught in the midst of cross-firing and shelling between the armed forces and the LTTE, the library remained closed for years. It was reopened in 1984, after being partly restored, only to be closed again during the protracted war. It was reopened again in 2004, after the building was restored by the Sri Lankan government.

“Things are better [now], but there is still a lot more to be done,” she observes.

Over the years, 30,000 titles have made their way into the library’s bookshelves. Its administration is keen on strengthening the Braille section. “That’s the challenge, sourcing important publications in Braille. We are trying our best,” she says.
Reference section

The reference section is vast, and has many groups of students seated at the tables, amidst piles of mostly academic books. “We have 25,226 readers [they can’t borrow books] and 2,302 members,” says Ms. Sriskantharajah, eyes lighting up, as she speaks of the growing membership.

After years of being situated at the heart of a conflict, the library has now become a venue for high-level meetings. During their visits to the north, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former British PM David Cameron met Tamil leaders here.

But it is the regular patronage of readers and students that the library is counting on. “There is just so much to read. Books are the real windows to the world outside,” Ms. Sriskantharajah says. That is what she plans to do post retirement. “I will keep coming back here as a reader.” (The Hindu)

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