Friday, November 21, 2008

Shattered windows of the St. Sebastian Library

It only displayed one long book shelf, about twelve feet in length, eight high, and five stacks of books in three languages. There were two desks with six chairs each around them. Most days it stayed empty with an L shaped reception and a sole librarian, looking bored, reading a Sinhala weekly that contained cartoon serials. The windows of the library rooms were shattered from constant cricket balls that came through an impromptu field, adjoined to the building. During monsoon and rain showers the window side of the library hall would be drenched and unusable however, no one seems bothered, since the bored librarian ran up to cover the bookshelf with rubber sheets.

If you climb the stairs that's to the outer-side of the library building, you'd come across a hall where youth played carrom and table tennis; one of them went to become a world champion, in carrom that is. And there were grown men who'd be immersed in news papers scattered across many small tables. Pass these people and through another glass-broken door, thanks to impromptu cricket, move into the small balcony filled with pigeon droppings, there, you could view the St. Sebastian church and it's front yard.

And, this is where lots my childhood was spent, in the dusty garden of God, though playing, not praying. The church, built during mid twentieth century had a tall, grand architecture, large front yard in thick red sand and sparkles of grass, adjoined by an elementary school and a convent for nuns. The perimeter wall on its left was the wall of a court prison where suspects were remanded to be brought in next day. Occasionally we've seen prisoners jumping off the ten feet tall wall into the church yard, unable to run off in their white baggy pants and only to be caught by Sub Inspector Jayawickrame who'd swoosh by in his Mahindra Jeep or an Enfield motorcycle.

We grew up in a neighborhood called Hultsdrop that later changed its name to Aluthkade (New Shop). A pre-dominantly Muslim neighborhood, surrounded my mosques that would call for prayers five times a day, some Hindus and Christians also lived amicably, in row houses and tiled roofs, emitting fragrance of multi-religious dishes. While our Muslim brothers went to under-staffed neighborhood schools, non-Muslims were bussed or van-ned to branded schools situated in affluent areas of Colombo.

In the afternoons, when religion, names of children, schools, clothing and culture became non-issue, we would gather inside the St. Sebastian's church's front yard to play cricket. Teams would be formed with youth of all ages, anywhere from six to eighteen, batting sides would be selected with a coin toss and we'll play the sport with home made bats and thick rubber balls. Evenly cut broom sticks will become the wickets. When there weren't enough children to form two teams, each person will get chance to bat base on a lottery method. Usually the unlucky last batter would go home crying because by the time he got his turn, it either be too dark to play or Sister Philomena would have unleashed the convent's little pomenerian to chase after the players.

I'm yet to know why Sister Philomena, a woman of faith, chose to unleash a little poodle on us however, on these dog-chasing occasions we'll go outside the church's yard and play in front of the library building, causing the windows to break that you read about earlier. I don't think any of the kids that I played with have ever stepped into the library, except may be to collect a wayward ball. The books of the library, neatly stacked on the single shelf, came on the Public Library System's truck that did its rounds fortnightly. Most times the driver of the truck would have nothing to exchange because the books seldom moved or circulated. It is not to say people weren't educated or interested in books. At that point of time, Sri Lanka maintained a 90% plus literacy rate, one of the highest in Asia, thanks for mandatory education act and British inherited methods.

Fortunately, the semi-haunted library, found me a refuge to collect these words, to run my imagination and to record my thoughts. The library became the Mecca for my thirst. The books I demanded became readily available, without waiting lists, undrenched, with a simple click of a date stamp off the hands of bored librarian who continued to read Sinhala cartoon serials. As a bonus, the electrical brown-outs implemented by the government to save energy didn't impact the library system. It always had electricity, until the closing time, to throw me out to the dark streets across the St. Sebastian church.

Over time, things changed. The cricket team and the carom youth and the news papers readers grew old. Sister Philomena became Mother Philomena and the poodle passed away peacefully at the feet of St. Sebastian. Another great library with historical collections was burned to ashes due to the civil war. Most of my Muslim friends didn't take up higher education and went into business as store owners, gem merchants and eventual millionaires. At least one of them got killed by a local mafia hit-man. Many left the country to build up their skills and talents offshore - including captaining the Canadian cricket team, build up families, children, and the Diaspora as we call it now.

The last time I returned to Aluthkade, four years ago, I walked pass the St. Sebastian library with shattered windows. The books have dissapeared. There was no bored librarian or the rubber sheet covered shelf. The building had been turned into a wedding hall.

I also noticed a padlock at the gates of St. Sebastian, I presume to keep young cricketers away and to give solace to escaping prisoners, inside the dusty garden of God.

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