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Striking gold in the yellowing pages of faded ink and dry dust

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Second-hand bookshops of Maradana

By Tharishi Hewavithanagamage

Books quench our thirst for knowledge. Sir Francis Bacon’s famous quote ‘Reading maketh a full man,’ refers to the notion that by reading, one is able to fill the mind with knowledge relating to a variety of topics. Literature often enables a person to enter and explore territories which are difficult to explore in person, and it expands the imaginative capabilities of the mind by helping the reader perceive ideas they might find foreign. Through books, we learn about how things work, understand different cultures, and comprehend histories. We can learn new languages, how to improve ourselves and even how to build things. The right books are full of useful information that helps us become smarter, sharper, skilled and more open to new ideas.

The old-fashioned secondhand bookshops lining the D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha are hard to miss, but something that may not be instantly evident to the casual onlooker, is the sheer volume of literature and knowledge contained within the walls of each deceptively tiny shop.

The tale begins with one Premadasa Weerarathna who was the pioneer in the used book business in Maradana. He is credited with paving the way for other book shops to prop up on the same block. Premadasa Weerarathna was a soldier in the British Royal Navy and in the 1940s he was severely injured following a gas explosion. Unfortunately, he lost his left arm and right leg, putting an end to his military career. He was assisted by the British High Commission in Colombo, who regularly sent him prosthetic limbs, along with a pension. It was then that he decided to set up shop, at first on the pavement outside the Maradana railway station, selling and lending books acquired from various distributors. He began collecting English novels and Reader’s Digest from his old colleagues in the Navy, for which there was a big demand, as it was cheap, and there was a big demand for English readings at the time. They also received new books delivered by businessmen who would go around delivering and collecting books to and from rich households in Colombo for around 50 cents, at the time.

Reading was popular although the book trade wasn’t popular as it is nowadays. However, Premadasa being an ingenious man was able to gather a regular customer base and built an up-and-coming business. The shop’s collection began expanding to include rare novels and other highly sought-after books, which put them on the map. Leading up to the Non-Aligned Summit that was held in Colombo in 1976, a majority of the shops in Maradana were relocated and the Premadasa Bookshop was moved to its current location on D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha. Not long after, many others entered the book trade and set up shop in the vicinity.

In 1976, with Premadasa’s guidance, his former assistant, Peter Appuhamy established his own shop, ‘Peters Bookshop,’ which now stands two doors away from the old Premadasa Bookshop. In the same year, Premadasa encouraged Sarath S.T. Hannadige, his nephew to start his own book shop, and so the old ‘Premadasa Bookshop’ became ‘Sarath Books.’ Although the founders no longer work in these shops, their knowledge and skills have been passed down to the newer, younger generations.

The shops are home to books full of faded ink, dry dust, and many untouched chapters. They receive a majority of their books from their own customers who do not want to throw away their collections, so the little shops are crammed with a variety of tomes, from the latest in popular fiction and chic-lit in profusion, to novels (both Sinhala and English), textbooks of various subjects, self-help books, and magazines. It’s akin to digging through a gold mine, and one would strike gold if they happen to come across a book that is no longer in print, or is the last remaining copy of its kind. Everything available in these shops are sold at an affordable rate. The bookshops also have lending services (mostly for novels), for those unable or unwilling to purchase.

Reading today is very different, especially with technological advancements coming into play. People have become so busy that they can no longer spare time for leisure. It has become more efficient to carry a phone, laptop or a tablet around, with hundreds if not thousands of books, varying in genre, available at your fingertip, from anywhere around the world. The advent of audio books has also reduced the demand for the tangibility of actual books. The owners acknowledge that, as times changed, their customer base and sales have remained stagnant, but haven’t declined.

“It’s true that technology is advancing every day and we see a majority of the younger generation leaning towards things like e-books, audio books and so on. Some people are so occupied with their work that they cannot find time to read or enjoy other leisure activities. But there are people who still enjoy reading a book, flipping through the pages and simply enjoying the tangibility of it all. We also get a lot of parents coming this way, looking for foreign textbooks that are generally very expensive. We provide them with used books in good condition at an affordable rate,” the owners explained.

Although times have changed, their most loyal customers have been coming to the bookshops for many years, sometimes bringing in the younger generations along with them. It’s not surprising that people want to re-visit the shops given that they receive the best customer care from the good-humored owners. “Our top priority are our customers. We have customers of all ages coming in, looking for books that you can’t normally find in popular bookstores. Besides, we have no use in hoarding books, so our goal is to pass on the invaluable knowledge stored in these pages. We want our customers to gain something by reading,” said one book seller. The rapport they maintain is vital to the longevity of the bookshops.

Conversely, there is also a silver lining to all these technological advancements. The existence of social media platforms has allowed people to reach a large audience, all in one space, and the ability to interact freely. A few owners have launched online platforms and websites, and even carryout delivery services, in order to expand, cater to and interact with a larger audience. “Not everyone knows that we exist on this tiny strip of land. We have a website and a social media platform to reach out, but I don’t plan to direct my business activities online. I’m not very tech-savvy,” said Sanjaya S.T. Hannadige, the current owner of Sarath Books.

However, they are not without complaints and they share their own set of challenges. When asked about how they were affected during the COVID-19 lockdown, many admitted that it was difficult and not good for business. But they understand the pros and cons of being in the book-trade. They hope that business will return to normal as lockdown initiatives have ended and the economy is almost back on track. The lack of sanitary facilities and space in the shops are just a few of the problems that aggravate the situation.

“We pay a monthly rent to the municipal council here, and yet, even basic facilities are not available to us or the customers. We’d also like to make our shops a little more spacious,” they explained. Furthermore, with urban development projects working their way through cities, the bookshops and their original location is threatened. “We’ve been here for a long time, and many of our loyal customers, have been visiting us here for many years. The structures still stand as a sign of authenticity and originality, while the environment surrounding the shops adds to the general ambiance as well.”

Regardless of the problems they face and the many improvements required to develop the area, both the customers and sellers continue their day with broad smiles on their faces. “The book trade isn’t what it used to be. But it isn’t all that bad. We’re happy to be working here. It gives me a sense of happiness,” one said. They are hopeful that someday someone, be it the municipal council or the government, will look into their problems and aid them in preserving their trade and location, as it is a part of Sri Lanka’s history. They are also well-known among tourists and serve as a tourist destination, which is important, considering Sri Lanka has a significant tourism sector. In their last remarks about their future prospects, some mentioned that they hope to establish branches at other locations, especially in the more rural areas, where it is difficult for people to get access to books and other texts freely. They are hopeful that their businesses will flourish and that people will take more interest in preserving the art of reading and gathering knowledge, as the country gets back on its feet.

For those avid readers, collectors, bookworms, or those simply looking to check these bookshops out, head to D. R. Wijewardena Mawatha and dive into their treasure trove. The owners will be more than happy to assist and help any and all customers find exactly what they are looking for. Some shops will take part at the Colombo International Book Fair in ‘Hall H’ at the BMICH. Book lovers can surf books of Priyankara Bookshop at www.2ndhandbooks.lk and Sarath Books at http://sarathbooks.lk/. They also have a Facebook page of the same name. The knowledge offered between the walls of the shops are infinite and priceless, and it is anyone’s for the taking, and at the end of the day it could be the best step taken forward to building a better individual, society, country and world.

Pics by Jude Denzil Pathiraja



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Features

Sinharaja world heritage

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Conservation Outlook Assessment: Significant Concern

By Professor Emeritus Nimal Gunatilleke

Continued from Yesterday

 

Water diverted from Ampanagala reservoir to Muruthawela will be used to meet the irrigation deficit of Muruthawela and Kirama Oya systems and the balance will be transferred to Chandrika Wewa, through existing LB canal of Muruthawela scheme up to 13.8 km and a new canal of 17.0 km. After that, the water requirement of Hambantota harbour is to be transferred to Ridiyagama tank through the Walawe river and Liyangasthota anicuit. However, due to the extreme length of the diversion through the three-river basins of Nilwala, Kirama Ara and Urubokka Oya, it will lead to a massive conveyance losses of the diverted water while on the way to the Walawe basin. Furthermore, enormous costs associated with its construction, a failure to fully realise the intended outcomes due to a shortage of water budget will simply be a burden that Sri Lanka cannot afford with her current economic condition, according to Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi. It may be worth recording that the water ingress into the grouted tunnel of the Uma Oya near Ella has still not been fully repaired, even though the Uma Oya project is nearing completion. An expensive lesson to be learnt on the nature of the weathered geological structure, lineaments and implementing its unexpected and costly mitigatory measures which will eventually to be paid back by this and future generations of tax payers of this country.

According to the Irrigation Department web site postings, Mahaweli Consultancy Bureau has initiated the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), but due to the unavailability of concurrence of the Forest Department, revised TOR has not been issued by the CEA. Therefore, due to the unavailability of updated TOR, the EIA study has been delayed.

Environmentally, the most contentious issue highlighted in the news media is the proposed construction of a RCC dam at Madugeta to build a reservoir for which around 79 ha of forested (and some agricultural) lands in Sinharaja and a portion of prisine riverine forest in Dellawa would be inundated. On the Sinharaja side of the proposed Madugeta reservoir (right abutment) at present there are home gardens and small-scale tea plantations in addition to good riverine forests. In contrast however, proportionately a larger area of luxuriant forest of Dellawa, which is a part of the new ‘Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex’ would go under the chain saw for this reservoir construction (left abutment). The Geo-engineering report of May 2019 on GNDP has revised the siting of the dam to a more favourable location with supposedly reduced impacts but they forewarn that the three core-drilling along the proposed dam axis that had to be temporarily abandoned due to protests made by the villagers, need to be completed to confirm the geological suitability for the dam site.

 

Are there any Environment-Friendly Alternative Options?

As an alternative site for a dam on Gin Ganga, Eng. Nandasoma Atukorale (Specialist Engineer [Hydropower]) has proposed a location at the confluence of Mahadola with Gin Ganga at the village of Mederipitiya, way back in 2006. According to him, the riverbed at this site is 261 masl and have a catchment area of 132 km2. He proposes the construction of a 35 m high concrete gravity type dam that would form a reservoir with a storage capacity of 65 million cu.m and a potential discharge of 320 million cu.m of water annually which could divert 293 million cu. m of water to the SE Dry Zone. Most importantly, this region passes through a relatively narrow section of the river which is ideally suited for a dam according to him. However, geological suitability and socio-economic impacts of local communities need to be investigated, beforehand.

Quite interestingly, Eng. Athukorale claims that ‘although it is not economically very attractive, another 200 million cu.m of water could be diverted to the Nilwala basin by constructing a dam across Gin Ganga at the downstream of the confluence with Dellawa Dola at the village of Madugeta, with an 8000 m long tunnel which could be considered at a later stage provided further water shortages are experienced in the area’.

 

Now that the proposed Madugeta reservoir is receiving heavy criticisms from the environmental front, wonder whether Mederipitiya option proposed by Eng. Athukorale could be revisited for the diversion of Gin-Nilwala river water to the SE Dry Zone.

In a research paper titled ‘Comparison of Alternative Proposals for Domestic and Industrial Water Supply for Hambantota Industrial Development Zone’ Eng. Prema Hettiarachchi makes a comparison among three irrigation projects Kukule Ganga, Gin-Nilwala and Wey Ganga to convey water from the SW wet zone to SE dry zone.

She proposes yet another option that is probably still on the drawing boards to be considered which is the Wey Ganga diversion in Ratnapura District. According to her, this could meet the industrial and drinking water requirement (154 MCM + drinking water) of Hambantota metropolitan area at a significantly lower cost and with less damage to the environment. Further, there is a possibility of augmenting this scheme by diverting a part of Kalu Ganga catchment at a later stage.

Eng. Hettiarachchi further states that ‘by comparing the workload, it could be estimated to be nearly one third that of the Gin-Nilwala diversion. The Wey Ganga diversion can be carried out at a significantly lower cost by local agencies. That can also address the water scarcity of Hambantota metropolitan area including the requirements of international harbour and proposed industrial development zone with the relatively less environmental damage which is a major issue with respect to large scale projects. Construction period will also be less since the workload is less and can be carried out by the local agencies’.

What I have strived to show with this detailed irrigation engineering information available on public domain in the form of research publications, is that the Madugeta reservoir option is not the only one available for taking water from the wet zone rivers to the SE Dry Zone which is indeed a legitimate requirement for agricultural and industrial development of that region.

Pre-feasibility studies have been conducted on these options since 1968 and a considerable wealth of technical information is already available with the Irrigation Department. Apparently, according to knowledgeable irrigation engineers, there are more environmentally friendly, and cost-effective options with greater assurance of water conveyance to the SE Dry Zone available for consideration. It is often the case that during pre-feasibility studies of these large engineering projects, environmental concerns are given the least priority. Steady supply of water during extreme drought events which are becoming more frequent depends very much on the nature of the vegetation cover of the watershed area. These environmental aspects need to be critically evaluated before such costly projects are designed. As an example, although, the major engineering work of the Uma Oya project has been almost completed, its cost-effectiveness is yet to be seen with a denuded watershed, a potential of heavy soil erosion on top of the unexpected heavy expenditure on tunnel boring and other engineering works.

Biologically speaking, the Dellawa Forest Reserve is an integral part of Sinharaja Rain Forest Complex representing the pristine climax forest vegetation of SE wet lowlands and provide a vital connectivity link to adjoining Diyadawa forest of equal significance via the remains of Dombagoda forest. Therefore, clearing a riverine strip of this forest for the construction of Madugeta Reservoir would lead to an irreparable and irreplaceable damage to its characteristic riverine/flood plain forest vegetation.

On the other hand, pledging a reforestation initiative of a much larger area with Hevea rubber as a compensatory measure proposed by the political administration is totally unacceptable. Preserving intact forests in protected areas has no substitutes or replacements. Furthermore, the Natural Heritage Wilderness Area act and the binding articles of the UNESCO Convention on Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, clearly state that causing direct or indirect damage to a natural heritage is legally not permissible.

In summary, the Sinharaja World Heritage Site is already in a state whose biological values are threatened and/or are showing signs of deterioration and significant additional conservation measures have been recommended to restore these values over the medium and long term. Adding more threats like the construction of reservoirs inside protected areas at this stage would inevitably downgrade the values further to a ‘critical conservation outlook’ which is not what the citizenry of Sri Lanka and the world at large would acknowledge as ‘sustainable development’.

The author of this article is a member of the National Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka and he thanks Dr Jagath Gunathilaka of Peradeniya University for providing the geotechnical information described herein. The author can be contacted at .)

 

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US seeking way out of Afghan killing field

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As the Biden administration makes its initial moves to extricate the US’ remaining security forces personnel from Afghanistan, it would do well to ponder on former US President John F. Kennedy’s insightful comment on foreign policy: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.’ This is a rare nugget on the nature of foreign policy.

Considering the high costs, human and economic, a country could incur as a result of blundering on its foreign policy front, Kennedy could be said to have spoken for all countries. However, there is no denying that the comment is particularly applicable to expansionist powers or ‘hegemonic’ states.

Sensible opinion is likely to be of the view that the US decision on quitting Afghanistan should have come very much earlier; may be a couple of years after its bloody misadventure in the conflict and war-ridden country. Considering the terribly high human costs in particular the US’ 20 long years in Afghanistan have incurred, the US could be said to have committed one of its worst foreign policy blunders, overshadowing in severity the blood-letting incurred by the super power in Vietnam. However, in both theatres, the consequences for the US have been of unbearable magnitude.

The US death toll speaks for itself. At the time of writing more than 2,300 US security forces personnel have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that over 450 Britons have died in the same quagmire along with hundreds of similar personnel from numerous other nationalities. Apparently, it took an exceptionally long period of time for the US to realize that Afghanistan for it was a lost cause.

The lesson that the US and other expansionist powers ought to come to grips with is that it would not be an ‘easy ride’ for them in the complex conflict and war zones of the South. The ground realities in these theatres are of mind-boggling complexity and Afghanistan drives this point home with notable harshness. Power projection in South-west Asia and persistence with its ‘war on terror’ were among the apparent prime objectives of the US in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq but what the US did not evidently take into consideration before these military involvements were the internal political realities of these countries that are not at all amenable to simplistic analyses and policy prescriptions.

The Soviets ought to have come to grips with some features of the treacherous political terrain presented by Afghanistan in the late eighties but their principal preoccupations were related more to the compulsions of the Cold War. Simply put, the Soviets were bent on preserving the ‘satellite’ status of Afghanistan and their war effort was aimed at this in the main. Preparing Afghanistan for democracy was not even least among the Soviet Union’s concerns, of course.

However, the same does not apply to the US. The latter helped the Mujaheddin in the task of getting rid of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan but its aim was also to have a US-friendly regime in Kabul that would be a veritable bridgehead of US power and influence in the region on a continuous basis. In other words, the US expected the regime which replaced the Soviets to be pro-Western and essentially democracy-friendly. The US did not in any way bargain to have in Afghanistan Islamic fundamentalist regimes whose political philosophies were the anti-thesis of democracy as perceived in the US and practised by it.

However, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime which eventually came to power in the mid-nineties in Afghanistan, once the Soviets withdrew, defied all Western expectations. As is known, the Taliban was not only repressive and undemocratic but was staunchly opposed to everything Western. There were no hopes of the Taliban working towards Western interests. Besides, the US did not expect to see in Afghanistan a country dangerously divided on ethnic, tribal and religious lines. The problems of Afghanistan have been compounded over the years by the coming together of the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda and these groups have world wide Islamic fundamentalist links.

It has been the aim of the US to have in Kabul religiously moderate, pro-democratic regimes but as developments have proved over the past few decades these administrations have not been in a position to hold out against the Taliban. In fact, it is the Taliban that is veritably at the helm of power in Afghanistan currently and years of futile attempts at trying to contain the Taliban have brought home to the US and its allies that they have no choice but to talk to the Taliban in order to secure some respite to effect ‘an honourable exit’ from the bloodied land. This is where matters stand at present.

However, as pointed out by commentators, it is the Afghan civilian population that has suffered most in the decades-long blood-letting in the country. Conservative estimates put the number of Afghan security forces personnel killed in Afghanistan at around 60,000 to date and the number of civilians killed at double that figure.

Accordingly, the Afghan people would be left to face an uncertain and highly risk-riddled future when the last of the US security forces personnel and their allies leave Afghanistan in September this year. The country would be left to its own devices and considering that the Taliban will likely be the dominant formation in the country and not its legitimate government, the lot of Afghan civilians is bound to be heart-rending.

There is plenty to ponder on for the US and other democratic countries in the agonies of Afghanistan. One lesson that offers itself is that not all countries of the South are ‘ready for democracy’. This applies to very many countries of the South that already claim to be democracies in the Western sense. Southern ‘democratic’ polities defy easy analysis and categorization in consideration of the multitude of identity markers they present along with the legitimacy that they have achieved in the eyes of their states and populations. What we have are dangerously volatile states riddled with contradictions. Relating to them will prove to be highly problematic for the rest of the world.

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The Soul

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The Soul (also known as Ji hun) is based on the sci-fi novel ‘Soul Transfer’, written by Jiang Bo in 2012. The novel was widely popular and inspired director Cheng Wei-Hao to adapt the tale into a movie. The story is about a married couple who are determined to uncover the truth behind strange activities in their community. According to the official synopsis for the film from Netflix, while investigating the death of a businessman, a prosecutor and his wife uncover occult secrets as they face their own life-and-death dilemma. The film stars Chang Chen, Janine Chang and Christopher Lee among others.

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