Watership Down – A must read for generations | Sunday Observer

Watership Down – A must read for generations

19 July, 2020
Madhubhashini Disanayake
Madhubhashini Disanayake

Madhubhashini Disanayake is a writer, university lecturer and a bookworm. As the daughter of well-known Professor J.B. Disanayake and reputed author Kusum Disanayake, she was introduced to books at a very young age and she shares her views on the book she liked best in her childhood days, with Youth Observer.

Excerpts from the interview: 

Q : Which book has moved you the most up to now?

A: When I was small, a friend of my parents, a foreigner, used to visit us from time to time and one day gave me a book named Watership Down by Richard Adams. The first question I asked when I got it was, ‘What is the book about?’ She told me it is about rabbits.

Then, I thought it will be boring because the characters are rabbits. So, the book was on my bookshelf for quite a while. However, one day when I started to read it, I was instantly attracted to it and understood that it was not just about rabbits. Actually, it is about bravery, courage, believing in yourself, a need for intelligence, vision and leadership. I learned so much from that book. 

Q : Tell us something about the storyline? 

A: It is about a band of rabbits. They leave their homes, because one rabbit says something bad is going to happen. He is like a visionary, he can’t explain it, but tells his brother, please go, something is going to happen.

The brother believes him and they start to leave. Then another two join them. So, the story is about how they go on their journey, how they overcome problems, how they fall into traps and finally, how they go to the hill.

Though it is about rabbits, it is more about the feelings we all have. About being scared, about doing something even if you are scared, how you overcome things, how you keep doing things, how you keep trusting people and how friends trust each other. Sometimes, people think if they are physically strong, they can do anything.

But here strong rabbits realise that it is not about the physically strength, it is just about the need to look at the world in depth, and thinking about what to do. Finally at the end of it, probably the weakest rabbit became the leader of them, because he knew what to do. Even the hulking rabbits listen to him. A child can learn about all these things by this book. 

Q : Why did you choose to read this book?

A: As a child you never think about what you are reading about. You know, good stories are always allegories. Very often they say something, but you learn something else. Even in a fairytale, there is an allegory behind it. Watership Down is incredible in that sense. And I remember  it was made into a film. But never watch the film first, if you have the book.

A film cannot reproduce even 50 per cent of the book. And I must say that I understood the deep meanings of Watership Down much later. Though it is about a rabbit world, it is about a regime, dictatorship, democracy, freedom. If you want to be a leader, you don’t need to be a bully or strong. Being a leader is, looking at the world very intelligently and then finding a place for everybody. 

Q : Do you visit libraries?

A: Yes, of course. When I was young, I was taken to libraries constantly. My school, CMS Ladies’ College, had a very good library. After that I got used to the British Council library. I plead with people that if you have a library close to you, please use it. Sri Lanka has a very good library system. Universities have libraries, villages have libraries. 

Q : Didn’t you become a member of the Colombo Public Library?

A: I have visited the library, but didn’t get membership, because I had such a big selection of books at home and I also had the benefit of university libraries. If you want to read English books, I think the best option is the British Council Library. When I was young, there was a large collection of fiction or story books, but now it has mainly books on language. Without books my life could have been very different. Therefore, I am very grateful to my parents. 

 Sometimes, somebody says I am a member of the Goethe Institute Library and Alliance Français Library. You can go to these places and find various kinds of books written in different foreign languages. But I think passing exams and getting knowledge are two different things. Getting knowledge is paramount with regard to passing exams. 

Q : What about your brother Sumitha?

A: Ayya doesn’t read as much as I do, because he entered the finance field. But he likes books. Though you give the same content to two children, they grow up differently. I understood this fact when I compare myself and my brother. Ayya is now involved with my father in publishing books. He could do that because of his love for books. 

Q : What do you think of your children’s reading habit?

A: I don’t like talk about my children. But I can talk about it generally. If you want your child to read, it is good that the parents read. I learnt how to read, because I saw my parents reading all the time. When I was small, I also read aloud to them. Appachchi read aloud to us. When we were very small and when we couldn’t read. If we were curious, he would read another book. That way, we got used to reading. Good books cost money.  This is why libraries are important.

Children’s books in English have beautiful pictures most of the time. So, even if you couldn’t read the book, you look at the pictures. In Sri Lanka, we have Sybil Wetthasinghe’s books  which have colourful pictures and are  very attractive to children. If you give a colourful book to a child, he automatically tends to turn the pages.

So, it is a question about giving the right book at the right time. Parents shouldn’t make the mistake of telling children to please read this. If you do that you are going to destroy the reading habit in them. When I was a kid, I read books that children would normally think are boring. The world has changed now and we cannot force the children to read our selections.