Reading a timeless skill Sulochana Dissanayake | Sunday Observer

Reading a timeless skill Sulochana Dissanayake

2 August, 2020

Sulochana Dissanayake is a children’s artist and a founder and artistic director of Power of Play (Pvt) Ltd. She engages in communication development, corporate trainings, education and performance, based in Pita Kotte, Sri Lanka. She joins Youth Observer to discuss her favourite book and share her reading habits.

Excerpts of the interview:

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

A: It is God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy. It was first published in India by IndiaInk in 1997. And then it was Published by Penguin Books India 2002. Thereafter, the novel won the Booker Prize in 1997.

Q : Why did it move you so much?

A: The narrative style (of hearing the story through a set of twin-children) and how her words illustrated a whole world easily identifiable to me in terms of class/caste discrimination normalised in South Asia.

Q : How would you describe the storyline?

A: It is a series of events that happen to a family in Kerala whose lives are disrupted by an arrival of foreign relatives and an accidental death of a child that throws to light an illicit love-affair between the twins’  single mother and a hired employee of their home. It is heart-breaking and even for my teenage-self reading it, it taught me the fine-lines between socially-approved behaviour and what would happen to those who dared to step out of line.

Q : Is there any kind of connection or relationship between the protagonist’s life and yours?

A: The setting of the story in terms of geography and culture was quite similar although things have marginally progressed since 1969 (year the story is set in ) to early 2000 (which is when I read it). The themes of class, caste, race, outsider/insider, language  and other features were all very similar to the social concepts we heard around us growing up. I was lucky to be raised by a progressive set of parents but Roy’s key themes were present in most of my social interactions growing up as a middle-class girl in Colombo.

Q : How did you find the book?

A: It may have been lent by a friend. I don’t exactly remember.

In what way  has this book helped you?

A: To understand the power of words. A good story can travel across borders and touch hearts and minds of complete strangers.

Q : How did you find books to read in your early days and how  is it  today?

A: My father is an avid reader and would bring back stacks of books for us from the British Council – so books were our main source of entertainment as children. My partner and I collect books for our two children by making use of the Colombo International Book Fair and the Big Bad Wolf book sale.

We are also lucky to receive many books as gifts and hand-me-downs from our older siblings.

We have around 50 books we read in rotation and have a book table right next to our bed. We end our day by reading and also read books whenever time allows during the day. 

Q : How important is it to read books?

A: I think reading is a timeless skill as it allows you to travel the world simply through your imagination. Reading allows you to access different cultures and customs and expands your brain to accept the importance of diversity.

Q : It can teach you the core concepts of humanity such as kindness, empathy and co-existence – vital to lead a positive life in today’s challenging and ever-changing world.

You have a vast knowledge about children. How do you see a child of today in comparison with a child of two – three decades ago?

A: Children, at their core, are the same. They are bottomless pits of curiosity and adventure, and how they are nurtured makes all the difference. If you engage creatively with a child and feed their curiosity and allow them to explore the world through their  five  senses, they will grow in to intelligent and sensitive adults. If you shut down their natural impulses and oppress them in to obedience, they will grow in to masses who follow blindly with little integrity. So, every single day, we (as adults) make key choices in raising the children around us and if we want a better world, it has to start within our own four walls.

Q : Who encouraged you to read in your childhood?

A: My father is a natural storyteller and his parents owned a store which sold books in Alawwa. So, as a child, he read all the books that came in to their shop and to date tells us about the beautiful translations of the Nawa Maga series by H. D. Sugathapala (former Principal of Royal College Primary who revolutionised primary education inspired by what he saw on his Fulbright scholarship to New York University (NYU) in the  USA).

My Father also introduced us to the late Sybil Wettasinghe, Sri Lanka’s most iconic children’s author and illustrator. I was smitten with her tales as a child and as an adult, I read them daily to my children. Upon returning to Sri Lanka in 2010, I started my journey here by bringing her stories to life for Sri Lankan and expat audiences as I felt so many of our kids were growing up on Youtube which, a decade ago, had little local content. So, to remind ourselves of the rich stories in our own ancestry, we started enacting her stories at local bookstores. I particularly remember our performance series at Expographic Bookstore, Pelawatte which I’d say were some of my fondest memories of seeing my idol’s face light up from the audience.

I try to emulate my Father and Mother and expose my children to quality local and international literature that cover a range of topics from nature, folklore, fantasy, socially critical topics of migrants, poverty, discrimination and everything in-between. I’m a big believer in children’s capacity to grasp depth – and to fuel that depth from a very young age. I search for stories that put across big, deep concepts articulated in a simplest form of a child’s story – and most of the time feel that if we adults read more children’s books, we’d find many answers to our ‘big-world’ problems quite easily.

For parents of young children, I’d highly recommend Sybil Wettasinghe’s  story book series (published by M.D. Gunasena) – which are simple 4-5 page bi-lingual stories with a single sentence on each page below a beautiful illustration. Though they are quite simple, some of them put across very deep concepts.

Our favourite is  /ToadSong which is a simple tale of a Toad croaking in the garden that disturbs Sumith’s grandma. So, grandma asks Sumith  to chase away the Toad. Instead, Sumith turns on the radio, enabling Aththamma to listen to her favourite  (Buddhist prayer chant) – which conveniently drowns out the Toad’s croaks.

She ends the story by saying although Sumith couldn’t stop the toad, he was able to provide his Grandma the freedom to do what she liked.

I think this is a perfect example of co-existing peacefully. If we only had Sybil’s wisdom, we could apply this same principle to de-escalate so many community conflicts in our daily lives and live peacefully.