|So many texts to read and to be read in so many ways…|
Christie ‘Kataya’ Gunasekara taught many things, but this legendary and much feared Vice Principal of Royal College was particularly known for torturing students over words. Say something or take a letter to him for approval and he would pick one word and ask the hapless student its meaning. The student, typically, would stutter out something. The stuttering itself could result in a sharp slap, but even if he managed to define the word, Kataya would pick a word from that definition and demand further definition.
And so it would go on until the student got stuck. ‘Idiot!’ he would say and offer the poor boy a copy of his Concise Oxford Dictionary and demand that he ‘look it up!’ The torture would end at some point and the student would leave Kataya’s office humbled and richer for the encounter. He would know the precise definitions of several words and more than that realize the value of using a dictionary.
I am one of those students who suffered and learned, but the greater lessons of ‘the word’ were obtained elsewhere: in Mrs B.H.P.R. Weerasooriya’s class. Harindrani ‘Batti’ Weerasooriya, as her nickname indicates was short. She was strict. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her smile. She was a no-nonsense teacher. Focused. She taught Sinhala and Buddhism in the Middle School, but strangely the language lessons that have remained were not from her Sinhala class.
Somewhere in the middle of the Grade 10 year, i.e. the OL year at the time, she taught us the Dhammapada. Well, not the entire set of gathas; just ten of them.
The dhammapada is of course in Pali. We had to learn the ten gathas, the nidhana kathava or ‘back story’ as they call such things these days and the meaning. Amazing stories, deep philosophy and really great poetry, that’s what the Dhammapada is, but what’s relevant to these reflections is the matter of meaning.
Words have meanings agreed upon. They can have multiple meanings depending on context, they can reveal, deceive and hide, and they can be used to mean something totally different. That’s metaphorical usage. In terms of learning these gathas, there was no way around ‘meaning’. It was not enough to memorize; you had to know what it meant.
Batti’s ten lectures were exquisite. Memorable. She made it seem so easy and more importantly she kindled a love for learning, for close engagement with and reading of texts. ‘Texts,’ are not only made of words, but there’s text in all manner of textures, tangible and intangible, in the present, in the past and in the future, in nuance and feeling, a tear and a silent scream. In a smile too. But that’s another story.
Yes, it was not enough to memorize. You had to know what words meant. Now it is technically possible to memorize the meaning, but if you stop there you would be stuck if someone wanted you to elaborate and, worse would be falling short in terms of all the treasures there for the taking.
It’s not just Pali gathas. It could be poetry in any language. Old English poetry is dense, for example. The words themselves are so unfamiliar. The spelling is ‘atrocious’. Try memorizing that! And it’s not just early versions of a language, even contemporary literature can be quite hard to read. The meaning can elude. Indeed, we can easily misinterpret and even read things that’s not even there in the text.
The Selalihini Sandesaya, like everything in the Sandesa Kavya collection, is beautiful. Beautiful if you know the language AND the culture and of course the history. Wettewe Hamuduruwo’s classic, the Guttila Kavya, and Dharmasena Hamuduruwo’s Saddharmaratnavaliya were part of the OL Sinhala syllabus back then. The latter was a Sinhala far removed from the colloquial and the former could entangle reader with both language and musicality. Memorizing wasn’t enough. Learning what the words meant was non-negotiable in preparing for the exam. Memorizing ‘meaning’ was enough, I suppose, to get by, but that’s leaving a lot of riches behind.
There’s a word and behind it many words, and each of those words have stories. This is why Etymology is a fascinating subject. This side of all the scholarship, though, there is magic to caress, breathe and share.
Those ten Dhammapada gathas still teach me many things. Each time I read one of them, I discover new wisdom. That’s because Batti, knowingly or unknowingly, taught me to read. And understand. Kataya too, in his own way.
[First published in the Daily News, December 6, 2019, under the column title ‘In Passing…’]