Pix from the Photographic Society of Royal College showing the happy moments of the LRA projects in 2017, 2018 and 2019
By Uditha Devapriya
Life after your bachelor’s degree can be difficult. When I graduated with lower than expected results in 2016, the immediate priority was to find a job. I was winning something with my newspaper columns, but it was barely, if at all, enough. As I had already worked in my school as a coach, I decided to return to a school as an office assistant. It would be my first experience in an official position; while the salary didn’t seem like much, to me it was like wealth. In addition, the manager immediately gave me the job. Considering my situation, his offer was too good to be refused. So I swallowed the bait. I can’t say I regret doing it.
Even in a school, working in an office can be difficult, but also exhilarating. As a teacher, your responsibility is to your students; your employers come second. As an assistant strapped to a desk, sitting in front of a computer screen and typing, on the other hand, the bosses loom over you nine to five. While I liked the stability it involved, I didn’t like the routines I had to go through; they felt too boring, and sticking to them every hour of the day seemed a dismal prospect. Unsurprisingly, when I learned of my dismissal just three months after joining, I received the news with a sense of relief. About two months later, while responding to an online job posting, I found another job. Three weeks later I arrived as an English copywriter in an advertising agency, where I stayed and worked for three years.
For financial reasons, I did not let go of writing to the newspapers. Although being a secondary concern, my columns have become a daily essential. Reaching my weekly quota while doing a full-time job seemed like a tall order, but one that I strove to meet with pleasure. In addition, working at the agency had certain advantages: as my articles were generally about the arts and most of what I wrote, whether it was theatrical performances or film screenings, took place in Colombo. in the afternoon it was convenient to attend. to them after work. Also, as my office was located in the heart of Colombo, it felt like a perfect base for me.
I have lost count of the people I have met and the shows I have attended over the years. If they seem so far back in time now, it’s because they seemed to occupy another universe then. Young or old, teenagers or middle-aged, the people I interviewed projected new perspectives and shed new light on everything they have done in life. Some stayed longer than others. Many have passed out. A few, very few, stayed in touch. Among those who did, I include a pretty interesting set of teenagers who came from quite an interesting background.
The Library Readers’ Association is the Royal College’s oldest society. Created in 1846 as a committee, it became a student association a hundred years later. While it may not be as popular as some of the other clubs, it still enjoys some notoriety today, although the habit of reading is quickly drying up among young people. Most of the projects that she organizes, or that she organized, revolve around newly published books and writers. Its highlight is, or was, âLibrary Week,â a seven-day celebration of exhibitions, seminars and film screenings. Besides these internal projects, it also organizes campaigns to improve libraries in remote areas of the country. All of this, moreover, is in line with the company’s vision, which is not only to maintain the school library, but also to promote libraries elsewhere.
What interests me in the association is its composition, or more precisely, the social composition of its members. This interest dates back to 2017, when I first got to know the club after its then secretary asked if I could write about it. I said I could, and soon enough, news of the LRA, as it was called, appeared in the newspapers. Yet my interest in her went beyond this meeting; As the months went by and a new board took over in January of the following year, it grew larger. For what it was worth, it kept stinging me.
Being educated in English, one invariably embraces and indulges in certain literary tastes to the exclusion of others. My fascination with the LRA came mainly from the difference between my reading preferences and those of its members. These differences were in turn linked to the background from which the members came; not a suburban or urban middle class, as the location of their school suggests, but a rural middle class. To put it simply, most of these members entered their school on the fifth year scholarship; only a tiny fraction (and a very tiny) came from outside this group. I have been told that many, if not most, of those who choose literary and arts oriented clubs also belong to this group, a testament to its presence in such societies, in such institutions.
As undeniable as it may be, it is no coincidence that this group continues to exert a profound influence on school societies linked to literature, and not just in public schools. Indeed, the link between these associations and the career of most of their members has indeed spread in the cultural and literary landscape of the country: most of our writers, lyricists, even actors and screenwriters, come from the same background. than that of the fifth year pupils, rural if not subrural, belonging because of the position of their parents in their communities to a twilight world between the city and the village. Since I have written at length about the Sinhala rural middle class and how it shaped and shapes the social fabric of elite institutions, including public schools, I will focus here on their literary preferences.
Most of us – by whom I mean most of the country’s readers, Sinhala speaking and reading – tend to read certain authors and genres as we grow older. This is the case with LRA readers: chatting with many of them, I realized how similar their preferences were: from translations of Russian (Soviet-era) texts (a particular favorite: Saba Minisekuge Kathawak, based on Poleyov’s A Real Man’s Story) to Sherlock Holmes scams (made by Chandana Mendis, who releases a new story in time for the Book Fair each year), they then evolve into more serious original texts ( usually, but not always, Martin Wickramasinghe) and occasional translations (Gorky’s mother in Amma) before engaging in teenage texts, which branch off between glossy novels (Edward Mallawarachchi then, Sujeewa Prasannaarachchi today ) and literary award winners, mainly social novels (Mahinda Prasad Masimbula).
If one observes and deplores a uniformity in these tastes and these tendencies, it is clear that uniformity does not necessarily imply staticity: these readers consider literature through a certain framework in accordance with the trajectory that I have traced above. high, but they indulge in individual preferences too, which is another way of saying they’re eclectic: mostly in Sinhala, but also in English. It might not put them in the same league or class as their average English speaking counterparts, but it puts them above that league in some ways: so it was with some amusement that I listened to a member of the the association reminisce about how frustrated he was with some of his middle English classmates and the books they liked best: âIt was always Enid Blyton and Goosebumps, the most youthful stories you can imagine. Those of Sinhalese descent, on the other hand, “read more widely, with a better selection of titles and authors to choose from.”
For all intents and purposes, the LRA is still active. However, the projects she undertakes today seem rare, compared to those which marked her well in the years when I associated her. For me, the link that these school clubs and societies establish, between their literary and cultural inclination and their belonging, has more or less overlapped with another link, between the elitist position of their schools and the new petty bourgeoisie, the class. fifth year scholarships. , modifying the social composition of these schools. In this sense, these clubs tell us a lot about the evolution of these institutions. They also tell us a lot about the development of the country, not only from a social and cultural point of view, but also from a political point of view. A bit like the role played by libraries in the unfolding of social processes, these links therefore represent fascinating fields of study for the anthropologist as well as for the ethnographer.
The author can be contacted at [email protected]