Sunday, December 29, 2013

Passionate librarian saved precious volumes of books

By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

Rohini Pararajasingam, a Jaffna Tamil woman is unknown to many. She is soft spoken, and a person with highest qualities, is proud to have saved 35,000 volumes of valuable books during the conflict in the peninsula. She served as the Assistant Librarian, and climbed the ladders with colours and dedicated service, and promoted as the Chief Librarian at the prestigious University of Jaffna. She served for 35 years, as Jaffna Peninsula has witnessed the worst years during the conflict. She was promoted as the Chief Librarian of the University of Jaffna in 1994, and retired in 2005.

She welcomes me with a warm motherly kiss, and a bright smile. She holds my right hand gently and softly, as we both walk through an alley to her house in Urumpirai, outskirts of Jaffna town.

Rohini Pararajasingam being an ardent reader, has passionately read Penguin books. She graduated from the University of Madras in India with a degree in Zoology, and has completed Diploma and Masters Degree at the same university in her passionate subject Library Science, and returned home to convert her passion for books into profession. She served at Cargills Book Store for a short period, before she was selected as an Assistant Librarian at the University of Jaffna. “I saw a newspaper advertisement calling for an assistant librarian, and I applied the day before the application date closed, and I was selected to serve”, recalls Rohini with a smile.

In October 1987, hostilities between the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF), and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were intensified in Jaffna Peninsula, and the University of Jaffna too came under continuous attacks, and causing extensive damage to the equipments and documents. Many unforgettable violent incidents took place in Kokkuvil, and Thirunelvely during this period.

Rohini Pararajasingam hails from Point Pedro, and was living in Thirunelvely, near the University of Jaffna during this time. She received a call from a fellow staff. The Chief Librarian was on sabbatical leave, and Rohini Pararajasingam was appointed as the Acting Chief Librarian at the time of violence in the peninsula. “I had to make an instant decision to move the books to a safer place. It was pitch dark, and pouring rain, something had to be done immediately to safeguard those books. Valuable books were being looted by the neighbours, and Indian soldiers were using the books as to serve as stools.

I along with some staff members, and volunteer students, have carefully started to collect the rain soaked books from the University Library, smoothly covering the books with my costly silk sarees, and transported them in lorries to Chaavakachcheri to be stored in a school. Sri Lankan army which was confined to the barracks during that period too came out to help us finding the rain soaked books. I bore the transport cost, which was later reimbursed. I think that, when libraries are targeted, the idea is to destroy entire culture, and to deny learning. There is a famous Tamil saying, that to look at one’s own reading is to know one’s mind and culture. It extremely hurts us. We love our books, and we lost most precious ones. There is no possibility of replacement.  People of Jaffna love knowledge and learning. It is part of our culture. What was lost will remain lost to the people of Jaffna. We can add new books, but nothing can replace the old books, what was lost will remain lost forever”, painfully recalls Rohini Pararajasingam with tears.

"We treat books with great care and love", reiterates Rohini Pararajasingam

Although her immediate action to move the remaining books to a safer place was bitterly criticized instantly, her brave act was commended with a certificate of appreciation by the Jaffna University authorities later.
I did what was needed to safeguard the rest of the books from being vandalized at that time. I neither stopped to think nor asked my husband to decide for me. I went ahead, decided, and moved the books to a safer place. I was 44 years, when I had to make a sole decision to safeguard priceless volumes of books ”, proudly adds Rohini Pararajasingam.

She also complained to the High Commission of India, in Colombo, about the way the Indian soldiers were disrespectfully handling the books at the library.  “Those books were our lives; our source of knowledge. Foreign army which was sent to maintain peace, simply did not know our culture.We could not safe the books in the statistical section, but only managed to salvage the books from the reference section, shares Rohini Pararajasingam as tears roll down her cheeks.

Rohini Pararajasingma goes through her memory lane ~ "We have lost a precious collection of books", painfully recollects Rohini Pararajasingam

Every time she mentions the words "books and library" her eyes uncontrollably fill with tears, and she cries. She revisits her painful past journey with dreadful memories. "I couldn't save all the books which estimated 64,000 at the time of violence. I only managed to save volumes of 35,000 books. The rest is all gone. We will never be able to replace", sorrowfully recalls Rohini, while wiping her tears.

Rohini Pararajasingm at her seventy, still mourns the loss of treasured volumes of valuable books. She has also lost numerous personal belongings, as the conflict intensified in the peninsula. She moved to many places, multiple times with her husband, and two young daughters. “I had to buy everything from the kitchen knife to a dining table. Our calm and simple lifestyles were suddenly altered more than once. Only the spate of violence that survived as our only belonging”, tearfully recalls Rohini Pararajasingam in Jaffna.
 She acknowledges with gratitude S. Murugavel, the Former Chief Librarian of University of Peradeniya, and University of Jaffna as her guru in Library Science.  She learnt the art of Library Science under his attentive guidance. 

Rohini Pararajasingam leads a retired life in Jaffna, but haunting memories don't allow her to forget the past.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Winning back the night

By Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

1760 rape cases in 2012

Wonder of Asia: Rape in every 90 minutes

Torch and slogan at the human chain

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence began with a walk to “Winning Back the Night”. It was jointly organized by the women’s groups and activists in collaboration with Women and Media Collective. Activists and concerned citizens have walked with placards, while chanting hard hitting slogans in Sinhala, and homemade torch from Rajagiriya to Kanatte Cemetery roundabout in Borella. Activists formed a human chain around the Kanatte Cemetery Roundabout, at night to attract attention to convey and create awareness on violence against women and girls.

Lit up the night

According to Forum against Gender Based Violence, “In Sri Lanka, as well as in other parts of the world, victim-survivors of gender-based violence are largely (over 90%) women and girls. Violence against women takes many forms – physical, sexual, verbal, psychological and economic. In Sri Lanka, the most prevalent types of violence against women are domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, sexual violence, forced prostitution, incest and trafficking. These crimes are not particular to a certain region or locality, but are widespread and cut across class, race, religion, ethnicity, economic status etc. In many cases these violations are hidden, this is especially true of domestic violence and incest. Violence against women is a violation of women’s human rights, and a violation of the country’s constitution and laws. Ending violence against women is as important as ending poverty as the cost of providing services for victim-survivors of violence and abuse is quite high as well as the human cost which hinders the education, gainful employment and health of women and girls”.

Standing to attract attention in the night

It further states, “rape, sexual harassment, assault and domestic violence are the most highly reported types of violence according to the Police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children, Women In Need data and hospital desk data. However, these reported cases are among the most severe, while others remain unreported. Sri Lanka has made progress on various fronts, particularly in the legal domain, in an attempt to end violence against women, for example the adoption of the Women’s Charter, the amendments to the Penal Code in 1995, Prevention of Domestic Violence Act in 2005 etc. But, given that GBV is a complex multi-causal issue that has to be tackled at multiple levels, interventions made by state and non-state actors thus far, have touched only the tip of the iceberg. This highlights the need for continued collaboration and effective networking by all organizations working in this critical area”.

Joined to show solidarity

Mirrored in Rajagiriya

Activists on motorbikes taking the lead


Lighting up the night

Holding a placard at the human chain

Walking at dusk

Chanting slogans with placards along the street

"No to sexual harassment", read a placard in Tamil

Human chain around a round about

Walking at night

Walking to have equal rights

Activism on a motorbike

Placard at protest

"Don't give bail to abusers of women and children, reads a placard