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Kathasaritsagara, The Ocean of Tales.

STOCKHOLM / ROME, Apr 8 2019 (IPS) - Some memories stay with us forever. From my childhood I remember above all a few extraordinary moments – when I suddenly, after many failed attempts, found that I could swim and the same happened when I could ride a bicycle on my own. Since then, these skills have stayed with me throughout life, becoming part of my existence. However, towering above these instances of bliss is the moment when I realised that I had read an entire novel, one without pictures. One of those books that grown-ups were reading. From that moment the gates of paradise on earth were flung wide open. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that without music life would have been a mistake. He was probably right, but for my part I assume that without reading, my life would have been much more difficult, empty and boring. I cannot imagine a life without books. As a teacher my wish has always been to convey to my pupils the happiness and wealth books may bring to you.

While writing these lines I am surrounded by books. If I scan the book shelves, the titles printed on the spines are all familiar to me. There are many of them and each contains stories, lives, knowledge, experiences, adventures, meetings.

In the eleventh century CE, the poet Somadeva wrote in Kashmir a collection of stories he named Kathasaritsagara. I have only read a few of Kathasaritsagaras stories, though the title intrigues me. The Sanskrit word may apparently be translated as The Ocean Where Streams of Stories Unite. The world of books is truly a Kathasaritsagara. While reading, or just looking at the books surrounding me I feel like a fortunate sea creature allowed to wallow in a wonderful, immense world.

Every book tells a story. It contains a world of its own. Sometime during the third century CE the North African Terentianus Maurus wrote four books about “letters, syllables and metrics”. Most of the content of these books are forgotten by now, aside from the quote habent sua fata libelli, “books have their destiny”, suggesting that books obtain their meaning from their readers. Maybe Maurus also indicated that books have a life of their own. That it is not we who find the books, but it is they who find us. In his novel The Name of the Rose, the Italian author Umberto Eco mentioned Maurus´s quote and interpreted it as a way of stating that we share our destiny with the books we have read, that they have become part of our life.

Maybe it is true that a book is a unique entity, even quite different from its author. The Irish author James Joyce wrote that as soon as his famous novel Ulysses had been printed and published it began to live a life of its own. He read his own novel and could not understand how it had been written by him, it was as if it had been written by another person. I assume this is an experience he shares with several other writers.

During the 1920s and 1930s there appeared in Sweden a specific genre of autobiographies which was labelled as “proletarian tales about coming of age”. They were mainly written by young male and female authors who told about experiences gained from being born in poverty and how they had struggled through various kind of hardship, often related to hard manual labour, until they finally reached a stage where they had been able to master the language to such a degree that they could write their stories. These books are often deeply moving and surprisingly well-written, possibly due to the fact that these proletarian authors put such an effort into expressing themselves as clear and correct as possible. Their struggles combined with serious attempts to master the language had enabled them to respect it, even venerate it.

I have later come across tales by authors from quite different cultural spheres of the world, who in their autobiographies describe struggles similar to those of the Swedish proletarian authors. Common to most of them is the fact that sometime during their childhood or youth they learned to read and write and how some mentor, a kind and understanding teacher, or a neighbour or work mate, was able to open the gates to the Paradise of Literature. Thus these authors had finally been enabled to take a dip into the Ocean of Tales, Kathasaritsagara. From that moment on, their lives changed for the better. They did no longer feel alone and gained hopes for a better future.

Several of the Swedish proletarians wrote that it was “ambulatory libraries” administered by rural teachers, or members of so called CSOs, Civil Society Organisations, that made it possible for them to discover The World of Literature. When I occasionally have found myself abroad in poor, rural neighbourhoods and encountered bright youngsters, I have often thought how their lives could have changed for the better if they had had the same opportunities as the Swedish proletarian authors, who encountered an Ocean of Tales contained in the wooden crates with books that in the early decades of the twentieth century by idealists were brought to every corner of Sweden. You might say that this miracle could also be brought about through the access to the communication marvels provided by computers, though sitting here surrounded by my books I doubt it. I wonder if ours would be a better world if present leaders like Trump had regularly taken a dip into The Ocean of Tales, Kathasaritsagara.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

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