Not playing by the book
The monk who liked novels as much as the scriptures
HERE are many things one has to give up when taking the robe. Buddhist monks embrace a life of abstinence, celibacy and often poverty. Among the worldly pleasures they are not supposed to indulge in is the reading of novels and fiction.
Ashin Dhamma Nanda broke this tradition. As a novice in his teens, he would bury himself in reading Burmese translations of novels like AJ Cronin’s The Citadel, HG Wells’ The Invisible Man and Dominique Lapierre’s The City of Joy. Ever since his childhood, Ashin Dhamma Nanda has read voraciously. The maroon robe could not deter him.
Now 41, he has amassed about 10,000 books; some of them are out of print and extremely rare. The earliest book of his collection dates back to 1841.
Last weekend, about 450 foreign novels from his private collection were displayed at a festival held in the Yangon Book Plaza to mark International Translation Day.
Those curious enough could gather at the festival and marvel at some of his rarest collections, including a first Burmese edition of Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in 80 Days – the novel in Myanmar translation was published in 1960 – and Arthur Hailey’s 1959 novel The Final Diagnosis – which reached Myanmar in the Burmese version in 1975. These treasures were covered in plastic and could not be touched.
“When I was a child, I read illustrated comic books. I then devoured [Burmese] martial-arts fiction in volumes. But I did not find anything helpful in martial-arts fiction, so I switched to translated novels such as Papillon, Banco or Beyond This Place. They totally engrossed me,” Ashin Dhamma Nanda said.
“Foreign novels play an important role in uplifting hope and moral courage of readers,” the monk explains. Beyond This Place, for instance, is the story of a student whose father was wrongly imprisoned for murder. The son desperately struggles for his father’s release. His efforts finally bear fruit. “Great strengths lie in novels,” says the monk.
Ashin Dhamma Nanda found solace in foreign literature because local authors were heavily bowdlerised, tainting their artistic value. Thankfully, censors would sometimes not see the political messages hidden between the lines in foreign books. Books’ suffering Born in Latputta, Ayeyarwady Region, Ashin Dhamma Nanda began reading books at the age of 10. Around that time he became a novice. At 16, he started to collect books with the ambition to found a library to help widen people’s knowledge. When he was 25, he already had a collection of 500 books. In 2000, he opened a library in Shwe La Yaung monastery in Mandalay Region.
“I have asked for book donations since I was 16. If I received K10,000 donations for betel quid or tea, I would spend K7000 on books,” he said.
The fame of his library rose and it became much frequented by bookworms. But his success also got him into trouble with the authorities. The head monk of the monastery housing the library complained to Ashin Dhamma Nanda about the flow of visitors.
In 2013, he had to temporarily close his library and relocate his collection to a room in a nearby monastery, headed by a more understanding monk. And of course, the librarian moved with his library.
“There are not many people who enjoy reading in the village [where the monastery is]. But readers from Mandalay [some 12 miles away] come to me to browse books they like.” He lends books to his faithful readers, for 15 days to a month; he is trying to open a library in Mandalay where they are.
“I admire his effort to spread the knowledge by lending his books, some of them are very rare,” said Myay Hmone Lwin, writer and founder of Ngar Doe Sar Pae book (literally “our literature”), a publishing house. Myay Hmone Lwin regularly donates books to the monk.
It was he who spotted Ashin Dhamma Nanda’s impressive collection and asked him to showcase it at the festival. One of the aims of the exhibition was to promote foreign novels and encourage people to take up translation, he explained.
The dedicated monk explains that libraries in Myanmar are facing a challenging time. According to him, many libraries are closing across the country, especially in rural areas. He remembers that once, he saw cows staying in a library – surely they were here to feed on the pages, not read them.
He partly blames his fellow librarians who fail to preserve books and renew their stocks with novels. Often, they even fail to help recommend books to readers, he fumed.
This is not the case of Ashin Dhamma Nanda who has an extensive knowledge of his cherished books. Go visit his library near Mandalay; he might help you find a good read and, who knows, perhaps your inner peace.
‘Since I was 16, I have asked for book donation’ Ashin Dhamma Nanda Monk and librarian
Foreign novels translated in Burmese at Yangon Book Plaza on September 23.