Not play­ing by the book

The monk who liked nov­els as much as the scrip­tures

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend - BY ZON PANN PWINT

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

Photo : Aungmyin Yezaw

For­eign nov­els trans­lated in Burmese at Yangon Book Plaza on Septem­ber 23.

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