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The underside of the Galle Literary Festival

Much has been and will be written about this year’s Galle Literary Festival (GLF) on account of a malicious campaign by some ill-willed groups who cannot get over the fact that denouement of the conflict in Sri Lanka was not to their taste. 

It hasn’t impacted the GLF in that only one individual deciding to boycott the event.  Interestingly, this little white boy is reported to have already arrived in the island, holidayed a bit, discovered something called a conscience and hot footed back to his ‘native’ South Africa.
I am not sure if he reimbursed his airfare and whatnot, but it is a bit galling when a white boy starts giving moral lessons to us, especially one from the land of Both and De Klerk who as a friend pointed out will die peacefully in their sleep.

 Damon Galgut’s not alone in his ignorance about Sri Lanka. 
Doing the rounds at the GLF, which to me is less about attending events than chatting to people over a cup of tea, I heard some hilarious stories about the consciousness, integrity and general intelligence of some who frequent the event.  I will share.

Pico Iyer, having enjoyed the hospitality of Geoffrey Dobbs at his hotel, Taporobane Island and feeling compelled (or being persuaded) to do a write-up for a travel magazine, described in eloguent language how that little piece of land rose from the Pacific Ocean! 
 Then there was a British tourist who had inquired from a local author if he had met Vikram Seth. 
Our boy had replied in the negative and this had appalled the lady, who had exclaimed, ‘How could you not, he’s such a genius!’  Local Boy had asked her which of his books she had read.  She replied ‘Well, I haven’t ready any yet, but I bought one today!’  Local Boy says, ‘So you conclude that he’s a genius without having read anything he has written? F***-off!’  British Lady is shocked: ‘You are so rude!’  I personally think Local Boy was being pretty mild, all things considered.

On another occasion, someone had claimed that Richard Boyle’s Sindbad in Serendib was reminiscent of Horace Walpole.  He was asked who Walpole was.  Pat came the reply, ‘I really don’t know, I think he was an essayist.’  Need I comment?
 This is all part and parcel of the GLF. 
Half the Sri Lankans who attend the event are unlikely to have read a single Sinhala or Tamil novel or even a short story. 

I am certain that most of those who salivate at the prospect of getting some foreign author to autograph his/her book would never have attended a book launch of any local author outside of those literary pretenders who write in English (and they are many). 
 Bucks are being made in the millions by hotel owners, most of whom are not Sri Lankan nationals and have set their businesses through the BOI and enjoy tax holidays of the kind they’ll never find in their countries. 
This event of ‘high culture’ (according to Shyam Selvadurai) is about money, and precious little percolate to the waiters and trinket-seller in and around the Galle Fort. 

 One should not go overboard with the little tiff that GLF had with RSF (Reporters Without Borders, integrity, intelligence and a lot else besides) for they are ideologically on the same page when it comes to Sri Lanka, going by the political positions they privilege in terms of personalities showcased (LTTE-loving Sunila Abeysekera who would conflate it with ‘Tamil’ but not associate it with terrorism), media outfits celebrated (the notoriously pro-LTTE BBC which has precious little to say about Iraq and Afghanistan compared to the rubbish they dish out about Sri Lanka) and so on. 

 A sharp comment I received a couple of days ago says it all: ‘[The GLF is about]
housetrained literature as short eat, table d’hote and parfait. Dissent here is the commissioned despair of beasts on short-term consultancies, croaking on cue for fanged cubs who got doused in a bloody monsoon. The Gallic meets the galling, as RSF, like its country cousin, the MSF,  are umbilically irrigated by sections of the French state and the EU. I imagine the cushy Kouchner of the Kosovo makeover would rather us fete French or German fictions, of Villon and Vichy, Goethe and Goebbels. As if literature can only be feasted within the dictat of NATO, in torrid Toronto or arid Arizona.’

These things are known.  They are not talked about by panelists invited for the GLF.  They are raised by Rajpal Abeynayake at the GLF and in his columns and for this reason he has become not only a fixture of the GLF but an irritant that pushes it to be better. And ‘better’ it certainly has become from year to year. 
 We get to listen to and engage with top notch authors. 
We are given an opportunity to take issue with people we disagree with, openly and in a space where they have to respond, even with silence

(ie without kata-uththara, as Sunila did to Rajpal). 
It is a pleasant enough atmosphere overall and moreover, at the GLF, one is bound to encounter at least a dozen people who stimulate with conversation, humour, insight and just by being, invitees as well as guests. 
 The GLF is not perfect and in its imperfection there are lots of positives too.  It is not to be boycotted or dismissed, but to be engaged and emulated.  Even if you don’t have the bucks to attend the expensive events, you can skip them all, just sit outside and talk to people, even if you disagree with them on a lot of things.  Nice break from routine.

 I spoke with Romesh Dias Bandaranayake about the virtues of Bridge, with Liyanage Amarakeerthi about translations and a lot of other things, Ranjini Obeysekera about the institution of marriage, Nesha Harishchandra about her doctoral work, Malinga Gunaratne about ethics in politics, Kendall Hopman about the days of the Sun and Weekend, had lunch with a lovely lady called Drupathi who taught me a lot about orphaned children and many other things, listened to Chamali Kariyawasam’s poetry and a lengthy chat with Anura Saparamadu about his poster collection and the GLF itself.  And yes, the BBC asked me some question. 
I wonder if they’ll edit it out of whatever they dish out as being the definitive coverage of the GLF. 
In any event, all this happened within a few hours inside the Galle Fort. 
 One needs to object to the objectionable.  Got to take the good too.  That’s my take on the GLF.

 Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com