Last weekend must have been the busiest in the (admittedly extremely short) history of our southern expressway; Galle Fort was packed with tourists. So much so that by Friday evening one was being jostled on the way in and out to and from Galle Literary Festival events. What makes the crowds that are drawn to the dusty streets and the plastic chairs in the sweltering January (or February to December) sun bigger every year? The cobbled streets and mosaic-like collage of structures that make up the Galle Fort are there all year round, and so are the beaches and sunsets and the quaint little restaurants and guest houses and kids whizzing around on rickety bicycles five times their size! It could be the glitz. It could be the heady atmosphere. It could be the sparkling discussions as well. Or, just the amazing list of guests! Most of them are just so interesting to watch and listen to that it hardly matters whether you know their work well or not.
Simon Sebag Montefiore on Jerusalem: The Biography was unforgettably illuminating and fun, a good save after the opening panel which was called a “disaster” by one participant. How he looks humorously at the ugly parts of what he calls the “holiest” yet “angriest, dirtiest, bitterest city” is what sets him apart from Jerusalem’s other ‘biographers’. Far from being disregard for the spiritual “centre of the world”, it seems to be Montefiore’s deep conviction that “the apocalypse will take place outside the golden gates and it WILL all end there” that allows him to let Jerusalem be Jerusalem and not turn it into a dream or a nightmare. Another man who took his audience (and at times the moderator too!) in hand was Tom Stoppard, though in a different way. The Halle de Galle was packed 15 minutes before schedule and the audience erupted in applause as the famed playwright took the stage. Quietly, coolly and convincingly he rambled through his life, life’s work and politics, calmly fielding controversial questions from the audience. Izzeldin Abuelaish was unbelievable it seems, and during his session on I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey, a session that was called “incredible”, moved many in the audience to tears. John Boyne, Joanne Trollope, Nayantara Sahgal, Shashi Tharoor, Richard Dawkins, Ingo Schulze, Juliet Nicolson...the list continues.
Despite the big names, stimulating discussions and colourful fringe events (especially those from the Sunset and Mayhem Past Midnight Series), GLF, as any major event, has its problems. “Elitist”, “exclusive” and “commercial” are some of the major foundational claims laid against the event, but one that’s most pressing seems to be the issue – sadly – of washrooms. The situation is in fact better than it initially was, the condition of the available facilities having been improved (my respiratory system thanks GLF for that!), but there was the inevitable queue building up soon after the main sessions. But leaving aside such “petty” concerns, let us look at the more “serious” ones.
The ‘LitFest’ is pricey, that is undeniable, and this does ultimately lead to the event becoming “elitist”. But in all fairness to the organizers, the student rates are nearly unbelievable. This year the American Centre sponsored (as part of the GLF outreach programme’s North-South University Collaboration venture) fifty students from eight universities around the country in a bid to build cultural bridges, providing transport, lodging and subsistence to the chosen undergraduates, besides festival passes and other perks. The “elitism” claim comes mainly from academic quarters, and seems to be on its way to being addressed squarely. Rajitha, second-year English student from the University of Sri Jayawardenapura acceded that he had previously refrained from attending GLF due to an “impression” he had received “that it was certain types of people that went” for the festival, but now that he’s been there, he “would definitely be interested in coming again”. The students also say they find themselves encouraged to participate actively in sessions. As they point out, GLF is interested in hearing more youthful opinions added to the typically older ones. And all this democracy aside, a ‘typical’ audience makes sessions fun, especially when dissenting voices get booed off the floor.
Now someone is going to say that GLF is intolerant. This has been said before. It has also been said that GLF is exclusive. True. But in an attempt to address that issue was introduced the ‘Sinhala Writers, Sinhala Writing’ series featuring a panel on Martin Wickramasinghe as well as a session with two authors famous among Sinhala readers: Buddhadasa Galapallatty and Sunethra Rajakarunanayake. Setting the ‘Sinhala’ writers out there in their own little cranny doesn’t quite seem to address the issue, but “it’s a start” claims session moderator Madhubhashini Disanayaka-Ratnayake. “I would rather light a candle in the dark than curse the darkness”. Strong words and a clear image, and so we may keep our fingers crossed, looking forward to authors who write in Tamil as well as better integrated sessions, next year.
But the (very small) size of the audience at the Sinhala Visions, Sinhala Realities session presents this very small (negligible, really) question: is it a matter of selling tickets? Because as the glaring HSBC logo above the light-blue ‘GLF’ box on the promotional material tells us, the festival is getting rather commercial. And some of the participants feel this is resulting in a decline in festival standards. Amidst claims that “the mix of authors is not very good”, initial impressions tend to be of “pretentiousness”, and some events are “no big deal” are also more positive ones. Musician Rukshan Perera tells me enthusiastically that despite being simply “disappointed” at the lack of even a “touch” of jazz as was promised of the Mayhem Past Midnight session with Jason Kouchak, he enjoyed Eshantha Peiris’s performance of “religious” pieces by the likes of Bach, Schubert and Lizst at the Dutch Reformed Church “very much”.
And then one hears interesting stories of accidental fans like Ravi Ratnasabapathy who arrived at the first GLF simply to keep a friend company and upon being offered a free pass to hear Thomas Keneally was converted. “It was fascinating!” he grins, adding that despite never having been a “reading person” he now finds himself buying (and actually reading too!) books of authors GLF introduces him to. Ravi believes the festival improves every year. Aslam, who was the youngest (thirteen year-old) volunteer at the first GLF too thinks the festival has “obviously” improved. He looks at things from a volunteer’s perspective and is convinced that things are better organized each year and that sessions are just “awesome”. Ameena Hussain though, is incredibly generous. “Every time I have a choice [between events], I’m struggling” she laughs, “I think it’s fabulous, I always think it’s fabulous”.
Tempting it is, to leave it at that!