Let there be Literature | Sunday Observer

Let there be Literature

7 May, 2023
Galle is the ideal destination for a literary festival
Galle is the ideal destination for a literary festival

Less weightier issues than the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) are important too, but how much less weighty can some peripheral events be? It has not been laid on the kitchen scale for a weight measurement. But the economy is still mending. In this context, if anyone says something is being done to prop it up, well that is considered important.

The authorities are reportedly doing their utmost to revive the Galle Literary Festival (GLF). It has been said that it would help in some way to revive the economy. That may be flattering to the organisers. On the cards are displays in the areas of arts and dance, and other offerings such as theatre. In other words, a fully-fledged festival in which the State plays a major part.

It is a broad-basing of sorts of the GLF, and so be it. Galle is the ideal location for this sort of thing as it is off the beaten track but is not too removed from the mainstream if you will. The Galle Fort is also steeped in culture and heritage, and that is a good fit for a literary festival or an arts festival as the case may be.

Certainly while the festival brings in money and sort of kick starts the local economy, it has bigger benefits as well. It puts the nation on the map to a greater degree than mere routine tourism promotions will, and in this way has a catalysing effect.

But for the purposes of this article, this writer wants to dwell on the other aspect of the festival which is the controversy it attracts. Believe it or not that is the best part of the GLF. No controversy, no festival one may say.

Maximum efforts

However, in that context, there is a reason to make maximum efforts to ensure that the past flavour of the festival with its rambunctious literary sessions go side by side with whatever the authorities are planning on doing to introduce culture, arts, drama and what have you.

But the founder of the GLF, an impish character who had a great deal of healthy eccentricity that drives him to put on the festival in his own way, had the English literature aspect front and centre of the festival. That was good because if it was an arts festival per se, the event would have had too much of a touristy touch to it.

But literature sort of got people by the jugular in a good way. There were great egoists such as the late Gore Vidal who were invited and said preposterous things — preposterous to some at least. The year Barack Obama was first running for President the controversial commentator and know-it-all predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the election.

He did not make so much as a cursory mention of Obama, and said the Clintons know how to do certain things with people, and, of course, he did not say ‘certain things’, he said something else this writer cannot quite repeat in a mainstream newspaper.

Who does not want a bit of that type of controversy? A lot of those who come for the festival come armed with books they never read but want signed, but who cares as long as the hotel rooms are filled and those who really care about literature are also entertained.

To the credit of whoever it is in Galle or Ella who have a say about these things, the hotels there stopped their policy of apartheid which meant that the smaller hotels that were indulging in this practice have come into civilisation.

They realised though rather late in the day that the local clientele is a great source of cash sans all the hassle they imagined they brought along with them. So, it is fair to say that things have improved, even though the festival organisers may not be able to claim the credit in this regard.

Side events

There were also side events at which folk were able to vent a good deal of spleen arguing about who ruined the country or some such thing. Well, if they did not quite go there, they went close and aired topics such as wartime reporting and sometimes, writing in the backdrop of hostilities.

But most importantly the festival was also a place for various tartuffe types and other pretenders. For those not familiar with the word tartuffe — which MS Word refuses to detect — it refers to religious hypocrites or hypocritical pretenders to excellence of any kind. You get plenty of those at the GLF which is the reason the event should not be minus the literary component. It would be like playing cricket Big Matches without the revelry.

Covid had had all of literature in some kind of a plaster-cast for the better part of the last three or four years. That did not mean that books did not get written and on the contrary, perhaps, more was written because there were more people confined to their homes and opening books for some solace and companionship.

Even the Hay Festival in the town of Hay and Wye in Wales was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid. The Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) was cancelled for two years and eventually held in 2021. Even in that year, it was only held virtually though. The GLF was not held for a few years even at the best of times and depending on someone’s mood, maybe. But yes, it is quirky and that is a good part about it too.

It would be impossible to take away from the personal contribution of Geoffrey Dobbs to the festival. No matter who the curator of the festival or the director is, it is Dobbs that drives the festival through sheer personal magnetism and, sometimes, reputedly, the ability to be impossible with his staff. It does not matter. The GLF should be identified with him because the man deserves all the kudos.

He made Galle come alive in a very different way than the blue whales and the Fort-jumpers, and for that achievement he probably deserves some State honour even though Deshamanya Dobbs may sound almost contrived.


Of course, you could prick some pomposities at the festival, because some seem to go there just to be pompous, but each to his own. But the interest in literature is kindled no doubt in a lot of young people, especially in the surrounding schools and by itself that is no mean achievement.

But on a still more serious note, the festival has been described as the best in terms of atmospherics by more than one writer, and there are some top names there. Galle Fort being a UNESCO World Heritage Site has something to do with it, but it is also the fact that there is a very compelling vibe here. People can wine and dine and argue into the night without there being too much noise or too many serious people. That is the Sri Lankan way, and when they want to be serious, they usually end up being pleasantly combative.

All foreigners who are there generally get into the act by the second day, and they feel they are part of something unique, like say drinking Yak milk or eating earthworms in some esoteric location. Of course, anyone who waxes too lyrical about the festival must be cut down to size, including this writer, in precisely this article.

You could ask, what on Earth is he talking about, it is only a literary festival and the country is only just beginning to recover so there is much on our plates. Well, there is no smart aleck ending to this article as an answer to that.

Let those who do the literary reviews do the reviews though much of what is written in this country is anyway so much mush. But it is still a literary festival, the one in Galle I mean. If it has become a tourist draw, by definition it is a bit of an amorphously defined affair. We all know surely that we sorely need the tourists at least, never mind the literature.