Two Reflections on the Galle Literary Fest of 2008

Michael Roberts, on 9th February 2008


As a moderator and panelist participating in the Galle Literary Festival held between the 15th and 20th January 2008, my commentary is biased. It is doubly biased. I was born and nourished within the walls of the Fort in Galle, a site that cast a magic spell on the literary fare all and sundry encountered during these heady days.

 with my sister at Girl’s Bathing Place … and as Little bum Mike on the way home

The nostalgia of returning home was deepened by the fact that I was housed in a small hostel, Mamas Guest House (La Mamas) on Leynbaan Street, near the lighthouse where I could use the roof top dining room as ‘crow’s nest’ to look across the harbour or back across the Fort. Nor did I rush to event. I paced myself and took the opportunity to meander around the ramparts and swim in some of my spots of old. There I snorkeled and gained nourishment from seeing “my fish.” My fish? Well, the lineage of species ‘children’ spawned by those I was so familiar with in the 1950s.

There is no ‘balm’ and no exciting verbal-encounter-in-conference without sweat. Having organised many a conference myself, let me assure you that Geoffrey Dobbs, Libby Southwell, Seetha Chinnappa-Sarwal, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussain and a host of other volunteers — yes unpaid hands – worked their butts off for many days, sometimes 18 hour days, in order to put the show on the fort so to speak. The brochure guiding participants is a model of its kind and the arrangements were usually impeccable. The only disappointments were stars (e.g. Jung Chang, Shobhaa De) who did not honour their contract and Kumar Sangakkara, who was laid low by fever.

Libby & Ameena

Dobbs has been the original inspiration for the GLF. He is something of an institution in the south as an entrepreneur in boutique hotels and a philanthropist with an island retreat that Robinson Crusoe would die for. Libby Southwell is an Aussie of amiable disposition and organizational virtuosity, almost but not quite Sri Lankan after being tsunamied into severe illness. The team they marshaled can rest happy with their achievements.

Among those marshaling forces was a naturalized expatriate hand within the Fort, now residing opposite my birthplace in Pedlar Street: Ms Juliet Coombe, cameraperson extraordinary with 26 books under her belt. Having married a local Muslim tuk tuk driver who plays cricket in England during the summer, she did not allow her 6-month old baby deter her from marshaling young local men to move chairs etc etcetera as part of the logistics girding the whole affair. In Juliet we have a jewel of an expatriate in our midst who will widen the tourist potential of the Festival in the future with her own brand of expertise. Just drop in at their café and look at the picture of an intrepid lad diving, Acapulco-style, off the Old Lighthouse bastion to marvel at her skills. These skills were on display for those who caught her free exhibition of 80 “Fort Characters” tucked away at a site which many may have missed. Here, Juliet does not only capture the elite in digital resolution and word. Her selections depict fish vendor and doctor, lace-lady vendor and wealthy-expatriate retiree and thus straddle all the classes in the fort. Those who missed her exhibition need not worry: her work is bound to hit the bookshelves soon.

This was not a festival that focused purely on literature in prose and poem. There was culinary fare from both Sri Lankan and foreign cooks at major feature meals with famous authors, events demanding a goodly sum of Rs 5,000. There was an architectural tour from Galle to Tangalle guided by Channa Daswatte that took in the work of Geoffrey Bawa and Valentine Gunasekera. There were separate architectural and historical elucidations of the Galle Fort and/or its history by such experts as Rajpal de Silva, Ronald Lewcock and Ismeth Raheem. 

Lest we forget though, this was a literary festival. I was often reminded of this fact. “Are you a writer?” I was asked on several occasions. Initially this query left me nonplussed. I knew the speaker wanted, even perhaps “desired,” me to be a creative writer. I am not one. I create articles and books, yes. But if I had created such works “creatively” I would have lost my job long ago. So, thus challenged, I learnt the appropriate answer: “Yes and No.” That stumped everybody [though I was a batsman not a wicket keeper]. Further explanations had to follow of course. Rather tedious that.

“Are you related to Karen Roberts?” was another question that confronted me [both in Galle and over the years elsewhere]. “No” was my polite answer. But I had already invested Rs 5000 in booking in for the privilege of a lunch with Karen R at a private house in the Fort. This step provided me with an unexpected boon. The house belonged to Hilal Noordeen, now a spinal surgeon from the top-drawer in England, a man of many talents who had scrummed down for Balliol College in Oxford and become the President of the Oxford Union in his university days. Hilal had flown in that morning and was due to chair a session with William Dalrymple that afternoon – after which he would be driven to Katunayake that night to fly to England on the morrow (and doubtless he would be operating on someone the day after). What energy! What a marvelous range of talent!

Karen Roberts in two versions and Hilali Noordeen in working kit

But I digress. Karen, it turned out, was not the sort of person who carries airs and stands on dignity. She ate the buriyani with her fingers (so too me) and we got on like a house on fire. Besides the name, we discovered other affinities: she, like me, was often mistaken for a Burgher. She is not. “I am a Sinhalese” she stressed. “Ah, Navandanna Sinhala,” the sociologist and historian in me broke in and said. In surprise, she and her sister, Francine, beamed in delight. “Navandanna Govigama” she corrected, smiling; but, yes, the patrilineal side was Navandanna and went back to Dr. Emmanuel Roberts’s ancestors who changed their name to Roberts from Rabel Ratnaweera something something-.

In appearance, however, both Karen and Francine could pass for Burgher, so I proceeded to pursue my sociological tastes by asking them about schoolyard banter when they attended St. Lawrence School, Wellawatte, during the 1970s. Their replies are now part of my stock of empirical data. Ever since I researched material for my chapter on “Pejorative Phrases” in the book People Inbetween (1989, Sarvodaya Publishers,) let me note that I have been interested in the use of such terms as kärapotta, kärapotu lansiyā,  polkudu suddha and tuppahi.

Because I am of Barbadian patrilineage with Sinhala-Burgher on the mother’s side (patrilineal Sinhala, a Ratnayakalagē), I am person with no ethnic collectivity to attach myself to within the context of the island – for one family does not an ethnic community make. So, I have, ever since the 1983 pogrom and the People Inbetween researches activated my political sensibility, tended to define myself as Thuppahi or Tuppahi (a disparaging epithet that refers to those low-cum-vile, and can be best translated as “mongrel”; but yet also a term used once as an ethnic category by Piyadasa Sirisena who was kind of Gunadasa Amarasekera of his time). Indeed, on one occasion I formed a Tuppahi Association and declared myself Tuppahi No. 1. Thiru Kandiah (whose mother is Sinhala) promptly joined me as No. 2. Kumari Jayawardena, whose mother is English, is happy to line up at No. 3. There are no blood tests, codes or fees attached to this grouping. Anyone can join. Even blue-blooded Brits, lion-skinned Sinhalese and tiger-stripped Tamils are welcome.

*** ***

 Geoffrey Dobbs


This is a companion piece to my previous review, one less personal, more focused on essentials and yet partisan. 2008 saw the second festival at Galle, “Let’s Play with Words.” Those present the previous year remarked that it was more varied and incorporated more Sri Lankan authors, both local and expatriate. Implicit in the title, of course, is the understanding that the focus is on creative literature in English, not French, Sinhala, Tamil or pidgin. Equally implicit, as I indicated in my previous essay, is the bracketing out of social science productions in English or other languages (that “heavy stuff,” you know).

Two blokes remarked that the whole affair was “colonial.” Yes, there was a distinct whiff of the colonial with the lucid British accents of Simon Winchester, Alexander McCall Smith, William Dalrymple and Simon Mitchell punctuating so many sessions. This was further underlined by the shining bald pates sported (unavoidably) by some of those named above; but, above all, by the trilby hat adorning the large figure of McCall-Smith as he loomed above most other people.

But to underline this motif too strongly is to focus on the veneer or on just one dimension of a multi-faceted affair. Paradoxically, the two blokes who raised this thought were both foreigners. One was John Mateer, a poet and a South African domiciled in Australia, a person whose journeys to Sumatra and Japan and explorations among subaltern poetry in several languages other than his own have been directed by a desire to transcend his own subjectivity in radical and productive ways. The other was none other than Brian Keegan, a journalist who was a hostage of radical Muslims for five years in Lebanon. Having survived this ordeal Keegan went on to become a travel writer. But he brought to the GLF also his life experience in Belfast and a background in northern Irish politics that remains pertinent to the Sri Lankan scene. Both Mateer and Keegan, clearly, are not from the “colonial drawer.”

These are indicators that the WHO of personnel counts, not whether they are Brits, Eskimos or indigenous. Michael Meyler, tall and gangly, may look a “Westerner,” but he has kind-of “gone native,” speaks Sinhalese and has just finished a book on Sri Lankan English. So he shared the stage with another naturalized Brit, Richard Boyle, whose work on Robert Knox and contributions to the Oxford Dictionary complemented Meyler under knowledgeable guidance from Winchester.

Again, a journalist such as Julian West, who has covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, is hardly “colonial” in experience, disposition or, for that matter, in her appearance. Likewise, the several Indian and Pakistani literati, Vikram Seth, Kamila Shamsie and Vikrom Mathur for instance, can hardly be viewed as colonial. And then we had our very own expatriates, Nury Vittachi, Shyam Selvadurai, Karen Roberts, Channa Wickremesekera, Randy Boyagoda, et cetera.

The ultimate test, however, is content. Thus, both personnel and content combined to insert a political edge to several topics. There surely are few migrant Indians and Sri Lankans in the West who are unaware of the ethnic dimensions of life and politics. Wickremesekera is not only a novelist; he is historian who is deeply engaged in contemporary reconciliatory politics relating to Sri Lanka among the migrants in Melbourne. A panel on Bloggers was as novel as pertinent and could not but be political with Deepika Shetty (an Indian based in Singapore) and Sanjana Hattotuwa on board; while young Iresha Dilhani from near Anuradhapura provided a link to the grass roots Sinhala-speaking world.

Again, Living with Conflict, The Edge of Prejudice and Can Language Provide A Bridge to Peace? were all explicitly political topics. The latter was consciously scheduled for the final morning and featured five local heavyweights: Neloufer De Mel, Sanjana Hattotuwa, P. Saravanamuttu, Jean Arasanayagam and Rajiva Wijesinghe, all moderated capably by Rama Mani. This session was followed by the final one devoted to the topic The Nature of the American Empire featuring that caustic critic of USA, Gore Vidal, in conversation with Simon Winchester. This session ‘played’ to a packed house. Winchester’s voice may have been quintessential “British colonial,” but his stance was trenchant anti-colonial. In penetrating clarity his opening lines reminded Vidal and all of us that Britain had secretively, indeed, hideously, removed some 2000 odd Maldivian islanders so that the atolls we identify today as Diego Garcia could be turned into a military outpost of the hegemonic American order of contemporary times. It was a pity that this stark prompt was not sustained by the sound system, Vidal’s diction and his penchant for one-line sound bites in what was a performative TV-cum-rap gamesmanship. I slipped out after ten minutes of that nonsense. Lesson here: organisers frame the topics, but they cannot dispose content, even from those famous.

Let me stress, too, that the GLF provided a rich diversity of topics. There was a wide range of literary topics, both specific (e. g. Funny Boy with Selvadurai) and thematic (Fact of Fiction? involving creative writers and journalists). Among the themes addressed were detective writing, travel tales, poetry issues, Lanka’s female pioneers in creative writing, climate change and the publishing world (with real publishers on stage). Likewise, there was attention to the history and architecture of the Galle Fort and a tour of the south directed towards comprehending the architectural heritage carved out by two of Lanka’s greatest, namely, Geoffrey Bawa and Valentine Gunesekara. There even was an excursion into the esoteric field of cricket, where, alas, the panelists and moderator, one Michael Roberts, did not, according to one perceptive assessor within the audience, devote enough weight to the colonial and anti-colonial roots of the game. There were also ‘extra-curricular’ events galore in the evenings, besides numerous book launches squeezed in at various times.

Importantly, there were also creative writing workshops moderated by Selvadurai and Nazreen Sansoni on the Thursday; while the week-end saw a range of exciting Childrens’ Programmes (each open to 100 children on a first come, first in basis). To name a few as illustrations of potential value from the latter programme: drawing led by Barbara Sansoni, landscape and life led by Susan Elderkin, entertainment via “Beastly Tales’ led by Vikram Seth and a consideration of the idea that “Reading is Fun” led by Karen Roberts. I happened to bang into Karen R immediately after her session. She had divided the group into those who said they liked to read and those who expressed distaste for that form of recreation. She had then got them to explain their reasons and to argue their positions in debate, thereby enforcing self-reflexivity. This must surely have been interactive learning at its best. It will only be after a decade or so whether we discover whether these workshops have inspired a few children to develop their creative skills to the point where they become our new generation of creative artists/writers.

The Opening Ceremony also featured a young lad from Mahinda who had won the competition for the Best Essay. He read the essay out for our benefit. An intense lad, he was an evangelist of sorts; he even desired a ban on smoking and alcohol. I doubt whether he will convert the GLF or its hoteliers on the latter score. But that said, these various outreach programmes were probably the most important aspects of the whole GFH. It is remarkable that they have drawn little comment or accolades.

Invariably, in any one year a literary festival cannot be comprehensive: the whole gamut of possibilities cannot be covered. However, after the event I suggested to the organisers that they should devote space to the cross-fertilisation between the English language and the local languages Sinhala and Tamil; and that this theme should specifically attend to the careers and impact of Martin Wickremasinghe, E. F. C. Ludowyk and E. R. Sarachchandra, all hailing from the Galle District and thus providing a nuance on locality with the same ‘twist’ as the attention devoted to the Fort of Galle. Note that the collaboration between Ludowyk and Sarachchandra was principally in drama and occurred at Peradeniya University in particular — where a teacher from St. Aloysius in Galle, Benedict Sirimanne, performed the lead role in the original Manamei with considerable panache. In such personnel as Sarath Amunugama, Tissa Abeysekera, Neloufer de Mel, Asoka de Zoysa, Jayadeva Uyangoda and Nuhman, among a host of others the island has the resources to pursue such issues in depth.

The organisers were highly receptive to this thought so the authors of a critical newspaper review that pointed to English translations of Sinhala texts by Rangini Obeyesekere and Lily de Silva as part of a critique need not worry about the future. While their point was well-taken, as a review it seemed one-sided. It generated just a whiff of nativism with a touch of Xenophobia. In the present context of political chauvinism such tendencies have dangerous ramifications beyond the control of their authors.

Again, it should be obvious that no literary festival can be comprehensive in its coverage. Each annual cluster of topics must be interpreted as a cumulative process, building on previous work and leading to shifting dimensions. Indeed, having remarked on the great variety displayed by GLF 2008 –“Let’s Play with Words” I note that such diversity has its downside. For one, some panels had too many personnel: 4-5 people onstage in a one-hour sessions tended to submerge one or two; or leave little time for questions from the floor. For another, one could mount an argument for prioritizing one or two topics (as distinct from star-personnel) and having several sessions on the same theme with the same persons on stage, but subject to the remarks of a discussant during session two where they would be put through the grill – gently of course – so that the audience has a sharp debate as a platform for their further interventions. Thus, an evening session on Day 2 and a morning gathering on day three devoted to Topic X will permit highly considered, and layered, discussions of a core issue. In brief, a few in-depth “studies” could be inserted within the spread pattern adopted in 2008. Some topics/panels could even be deliberately interlocked by judicious deployment of personnel. Inevitably, this format would reduce the number of topics engaged: it is a tale of swings and roundabouts.

It is in the spirit of constructive building and adaptation that these thoughts are voiced, not as carping criticism. While there have been several accolades in the local newspapers, the “usual suspects,” the slash and burn critics who have firesticks embedded in their mouth, indulged in their caustic outpourings. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

No festival can take place without money, sponsors and organisers. Some organisers of the GLF, from Dobbs, to Southwell to Barefoot, may derive spin-offs to their trade from such an event; but it is from a passion for literature and a genuine love for the south and Lanka that they have invested enormous amounts of time on this project. So there is enlightened self-interest and passion inspiring their productive work. Likewise, such “platinum sponsors” as the SL Tourism and Sri Lankan Airlines would have seen commercial advantage through the exposure they received in return for cash or discount support. But perhaps the greatest beneficiaries will be book publishing houses, local as well as foreign. Yet, they remained, as ever, notoriously scrooge-like in their monetary support, or lack thereof. This fact indicates that enlightened self-interest is not a generalised attribute. So, in my own little play with words, I conclude with a bouquet of jasmine for all those who MADE the event.

A SPECIAL NOTE, 21 January 2009

The Galle Literary Festival of January 2008 occurred when Eelam War IV was still in progress and when Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power. The Eastern Province had been secured by the SL military forces and the advance into the northern Vanni had yet to garner any success. in the context of occasional bomb attacks and assassinations by LTTE infiltrators in the locality of Colombo and elsewhere, a few foreign invitees did not turn up. But there were no threads of fear among the participants down there in the south.

As far as I recall, there was no hint of censorship either. 


A NOTE from Juliet Coombe in 2020: “Dear Michael,
I love reading all your pieces. However I have meant to correct the paragraph below many times. My husband was never a tuk tuk driver or any driver as he never learnt to drive and i was the only driver in the family. He did a combination of translating and running his family business/and the highly successful Serendipity arts cafe. He was also captain of cricket for Mahinda school and played cricket when ever he went to the UK with the kids.
I have had this flagged up lots of times by the family and feel it is important i get you to correct it in the 2008 blog and where ever else it is mentioned before it becomes set in stone, as it does come up and if it could be corrected I would be most grateful. Many thanks Juliet”

So: readers should erase this erroneous assertion in 2008 — one made after Juliet had purchased my book on cricket, viz Essaying Cricket, for her husband.


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4 responses to “Two Reflections on the Galle Literary Fest of 2008

  1. I marvel at the range and depth of Michael’s commentary and personality. I have never been at the GLF and reading stuff written by him makes me feel I was there too. Wilfred Jayasuriya

  2. EMAIL NOTE FROM Gerald peiris of Peradeniay and Kandy … Thanks, Michael. Enjoyed reading the ‘memories. I usually dislike autobiographical stuff, but this is quite different. Vidal is one of my very favourite authors (I have read almost all his stuff – all of it, quite fantastic, and ‘Julian’, gosh! If you haven’t read it do so at least now. – the best historical novel ever written – poor bugger – is he still living? – Seth’s ‘Suitable Boy’, despite its samsaric length, was also quite enjoyable.

    I also have extremely pleasant memories of Galle – my first job at Buona Vista lasted less than three months until I got the telegram from Peradeniya.


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