Two literary events annually overlook the vast majority of Sri Lankans; the good ole State Literary Festival and its recent counterpart Galle Literary Festival (GLF) that happens during this weekend.
The state fiasco, first. ‘Jobs for the boys’ was the raison d’être of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs since its inception in 1956. Compensating the poets, writers and journalists for their time spent in pre-election assistance is expensive. No sensible politician footing the bill on his own. Why not the public pay? No risk at all, because these ‘vandi bhattayaas’ are the same guys virtually run media.
So we have state literary awards and an annual festival – always in September. First is to meet the vandi bhattayaas’ financial needs and the second to boost their egos. Nothing wrong giving some false sense of recognition for the old boys who otherwise earns no social respect – perhaps not even from their wives. (Only JRJ once killed the fun questioning the efficacy of literature)
Take an example. The best short story collection in 2008 was dentist Gunadasa Amarasekara’s ‘Vilthera Maranaya’ (Death at the bank of a reservoir). Once considered a writer of mediocre talent, Amarasekara has lost most of it with age. All what his ‘literary’ contributions since 1980s were petty racist political propaganda. In his political short story collection ‘Gal Pilimaya saha Bol Pilimaya’ (1986) he justifies JVP blowing a fiber glass Buddha statue – according to him, genuine Buddha statues should be solid. Another story is a wretched personal attack on fellow writers Gunasena Vithana and Sirilal Kodikara. That is all what he contributes to society. Hardly any masterpieces.
For the government, of course, Amarasekara still remains a super hero. His racist sound bites have still not lost value in the war against Tamils. So an award once in a while, does no harm. Amarasekara earns few bucks – both directly and in directly; an award sells even most hopeless books. A retiree earns comfortable living. Government is ensured his future support. Everyone is happy. So what if the book is not read by anyone?
Compared to that, Galle Literary Festival, I am sure, is better. Firstly, it does not waste public money. Secondly, it has no political objectives.
Sadly, however, just like the state drama it serves only a chosen tiny group. While the State aims the Talibans, betel chewing and vernacular penning – GLF attracts more sophisticated English writers. These may be prominent personalities among Colombo elite. What impact they make on society, or how many read their work may be discourteous questions.
Just look at the list of participants. Tissa Abyesekera is the only serious contributor to Sinhalese literature. I am told Thavayoganathan Sajitharan has written in Tamil. The rest? Not only they cater only to less than 2-3% and largely Colombo based English readers but do that too in their own snobbish manner. Nine out of ten Colpetty people will not know an Ashok Ferrey. Even after the recent event, not many would still know who my former batchmate Sonali Samarasinghe is. You get the picture. These names matter to Colombo elite – not to millions of men and women we daily meet in streets.
Don’t interpret me wrong. Not that English Literature does not count. Like most former British colonies we too have a history of rich English literature, if I am not mistaken, since the Victorian days. One of the best novels of Sri Lanka, Village in the Jungle, was originally done in English by a British citizen. It was a story of real people; Silundus, Punchi Menikes, Hinnihamys and Babuns– those with flesh and blood.
Has anything from any GLF participant come closer? Don’t think so. It is not just the language that alienates their work from masses. There is a serious gap in thinking. They don’t see what we see; don’t smell what we smell. Even if translated to Sinhala/Tamil we will never take their work with the same enthusiasm we showered Leonard Woolf with. Among the recent English writers, I can think of only three exceptions. Late Nihal De Silva, Carl Muller and Shyam Selvadurai were the only writers who successfully crossed this gap. (Never read Romesh Gunasekera, so cannot comment on him.)
So what objectives GLF serve?
A section of Colombo elite might take a long holiday, eat continental breakfasts, drink lots of expensive wines, exchange yarns about their kids, buy few ornamentals, gain few pounds, may even boost the condom sales of nearby pharmacies and disperse. So much for the literature.
The tragedy is large section of creative writers never benefit from either of these festivals. They become untouchables at state festival because they do not appease Talibans. State shows the rebels the door. (Till 1974 the state did not recognize what we call ‘nisadhas’ as poems) They have no place even at Galle because they do not write in English.
See the poem with this. Will this poet acceptable to any of the two festivals?
Blogging has become the latest and one of the most effective modes of communication among youth. Now we have Sinhala blogs as much as we have English ones. I see some of the best creative works in recent times coming from blogs –poems particularly. Still I do not see the name of a single Sinhala blogger among the GLF participants. Surely it is not the place for them.
At least I am happy that they get some corner in Internet. http://www.boondi.lk has now become one of my favorites.