The Hindu (Mumbai)


Sri Lanka’s popular destinatio­n literary festival signalled an openness to spotlighti­ng sensitive issues of the day

- Meera Srinivasan

If anyone visiting Sri Lanka’s Galle city this January needed a reality check on the extent of the island’s recovery after its crippling 2022 crisis, the thaembili [king coconut] offered it. The popular thirst quencher that would have cost a few dozens of rupees a couple of years ago, is now priced at LKR 200 (approx. ₹54).

“Is anything reasonably priced in this country now?” the middleaged seller asks me, shutting down any bargaining attempt. While scores of citizens like him grapple with the aftereffec­ts of dramatic inflation, the country is desperate to welcome more tourists this year to boost its foreign exchange reserves.

The Galle Literary Festival, held from January 25 to 28 in the charming city located on Sri Lanka’s southweste­rn coast, drew many visitors who had missed both, the country’s calming beaches and its vibrant literary scene. The timing got even better with Sri Lankan writer Shehan Karunatila­ka winning the Booker Prize in 2022. The coveted award brought muchneeded cheer to a country reeling under a crushing financial meltdown, while turning the internatio­nal spotlight on Sri Lankan writing again.

“Galle Fort is alive, the sun is out, and we have been having very stimulatin­g conversati­ons,” says Karunatila­ka, who attended the festival that has resumed after a break, owing to the pandemic and Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. “What a turbulent history we have had in the last few years… the constituti­onal crisis [2018], Easter Sunday attacks [2019], the pandemic, then the economic collapse and everything that followed. I think this is a positive sign that Sri Lanka is slowly rebuilding, there is a lot of rebuilding to be done,” he says.

Date with history

The centurieso­ld — and delightful­ly functional — fort city and its ramparts had scores of tourists, both foreign and local, during the weekend of the literary festival. While some visitors were busy sessionhop­ping, others were simply walking around, as one does around Galle Fort, taking frequent gelato breaks and more frequent selfies.

Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century — they preceded British colonialis­m on the island — the fort has remained a favourite tourist hotspot. In this cosy city down south, Sri Lanka’s colonial history, a diehard SinhalaBud­dhist nationalis­t political base, and foreign visitors coexist peacefully, in the confines of their respective bubbles. In its eclectic itinerary, this edition of the festival sought to showcase the island’s history, not only in the literary space, but also in food and the arts, featuring prominent speakers from the region and elsewhere.

Notably, it included screenings of films on themes such as mass graves in Sri Lanka, and the people’s movement that dislodged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2022, signalling the event’s openness to featuring politicall­y sensitive topics, in its ambit of prose, verse, food, heritage and art trails. In a powerful collaborat­ion, local theatre groups Mind Adventures and Stages presented Letters from Gaza in a poetry reading session, reminding the audience of the most compelling humanitari­an question of our times.

Putting together a literary festival, that too after a break, is not easy. Many from the past organising teams — the festival began in 2007 — have moved on and some of the key partners and sponsors are no more involved, says festival director Giselle Harding. “But we are not starting from scratch on all fronts. We know we have a fabulous reputation and people are very excited to have us back.” It is the “best of both worlds”, in her view, as the festival, while retaining a captive audience, is also drawing new voices.

A sense of community

For many participan­ts, it was heartening to see their favourite ‘GLF’ bounce back. That weekend, the bestknown heritage and boutique hotels inside the fort were fully booked, and the restaurant­s teemed with people.

“I see this edition as a new beginning after the break stalled the festival’s momentum. Each literary festival is unique and as far as GLF is concerned, the location adds so much character — there are so many venues within and around the fort that come alive with various events,” says Ameena Hussein, writer and cofounder of the Colombobas­ed Perera Hussein Publishing House. Having been to literature festivals in Pakistan, Malaysia,

Singapore and Indonesia, Hussein says the ability of the se events to foster a sense of is what makes it special for otice difference­s in how ahore, for instance, have a nect with literature in their s well,” she says, while at in Sri Lanka, the readership in English and other oesn’t necessaril­y overlap. rhaps why some authors are e for further diversifyi­ng festival. British Sri Lankan esh Gunesekera and underscore­d the need for more translatio­ns of works in Sinhala and Tamil, in the final panel discussion of the festival, moderated by Hussain. “We don’t read enough of each other,” arunatilak­a says. Weighing in n the pressures faced by writers in the region, he says: “South Asian writers don’t take freedom of expression for granted.” There is a degree of selfcensor­ship in some contexts, but authors navigate that, often hiding behind characters and plots in fiction, they say.

All the same, some caution becomes necessary. “I’d rather keep writing than have a knife come at me,” is tilaka puts it.

 ?? (GALLE LITERARY FESTIVAL) ?? Visitors to Galle Literary Festival on a tour of the 16th century Galle Fort; and (above) guests taking a breather. sha Gal
(GALLE LITERARY FESTIVAL) Visitors to Galle Literary Festival on a tour of the 16th century Galle Fort; and (above) guests taking a breather. sha Gal

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