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A Requiem for the Galle Literary Festival

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Rajpal Abeynayake

Opening ceremony of GLF at Martin Wickramasinghe Museum

The 2013 Galle Literary Festival is not being held. Certainly, not yet – and there has been an official announcement that the organizers will be suspending the event for one year, something which some keen observers say, is tantamount to a kiss of death.

The official reason that has been given is the fact that many of the participants did not confirm attendance, which necessitated a postponement by a full year. But various types of speculation abounds.

Some say that the founder of the show, the maverick Mr. Geoffrey Dobbs is, well, not feeling exactly top of the pops these days, health-wise.

If so, wish him god speed in his recovery, or the snapping out of his out of sorts spell. But, the postponement of the GLF is also quite the story, because it does say much about the support that the organizer Geoffrey Dobbs didn’t get.

Founder Galle Literary Festival Geoffrey Dobbs

No, that’s not talking about the government either, though it is fairly well known that Mr. Dobbs feels quite aggrieved that he didn’t get more generous sponsorship, this despite the fact that the state entities such as Sri Lankan Airlines were supportive in their patronage in getting down some of the participants at no cost to the organizers.

Postponement of the GLF

No, it cannot be the issue of sponsorship. There were many sponsors, and HSBC, the world’s local bank, was the latest. The problem is that sponsorships alone do not make literary events. Dobbs has to have a key support group of loyalists that would rally around the festival in good times and in bad, as this kind of event, in this kind of country particularly, does not survive on ticket sales alone.

And that’s where the rub was. The kind of crowd that regularly came for the Galle Literary Festival could have done with a bit of a ‘talking to’ by somebody mimicking a late US President — John Kennedy. Somebody should have told the average GLF festival-goers ‘ask not what the festival can do for you, ask what you can do for the festival.’

Book lovers at GLF

But most of the GLF crowd was obtuse, Colombo-centric and generally pathetic. This, I’m not saying about each and every man woman and child and boy scout that decided to go for the festival each year

But I’m saying it about those who are in the main, the chic-lit crowd. They bargained that being associated with the Galle Literary Festival would give them the kind of branding that they do not posses — of being well read, literate and maybe, perchance, a little well bred too.

GLF forum

The problem is that when people, in the main, come to a literary festival to imbibe in the atmosphere and not for the love of books — and that’s putting it mildly — they generally end up behaving like boors which might for a short while please everybody that they are being great literary snobs, but it doesn’t make for anything that endures.

Geoffrey Dobbs had so much faith in the patron saints of this Snobs Corporation that he gave them the GLF forum, and they together with the fawning Colombo intellectual cretins, did not allow one word edgewise of dissent from the audience – these same people who hold sacred the right to free expression!

People who did not toe the bought and paid for NGO line of the Paikiasothys and the Sunilas were shouted down and heckled, and threatened with bodily harm and ejection from the GLF forum. Dour faced and overrated festival moderators such as Shyam Selvaduri were (unsurprisingly) mute and approving in the face of such gross assaults on free speech.

Well, what goes around comes around. That was the first wrong turn than Dobbs took — to hitch his wagon to this cretin set. By doing this he made sure that the GLF did not put down any roots that could keep it as a literary event, anchored to the evolving realities of this country, and these times. The Colombo chic-lit set would be as quick to desert Dobbs as they were to embrace him.

That’s their lifestyle; they go from one fad to another and flit from one catwalk event to yet another, and the GLF was considered a catwalk effort as well, in case anybody missed those gourmet dinners.

Small wonder then that Dobbs suddenly finds that certainly there is no support for him from the vast hordes of the unread and the odourless, that are GLF goers in the main. They are not missing anything that they cannot get by going for a five star hotel fashion show. If anybody wants the literary festival and miss it these days – they are the people who do really read books. By that I don’t mean those who read leather-bound NGO funding proposal tomes either

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