Report: Galle Literary Festival 2024 - Hindustan Times
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Report: Galle Literary Festival 2024

ByShireen Quadri
Feb 20, 2024 08:53 PM IST

The festival, which returned after four years, included sunset soirees, art trails, heritage walks, and stimulating sessions that offered much food for thought

At the 11th edition of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF), Booker Prize-winning author Shehan Karunatilaka hosted an elaborate gourmet dinner and arrack-tasting session at the Jetwing Lighthouse hotel’s Nihal’s restaurant. There, he read his prose poem, Arrack Attack — a 10-point primer on the virtues (and vices) of the distilled alcoholic drink made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers — and some passages from his first novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. The Commonwealth Prize-winning book is rich with references to arrack. “I’ve been speaking about The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida ever since I won the Booker. If I could be critical about the book, it would be that there’s not much arrack in it,” he quipped. Incidentally, the arrack cocktails menu had three flavours: Three Whispers (green mango gimlet), What Yakas Want (arrack and ginger sour) and Where Did Lionel Go (treacle) and the sit-down dinner had a three-course menu inspired by descriptions of arrack in Karunatilaka’s novels.

The session on ‘Writing Asia Based Fiction For A Global Audience’ with (from right) Manu Joseph, Shehan Karunatilaka and Balli Kaur Jaswal moderated by Thirangie Jayatilake at the Hall de Galle (Malaka Mp Photography (Galle Literary Festival)) PREMIUM
The session on ‘Writing Asia Based Fiction For A Global Audience’ with (from right) Manu Joseph, Shehan Karunatilaka and Balli Kaur Jaswal moderated by Thirangie Jayatilake at the Hall de Galle (Malaka Mp Photography (Galle Literary Festival))

Author’s lunch with Radha Kumar at Aqua Pizza. (Malaka Mp Photography (Galle Literary Festival))
Author’s lunch with Radha Kumar at Aqua Pizza. (Malaka Mp Photography (Galle Literary Festival))

Sri Lanka has had a complicated relationship with arrack, which reflects the island nation’s own connections with its past, marked by civil war and insurgency. In the 18th century, when the British took control of the arrack trade, its production slumped. In recent years, however, it has seen a resurgence, with international mixologists now romancing the drink. At dinner, as the beloved drink flowed, glasses clinked, and readers and writers struck up a bond, everyone was in such high spirits that the moment became a marker of what the return of the four-day festival, held between January 25 and 28, symbolises: Sri Lanka getting back on its feet, slowly but steadily, after the crippling economic crisis of 2022.

Founded by Anglo-Australian hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs in 2005, GLF has been a celebration of literary conversation. The festival’s new segments, Gourmet Galle and Art Trail, added much zing to the usual literary line-up. Most venues were inside the Galle Fort area and attendees could walk from one to another through alleys lined with shops, hotels and restaurants. Though Galle was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, most of the white painted buildings in the fort bear the influence of Dutch architecture, and it was a salubrious experience to take the Peddlers Road, the first to have been built in the fort, to reach the press office every morning.

Heritage walk with architect Channa Daswatte around the Galle fort and its ramparts (Shireen Quadri)
Heritage walk with architect Channa Daswatte around the Galle fort and its ramparts (Shireen Quadri)

At a session entitled On Communities in Story, Alexander McCall Smith, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Amanthi Harris in conversation with Artika Bakshi, spoke about the flavours of the locale in their stories, and what writing about the people of particular geographic territory entailed. British historian Andrew Lownie gave a talk to a packed audience on the Mountbattens in Sri Lanka at the Amangalla, a luxury hotel. At another session on writing Asia-based fiction for a global audience that was moderated by Thirangie Jayatilake, Jaswal, Karunatilaka, and Manu Joseph shared their experiences of writing stories for a western readership. Jaswal said stories from Asia were often exoticised and there was an emptiness to the word “universal” mentioned on the blurbs of books by South Asian writers as it pointed to otherness even when it was not trying to do so.

“I don’t think of readers at all when I write,” said Manu Joseph, who pointed out that while some subjects, like marriage, are universal, when an Indian author writes a book on marriage for an American publisher, there had to be an element of arranged marriage and the caste system in it. Karunatilaka talked about writing about wars happening in other parts of the world as a teenager as it did not occur to him that Sri Lanka had one in its own backyard. He also referred to the cultural takeover by South Korea with its movies, music bands, food, and cosmetics. “Taking western culture and spinning it and swinging it back to them (as South Korea is doing) is a great move of reverse colonialism and it is something we should all be proud of,” he said.

The Art Trail showcased the works of modern and contemporary Sri Lankan artists. (Shireen Quadri)
The Art Trail showcased the works of modern and contemporary Sri Lankan artists. (Shireen Quadri)

An enjoyable session on short stories saw Amanthi Harris, Nayomi Munaweera and Chiranthi Rajapakse talk about the many wonders of the genre. Responding to a question about men reading women writers, Amanthi said: “As a woman, I’m challenging my own entangled and censored voice, writing about the kind of themes that are difficult and constantly pushing through the internal boundaries that we set for ourselves.” Munaweera underlined that “the barriers” were subtle and while the books were not gendered, their covers were. Rajapakse added that people in Sri Lanka generally hide about being an author or writer as it doesn’t add to their livelihood. Apparently, this applies to both men and women.

The Hall de Galle was the venue for some interesting performances. Here, the Mind Adventures Theatre Company and Stages Theatre Group presented Letters from Gaza in a poetry reading format, while Vidura BR, a Sri Lankan stand-up comedian based in London, had the audience in splits with French Kiss Tunnel, which touched on his experiences in love, relationships and heartbreak.

Romesh Gunesekera reading at a Tea & Poetry session at the Amangalla (Shireen Quadri)
Romesh Gunesekera reading at a Tea & Poetry session at the Amangalla (Shireen Quadri)

At the Tea & Poetry session at the Amangalla, Tishani Doshi read poems from her 2021 collection, A God At The Door, and Gunesekera read from his anthology that gave a sense of the island and its daily hustle bustle: fisherfolk selling their wares and a landscape dotted with tamarind and coconut trees. The audience, naturally, sipped Ceylon tea.

 Authors and book lovers especially enjoyed the Sail into the Sunset cruise. On the yacht were, among others, Ameena Hussein and Sam Perera, founders of the Perera-Hussein Publishing House, and popular YouTube travel influencer couple, Shehaan Thahir and Shenelle Rodrigo. Authors Peter Frankopan and Niki Gomez were part of the company.

The festival’s busy schedule also included literary lunches, dinners, sundowners, author cocktails and book sessions at The Wild and the Sage, a bookstore in Unawatuna. A tour of Galle fort led by architect Channa Daswatte provided a glimpse into the history and architecture of the building. The story goes that when the British took over Sri Lanka from the Dutch, the governor continued to live in his residence, a grand place, until his daughter fell in love with a British soldier, who was a big gambler. Once he lost so much that the governor had to sell his home to bail out his son-in-law.

Author sundowners at the Charleston Hotel (Shireen Quadri)
Author sundowners at the Charleston Hotel (Shireen Quadri)

The Author Sundowners at the stunning art deco Charleston Hotel with its breathtaking views of the ocean and sunset was teeming with people from Colombo for whom attending GLF is an annual ritual. Many take holidays from work and drive two-and-a-half hours to Galle to celebrate books. Though the programmes were ticketed, most of the sessions that featured established authors from Sri Lanka, India and abroad, were full.

Popular chefs Emily Dobbs, Nisha Parmar, Mark Hix, Jeremy Lee, Cynthia Shanmugalingam and Rishi Naleendrab were part of the Gourmet Galle segment with its many literary sessions and workshops over food and drinks at various restaurants. The Art Trail organised by Azara Jaleel’s ARTRA magazine showcased the works of modern and contemporary Sri Lankan artists as well as of international artists at various venues inside the fort.

Geoffrey Dobbs and Peter Frankopan with the trophy at GLF (Malaka Mp Photography (Galle Literary Festival))
Geoffrey Dobbs and Peter Frankopan with the trophy at GLF (Malaka Mp Photography (Galle Literary Festival))

The curtain fell on the festival with, what else but a cricket match between two teams, the Litfest XI and the Galle XI at the Galle International Stadium. Watching Gunesekera, Karunatilaka, Joseph, Sebastian Faulks, and Frankopan show off their sporting prowess and ultimately clinch the trophy was an unparalleled experience.

For days after my return, I was submerged in thoughts of the fun, frolic and literary feasting I experienced and enjoyed so thoroughly at the Galle Literature Festival. 

Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.

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