THE LITERARY EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Every January I return to South Asia to experience an assault on all my senses by two of the best-attended English language literary festivals in the world. 

From January 14 to 17, 2016, the Galle Literary Festival will be held in a restored Dutch fort on the southern tip of Sri Lanka.  The historic Diggi Palace in the fabled “Pink City” of Jaipur, India, is the venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival, which runs from January 21 to 25, 2016.

Thousands attend the Jaipur Literature Festival  not only from all over the Indian subcontinent but also from  the rest of the world.  Dressed in multihued salwar kameeze, sarees, sarongs and suits, audiences listen in pin drop silence to ideas and stories both ancient and current.

The audience is not at all reticent to challenge ideas, opinions and ideology expressed in author interviews, panel discussions and readings.   Quite often the authors and panellist seem to be quite taken back by the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter and the alternate formulations that are vey politely offered.

Whether good, mediocre or bad, each session of the festival concludes with thunderous applause followed by an adequate break to indulge in a wide range of fiery to achingly sweet South Asian food prepared by chefs clad in French Knot coats.  In contrast are the all male wait staff attired in knee length creme coloured sherwani jackets with red embroidery worn over cchuridars which are trousers that are loose around the hips and thighs, but are tight and gathered around the ankle. The colourful clothes are capped by the traditional turban knows as safa which are distinctive in style and colour, and indicate the caste, social class and region of the wearer.

The food is complimented by plenty of locally brewed Arrack, ubiquitous “Johnny Black” scotch whisky, King Fisher India Pale Ale or Lankan Three Coins Beer, as well as Assam or Ceylon tea.

The 2016 Jaipur Literature Festival will be headlined by Margaret Attwood, Marlon James who won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for his epic and visceral novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, and acclaimed historian and Massey Lecture Presenter Margaret Macmillan who also serves as the Warden of St. Anthony’s College at the University of Oxford.

The Jaipur Festival is as famous for the authors who have attended, including Hanif Kureishi, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Ian McEwan, J.M. Coetzee, Mohammed Hanif, Orhan Pamuk, Pico Iyer, Vikram Seth and Wole Soyinka, as it is for the Indian government’s banning of Sir Salman Rushdie – on the grounds that Rushdie’s presence would lead to civil chaos because his book, The Satanic Verses, is regarded by Muslim extremists as sacrilegious.

Not only was Rushdie banned from attending the festival, but the organizers’ contingency plan to have Rushdie participate by video link was cancelled, at the last minute, when religious extremists invaded the festival venue and threatened to burn it down.

Oprah Winfrey gate crashed the 2014 festival and insisted on interviewing her friend and Indian American lifestyle guru Deepak Chopra to the delight of Indian festival attendees and sneers by foreign media.  Canadians attending the 2014 festival were left scratching their heads during a presentation on multiculturalism when Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul claimed that Canada was created by three equal founding nations, French, English and Aboriginal, who continue to coexist with a good degree of harmony.

One of the more unique aspects of the Jaipur Literature Festival is that it is entirely free of charge because it has always had major corporate sponsors.  For the last three years the giant ZEE TV network has sponsored the festival.

At the Galle Literary Festival in 2008, I was able to talk with American writer and political commentator Gore Vidal. When we met on the final day of the festival Vidal was still waiting for his airline to find his luggage. He was dressed in borrowed clothes from the festival founder Geoffrey Dobbs, three sizes too big.

We had all just finished lunch at a table that included the long-time resident of Sri Lanka Arthur C. Clark, author of 2001, A Space Odyssey and other science fiction bestsellers.  And it seemed like Vidal’s his old friend was very fragile and fading. Clark passed away two months later.

Commenting on the ambitions of a then relatively unknown junior American senator from the state of Illinois, Vidal confidently and in hindsight very wrongly predicted that “the Clintons will steam-roller” Barack Obama.

The 2011 Galle Literary Festival offered a space for people from the five major Sri Lankan communities to come together and enjoy a free exchange of ideas just two years after the end of a decades-long brutal ethnic conflict. 

Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, attended the 2011 Galle Literary Festival wearing black masking tape over her mouth to symbolize the repression of freedom of expression.  An investigation of her husband’s disappearance, resurrected four years later has resulted in the arrest of 18 army officers and points the finger directly at the then defence secretary and notorious brother of the former president of Sri Lanka.

Due to the lack of the same degree of corporate sponsorships, the Galle Literary Festival is not entirely free of charge but does offer value for money with its excellent array of authors and panels.  Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Shyam Selvadurai has curated the festival in recent years.

Over the years the Galle Literary Festival had authors as diverse as Richard Dawkins,  Sakuntala Sachithanandan, Lawrence Hill, Gillian Slovo,  Sir Tom Stoppard,  Candace Bushnell and Randy Boyagoda.

The 2016 Galle Literary Festival will be featuring Sebastian Faulks, Meera Syal, Hugh Thomson, Sonali Deraniyagala and Mona Arshi among others.  Deraniyagala wrote a devastating memoir, “Wave” – about losing her husband, two children, and parents in the 2004 tsunami.

The festival will also be hosting international poetry heavy weights: 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winner Gregory Pardlo, New York Times Bestseller and Forward Prize winner Claudia Rankine, along with Sri Lankan poet Vivimarie Vanderpooten.  Famed children’s author Andy Stanton, the creator of the beloved Mr. Gum series, as well as best-selling historian Tom Holland and former BBC South Asia correspondent Mark Tully will be speaking at the festival.

Authors from the South Asian region who will be at the Galle Literary Festival include Anuradha Roy, Jeet Thayil,  Sayed Islam, Samanth Subramanian , and Omar Musa, as well as the 2012 Commonwealth Prize  and the $50,000 DSC Prize winner Shehan Karunatilaka, along with  Sri Lankan poets Ariyawansa Ranaweera and Jayatilaka Kammallaweera. 

The Galle Literary Festival will culminate with the awarding of the Fairway National Literary Award for the best Sri Lankan author and the $50,000 DSC prize for South Asian Literature.

The two South Asian festivals provide welcome relief to Canadian book lovers from the usually interminable Canadian winters as well as post-Christmas blues. 

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Viresh Fernando is a Toronto-based lawyer, world traveller and freelance writer

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