Further Glimpses of the Galle Literary Festival

In my last Sunday’s column I wrote about the women writers who were speakers and panelists at the Galle Literary Festival (GLF), and touched on some of the fringe events.

This Sunday I want to recollect sessions where men authors and architects took centre stage.

I will naturally start with Mohammed Hanif. You may ask why? For the simple reason that he interested me most though he gave the distinct impression by what he said and displayed via body language that he was not there to impress anyone, least of all a free lance journalist! His manner was nonchalant, his attitude - OK let’s get on with it and over with - particularly at the panel discussions he was part of. He was solo on Friday 29 January at 3.30 to 4.30 p m in a session titled Exploding the Mango, a take off on his debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes which everyone knows about. Published by Random House, India, in 2008 it was long listed for the Man Booker and Guardian First Book Prize but won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Novel – the last as stated in the GLF handbook. Indian Aravind Adiga beat Pakistani Mohammed Hanif to the Booker in 2008. A case ….. was received well in India but was given a mixed reception in Pakistan as it tries to solve (fictionally) the explosion of Pak One – the presidential plane with General Zia Ul-Huq and the American Ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, on board.

Blurbs on the back cover of the book I bought, and had autographed, carry the eulogic words ‘gripping’, unputdownable’, ‘most exciting novel in a long time’, ‘sharp’ ‘inventive’. I am reading it at the moment but have put it down often. I am still with the profanely swearing junior officer Ali Shigri who’s just getting involved in the mysterious disappearance of fellow junior officer Obaid.

Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan, and graduated from the country’s Air Force Academy as a pilot officer but left to pursue a career in journalism. He is a playwright plus a film producer. His feature film The Long Night has been shown in film festivals around the world. More interestingly, his wife is a theater producer and she produced a monologue drama with the woman on stage being General Zia’s Begum. Hanif said: ``The First Lady could not be killed, did not go away, so she was brought into a play by my wife."

On his own admission he is lazy and writes when he feels like it, unable to keep to a strict timetable. A question asked from the audience was: "Why the South Asian predilection to conspiracy theories, and what is its impact on society?" Hanif replied that when people do not have access to basic facts, they tend to believe in conspiracies and other rumours. He commented that Pakistan and Sri Lanka share the evil of state sponsored violence against the media.

An afternoon session on Saturday had Ian Rankin, creator of Detective Rebus, speaking about how he got started with his crime novels. This fiction character has had a very successful run of 17 books, and unlike other such characters, Rebus has actually been made to age with the passage of time. He will soon have to be retired, said Rankin. The bits of his own life story that Rankin gave were very interesting. Born to a coal mining family in Scotland he got phobic about their closed community. Hence from his early childhood he escaped to creative writing. One of his first successes was a poem written in Scottish which he submitted to a High School contest. The subject of the poem was his great aunt Jane, far from complimentary. Worse, he wrote another poem about an elderly relative and titled it Euthanasia. The non-compliments and connection were not lost on the old lady; "she went ballistic." He learnt a lesson, he solemnly said. "Write about what you don’t know."

He wanted to be an artiste or performer in music but instead went to read for his post graduate degree on Muriel Sparkes in the University of Edinburgh. Supposed to be researching Scottish literature, he spent his time writing novels with the main protagonist, Detective Rebus, who suddenly sprang to life in his mind. Rankin has won many literary awards and is number 1 bestseller in the UK. He received the OBE for services to literature. An excellent raconteur, he held his audience in the Halle de Galle completely captive.

Michael Frayn was more staid and dealt with a deeper subject: fictionalized history. He said all sorts of topics and issues interest him, particularly historical record and distinguishing fiction from fact. He emphasized the fact of the elusiveness of human nature and the difficulty in knowing or explaining why people act as they do. He stated categorically that fiction can affect historical records and that history is not what happened but a record of what we think happened; historians record changes that take place in time and so facts of history are already fictionalized by writers. "Sometimes narrative determines history" Another of his axioms is: "A city does not exist until it is written about" and "Observation changes what is being observed." He detailed the crux of his fictionalized drama Copenhagen which deals with the discussions on quantum electronics between Niels Bohr and the German scientist WernerHeisenberg, and the fact that the Germans could have beaten the Americans to producing the first atom bomb. His sixteen plays include Democarcy and his most recent - Afterlife.

Born in London he began his career as a journalist - reporter and then columnist of the Guardian and Observer. He took to writing plays including screen scripts and novels He is married to biographer Claire Tomalin who I mentioned in my previous article.

Anthony Beevor is a historian and has to his credit many researched histories best known pf which are his Stalingrad; Berlin - the downfall 1945; and Paris after the Liberation 1944-1949. He was in Galle with his wife, Artemis Cooper, a historian and writer herself.

Many more male persons had sessions of their own or were members of panels. Nigerian Diran Adebayo is writing his third novel and lives in London. Shyam Selvadurai was in many sessions and read a piece at the local writers’ session at Closenberg. He spoke about the influence of Buddhism and meditation on himself and his writing. The 2009 Gratiaen Award winner, Shehan Karunatilaka, previous winner, David Blacker, and Lal Medawattegedera were panelists. Architect Anjalendran was interviewed by David Robson and an unusual but very necessary event which unfortunately I missed since it coincided with a session I really wanted to attend, was Rajpal Abeynayake’s titled Resident Critic. The write up on him in the GLF handbook says, after listing his achievements in the print media: "….has been the Galle Literary Festival’s most vocal critic since its inception and comes to the Festival now to tell us what he dislikes about it." I heard he was not that acerbic!

An amusing incident has to be retailed. We were moving from the Maritime Museum to the Hall de Galle with only 15 minutes between sessions when we are stopped dead in our tracks by arm waving men in police uniform. There, about to turn into the tunnel through which one has to pass to get to the Hall, was a parked military vehicle with men in uniform holding raised rifles (big guns). My word, I wondered, which minister comes here? A group of white expatriates behind me tut-tutted and one said: "Which of the 100 odd are here today?" accompanied by distinct discreet laughter. I felt like joining them. The absurdity of the drama increased as we were suddenly told to go on our way and in the hall we heard it was a film company shooting a scene!!

I needs must end this with a thought that flashed through my mind this minute, making me grin from ear to ear. I suppose some who use the newly coined term – Colombians – would say that Galle during the GLF was overrun by this species – the brown skinned among the very many whites. Yes, the derisively so called Colombians were there but if other sneering chauvinist Colombo dwellers who distance themselves from Colombians were present, they would have seen how well people intermixed, integrated graciously and had a good time.

We Sri Lankans who were at Galle for the Festival had merciful respite from the stinking evil of politics as it now is. Thus if more people think, act and behave as Colombians this Island would be a much better place! I suppose the organizer of the event, Dr Sunila Galapatti, could be classified a Colombian. Very many thanks and much gratitude to her for an excellent job done and Geoffrey Dobbs, founder, who conceived of the idea over four years ago and placed Galle on the international literary map. This fourth GLF was attended by very many more enthusiasts this year but it ran very smooth and easy; better organized, many opined.

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