The Geoffrey Dobbs Affair


I read with interest Maheen Senanayake’s article in the Business Pages of the Sunday Island of January 5 in which he includes questions and answers from an interview he had with Geoffrey Dobbs. I had been startled by the earlier report in the newspapers of Dobbs being refused entry to the Island and then being grudgingly, we suppose, given a month to settle his matters here.

My first reaction on reading about this was wry amusement mixed with consternation. I muttered to myself: "Are we all in the kindergarten?" The cause of Dobbs becoming persona non grata is so juvenile and puerile. Of course I am not aware of wheels within wheels as is the case in any local situation – grave or slight. But taking the entire business at face value or as it appears to the mere observer not privy to any underpinnings or hidden ramifications, it seems all so childish. In objecting to the Australian flag among three others being hoisted upside down or inside out in the Galle Fort in celebration of CHOGM, Geoffrey Dobbs hoisted the Sri Lankan flag likewise to drive home the insult of hoisting a national flag incorrectly.

As he told Maheen Senanayake "I have some property by the Governor’s house and I hoisted the Sri Lankan flag upside down and at half mast for half an hour." This after he says he repeatedly reported the matter of the four foreign flags being hoisted incorrectly to the Governor, Mrs Kumari Balasuriya, and the police. Since nothing was done to rectify the mistake and atone for the carelessness due to lack of knowledge of the persons who hoisted the flags and those who supervised the job, Dobbs hoisted the Lion Flag the way he did.

Again I repeat we do not know the entire story nor ramifications, but my comment is: what a storm in a teacup! What childish behavior on the part of Her Worship the Governor of the Southern Province, Mr Geoffrey Dobbs, the Immigration and Emigration big bosses who decided to deport Dobbs and all other hidden hands, since there simply had to be these.

I do not personally know Geoffrey Dobbs but I have seen him at the Galle Literary Festivals and admired greatly what he did and achieved. He used to move around the Hall de Galle and other venues unsmiling and determined. Right, we said, he has much to supervise, but a second voice intruded: ‘He seems to be superior like some foreigners who live in Sri Lanka and get the feeling they are better by far than the ‘natives’’. Since the incident occurred I have talked to some persons who gave substance to my surmise. This happens to foreigners, especially ‘whites’ who very soon after settling in get this attitude of superiority and often do not mince their words to deride us and our local habits. It’s just a few who develop this attitude. Most foreigners of the Anglo Saxon kind are appreciative of our collective personality and admire our heritage, but a few small minded persons get worse. I blame locals who often pay pooja to them in establishments where locals and foreigners work side by side.

A move of negative impact

The storm in the teacup of kindergarten behavior is counter productive. Here we are building luxury hotels to have foreigners coming over in their hundreds if not thousands. Here we are so anxious to attract foreign investment and desirous of foreign capital being poured into government coffers. Both hurt by the Dobbs affair. His originated literary festival drew foreigners in droves and they spent money here, enriching government coffers. Most definitely Sri Lanka in general and Galle in particular got marked clear and favourably in travel maps and literary publications. Now after this affair which will surely get more publicity in Australia and Britain and elsewhere, foreigners will think thrice before coming here. Thus the input of money and entrepreneurship will surely be curtailed. We seem to be so adept at cutting off our national nose to spite the face of personal grievances. This is a case of personality against personality: Dobbs against Governor of the Southern Province Madame Balasuriya and may possibly include hidden vendettas and agendas we know nothing about.

The entrepreneur

Geoffrey Dobbs started the idea of boutique hotels in the Galle Fort which idea spread all over the Island. He innovated and launched the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) which drew not only foreigners but also had world famous literati coming over and praising our land and its people and most definitely passing the word of praise around the globe.

His innovatory success -

the GLF

I attended all the Galle Literary Festivals starting from the first in 2007 to the sixth in 2012, with the 2011 and 2012 festivals curated by Shyam Selvadurai. The 2013 GLF was cancelled, it was said, due to Dobbs’ ill health and now the mini festival planned for later January this year is in doubt. The idea mooted was that the 2014 festival would be held in March. All kaput, I suppose.

I was lucky; stayed the first time I attended the festival at Closenberg Hotel after which the management very kindly reserved my room even before requesting a reservation. This had to be done at least mid previous year, bookings being so very heavy during the GLF season. The foreign visitors and the money definitely poured in late in January. And thanks mostly to Geoffrey Dobbs and later others like curator Shyam Selvadurai, we had the opportunity to meet, listen to and even sometimes chat with world renowned authors. My unforgettable memories are of Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Picor Iyer, Nayantara Sahgal, and Katherine Frank. Tom Stoppard, Richard Dawkins and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk were listened to. The fellow feeling was another positive of the event.

The GLF continued in spite of criticism and hiccups. Many were the accusations that it concentrated on English writing and foreign writers. What other language for an international crowd with almost half the audience being visitors from abroad and Sri Lanka resident expatriates? Plenty of local authors were featured and translations et al given sessions. This most certainly was the case. In fact, both in conversation and writing, I have said that if people wanted a Sinhala literary festival they should get together and hold one. It did not happen; proof again that you needed Dobbs or a person like him to carry the load of such an event. Too expensive, some said; maybe the gourmet meals with authors. You needed not go for them if money was a constraint or you objected to a meal at Rs 5,000. The ticket for the entire five days kept steady at Rs 10,000 all through the six years. You definitely got your money’s worth. Elitism was a thrown barb of criticism. Nonsense! Everyone felt comfortable in the informal atmosphere at the venues, evening events, and the open air restaurant. If there were elitist individuals, and there certainly were, you could plain ignore them. In 2011 a minor stir was caused by Kiran Desai and Orhan Pamuk canceling their attendance at the eleventh hour in protest against the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of journalists and writers. However, Pamuk came for the 2012 festival.

I am constrained to claim this entire business is a shame since I am sure there are hidden agendas and facts about both sides a person like me is unaware of. A reason circulating for the deportation was Dobbs’ properties – envious eyes cast on them with the desire to acquire and own them. The insatiable desire for land that is prevalent gives credence to this theory. I had thought Dobbs owned Count de Mauny’s island. No, I was told. One of Kandy’s George E de Silva’s sons still owns it with Dobbs leasing it and managing the hotel in it. Conjectures! The truth is that it is a great pity that the founder of the Galle Literary Festival is now denied residence in Sri Lanka. Will others be able to run it as it was for six very successful years with ever increasing participants and invited writers?

I must make it clear I am not holding a brief for Geoffrey Dobbs per se but for the principles underlying his success in Sri Lanka and now his being refused residence in Sri Lanka.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...