Galle Literary Festival begins: All dressed up but no one to see?

By Chhetria Patrakar

26 January 2018

Chhetria Patrakar reports from the famed Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka.
From the festival's first session featuring David Dabydeen, the Guyanese-born novelist, poet and academic.

At the festival’s first session featuring David Dabydeen, the Guyanese-born novelist, poet and academic.

Big names in the world of literature. Globally renowned authors. Poets and performers. The site of the 9th Galle Lit Fest was awash in buntings. But missing from the occasion was a robust audience. While events at smaller venues were overflowing or nearly full, the big hall with starring speakers exhibited row upon row of empty chairs, suggesting the organisers’ stress on exclusivity had almost excluded an audience.

The gala’s five-day pass was sold out very early, suggesting an intense interest, but the gateway to many an interesting event was through additional payment ranging between USD 7 and USD 70. In addition to the tidy sum of money this must be yielding (16 private events were individually ticketed on day one), the participation of individual authors was also a sponsored affair. The name of the sponsoring company was announced, dutifully and with due reverence, in conjunction with that of the author before each event. The authors – straw polled by Chhetria Patrakar – had not been informed of this sponsorship and learnt of it only through the festival brochure after their arrival. Nor did they know that many of their events required further payments to attend leading some to express their discomfort.

While the Chhetria Patrakar’s team was given media passes, CP, having already shelled out a considerable sum on travel and stay felt unable to avail of several of the splendid events. Many other events were not ticketed but required further booking, requiring a considerable feat of navigation. The end result was some sparsely attended events, a real pity given the excellent speakers and good logistical arrangements.

Books by the authors attending festival for sale.

Books by the authors attending festival for sale.

Among the most keenly attended one was a conversation with the author Pankaj Mishra, whose recent book Age of Anger: A history of the present forwards an ambitious thesis to explain the resurgence of far-right politics around the world. At the session, Mishra argued that the confluence of democracy, enlightenment ideas, and industrialisation in the late-18th-century radically transformed the nature of modern man. And the results of these ‘rational’ ideas – steady economic growth and democratic rights – are often touted as premiere achievements of the West.

Paradoxically, Mishra argues, given the rise in economic inequality following the economic ‘reforms’ of 1980s, these very attainments have come to haunt the West. The legions of today’s far right are angry, very angry, precisely because their faith in the doctrine of capitalist democracy has done little to improve their economic conditions. And demagogues like Donald Trump or Narendra Modi have cleverly deflected this disaffection in the direction of women, migrants, and ethnic minorities.

Mishra’s argument is complex, one that is based on intellectual histories of the global north and south, as is clear from the book’s densely written bibliographical essays. Many in the audience were probably hoping the session would enable them to know the book without reading it. Unfortunately, the moderation turned a potentially exciting event into a moderate one. Yet as CP shuttled from one festival event to another, a simplified session like this trumped not having none.

CP’s interest was also piqued by the economist Kiryl Rudy’s session, titled ‘Behavioral Economics and State Capitalism in Transition Economies’. Rudy seemed to promise an interesting discussion, making the point that the decrease in global GDP was not really that bad, that growth is not everything, and the Chinese were reforming their economy. The hit in the GDP figures, he argued, was a necessary evil.

But then Rudy began to explain what he really meant by reforms – something he termed “financial diet”. Among the elements that make up his recipe for development were: implementing a new ideology for financial reform, fixing the culture matrix of a society, attracting foreign investment, and, yes, you know it was coming, innovation. Nothing new here, CP thought, as he left with hopes dashed, but still glad to have made it. Just like the Chinese economic reforms, a necessary evil of the litfest circuit.

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