Christina Patterson: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

"My mother said whatever you do, don't become a writer. Just," said the speaker with a charming smile, "stay well away." The mother in question was Anita Desai, the speaker her daughter, Kiran, and the venue was a large hall, packed to the (beautiful old Dutch) rafters in the Sri Lankan city of Galle.

The Man Booker winner was sharing a platform with the Sri Lankan-British writer, Romesh Gunesekera and the Indian writer, Suketu Mehta to talk about the myriad pleasures of "fact or fiction". Mehta, author of the Pulitzer-shortlisted Maximum City, declared that he was "bi-textual". "Non-fiction," he said "is hard work, because you have to trudge in slums all day long". Kiran Desai, whose own masterwork involved seven years of grappling with "a big mess" could well have replied that fiction was no picnic either. Rohinton Mistry did. "I trudge through the fields too," insisted the Booker-shortlisted author, "but they happen to be in my head". But all were united on one thing: that you write for the pleasure of writing and not for the fruit. "For most writers," said Mehta, "it's a process that's remarkably fruit-free."

Well, not for these ones, or for their readers, or for the many people packed beneath the whirring fans, who had travelled from all over Sri Lanka, and in some cases the world, to hear a fabulous array of writers from home and abroad. Galle's first literary festival, founded by local hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs, was set up to promote Sri Lankan writing in English, to encourage young writers - through workshops and competitions - and to bring more visitors to Galle.

"In traditional Indian mythology," said Suketu Mehta at the start of the discussion, "Shiva is dancing on a tiny human. This," he added "is a human being trying to get out from under the weight of history". He might have been talking about Abraham, a tiny, wizened man I met in the street in a break between sessions. "British!" he said excitedly when I told him where I was from. "British give me new house. Two rooms. Better than before!" He was talking, of course, about the tsunami, in which he lost his home and his daughter. This city, first invaded by the Portuguese and then by the Dutch and the British, knows a thing or two about "the weight of history".

In spite of vigorous lobbying by the Tamil Tigers, and e-mails to all the participants, not a single writer cancelled. They included Mark Tully, who spoke of the urgent, global need for humility, Victoria Glendinning, who gave a riveting talk on Leonard Woolf - who arrived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) with 75 volumes of Voltaire in his luggage - and William Dalrymple, who talked about the rise of an aggressive "hyper-power" with a sense of divine mission. No, not Bush's America, but British India in the 1860s.

Of the Sri Lankan writers - and 61 out of the 82 participating writers were from Sri Lanka - many spoke of the challenges of balancing different cultures and languages. Madhubashini Ratnayake, who writes in English but speaks to her family in Sinhala, believes that the two languages " nourish each other". Lal Medawattagedera aims to give a voice to the many Sri Lankans whose poor English keeps them at the bottom of every pile.

"What makes Sri Lankans one?" asked Tissa Jayatilaka in a final discussion on Sri Lanka's most urgent political issue. "Cricket," replied one writer. "Nothing," replied another. "The tsunami, before it became politicised," replied another. For four days, on the southern tip of this fascinating, beautiful country, the audience's answer could well have been "this". This conversation, this festival, this desire to engage with history and celebrate the pleasures of an artform that cuts across barriers of ethnicity and language. "I subscribe," concluded Jayatilaka "to the notion that we are all human beings" . A big Amen to that.