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September book and literary fairs

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“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return.” Salman Rushdie

The Sunday Island of 20 September carried a four paged Literary Month supplement titled Read to Lead. Among many interesting articles was Vijita Fernando’s September – the month of the stars! in which she writes about the State Literary Awards, “the main aim of which is to encourage creative artists who play a significant role to enrich arts and culture of the land.”

September being named Sahitya Maase, the annual venue for the awards ceremony is shifted to different parts of the island, seeming to prefer remoter places like Kamburupitya and Mahawa in the Anuradhapura District to which Vijita journeyed with a friend when she was awarded the Sahitya Ratna. This prestigious literary award honors three eminent artistes writing in each of the three languages “who contributed to the uplifting of art and culture.”

As in Sri Lanka, September is celebrated as the Literary Month (sometimes also called Literature Month) in many other countries, headlined by the International Day of Literacy on September 8. In most countries, this event is preceded by Read a Book Day (September 6) and Buy a Book Day (September 7)

Accessing Internet, I found that many international literary and book fairs are held in September. While the September equinox (21 to 24) officially marks the beginning of autumn by the world’s northerners, in the southern hemisphere the end of winter is celebrated. Thus winter and its stay-at-home habit in the northern hemisphere may have prompted booksellers and publishers to advertise books on sale.

Sri Lanka marks the month with its massive Colombo International Book Fair sponsored and organized by the Sri Lanka Book Publishers’ Association. The crowds that queue at the BMICH is happy testimony to the fact that we are a reading nation, appreciating the printed book. Parents are always willing to spend on books for their children, with generous concessionary prices offered by the various stall holders at the fair. A major publisher, S Godage and Bros (Pvt) Ltd, holds its awards ceremony within this month.

 

Galle and Jaipur Festivals

Sri Lanka held its very popular literary festival for five days in Galle every January, where well known international writers and performers, plus locals, were invited to participate. It started off as the Galle Literary Festival by Geoffrey Dobbs which became the Fairway Galle Literary Festival with Fairway Holdings taking on chief sponsorship. January probably was selected as it was within the tourist season when the southern seaboard particularly, gets crowded with foreigners. It was also proximate in date to the Jaipur Festival so writers and others could take in both with one flight to South Asia. We did not have the FGLF this year though January was well before the Covid 19 pandemic. It stalled for three years previously when Dobbs was away from the island. I have a jaunty feather in my cap as a woman who was present at all the GLFs. Two members of my family timed their home return visit for January. One made a special visit across oceans and lands to attend the ZEE Jaipur Literary Festival started by William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale. She was somewhat disappointed. While the local festival charges quite heavily for events and offers a festival pass at around Rs 15,000/- the Jaipur fest is free of charge and runs, often, eight sessions concurrently. One can imagine the crowds, now with a huge shudder running down one’s spine.

Internet carries a list of the twelve best lit and book fests for bookworms by Akanshe Ghansiyayah which unfortunately did not include our GLF. Some of the best as listed by the author are Berlin and Brooklyn book festivals both in September; Edinburgh International Book Fair runs alongside the Edinburgh Festival of the arts – this year virtual; Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in Wales with a section for children named ‘Hay Fever for Kids’. LA Times holds an international festival sponsored by the University of California; Sydney Writers’ Festival; PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature and a festival in New York started by Salman Rushdie. (PEN originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists but now stands for Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists, and includes writers of any form of literature, including journalists and historians)..

In Britain, as I read, literature, libraries and books are celebrated all through the month of September, titling it ‘Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month’. Included are Sign-Up Month; Read a Book Day, Google Day on September 7 which was the date in 1998 when Larry Page and Sergey Brin, PhD students at Stanford University, inaugurated Google. International Literacy Day follows on the next day and Roald Dahl Day, Hobbit Day, Dear Diary Day, and National Comic Book Day follow. The final week in September is Banned Books Week and the Wednesday of that week is Banned Websites Awareness Day.

The London Book Fair is 50 years old which grew out of a specialist event for librarians and for small publishers to exhibit their work. It is now a massive international affair held in Olympia, second only to Frankfurt’s.

Mention must be made of the New Delhi Book Fair which is India’s second oldest English Language fair first held in 1972. The older one is held in Kolkata, the British Raj’s city.

 

Imperishable, everlasting books

The very word ‘book’ is both exciting and satisfying, particularly in these days of e-books and reading from ipads and kindles. We need not write in praise of the book in its published form of cover and leaves and pages as it possesses and boasts many benefits.

I well remember how librarians in the late 1960s feared the demise or extinction of the book in its familiar form challenged by the marvels of electronic technology. But it has survived and will, thankfully survive, for even on-line kids still love to actually turn the pages of a book. The Chinese invented paper and printing with movable type, but equally famed is that Julius Caesar in his heyday as a conquering general bringing back riches and slaves and even once Cleopatra with his son by her, to Rome, had a library in his home. This was between 104-44 BC. Hence Cicero’s dictum (106-43 BC): “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Praising the published book, Thea Doru advised “Take a good book to bed with you – books do not snore.”

A comment I read long ago which has stayed in my mind is this well known person, (whose name I do not remember), saying that he entered a room of a family and found one at a computer, another with a laptop in hand, another listening to some device. In a corner sat a child, under a lamp, reading a book. He said it lifted his heart and gave him hope for the future.

 

Encourage books

It seems to be a responsibility for parents to encourage book reading. Books in English may be pricey but books in the vernacular are comparatively cheap. Publishing fiction in English is considered unprofitable by many book publishers; but if they do help writers in English it would be a service they perform.

I derive immense gratifying pleasure from a compliment paid me by my children. They gratefully say that their parents, by example and action and advice, led them to read books and opened up the wealth available in the written English language.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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