War of Words Over a Sri Lankan Literary Festival

What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle/

Where ev’ry prospect pleases, and only man is vile?

--Bishop Heber

Is it appropriate for a registered charity dedicated to Sri Lanka’s December 2004 tsunami relief to sponsor a foreign literary festival in the middle of what to all intents and purposes is an ethnic and civil war? Of course, says Geoffrey Dobbs, a colorful Anglo-Australian hotelier who founded both the upcoming Galle Literary Festival and the charity Adopt Sri Lanka. He says he sees no conflict whatsoever.

Others, such as some who responded to Dobbs’ original plea for tsunami aid, aren’t so sure. They are asking for a full accounting and wondering why their money is being used to support a lit-fest rather than the still-suffering victims for whom it was originally intended.

Dobbs, the self-styled Grand Tunku of Taprobane and an intimate of Sri Lanka’s flamboyant foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, claims that Adopt Sri Lanka’s sponsorship of next month’s lit-fest in the island’s raffish southern port has the “full blessing” of its donors. Two years after the catastrophe, Dobbs says ASL has “moved on” from tsunami relief to backing the festival, held in the same region that’s struggling for tourists and where he runs five of the island's most desirable lodgings.

But some of Adopt Sri Lanka’s foreign donors, answerable to a network of sub-donors - see things differently. They say that when they donated around US$80,000 to the charity after the tsunami, they did so assured their cash would be devoted solely to tsunami relief in a devastated country where thousands of victims remain homeless, jobless and desperate, and not for a literature festival headlined by foreign writers.

Dobbs says “our donors have moved on and are very happy with what we have been doing.” He claims to have fully consulted donors about supporting non-tsunami activities. Adopt Sri Lanka’s primary commitment to the festival, he insists, is to support a school essay project and that donors are well aware of this.

Not so, says one of the donors. “We don’t know anything about that, we weren’t asked.” Moreover, almost two years after their donation, they’d still like to know how Dobbs’ charity actually spent their donation. “I've sent him so many e-mails but I can never get a straight answer from him,” the donor grumbled. “He dances around the questions and doesn’t answer anything directly.”

The charity’s website continues to solicit new donations for tsunami aid, paid directly into an account with the same name as Dobbs’ corporate bank account. An adjacent page has limited information about its support of the festival, added after Asia Sentinel asked Dobbs about the charity’s backing of it.

For much of the last year, ASL’s website described Dobbs as having raised “over US$3 million” for the tsunami charity. That’s a different number to the charity's annual report for calendar 2005, when the vast bulk of donations were made, which says donations have totaled SLR225.64 million, about US$2.18 million. The annual report, prepared by KPMG Sri Lanka, carries two significant notes; 1) that funds “received outside Sri Lanka have not been recorded in the book of accounts” and 2) that KPMG had “not performed any site visits for the projects implemented and only relied on the documentary evidences made available to us."

There are many along the Galle coast who testify to Dobbs’ good work in the aftermath of the tsunami. This correspondent accompanied him on several of his coastal sorties in the month after the deluge as he mobilized aid in the face of considerable obstacles. With skillful TV sound bites, for many abroad Dobbs became the public face for the foreign aid effort in Sri Lanka.

Asia Sentinel asked Dobbs on December 4 about the apparent difference in funds he’s promoted as raising versus funds actually booked. The following day, the ASL website was amended, with the passage referring to "over $3 million” raised deleted. "We update our site at regular intervals," he confirms. "As of end November 2006 we have spent just short of $3 million." While Dobbs has frequently pledged full transparency of Adopt Sri Lanka’s activities, he didn’t respond to a number of questions on the accounts, nor whether, as a government-registered charity, he has official approval to support non-tsunami related activities.

There are also questions about the festival itself. Outwardly, it seems a splendid idea and it’s hard to argue against any genuine effort to advance literature’s noble calling. A celebration of Sri Lankan literature could cast a much-needed spotlight on courageous local scribes, writing in what is a buoyant, but little-known literary scene.

Scheduled to run from January 10-14, the festival sells itself with claims of sponsorship from prestigious backers such as Sri Lankan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, The Economist magazine and the Australian government. It also claims support from a group of small Sri Lankan businesses, four of them guest houses related to Dobbs’. “All sponsors listed on the website have offered support in the form of a barter deal or in cash, we would not be listing them it that were not the case,” Dobbs says.

But again there seem to be discrepancies. On November 21, a festival web log announced that Canberra would be a sponsor. A week later, the Australian High Commission in Colombo told Asia Sentinel “we have not committed to any funding, which in any event would be nominal…no final decision has been made.” The Economist also denies sponsoring the event. Indeed, the first The Economist’s marketing team in Hong Kong had heard of the festival was when Asia Sentinel called to check Dobbs’ claim the magazine was a sponsor. Dobbs didn’t address questions about why he had listed them as sponsors when they said they weren’t. "We are not the type of people who make false claims," he says.

Still, in the face of ongoing suicide bomber attacks in Sri Lanka, the Galle event promises some of the biggest names in contemporary literature; locals and foreigners coming together in an erudite week of wit, wine, words and wisdom, the latter of which has been in particularly short supply among those who’ve ruled this deeply troubled island over the last 30 years.

Dobbs’ festival aims at marrying the yuppie fervor for exotic foods with a neo-colonial langor and the presumed intellectual glamour of being in close quarters with famous wordsmiths. A Charing Cross Road-sur-tropique seems to be on offer with the festival’s invitees reading like a Booker Prize shortlist. Indeed, organizers claim this year’s Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai has “agreed” to attend.

Among the other invitees are Raj historian William Dalrymple of Last Mughal fame, and Suketu Mehta - acclaimed for his 2004 take on Bombay, Maximum City. Organizers claim Trollope’s biographer, Victoria Glendinning - now preparing a book on Leonard Woolf, erstwhile husband of Virginia and one-time bureaucrat in British Ceylon - will be coming. And the 89-year-old wheelchair-bound futurist Arthur C. Clarke is slated to make the three-hour trip south from his home in Colombo.

But the festival has adopted a liberal interpretation of what constitutes literature. Organizers have listed 60 “authors” as attending the five-day festival, including Dobbs’ Australian mother, Marie, who is listed anonymously under her nom de plume, “Another Lady,” the name she used to complete Austen’s unfinished last novel, Sanditon.

Included on the ‘author’ page are several architects, a kitchen klatch of chefs, some teachers and academics, a photographer, an NGO administrator, an advertising executive, an entomologist, a TV presenter, a businessman and a Colombo socialite and gossip columnist; presumably all qualified in their various fields but, save the tenuous claims that might be made of an occasional celebrity cookbook, none have written anything that could be reliably described as literature. (After criticism of the event and the invitees, the page was later changed to more correctly read “participants”) Organizers have repeatedly claimed their event will be “Sri Lanka’s first literary festival.” It is not - Sri Lanka’s National Literary Festival has been held for a number of years, most recently in September.

While the established foreign writers are the clear stars of the show, the festival says it will also celebrate Sri Lankan literature. Prominent Lankan writers such as Yasmine Gooneratne and Romesh Gunesekera will be there, the festival says. That seems worthy but a better description might be a celebration of Sinhalese literati than Sri Lankan. There is only a single Tamil writer on the guest list. A posting on a festival-related blog asked “What are they discussing? The “one Sri Lanka” or some such bullshit? Tell that to the people of the Northeast especially the Vanni, Jaffna, and Vaharai, you all party while people die.”

The score of actual writers invited from abroad expect business class flights and accommodations to be provided by the festival. “I will be there,” confirms Dalrymple, “and will be flown in and out at the organizers’ expense.” Another invitee, the Australian writer Christopher Kremmer, says “I was told that my airfare is being covered by Sri Lankan Airlines and my accommodation is being donated by whichever hotel is putting me up.”

In October, the festival announced in a press release that Sri Lankan Airlines and Cathay Pacific would be sponsors. But on November 17, festival committee member Nazreen Sansoni pleaded on her blog “just wondering if anyone out there in cyberspace would like to sponsor three business class tickets from NY to CMB and back. The tickets are for some of the international authors that have agreed to attend the festival. Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai is one. Let me know. Thanks.” Dobbs confirms he has yet to secure passage for several invitees.

The festival organizers have a mixed of responses for the extent of the airlines’ commitment. Dobbs initially said, “Sri Lankan Airlines and Cathay are providing air tickets," but then amended his answer to “we are actively seeking airline sponsors." The festival's website and press information clearly states, as a fait accompli, that CX and UL are sponsors, listed among several others who say they aren’t.

Cathay Pacific says it has agreed to sponsor the festival. “We haven't yet agreed on the precise offer we will make,” its press office says. On November 24, a month after the festival organisers announced its sponsorship Sri Lankan Airlines told Asia Sentinel it had been approach but had not committed. On November 29, the airlines confirmed it had it had offered two free tickets to India-based invitees and three discounted fares from London. “Another request from the organizers for additional free of charge tickets is pending, and not finalized,” its spokesperson says.

Dobbs doesn’t seem ruffled by the various discrepancies and shortfalls so close to the festival’s opening. “I am confident that we will resolve any issues,” he says.

To many foreigners who visit Sri Lanka’s enchanting south, Geoffrey Dobbs is Galle, a man best known to well-heeled expatriate investment bankers in Hong Kong and Singapore for his Moët-drenched charity elephant polo tournaments held in the shadow of the port’s 400 year-old fort ramparts.

Dobbs, who made his money trading housing accessories and decorations, rents a portfolio of splendid homes around Galle from their Lankan owners. He then likes to fill them with Raj-era romantics who cavort around the island in neo-colonial splendour, often with a hauteur of noblesse oblige that suggests “Ceylon’s” 1948 independence from Whitehall was allowable so long as it didn’t threaten the ever-flowing spigot of gin, tonic and champagne tended by compliant locals serving as the exotic color for their boutique bacchanal. One of Dobbs’ trademarks is to serenade his guests by bagpipe at dinner, as if the sun never set.

Galle itself has become a comfortable bolthole for foreigners in recent years. A Tamil Tiger-Colombo ceasefire in 2002 and changes to property laws by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 2001-2004 government that eased restrictions on foreign ownership briefly turned Galle into a boomtown. Many Lankans got rich selling war-cheapened properties to foreigners but the dramatic changes in Galle were not welcomed by all locals, despite the obvious renaissance that the historic town enjoyed.

This flood of foreigners was, for a time, regarded by Lankans as a hard currency bonanza until they realized that many of them gathered there visa-less because it is cheaper than renting in Hong Kong and Singapore, or a bargain place – warm too -- to while away a gap year from Oxbridge. Hong Kong might’ve famously once been the repository of F.I.L.T.H – Failed in London Try Hong Kong - but Galle was where you went if you were white, English and failed in Hong Kong, “Fabulous nobodies” as they were once described.

The region is also the heartland of the Che Guevara-admiring Sinhalese nationalists, the People’s Liberation Front. The Marxist JVP, per its Sinhala acronym, isn’t too fond of the plunge pools of the UNESCO-listed fort’s shabby-chic terraces, or their parvenu owners. They often threaten to nationalize these hip hotels, forcing their owners’ retreat to Sloane Square from whence they came. Dobbs often says he fully expects to be attacked, or worse, by a JVP offended by his style.

Dobbs’ businesses have not been immune to the tourist drought that followed the tsunami and the resumption of civil war. Since the 2004 disaster and the rejoined civil war, visited upon Galle Harbor itself last month when guerrillas of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam bombed the Sri Lankan Navy warships berthed there that had previously laid waste to the island’s north-east Tamil homeland, resort operators like Dobbs have been struggling to put guests into the US$200-plus a night beds and waiting for a tourist boom that hasn’t happened. Where the tsunami inspired peace in Indonesia’s troubled Aceh region, in Sri Lanka it simply drew the warring Tamil and Sinhalese sides further apart.

Against this backdrop, Galle offers much promise as a literary festival, particularly as the country again descends into civil war and wise words are needed. But it’s not likely they’ll be heard in Galle; only one of the 50-odd set events over the five days will touch on the Sinhalese-Tamil divide, sandwiched between a session discussing An Englishman Abroad and whether tourism can help the environment.

Perhaps they should look more to Bali for inspiration.

Led by a love of good writing, Ubud’s three year-old literary festival grew out of the 2002 terror bombings, confronting it with a well-run event that sought to analyze the bombings, and discuss bigger, more apposite issues to the region than Jane Austen. Ubud has quickly cemented itself on the world literary map, and a happy by-product has been a much-needed tourist infusion to the bomb-devastated island.

The fabulous nobodies of Galle would be well advised to take note, cut the hype and place books over bucks, Sri Lanka over sycophancy. And when they do, the money, the credibility and the longevity they crave just might follow.