Galle Fort and the Literary Festival

The Galle Fort on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka had been a place that I visited on an annual basis for a few years. The Portuguese first built the fort in the 16th century to defend themselves against the locals. It was later improved upon greatly by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries with some additions by the British when they took over in the 18th century. It is now an UNESCO world heritage site and is maintained quite well. To this day, it has both a residential and commercial area with one section housing Government offices and the bulk of it, a crisscross of symmetrical streets with houses and small businesses interspersed with historical landmarks such as the lighthouse, the Dutch Reformed Church etc.

The trip to the fort was a tradition of sorts, my mother and I visiting the Galle Fort annually on a day trip in January during the Galle Literary festival. I would choose the day and the key session that we would be attending and perhaps, another fringe event and we would be off at 6 a.m. on the Colombo to Galle bus. My favourite two sessions from the years that I attended the literary festival were the conversation sessions with my favourite playwrights, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard.

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I had directed and staged Frayn’s Copenhagen, while at university, so listening to him talk about how he went about constructing it was moving. It was like hearing a much loved story again through the person who has not only experienced it with you but was also the one instrumental in bringing that experience to you. I took my old, well thumbed copies of plays by both and got them autographed by the authors.
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Besides the sessions with writers, there were film screenings and other fringe events, including children focused workshop activities, heritage walks and culinary tours, during the literary festival. One of the film screenings that I attended and very much liked was the screening of Tropical Amsterdam, a documentary sharing the perspectives of some of the well-known elderly Burghers, the Eurasian ethnic community in Sri Lanka. There is a sense of resignation in the documentary that there will be no ‘Burgher’ identity left in Sri Lanka and I felt it would have been good to include the perspectives of the younger generations as well to see if they too shared the same sense of resignation.

Until our particular session time, my mother and I enjoyed walking around the Galle Fort though the amount and distance we walked and explored gradually declined in par with my mother’s declining health. Despite my concerns over her physical fitness to withstand a full day’s trip which included a three hour bus ride each way and sitting in hour-long sessions, her resolute nature was keen to continue this annual mother-daughter ritual. So, we continued our day trips, my mother in her neck collar, and we would walk around exploring the fort.

The gate to the fort was a fortified structure with space within its walls. Probably offices and quarters of the Dutch in the past, it now housed the Maritime museum as well as spaces for hosting art exhibitions.

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Turning right after entering through the gate and walking along the walls of the fort, one would come to the street with the 18th century Dutch Reformed Church (the oldest Dutch built church in Sri Lanka) as well as the 19th century All Saints Church.

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Tombstone inscriptions on the floor greet you as you step into the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC). The church is simple and practical in its construction and is built to keep out the heat of the city. The organ from 1760 still maintains its place in a corner of the church.

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Adjacent to the church, a small library had been constructed in 1832 and functions to this date. It is considered the oldest public library in Sri Lanka.

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The All Saints Church, a pretty church consecrated in 1871, maintains the same concept of simplicity and practicality in its design as the DRC.

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Walking further past the Dutch Reformed Church, one comes to the Government office section and eventually to the public square. The fort was very much a self-contained mini-town during the days of the Dutch and the British.

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It was lovely to walk through the old streets – the Leynbaan street – a street that according to one of my Dutch friends could have been similar to the rope maker’s street in old Netherlands where the ropes were made and soaked along drain lines that ran along the length of the street. Indeed, during the Dutch period, Galle became a rope making center. Lace making was also introduced and to this day, both crafts are prevalent as a cottage industry in that town.

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The Pedlar’s street was the area where the Moor traders had their businesses and again to this day, small businesses run by Muslim families form the bulk of the enterprises within the Fort complex. While there were several inns and cafes around the fort, we kept returning to our favourites – Pedlar’s Inn and Heritage café, which was the former Old Bakery.

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After our coffee or meal, we would continue walking till the end of the street to a section of the ramparts of the fort. The ramparts are a lovely area to walk across in the early mornings or evenings but not when the sun is directly blazing over you.

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If you walk along the ramparts, you eventually come to the lighthouse which you anyway see from a distance and the early 20th century mosque, which is a few metres from the lighthouse.

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These two landmarks usually form the iconic photographs of the Fort and basically characterize the Fort legacy – the Moor traders who made Galle an important port city on the spice trade route and the later European colonizers who built fortifications to protect their interests.

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The Galle fort and literary festival was therefore a special experience for me as it was a travel experience shared with my mother and experiencing together the heritage site full of culture and history as well as interesting conversation sessions at the literary festival made each visit a treasured memory. As the 2012 literary festival dates approached, my mother informed me that she did not feel well enough to travel out of Colombo. So, I decided not to go that year. As it turned out, the Galle literary festival was suddenly discontinued that year. It resumed this year, after a four year hiatus as the Fairway Galle Literary festival, under a different management. However, as the fort and festival are linked with the day trips with my mother, I prefer to go with my mother if and when she is able to.

[I am linking this to City Tripping #30, The Weekly Travel Postcard, the new Monday Escapes #43, and the newly started link-up Cultured Kids]

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Interview #4 – Vrinda Baliga

Vrinda is a childhood friend from my primary school in Chennai, then Madras. I remember her as an all-rounder at school, proficient in both scholastic and non-scholastic activities and the one who topped the class each term. She had a wonderful, vivacious personality. Having re-connected with Vrinda a few years back, via facebook, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her friendly and fun personality had survived growing up. I was also delighted to read some of her award-winning published short stories. One of her poignant stories of life in the 80s is “The everlasting car, a memoir of Bangalore.”

So, I decided to interview her on her creative writing journey for Perspectives Quilt.

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  • How would you describe yourself, Vrinda?

Someone who enjoys solitude, is ever-curious and finds worlds, both real and imagined, equally fascinating and immersive.

  • Tell us about your creative writing journey and when it began.

I first began writing when I was about nine years old. I would spend school vacations filling notebooks with mysteries and ghost stories and poems, and then transcribe them in neat handwriting into a final copy. My plots were suspiciously similar to the books I used to read, and my characters, for some reason, had a great propensity for “jumping out of their skins” or having their “eyes pop out of their sockets in surprise.” As for poetry, my first priority was to make the lines rhyme; meaning came a distant second. Yet, when I read some of what I wrote in those days, I’m touched by how unselfconscious the writing is, how unrestrained by such stodgy concepts as form and realism. All I can say of those stories is, even though my characters were making complete fools of themselves, they were having fun doing it.

In later years, academics followed by career pushed writing to the back burner and then completely off the stove. It was after the birth of my first child that I returned to writing and almost immediately rediscovered the pleasure I used to take in it. I haven’t stopped writing since.

  • Which writer (s) has inspired you the most and why?

That would unequivocally have to be Alice Munro.

Books have been constant companions to me all my life. They have helped me through all my major life transitions. Whether it was travelling to college and hostel for the first time, taking up my first job, or pregnancy and becoming a mother, I’ve always had a thick book by my side – the one constant I could return to and find solace in when everything else was in a state of flux.

I discovered Alice Munro during one such period of transition. I first came across one of her stories in an anthology (The O.Henry Prize Stories anthology) and was struck by her style of writing, the precision with which she captured the actions, thoughts and emotions of her characters. I was always seeking her books out in bookshops, her stories on the internet, and the more I read, the more I was hooked. Even though she was writing about a completely different time and place, her characters, the locales and neighbourhoods of her stories seemed oh-so-familiar. This was at a time when we had moved to a new city, Hyderabad, where I knew no one, and also a period when I was largely housebound because I had a preschooler to look after. If I felt absolutely none of the loneliness or isolation that would have been normal in those circumstances, the credit goes to Munro. As long as her books sat on my bookshelf, it felt like I always had friends at home.

It has been said of Munro that she turns everyday lives into works of art. That is perfectly true. Over the years, I have read and re-read her stories time and again, and in every reading taken new pleasure in them.

  • Writers have different approaches to their writing in relation to the writing process, writing schedule, etc. What is your approach to writing?

I write in the mornings from around 10:30 a.m. to 1p.m. which is when I have the luxury of solitude. I’m afraid I’m not very disciplined about writing every day, though.

When I have an idea that excites me, I let it marinate in my mind for a while and let the words, the sentences, the paragraphs form and collect around it, let the characters emerge from the shadows, and then I start writing.

I usually write the first draft longhand with pen and paper and then type out the second draft in MS Word. When I’m forced to rewrite every word, I find that I make the kinds of structural changes and additions and deletions that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I were simply editing the previous draft, and the second draft comes out much better for the extra effort (It helps that I write mainly short fiction, following this process is much more laborious when it comes to novels) .

  • Which of your works is the most closest in heart to you and why?

When I’m done with a story and it’s published, I rarely enjoy revisiting it. Because then, I end up second-guessing my choices in the story and thinking how much better I could have made it.  So, the story closest to my heart is usually the one I’m currently working on.

If pressed, though, I would choose The Everlasting Car, my first creative nonfiction piece, because it brought back many old and cherished memories in the writing.

  • As an IT professional and a mother, how do you keep the spark of writing alive?

Since the birth of my first child, I have been on an extended career break, so I have not had to juggle career and motherhood. I do enjoy technology and software development though, and keep my hand in with Coursera courses and by developing apps, etc., independently.

With regard to writing, I would say that motherhood, in fact, helped me rediscover the joy of writing. There is nothing like being around small children, thinking of ways to keep them occupied, and rediscovering the world through their eyes to ignite the creative spark.  Yes, it was difficult to find time to write during the initial years, especially with my second child. Joining online writing groups kept me motivated during that time – writing short pieces based on the weekly prompts was do-able and the immediate peer feedback, a morale-booster.

But it is essentially reading that keeps the spark of my writing alive.  There has been no period in my adult life, no matter how busy, when I’ve not found time to read. I enjoy all genres of fiction. In non-fiction, I enjoy science and travel writing, and the occasional memoir or biography. The internet is another rich source of reading material and I especially enjoy works of long-form journalism and creative nonfiction. My reading informs and enriches my writing and keeps my mind engaged with new and diverse thoughts and ideas.

  • What do you do when you come across a writer’s block?

I don’t worry too much about it. In my mind, whenever you put the first word down on an empty sheet of paper, you are essentially making a leap in faith, trusting in yourself, and in the process of writing itself, that your feet will ultimately land on solid ground.

If I’m stuck somewhere, I put it aside for the time-being, maybe write a short story on a different topic instead. Something that usually works for me is going to the library and getting a couple of interesting books, the thicker the better. There’s nothing like immersing oneself in a really good book to get the creative juices flowing again.

I find that walking helps, too.  My regular evening walk (usually 45 minutes long) is very effective in clearing my mind of all clutter. And it is usually during this walk that the clogged up sentences of whichever story I’m working on unravel themselves and begin to flow once again.

  • Tell us what you are currently working on or plan to work on.

I have several short stories, published and unpublished, that I’d like to bring out in a collection.

I’m also working on my first novel, untitled as of now, that revolves around the discovery of iron ore and the effects of this discovery on a Bronze age society, and a present-day one, whose parallel storylines will ultimately merge.

  • What are some of the things you enjoy doing that makes you happy?

Reading, writing, spending time with my children, travel, meeting up with old friends.

  • Wrapping up this interview, do share a quote or verse that inspires you.

An old favourite from school days: “Nothing is beyond those who reach beyond themselves.”

For more info about Vrinda Baliga’s published stories, do check out her Facebook page.