22 April 2015

Captain Elmo’s (Promethean) Fire

When did I first hear about annaasi (pineapple)?  When did I first see a kadalagotta (a paper cone filled with kadala)?  The answer to both questions would take me to the 1970s.  That’s a childhood thing for most Sri Lankans.  The two words are not spoken of in the same breath.    Were not, to be precise.  Now they are, thanks to Capt Elmo Jayawardena, author and winner of the Gratiaen Prize 2001 for his novel ‘Sam’s Story’ (now a film). 

Elmo knows to mix things the right way.   Elmo knows flavors that are so ancient that they are also brand new or can be reinvented.  Elmo also knows to hide. 

The first time I heard of Annasi and Kadalagotu (together) was when I received an email (widely and randomly circulated) about a poetry reading event at Hansa Café.  I associated the event first with Imaad Majeed and later with my friend Krishantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta.  I’ve attended this monthly meetings where poets share their work with each other on a few occasions and have been impressed by the casualness and freedom.  People come, read and go.  There are comments, there are jokes and there’s coffee.  That would be a description of Elmo and his ways, come to think of it.

A&K as it is now called is more than a monthly gathering of poets, I know now.  It is a small-press publishing house based in Colombo, focusing on contemporary Sri Lankan poetry.   They have put out several volumes of poetry so far thereby introducing to the English reading public several new voices.  

And now we have the A&K Literary Festival.  Nothing grand about it, but it’s everything that one associates with poetry and poets.  A small community, passionate and kind, that celebrates togetherness and difference without making a song and dance about it.  That’s also Elmo, by the way.

They have put in a lot of hard work, this much is clear.  If you just check the featured poets and critics, they are all well-known in literary circles and not just in Colombo.  Check the schedule and there’s bound to be many events you would be interested in attending.  Forget all that.  Just being around so many people who obviously love literature is an experience in itself.  That’s what I would go for, really. 

Elmo says it is his swan song and being alert to the fact that he’s speaking to a journalist hastens to add, ‘don’t write that!’  How can a writer ever be ‘done’ with his or her work?  Elmo, in energy and smile, turn of phrase and twinkle in eye, is as young as the many young people he is working with on the A&K thing, whatever it is and whatever it will turn out to be.  I have only a cursory and passing knowledge of these individuals but if first impressions count, they are all amazing young people, as soft as they come but as passionate as one expects the most passionate people of that generation to be. 

It’s a story in itself, I feel.  Perhaps in time to come someone will say ‘that was just the intro’ into what became the thimbirigeya of many outstanding writers in the English language.  Perhaps it would be a different kind of birthing-place, one where writers in Sinhala, Tamil and English learn of commonality and the enriching that such gatherings nurture.  Let time sort this out.  Right now, let’s just be happy that Elmo is the man he is.  He’s given us something juicy and something to munch on.  That’s heavenly in an otherwise mostly barren literary landscape.