Monday, January 28, 2008

Elitism - Litarally!

Living oceans away, I have never had the chance to savour the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) which has become a significant feature in the Sri Lankan event calendar. Like many other expats with a keen interest in literature, I relied on the Sri Lankan bloggers for updates on the features, issues discussed and debated that arose out of the proceedings in Galle. One common denominator of all the meaningful reviews of GLF was the fact that this year – perhaps thanks to Rajpal Abenayake – it has given rise to a discussion about “elitism”. I hope that continues and matures into a constructive and self critical discourse about Sri Lankan social dynamics.

It has apparently been sparked off by a comment that Rajpal made – I am sure from a philosophical view pint – that literature is for the elite. The type of ‘elitism’ that has come into focus more often in these discussions however, is one that is inherited rather than achieved. This has inaccurately been branded as ‘elitism’ when it is actually a primitive form of ‘tribalism’. It is tribalism that judges and predisposes people based on their surnames or their net worth. Elitism is or needs to be a term that is used more positively.

My point is that the opportunity and privilege of attending events such as the GLF should not be confined to the few who are fortunate enough to be able to afford it. The joy of literature; reading and writing has too long been afforded only to a privileged few who had the fortune to be able to go to school, to afford books and the time to read. Blogs too are still primarily the playthings of an elite few in Sri Lanka who not only are lucky enough to be computer literate, but have the luxury of a computer and the added benefit of an internet connection – among a majority of the population who cannot afford but a 50g sachet of milk powder to feed their children. This is a ground reality that a significant number of the attendees and almost all the organisers seem to have been oblivious to.

Elitism as a concept has earned a bad reputation as a result of being confused with tribalism and also being unjustly associated with racism. It is the elite who has to attend events like the GLF, but they should not be chosen on the basis of their ability to afford a ticket priced at (perhaps also worth) Rs 10,000 or those who claim a right to it by a secret heritage. Instead, the GLF and society in general should strive to open up opportunities to the 'elite' who have earned that title with hard work and talent.