So the Colombo Book Fair is on, till the 26th of September. Doesn’t sound like a big deal does it? But it is.
The annual Colombo International Book Fair is the largest consumer/public fair in Colombo- attracting, their website claims, over 1 million visitors over its usual nine day run. The terrible state of the traffic in the vicinity of Baudhaloka Mawatha is a frustrating, diesel-belching testament to its popularity.
Virtually all the country’s major publishers run stalls at fair and ply their bound, and paperback wares at 15-20% discount.
Just about all the printed matter in the country seems to be available but beyond books the fair has evolved into something of a Colombo recreational event. With Rs. 10 tickets, lots of inexpensive food, a large, pleasant public space in which young men and women can meet and mingle without the imminent danger of sleaze, its not hard to see why people travel from as far as Galle and Negombo to attend this annual anomaly.
To an extent the popularity of the book fair reflects the pointed lack of public spaces and events accessible to most of the city/country’s population. But the books themselves are also remarkably popular. The oft-heard complaint- Sri Lankans don’t read, is clearly untrue. The book fair’s million visitor make it abundantly clear that people do read, and love to read. The cash registers at the more popular stalls work, literally, nonstop and there were vendors from Malaysia, Pakistan and India all making an effort to profit from the Lankan love of books.
While a lot of what is being read- sort of Sinhala pulp romance novels or translations of western self-help guides may not be of the highest quality what’s beyond despute is the fact that as ereaders, and (online book stores) storm the rest of the world, in Sri Lanka at least the humble printed book is still in rude health. For our part trawling the English section, that our shameful language incompetence confines us to, we found a pretty comprehensive selection of what’s available in Colombo book stores today – 50 Shades Of Grey anyone? but plenty of classics, biographies, textbooks and cookbooks were also on sale.
The highlight though was really the laid back feel of the fair. It honestly felt like a fair in the old rural English sense of the word, not just a book sale but a place to meet, mingle, ogle, eat and peruse the merchandise. Absolutely unpretentious and just a good afternoon out(gets a bit too busy in the evenings). The BMICH’s sprawling grounds are an added draw- we found an archery lawn and an amazing model farm run by CIC – complete with lemon-groves, pomegrante trees, rows of aubergines, tomatoes and even a few cows.
Tip: The Sago at the Mt Lavinia hotel stall (Rs. 50 )was maybe the first not disappointing thing we tasted all week (its harder than it looks this YAMUing).
Note: While the fair was generally an excellent advertisement for what Sri Lanka can be, relaxed, peaceful, unpretentious and into books there did seem to be relatively few Tamil language books and book shops around. Did we miss something? or is this yet another thing this country needs to work out- almost 30% of Sri Lankans are Tamil speaking, and Colombo has a Tamil speaking plurality but 30% of the books didn’t seem to be in Tamil to me.