Yesterday evening, the Blue Room in Singapore’s Arts House was packed with fans of Elmo Jayawrdena who had turned out in huge numbers to celebrate one of the honest and most down-to-earth voices from Sri Lanka’s literary world. The occasion was one of the highlights of the Singapore Writers Festival. Elmo was launching his collection of short stories, Rainbows in Braille .
Captain Elmo, as the author is lovingly called, is not an ordinary Sri Lankan writer. A lit fest favourite, he is now known the world over for his simple tale of Sam, whom he immortalized in his novel, Sam’s Story. The novel, set in the twilight years of the last century, is about a village bumpkin who comes to work in a Colombo mansion. The novel’s comic façade and the charming simplicity of the text hide the dual core of anti-war and anti-racial prejudice messages that form the only turbulence in this smooth flight of imagination. The book won him the Gratiaen Prize for best Sri Lankan work in English in 2001.
Captain Elmo, now a pilot trainer, has been writing novels and short stories when he has not been flying jets or working for his charitable foundation, Association for Lighting a Candle (AFLAC). After his first novel, he penned a hefty fictionalized history of the Sinhalese kings, which won the State Literary Award for best book in 2005. Rainbows in Braille is his third book and as with all his previous works, proceeds from this book too would go toward AFLAC.
Selling at $10 a copy, the book was seeing brisk sales even before the launch and Captain Elmo was graciously autographing copies for his fans until Deepika Shetty, the event's moderator, dragged him inside the room to start the launch session. I got a copy autographed for my daughter.
"Every copy that I sell feeds a poor Sri Lankan family for a week," he later told the audience.
Elmo has got the volume published in Sri Lanka. "Why did he go the self-publishing route this time," asked Deepika. "Because I want the maximum profit to go the poor with whom I work through AFLAC," he said candidly.
Ubud Writers' Festival founder and director, Janet de Neefe, and novelist Kunal Basu spoke in praise of Elmo before the actual launch.
Kunal became a fan of Elmo after meeting him in Ubud this year. "As the Ubud festival was drawing to a close, I was sort of getting sad as I thought that I might not be able to see Elmo again, as we writers hardly meet each other and most often keep in touch only through emails" he said. So, Elmo's killer charm had worked on Kunal!
"We writers love adulation, we love our readers and fans and we love festival directors...but we hardly can stand other writers...but Elmo is a huge exception," he said.
"In writing, nothing--technique, style, language--matters more than empathy...the ability of a writer to empathise with his characters, and in all of Elmo's writings, his empathy shines through," said Kunal.
Kunal also narrated an anecdote from the Ubud writers and readers festival. Whatever books he had collected in Ubud, he gave it to his mother (an '85 year old, widely read, active Bengali writer with strong opinions') in Calcutta to read before he left for London. A few months later, he asked his mother on phone if she had read all the books. She talked about only one writer. "Who's this Elmo?" she aked.
"Elmo, that is the biggest compliment I can ever give to you," Kunal said.
Elmo talked about the origin of the stories in his collection and how almost all of them were based on real life people and events. He talked about a story, Tsunami. "It is based on an old man who lost his entire family except his two grandchildren in the Sri Lankan tsunami," he said.
Deepika said she loved his short story, The Detergent Salesman. I love it too, Elmo said. But I love all my stories, I love whatever I write, he added.
Despite writing 3 books, Elmo does not have an agent.
"I thank Kunal (Basu) for introducing me to his agent," he said, "but I didn't need an agent for this book. All, my life I have had my own literary agent in my wife Dill." We all laughed. "She is my agent and my editor," he added.
"We all write because we love to write," he said, " and I am sure Kunal will back me up on this, and once we have got the book out, we just let it travel--who knows how far it will go."
During the talk, a charming Captain Elmo acknowledged his debt to all those who had helped him write the stories in this collection. He especially acknowledged his wife’s contribution to his writing life. "She has not just been the air beneath my writerly wings that helped me soar the literary heights but the wings themselves."
Seguing from this, Deepika asked Dill (I hope the spelling is correct) to comment on how life had been with this multi-dimensional man, Elmo. Dill seemed to be taken aback at this unscripted turn of events, the limelight falling on her, all eyes fixed at her but that is the fun of an evening like this, especially when there is a spunky and intelligently unpredictable moderator like Deepika.
"Well," said Dill, "Elmo has been doing many things apart from flying. He started AFLAC and now he has become an author. Sometimes when things become too much, I tell Elmo: Hello, I had only married a pilot!" Aha, so wit runs in the family.
In a gesture that can be only called Elmosque, the author presented the book to his grandson, Navik. These stories are for my grandson’s generation, declared Elmo, whose love for people, especially children, is ever effusive. “Through these stories, I want to show to the coming generations how life used to be in Sri Lanka, so that they too know how simple but beautiful life was before it got lost to the world,” he added.
Captain Elmo’s friends also shared some thoughts at the launch. Top security and anti-terror expert Rohan Gunaratna paid tribute to this writer for his empathy for others, especially the less privileged, and his strong power of observation and the ability to chronicle human life. "I was once having a debate with Elmo over good people and bad people, and at the end of it, Elmo concluded that there are no good or bad people in the world; there are only good and bad circumstances," he said.
Finally, Elmo thanked everyone for coming to the event. "This (Arts House) is an opulent place and all of you here are literary and affluent people and I am deeply honoured by your presence here," he said. The way Elmo said it, the glint of gratitude that shone through his eyes while speaking these lines, were so honest and deeply felt that I almost had goosebumps. His words, truly emerging from the bottom of his heart (as many say it but how deeply they mean it?), made such a strong emotional connection with me (and am sure with others as well) that it would be impossible not to be moved by such heartbreaking modesty in a man who, through his work, had soared to such towering heights that all of us in the room could only aspire to in a lifetime.
(All quotes in this post are from my memory as I hate to take notes during such events; I apologise in advance for any inadvertant misrepresentation)