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The Land of Open Expression

The Land of Open Expression

November 15, 2010

Last weekend's Hay Festival in Kerala showed that in India, everybody has something to say.

The fact that The Hay Festival came to Kerala is remarkable; the fact that entry was free was an absolute gift. Here was an opportunity to experience the world’s foremost literary festival, bringing with it luminaries of the globe’s cultural landscape, and see them speak alongside some of the most eminent personalities of the Indian writing scene. Far from the arch and stuffy academic types engaging in muted and mostly meaningless discourse that one might associate with the idea of a ‘literary festival’, from 12-14 Nov Thiruvananthapuram’s Kanakakunnu Palace was given over to a vibrant, open atmosphere aimed at celebrating the value of language and those who use it well.

At the first two sessions I attended, that vibrancy wasn’t immediately apparent. Both were marked by a difficulty to focus – in some cases for the speakers, frequently interrupted by an eager and occasionally condescending moderator, but more so for myself. Fellow attendees came and went, darting in and out, some with long-lensed cameras snapping away, others weighed down with new purchases from the bookstore tent. The sound of a generator droned away just down the first embankment of the palace grounds. Two overenthusiastic folks at the side of the room carried on their own inappropriately animated conversation. This is India, after all; the land of open expression in all its forms.

These were in the two ancillary venues, the oval-tabled Reading Room and the open air Bandstand. Over in the central Palace Hall, there seemed to be more of a calm that befitted such a princely and tradition-filled room. I remained there for the rest of the weekend as part of an extraordinarily varied audience. There were: distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session.

While some of the audience questions put to the speakers were actually rambling, self-involved speeches, the vast majority showcased an impressive degree of thought and understanding. There are some very assured people in India, and of all ages. The self-confidence and intelligence displayed in most questions – from regal gentlemen with white beards, elegant women in flowing saris, and immaculately presented young men – was even a little intimidating. In India, everybody has something to say and will grasp any opportunity to say it, and often in an eloquent, succinct and immediately coherent manner. This had been evident, in a less compelling form, in the bustle and chatter of those earlier sessions; here, it became a glorious testament to the vast knowledge base that the world’s largest democracy is capable of expressing.

Perhaps the knowledge and understanding emanating from the stage was having an effect on people, too. These speakers, I stress, were not merely cobbled together out of people who would agree to come; they were genuine stars of Indian and global literature, some of them superstars (click each name for more information):

  • Vikram Seth, quipping that if poetry in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief, it must at least be made of muslin or silk
  • Simon Schama, begging Obama to stand up and fight those who denigrate him
  • Michelle Paver, demonstrating (with a brave young volunteer) how wolves communicate
  • Shashi Tharoor, insisting that we all go out and read Jawaharlal Nehru
  • Sebastian Faulks, discussing his preference for writing books set in the past
  • K. Satchidanandan, bringing the page and the room to life with his
  • and many more, with Bob Geldof to discuss poverty and sing a few rock ‘n’ roll songs to cap the whole thing off.


All that was missing, really, was the aam aadmi element. Make no mistake, this was an elite event of armchairs and chandeliers (and of comparatively small numbers, around people 3,000 in total) concerned largely with the words of change and development and not with actions to go with it. But that was the point. In the atmosphere of The Hay Festival, words were an end in and of themselves – to be quoted, produced, illuminated and celebrated. To my delight, it wasn’t only the authors that seized upon this opportunity to demonstrate the power of language; it was the audience, too, and all of it was edifying, all of it fascinating.



9 Comments

  • Sarah Stephen
    By
    Sarah Stephen
    11.01.11 06:29 PM
    I did indeed and have belatedly blogged about it as well (link in 'website')- wish there were Hay Festivals every month of the year!

    At the moment, Kanakakunnu Palace is the venue of an over-attended Festival- the impressive Flower Festival. Do visit it if you can!
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    06.01.11 10:51 AM
    Thank you, Sarah - you may be right on that 'survival of the fittest' idea. Did you go to the Hay Festival?
  • Sarah Stephen
    By
    Sarah Stephen
    28.12.10 03:24 PM
    I hopped over to your blog(s) via your comment on Anita Sethi’s, and have been enjoying your perceptive and eloquent posts. Apart from your astute observations on the Hay Festival, your commentary on the competitive Indian was very interesting. In fact, I had never considered the impatience/queue-jumping from the competition angle, having assumed that many found this (especially forming queues) to be an alien concept, or alternatively, as something akin to the survival of the fittest in an environment of restricted resources– the minutest expression of civility/politeness/etiquette would label one as ‘weak’. As for any extenuating factors contributing to such behaviour, I generally found none. When some tourist demonstrates such behaviour in another country, I’ve heard the locals inevitably mutter- ‘must be from India’.
  • evavictor
    By
    evavictor
    20.11.10 09:34 AM
    The aam admi would have been there if It had been held in a different place,not around palaces.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    17.11.10 10:16 PM
    Perhaps you should seek out a publisher, push through a book deal and get invited for next year...? ;)

    I'll definitely be keeping an eye open for the next edition. Meantime, William Dalrymple's Jaipur literary festival is coming up in January and no doubt will be spectacular.
  • nalini hebbar
    By
    nalini hebbar
    17.11.10 11:13 AM
    Seems interesting...should try to be there next year...do put it up on your blog, before it happens, for us Malayalees who are far away from home to plan ahead...:)
  • Soni Somarajan
    By
    Soni Somarajan
    16.11.10 06:57 PM
    Isn't this the best article I have read so far on the Hay Fest, including the newspapers? The observations are spot on, the audience well-understood and the authors/poets seen in the right light. I enjoyed reading this all the more because I was with you and saw it all happen. Of course, the line of surprise - All that was missing, really, was the aam aadmi element. Cool. All of it was fascinating, I agree, mate.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    By
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    16.11.10 12:24 PM
    Thanks! Yes, it was a superbly balanced event, largely free of pretentiousness, big hitters rubbing shoulders with up-and-comers and keen observers. I'm even more glad I could make it!
  • Ebenezer
    By
    Ebenezer
    15.11.10 06:35 PM
    " distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session."

    Now THAT is what I like about soaking up Trivandrum :). As you rightly pointed out, though the representations were a fine balance between popularity and literary strength ( read business success stories from the wordsmithy), thatnk God for meetups like The hay festival which helps underline the fact that a literary meet need no be oh-so-sanctimonious-and-uptighty ! And am glad you could make it to the festival.

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