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.