For a certified sucker for books like me, it was a problem of plenty. I was spoilt for choices. Who do I choose – Tishani Doshi or Adoor Gopalakrishnan? Basharat Peer or Sonia Faleiro? Jaishree Misra or Tarun Tejpal? Where do I go to? The Palace Hall? The Bandstand? The Reading Room?
It was a gorgeous setting – the newly-renovated brick-and-white Kanakakunnu Palace (the summer palace of the erstwhile royal Travancore family) set in the emerald green lawns, with the rain-washed trees on the hillock providing a contrasting background. In the Year Dot, as the organizers preferred to call the first year of the Kerala avatar of The Hay Festival, it was a massive turnout, going by the numbers quoted and comparing it with the Kovalam Lit Fest held only over a month before. Not for nothing that Bill Clinton once famously described it as the Woodstock of the Mind.
I gave the inaugural a miss – who wants to hear the politico’s predictable blah-blah about the cultural heritage and the high literacy rate of Kerala? In the process, I ended up the loser. I was told some of the speakers were surprisingly refreshing. The Hon’ble Minister for Culture, I was told, made a poor attempt at humour: the next year’s edition should be called The Strong Hay Festival (as distinguished from The Week Hay Festival – named after The Week Magazine, the sponsors).
The first session I attended was an interview with Vikram Seth by novelist Anita Sethi. Though, thanks to her accent, I could not quite catch a lot of what she asked him, she must have done a remarkable job, for Vikram entertained the audience talking about fiction in verse, reciting his first poems (starting from his first couplet Cat, Rat conceived at the age of three, he said!) read a few verses and chatted on and on. He spoke of A Suitable Girl, expected next year. His sparkling wit was pure delight.
Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was incredible. He theorized on why Real Madrid and other football clubs should stick to prime numbers on their jerseys. Sautoy held the audience by their collar, so to speak, chatting about lemmings, David Beckham, his own football club and the lottery. The journey he took us through the magical world of numbers was marvelous.
One imaginatively structured event was an Alphabet Game in which Historian Simon Schama participated. Peter Florence, the founder of the famous Hay-on-Wye festival in Wales, would name a word beginning with A, B, C, … in that order and give Schama a couple of minutes, give or take a few seconds, in which the latter would sum up his thoughts on that topic. Schama tackled subjects as far-ranging as Afghanistan and Obama to Krakow, Rembrandt and Tarantino! Not only did he not disappoint, he was amazing - I even thought the whole thing was rigged, but that would be uncharitable. Schama gave an incredible performance, with Florence clearly playing to his strengths.
Tehelka’s Managing Editor Shoma Chaudhury’s interview with the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar was the highlight of Day One. Shoma’s questions flowed smooth and uninterrupted like honey and Aiyar, known for his outspokenness, responded enthusiastically. At the end of the no-holds barred exposition of his passionate convictions and the grand follies of public policy, one knew why the Congressman was in political wilderness: no party honcho would stomach his nerve.
Shashi Tharoor, who has been associated with the event ever since its inception over two decades ago as the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales, was a darling. The highlight of his session was the way he lambasted Arundhati Roy. He hit out at the Booker prize winner-activist: she has 'gone too far to the left' and 'unfortunately chooses to write about those who carry guns'.
Do you see some familiar faces?
The dialogue with Michelle Paver took one to the wonder world of the boy within you. She explained how she happened to write the story of Tarak and his wolf-brother in the pre-historic age.
The most charged session I got to attend was The Intelligence Squared Debate. The motion was ‘Indian Economic Growth at the Cost of Social Development?’ Speaking for the motion, Tarun Tejpal, the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, crossed swords with the redoubtable economist Lord Meghnad Desai. Articulate and rational both were, but it appeared that the audience was not moved. The house which was split half way before the debate remained that way even after the debate.
The sad part of it all was that unless you are a superman, you can attend only a third of the events. I missed the petite Sonia Faleiro, Charu Nivedita, Manu Joseph, Kishwar Desai, Tishani Doshi, Hannah Rothschild and Pavan Varma, to name a few.
The usually reticent Adoor Gopalakrishnan was at his eloquent best, a friend who attended that session said, explaining the logic behind some of his films, frame by frame as it were. He added that Adoor fielded some fairly tricky questions with élan.
I missed it, but was told Mexican writer Jorge Volpi had a lovely session, talking about the post magic realism wave of writers in Latin America. The world knows Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but there's so much else going on besides that, he emphasized, fairly gently.
Another session I missed was that of Tamil writer Charu Nivedita, who, I am told, was excoriating in his (Yes, HIS!) criticism of the political establishment in his home state. A subversive writer, he confided to the audience that he's better known in Kerala than in Tamil Nadu.
Sister Jesme, who wrote Autobiography of a Nun, said next work is based on being a Bride of Christ. Speaking about his memoir Curfewed Night, Basharat Peer dwelt on the fractious and fragile situation in Kashmir, and some of the many challenges that remain, pushing for credible engagement by the government, as the only way forward. I missed Manu Joseph came fresh off his book, Serious Men, winning the Hindu Best Fiction Award.
I was told Bob Geldof spoke amazingly well about using rock 'n' roll as a political lobby. His work in mobilizing support to end third world debt goes back more than 25 years, and he sounded passionate. ‘He spent so much time passionately evangelising for the world’s poor that it came as something of a surprise when he morphed back into the rock star he once was,’ said a friend after his concert.
On show were some breathtaking pictures by M(adhavan) Balan, celebrated wildlife photographer, a former colleague of mine. He had a novel idea: to get the photographs autographed by celebrities in token of their commitment to the cause of conservation of nature and wildlife and present them to the Chief Minister and his important colleagues for display in their rooms. By the end of the third day, the white mounting of the snaps bore signatures in myriad colours, languages and handwritings. A great initiative.
Now, to the negatives. There were some no-shows, like Anita Nair and Shobhaa De. This, and perhaps some other imponderables resulted in some last-minute changes in the schedules, but that was inevitable in a do like this.
The catering arrangements were woefully inadequate. The cafeteria on the campus was poorly stocked, those who manned the counter as tardy as inefficient and the prices exorbitant. The toilets in the main building were reserved for authors, and the one for readers were far away and ill-kept.
Even this was fine, but what one could not bear was the interminable wait for a minister who wanted to make a speech. He kept organizers guessing about the time he would arrive and made them announce three times at five-minute intervals that the worthy ‘would be here with us in five minutes’. Fed up, they gave up the wait and finally started the session fifteen minutes late. That was when the dignitary strutted in, escorted by his minions. He wasted no time, though. He interrupted the session which was in progress, pulled out a piece of paper and read out a speech, obviously ghost-written, dwelling on – need I say? – the cultural heritage and the high literacy rate of Kerala. Educating those present, he said the famous writer Aubrey Menon (sic) spent his twelfth (sic, again – I guess he meant ‘twilight’) years in the city. After making a few other gaffes, and setting the record for making the most mistakes per minute, he mercifully left in ten minutes.
I missed the concert by Beb Geldof, not to mention the Sting guest appearance who was apparently sitting nonchalantly in the audience before getting up onstage. ‘Geldof, of the Pink Floyd fame, in Trivandrum?’ asked a jealous offspring. ‘Sting? No way … Was his flight re-routed?’ asked another. My children have not forgiven me for passing up that golden chance. But then sitting cooped up in a chair for seven hours does unmentionable things to your back and I had to call it a day.
After wowing literary audiences around the globe, this was the first time Hay Festival came to India. The organizers of the 23-year-old coveted festival are impressed: they have decided to make Trivandrum a permanent venue.
On the sidelines: Shutterbugs chasing Sunanda Pushkar who was mobbed and young literature students seeking her autographs in preference to the likes of Miguel Syjuco and Paul Zacharia was was an amusing sight, if there was one, at the Festival.
Caught in the net: Hay is a small town in Wales, on the east bank of the River Wye, It has a population 1,900, but has 30 second-hand bookshops. It is twinned with, would you believe it, Timbuktu, the ancient city in Mali, West Africa.