Monday, December 27, 2010

Thoughts, suggestions, two cents…

- Whilst I was quite amazed at the low airtime provided by the local media, I find that this ensured that only genuine enthusiasts participated/turned up.

- Whilst there didn't seem to be any evident problem on the security front, it might benefit from some more attention for Kanakakunnu Palace is a destination for stragglers in the evening.

- This year's Hay Festival was more aptly version 0.0 since the organisers were testing the waters. If the subsequent Hay Festival 2011 be modelled on the original Hays, would the entry continue to be free?

- Should there be another Hay Festival in Trivandrum (which is likely), I shall definitely attend, irrespective of my geographical location. On this note, do feel free to contact me if anyone would like to get relevant information on Trivandrum.
- It might also be convenient if the Festival will be conducted on the Friday-Saturday-Sunday of the week - for the benefit of those of us here/may be elsewhere/would be elsewhere.

- A dedicated (and spacious) area for book-signing might be most helpful- also, presence of ushers to avert queue-jumping!

- I’d very much like a proper debate, along the lines of those at the Oxford Union- with the house’s proposition and opposition and appropriate speakers.

- Christmas might have been last year but it’s not too late to present my personal wish list for the Hay line up next year, supplementary to this year’s: poet Geoffrey Hill, historian Quentin Skinner, author Frederick Forsyth (The Day of the Jackal), author-politician Rory Stewart (The Places in Between), historian (and former Oxford Blue) Dan Snow (Battlefield Britain), director Mira Nair, politician-environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, politician-journalist Boris Johnson, spin doctor Alastair Campbell (The Blair Years), naturalist David Attenborough, economist Amartya Sen, social scientist Richard Florida, author Yann Martel (Life of Pi). And perhaps Tony Blair and/or Al Gore too?

And perhaps a concert by James Blunt or U2???

Fingers crossed for next year and towards making more hay in the sunshine!

Thoughts on the celebration of words (aka Hay Festival 2010)

As alluded to in the opening post, the Hay Festival in Trivandrum was a total surprise and an excellent example of how some of the finest experiences in life are free.

On hindsight, it didn’t seem as if I was in Trivandrum (or even India)- the entire atmosphere was cosmopolitan and sans any boundaries or walls, with the authors and readers rubbing shoulders with a near total lack of superciliousness. I’ve been to so many events in Trivandrum (even at Kanakakunnu Palace) where I always felt out of place- but here was a festival where I felt a sense of belonging: another Orchard at Grantchester or the quaint Turf nestled behind the lofty ivy-clad walls of New College, where we are transported to another dimension, treading on the steps of luminaries, uninhibitedly discussing on all things under the sun, whilst enjoying a delightful slice of carrot cake or a sip of G&T.

Unlike stiff formal lectures (the local ones also feature a degree of pomposity), the environment was so relaxed. But in true Kerala style, attendees flitted around with some doggedly maintaining conversations with others (in what seemed as a competition with the speaker), the media trudged around with their gadgets, and the cell phones registered their presence.

It was surprising, however, when a sizeable crowd of stragglers did not materialise during the Festival (nor during the concert)- a local adage goes on that ‘anything at Kanakakunnu = a teeming crowd’. I was also surprised that, apart from two instances, I did not run into any Trivandrum acquaintance of mine (a sizeable proportion of which includes university professors and postgraduates of English literature). Alternatively, I may have been too engrossed in the sessions!


All good things must come to an end, and akin to a splendid novel, the Hay Festival concluded with an electrifying pinnacle: a full-length concert by Bob Geldof and his punk rock band The Boomtown Rats at the Nishagandhi Amphitheatre.

As mentioned before, after the church service and armed with piping hot vazhakka appam (banana slices dipped in batter and fried), we turned up at the virtually empty Amphitheatre at around 1745 (something of a shock since I am more used to seeing queues materialise a good 2-3 hours before a concert- or more in the case of King’s chapel- and definitely expected a flood of humans). But this gave us the advantage of choosing our seats (in the roofed pavilion, around 50 m away from the stage), fending off attacks by mosquitoes, and observing the gathering rain clouds which soon precipitated into a steady drizzle accompanied by distant thunder. We did fear that the rain might play spoilsport… and it was like waiting for Godot…

...and at around 20 minutes past seven, the concert commenced under the starlit skies (and dazzling lights). The opening numbers (‘The Great Song of Indifference’ and ‘Love or Something’) got the crowd into the groove (the magic touch of punk rock amalgamated with Celtic folk) and the band gave their absolute everything (and more) despite the tepid response (when compared to what happens in Hyde Park or RAH- didn’t the crowd know anything about Geldof?). Later, Geldof introduced the band and we all sang a ‘Happy Birthday’ to the percussionist. And we jived to more songs, including ‘I don’t like Mondays’.

As might be expected, in typical Keralite style, chunks of the crowd left the amphitheatre during the concert. But when the band returned for the encore, they had with them a surprise visitor- Sting himself- and an ensuing duet ‘Everyone needs a hole to fill’! Turned out that he and his family, upon hearing that Geldof was in Trivandrum, flew over.

And we returned home quite high and have been spending some time reliving the night thanks to the videos which we captured.

Day 3 Hay Festival, Kanakakunnu Palace, Trivandrum – Afternoon

I had been looking forward to the first session in the Palace Hall after lunch- British novelist Sebastian Faulks being interviewed by journalist Rosie Boycott. Faulks began by introducing his upcoming book, Faulks on Fiction, in which he evaluates many fictional characters (including Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and Ronald Merrick from Paul Scott’s epic Raj Quartet). He not only discussed his works so far, such as the iconic Birdsong, Charlotte Gray, Engleby, and the recent James Bond novel Devil May Care, but also his life as a journalist. His recent novel A Week in December (which I have reviewed here), featuring seven characters and set in the week before Christmas, was evaluated in great detail and some amount of airtime was dedicated to the research conducted on hedge funds and investment banks- even though, I couldn’t agree with 60% of his thoughts on the bankers and I wondered what an LMH Unionite and current hedge fund employee, who shared his same surname, would have thought as well. The session was followed by book signing at the nearby tent, where my newly purchased A Week in December was soon adorned with his signature.

We couldn’t attend the remainder of the afternoon sessions since we had to attend the evening service at our church, a stone’s throw away.

However, the following were slated to happen in other talks elsewhere (and at the same venue):
- Namita Gokhale on the various interpretations of Sita, the wife of Indian king Rama.
- Novelist and broadcaster Kishwar Desai on her novel based on a sensational family murder case set between Punjab (India) and UK.
- Readings by writer and bureaucrat NS Madhavan.
- Historian Simon Schama’s musings on Barack Obama and the recent mid-term elections
- British director Hannah Rothschild’s discussion on the art of documentary film-making.
- Readings by poet Vivek Narayanan.
- Readings by author Jaisree Misra.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Day 3 Hay Festival, Kanakakunnu Palace, Trivandrum – Forenoon

The resplendent Palace Hall was the site for Shashi Tharoor’s (The Great Indian Novel; The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cell Phone; Bookless in Baghdad) dialogue in the morning. Tharoor (whose achievements also includes being a candidate for the post of UN’s Secretary General, as well as a Minister of State in the Indian government), is presently the MP for my home constituency of Trivandrum.

At 1115, this very dais was occupied by Nik Gowing, the BBC anchor who might not be a stranger for the Beeb’s audience in India. Gowing focused on the role played by the global media. He also pointed out that the public participation has been revolutionised with the advent of cell phones with cameras- these clippings provide insights which even reporters may not be aware of. This power, wielded by the media, also ensures that the governments are aware of their responsibilities and are held accountable for their actions.

The same venue later witnessed an exhilarating and passionate ‘Intelligence Squared’ debate on the economic development in India and its impact on social development. The session was quite an eye-opener for many who were informed about how India’s economic development was not having any significant effect on the poor. In fact, it was stated (I believe, by Tarun Tejpal) that the modern-day politicians were not exhibiting any social responsibility: i.e the elite, the privileged, and the powerful were not contributing to uplifting the dregs of the society.

The sessions in the Reading Room commenced with Welsh poets (Menna Elfyn, Paul Henry, and Gillian Clarke) and Indian poets (Vivek Narayanan from Tamil Nadu and K Satchidanandan from Kerala) discussing about the role played by languages in creating poetry. Of much interest was their (who considered poetry not just as an art or a way of expressing themselves, but also as a way of life) thoughts on the challenges of writing poetry in their native languages and why some chose to write poetry in non-native languages. One could not however agree with the statement that one’s own native language had an influence on a poetry written in another language (in this case, English). In my instance, even though Malayalam is my mother tongue and English my first language, my poems (all written in English) is not at all influenced by Malayalam (which I suck at, in any case). But one did agree with Gillian Clarke’s admission of her poems being innately musical thanks to the tempo of the Welsh language. Menna Elfyn once again reiterated that an essence is lost when poems are translated from one language to another.

The same venue was also to feature a discussion between economist and novelist Meghnad Desai and Hannah Rothschild. Elsewhere, the Bandstand featured sessions of Upinder Singh (on the unwritten histories which need to be written) and Keralite poet K Satchidanandan’s discussions of his works.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Day 2 Bob Geldof in conversation with Shashi Tharoor at Hay Festival, Kanakakunnu Palace, Trivandrum

Unlike Ruth, I was looking forward to attending singer-songwriter and political activist Bob Geldof’s session at the Palace Hall. In my own circle of friends and acquaintances, there are some who are floored by his efforts and who proudly sported Live8/LiveAid bracelets and turned up at Hyde Park for the concert in 2005; there are also those who perceive him as a sham after publicity. I sat on the fence: it couldn’t be denied that he focused the economic North’s attention on the poverty-stricken Africa; his political activism seemed to reap dividends; and it was debatable where the LiveAid donations eventually ended up. Of course, one heard more about those associated with him, such as Paula Yates and daughters Peaches and Pixie.

Geldof was very chilled out- betraying neither passion nor rage. And he was very candid, even elaborating about his family background (a hotchpotch of nationalities including Jewish) and providing a quick history of Ireland (including the potato famine) and the volatile political situation. He had dropped out from school, had a series of jobs including a stint at road construction near Gatwick airport and as a music journalist in Vancouver where he overstayed and was eventually dispatched back to the UK.

Being a left-hander, he learnt to play a normal (right-handed) one by holding it upside down with the lowest frets at top. His Irish punk rock band, The Boomtown Rats, achieved moderate success in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. His group had concerts, around 30 years ago, in Bombay and Bangalore, where they were virtually unknown. But upon perceiving the musical inclination of the crowd, they had switched on to more popular numbers by Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

It was whilst his career was stagnating that he happened to switch on the television one morning and saw the unedited and poignant footage (by Michael Buerk of the BBC) of the Ethiopian famine. This motivated him to co-write, with Midge Ure of Ultravox, ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’, which ended up as a best-selling single around the world. He elaborated, in detail, about the process behind the song and the invitation received from a similar movement amongst music artistes in the US (which eventually culminated in the ‘We are the world’). He then organised the Live Aid concerts from 1985, all aimed at famine relief, economic sustainability, and ending third world debt. In July 2005, he organised the Live 8 concerts (eight free concerts held simultaneously around the world to put pressure on the G8 economic summit at Gleneagles), aimed at raising the awareness of the plight faced by Africa and to lobby for debt cancellation.

Nearly 25 years on, Geldof remains passionate about Africa. Admitting that India and China were major players of the 21st century, he spelled out the role which such countries could play in lifting the Dark Continent out of its bane. Africa needed aid, not just for the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, but also to steer the population towards education, technology growth, and other measures. Furthermore, Africans had been receiving a mere pittance of the aid meant for them, the rest being gobbled up in the process. But when an attendee referred to aid being swallowed by the corrupt in Africa, Geldof quickly pointed out that corruption was much rifer in India- as evidenced by what he recently read in the local paper about a government official resigning since his office was corrupt. He also mentioned about the private equity fund which he had started in September, with the aim of investing this in Africa.

There were also references about fellow musician Paul Hewson, a.k.a Bono, of U2 and the political lobbying which he carried out. Former US President George Bush Jr also found a supporter in him: even though, he said, Bush was not an ideal President of the US, he has done more for Africa than other luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. His thoughts on Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was quite vocal- the only resolution was in the latter’s death. Like James Lovelock, Geldof also advocates nuclear power as opposed to wind or tidal energy.

Geldof’s session was the most entertaining lecture I’ve attended so far (the David Miliband one at Sidgwick has faded into insignificance)- it was blatantly politically incorrect, peppered with a healthy dose of f-words and dark humour. His in-depth and wide range of knowledge was impressive: the high-school dropout certainly excelled a Ph.D holder from Tufts. And regardless of whether or not we agree with his rationale, this certainly wasn’t a wishy-washy rocker.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Day 2 Hay Festival, Trivandrum – Afternoon

William Dalrymple
Dalrymple is no stranger to India and India is no stranger to Dalrymple. Many Indians have enjoyed the historian and travel writer’s books and television documentaries. Others may have read the Indophile’s articles in New Statesman or The Guardian. He had made a very familiar trek: from Ampleforth to Trinity College (Cantab.) where he read History.

Dalrymple’s talk was held in the Palace Hall at 1430, immediately after lunch, and thus conducive for naps (something which he was sympathetic about). The main gist were his works so far, the extracts of which he read, including the latest non-fiction Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India which revolves around the varied spiritual lives of nine individuals.

Dalrymple has the knack of captivating his readers (and listeners) and enabling them to vividly envisage the entire scenarios. Even though my own interest in history focuses on the Tudor and Stuart reigns, I’ve enjoyed Dalrymple’s books on the subcontinent and religion. In Xanadu was an exciting read which traced the path taken by Marco Polo from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (which I visited last month) to Xanadu in China. Other notable works are The City of Djinns (on Delhi’s history), The Age of Kali (a collection of illuminating essays), From the Holy Mountain: A journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (tracing the origins of Eastern Orthodox congregations), and White Mughals (which came highly recommended by a publisher in Cambridge).

He conveyed many anecdotes: about the Keralite art of ‘Theyyam’, the rivalry between local parties in Kerala, a Jain nun who ended her life by fasting, and the wistfulness of a writer. He next plans on writing a book on the life of St Thomas, Jesus’ disciple who reached Kerala in 52 AD.

Many consider Dalrymple to be an Indian (not exactly surprising considering how he totally blended into the environment with ease), but he himself finds this tag to be erroneous. A more appropriate tag would be a Scottish Delhiite, for he has been spending the past 25 years living in Delhi, London, and Edinburgh.

Simultaneously elsewhere:
In the Reading Room: Anita Sethi chaired a poetry reading by Welsh poets Menna Elfyn and Paul Henry and the Malayalam poet K Satchidanandan.

In the Bandstand: Manu Joseph discussed his sardonic novel Serious Men which had won The Hindu’s Best Fiction award.

1545 in the Palace Hall featured a tête-à-tête between singer Bob Geldof and author-politician Shashi Tharoor (which I shall elaborate more in a dedicated post).

In the Reading Room: Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, explored the process of creating poetry and the influence of bilingualism (Welsh/English).

After the Geldof talk, we remained in the Palace Hall for the poetry reading. In fact, we migrated to the front rows which gave us an excellent vantage of the dais. There was some amount of delay and I took the opportunity to walk around the Palace and to the Nishagandhi auditorium which reverberated with the sound of music. It was becoming overcast and the smell in the air promised imminent rain. Since I was familiar with the site, I could easily prance back via a short-cut to the Palace Hall where Ruth was anxiously waiting and where the poets had congregated by a bay window waiting for the programme to commence.

Detour: The poetry reading session turned out to be an eye-opener. During school and college, I always sat on the last row of the classroom/lecture hall- not to do anything covert, but just to remain detached whilst everyone else bombarded the teacher with questions. The same pattern was repeated at the captivating lectures at SoGE Oxford where the last row (except in some rooms) was next to the exits- from here, I observed the American contingent (including the rowers) avidly participating in the lecture from their seats in the front row. With the lapse of few years, I have realised the benefits of sitting in the first row: one can invest their 100% attention on the lecture- the chances are that there wouldn’t be the opportunity to observe the wildlife (or urbanlife, as the case may be) outside the windows or one’s own classmates; fellow last-rowers tend to be a rather distracted bunch (usually jolly ruggers)- there are high probabilities of discussions and jokes while the lecture is in progress; one would remain attentive for the lecturer would pose questions and it wouldn’t be appealing to look like a dunce.

Back to the poetry reading. Whilst modern poetry is not my cup of tea (give me a Chaucer or Shelley any time!), I did avidly listen to the six-minute poetry reading by each poet introduced by actress Lisa Dwan (some did surpass the time limit): Tishani Doshi (a poem displaying a very strong spirit of independence, which I could easily empathise with), K Satchidanandan (a poem composed for a friend’s young son which I found severely lacking), Menna Elfyn (on a handkerchief kiss referring to the translation of poems- admittedly, I was reminded of the dilemma faced by the X-Men character Rogue), Vivek Narayanan, CP Surendran, Gillian Clarke (on a marathon run by her dear daughter and the poignant Six Bells on a mining disaster in 1960), and Paul Henry (an excellent poem Between Two Bridges).

We didn’t expect Vikram Seth to turn up, but he did turn up quite late and provided his apologies: he had traveled to Kanyakumari and visited the Vivekananda Rock – and had miscalculated the time taken for the entire trip. Furthermore, the humidity compelled him to have a quick shower upon returning to Trivandrum- all of which contributed to the delay. However, Seth’s poems were as delightful as ever and it was a pleasure to hear these once again.

In the meantime, Lisa Dwan announced that Aung San Suu Kyi had been released- news which was greeted with a round of applause. I wasn’t that enthusiastic given I had already celebrated the impending release that morning.

The poetry reading was followed by a book signing at the nearby book tent, which was bursting at its seams. By now, it was steadily raining, accompanied by claps of thunders. Ruth was hoping to get Seth’s A Suitable Boy signed for David, her Church of Scotland minister in Dundee who had been debating over reading the epic. But after buying the book, we guessed that he mayn’t turn up and thus emerged out into the rain, only to follow Seth back into the tent! Seth was very gracious to the readers, taking time to converse with them. And we were rather touched when he recognised us from yesterday.

We couldn’t attend the remaining events in the evening since it was raining heavily and had already been precipitately dark. Also, walking back home via the ill-lit footpath-less roads required some amount of energy!

Nonetheless, Rosie Boycott was slated to explore the global food crises, famines, climate change, and GM crops. In the Bandstand, Pavan Varma was to discuss about post-colonial India’s crises of identity.

In the Reading Room, Bama Faustina and Sister Jesme (Autobiography of a Nun) discussed their personal conflicts with the church, including the various issues they encountered at convents and missionary schools. Poetess and novelist Tishani Doshi discussed her debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers, on the life and love of Gujarati Babo Patel (from Madras) and Welsh Sian Jones- based on the love letters/communication between her own parents in the late 1960s.