In the heart of Thiruvanthapuram, Kerala, south India, authors and speakers from India and all over the world gathered at the inaugural Hay Festival Kerala, held over three delightful days of free sessions in the beautiful Kanakakunnu Palace, once the summer retreat for a royal family.
The Hay Festival began in the tiny Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye 23 years ago, and has since spread worldwide, including Cartagena, Beirut, Nairobi, the Maldives, and Segovia. The festival's executive director, Lyndy Cooke, visited India for her wedding anniversary and fell in love with the location, literature and possibilities of its languages.
The distinctiveness of the Hay Festivals, as I discovered visiting the Storymoja Hay Festival in Nairobi earlier this year, is in bringing together combinations of speakers that spark thrilling debates: in Nairobi, writers from Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria and elsewhere performed in powerful sessions. In Kerala, writers including Vikram Seth, Sebastian Faulks and William Dalrymple as well as the musician Bob Geldof, who joined local Keralan performers. Introducing the festival, which ran from November 12 to 14, were MA Baby, the minister of education and culture, and the MP Shashi Tharoor. They spoke about how the literary and artistic culture of Kerala and the Malayalam language make it the perfect setting for a festival such as Hay.
Sanjoy K Roy from the festival producers Teamworks spoke about the power of literature to breach boundaries. Indeed, beneath the vast, ornate palace ceilings, the discussions crossed many boundaries - of both language and location, venturing around the world and also exploring that most mysterious of terrains - the human mind.
"The only way an individual survives is by sharing," said Bob Geldof, and during the festival, many ideas were indeed shared among cultures. Sessions ranged from the profound to the lighthearted within the same hour. In one particularly good session, the historian Simon Schama was in a conversation with the Hay Festival director Peter Florence. It took the format of a highly entertaining "Historian's alphabet" A-Z question-and-answer session, plucking at the heart of Schama's own history - as well as that of the world. These included "Convivencia" ("living together") - a concept intrinsic to Kerala but also at the core of life.
"N" was for "Narrative" ("where would we be without it?", asked Schama). "J" for Thomas Jefferson brought out a wonderful answer exploring constitutional complexities whilst "U" was for "Understanding" - what exactly do we need from the past? He also discussed the difference between material and intellectual wealth, and how democracy has been corrupted by gigantic amounts of money. Sessions were an intimate window into the writer's own psychology: "I was crushed by the unbearable aspect of my own ugliness and thought I would amount to nothing", he confessed about his own youth. These were sessions that got beneath the surface of life - exploring both conscious and unconscious realms.
"Z" was for zzzz - or sleep: what happens when we sleep? "I'm a big dreamer," he said. "I dream in garish colour."
Dreams were indeed a recurrent theme throughout the three days, weaving in and out of the sessions as writers shared their creative worlds. Not only the dreams of our subconscious were shared, but also the impassioned hopes and aspirations voiced by the youth of the country. The British Council Indian Climate Change Champions is made up of youths between the ages of 18 and 23 who made powerful and articulate pleas aimed at promoting understanding of pressing environmental issues and placing them high on the agenda of governments and individuals.
The power of dreams as sources of poetical inspiration was apparent in the discussions I chaired about poetry with talented poets including K Satchidanandan, Gillian Clarke, Paul Henry and Menna Elfyn, who provided spellbinding readings in Malayalam, Welsh and English, in sessions sponsored by the British Council and the Welsh Assembly government.
"Poetry is a language in itself", said K Satchidanandan, and indeed the readings powerfully displayed the capacity of poetry to move audiences and convey meaning even if one does not understand the original language itself. Paul Henry quoted George Steiner on how "a good translation is a third language". Henry started his career as a songwriter and one theme throughout several sessions, including that with the brilliantly entertaining Vikram Seth, was the fascinating division between different forms - at what point does poetry tip into music?
Words did indeed tip into music in the evenings: the opening night extravaganza saw renditions of magical Malayalam folk songs, in which beautifully attired performers twirled elegantly onstage (this was a festival displaying the sartorial as well as linguistic flair of Kerala) and on the closing night, as a gentle warm rain fell, Geldof had the audiences bopping away with an energetic rendition of his classic songs. During Everybody's Got a Hole to Fill, he was joined on stage by a friend - none other than the musician Sting.
The festival also provided fascinating insights into issues at the heart of Indian life and literature itself. Tarun Tejpal, author of The Alchemy of Desire and editor of the news magazine Tehelka, described how India is a society in great flux and an unbelievably complex country trying to find a sense of clarity. "We have an unequal and unjust world. In some sense the quest of art has to be justice." He expressed his hope that Indian literature might capture the "blood, gristle and juice of what we're going through". He said the novel is a fundamentally subversive form and should challenge the status quo. A vast swathe of the country's citizens, he said, were not free agents, but straitened by circumstances. Thus, his problem with Slumdog Millionaire is that it is a "nice fantasy" to imagine that one can escape but noted that in real life there is an unbelievable struggle between the aspiration of a child and the huge boundaries facing them. His interviewer, Shoma Chaudhury, shared her own experience of reading his work: afterwards, she stepped out among the street urchins whose lives he conjures, and felt for a moment estrangement from her own children for their privilege - such is the power of literature, she said, to create empathy with another social group. Sonia Faleiro also unearthed a hidden underbelly of society in her raw and searing depiction of the bar girls of Bombay, which she discussed in a powerful session with Dalyrmple, who engagingly shared his extensive explorations of India.
"The job of an artist is to articulate what society is thinking before society is thinking it," said Geldof. The debates certainly stimulated new thoughts in both the speakers and audience members, judging from the lively question and answer sessions. The Intelligence Squared Debate asked the question: "Is economic growth in India at the expense of social development?" while in the closing session panelists explored whether e-books will ever be able to live in harmony with second-hand books, and the revolutionary power of the internet to reach audiences the world over was noted. "Writers are unorthodox, or even anti-orthodox; they are contrary and sceptical, they challenge assumptions and tell truths that other factual media cannot. That's what their job is", said the festival's director, Peter Florence. "You can burn or ban their books, but you cannot silence them, or lock them up in a democracy."
During the festival, the news broke that the Burmese pro-democracy campaigner Aung Sun Suu Kyi had been released - a most inspirational note to end a festival celebrating the freedom of ideas and the triumph of the human voice.