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theartsdesk in Kerala: Making Hay in God's Own Country | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Kerala: Making Hay in God's Own Country

theartsdesk in Kerala: Making Hay in God's Own Country

The Welsh literary festival travels east

Thiruvananthapuram does seem the perfect place for the Hay Festival's Indian incarnationAll images © Finn Beales

Thiruvananthapuram, capital city of the state of Kerala in the far south-west of India, is as crowded with people as its name is with syllables. By mid-November, most of the monsoon rains have passed and the city is bathed in a stiflingly sticky wet heat. The main thoroughfare, Mahatma Gandhi Road - a statue of the great man stands at an intersection garlanded with orange and yellow flowers - is a constant cacophony of traffic.

Swarms of black-and-yellow rickshaws buzz like so many bees amid the jumble of modern cars, motorbikes, scooters and 1950s classics. Cracked, worn and non-existent pavements overflow with women in bejewelled saris of pink and red and green while shirtless young men bedecked in beads, hands on each others' shoulders in a chain of Hindu brotherhood, make their way joyfully to worship at Sree Padmanabhaswamy, the world's richest temple.

Crowds and noise are Indian leitmotifs. When, during the opening ceremony of the second annual Hay Festival in Kerala, bare-chested drummers compete with the paparazzi photographers surrounding Shashi Tharoor - writer, critic, member of parliament for Kerala and one-time nominee for the post of UN Secretary General - an English expat publisher who has lived in Kerala for the last decade leans over to me and says: “In India, if it isn't crowded and it isn't noisy, then nothing’s happening.”

Something is certainly happening here. Kanakakunnu Palace, where the local maharaja once entertained the British Raj, is situated on a hill near the city's museum, art gallery and zoo. It is an oasis of relative calm. But the multicoloured banners tied between trees and tents in the garden and the purple and silver bunting that shimmers in the breeze marks the fact that Hay has arrived. Kerala's near-100 per cent literacy rate, a legacy of one of the world's first democratically elected communist governments, is the envy of all India. Even though a short walk confirms we are very much still in a developing country here, Thiruvananthapuram does seem the perfect place for the festival's Indian incarnation.

The success story of the original literary festival, in Hay-on-Wye (Arthur Miller: “Is that some kind of sandwich?”) is fairly well known. Aside from Miller's witticism, the most famous line about the festival belongs to Bill Clinton, who on his visit to the Welsh capital of second-hand books in 2001 called it “the Woodstock of the mind”. Perhaps less well known - at least in Britain - is Hay's rapid expansion as a global phenomenon. Peter Florence and his team now run festivals from Merthyr Tydfil to the Maldives, from Belfast to Beirut and from Segovia in Spain to Xalapa in Mexico. Kerala seems an entirely appropriate setting for the kind of cultural exchange exported by Hay. Festival co-director Lyndy Cooke admits that this one is her favourite.

There are a billion people in the world's only country to occupy what we have come to call “the subcontinent”. A billion people make a billion Indias. But despite the multiplicity - of languages, of religions, of caste, of colour, of politics - there are national characteristics. That, among many other things, is what Hay Festivals are good at. There is a careful curation at work in creating a programme of events that present a plurality of voices; the result is a coherent, if complex snapshot of literary India today. This is a country poised on the crest of a huge wave of economic boom and rapid change; perhaps unsurprisingly, pluralism and complexity emerge as the themes of the festival. For me, the highlight of the three days is a session where the local festival director, the irrepressibly genial Sanjoy Roy, speaks to Tarun Tejpal, the Indian novelist and editor of Tehelka. Or rather, is spoken to. As Roy readily admits afterward, “All you have to do is press play.”

Tejpal is no shrinking violet. In a conversation ostensibly about his bestselling novels, The Alchemy of Desire and Story of my Assassins, the writer often shoots off on violent trajectories that offer an excoriating analysis of India today. If there are parallels between “Shining” India and Great Britain in her Victorian pomp - the “bubble” lived in by the rich, the mindboggling levels of social and economic inequality, the extent to which society is riddled with both petty and large-scale corruption - then Tejpal is its Dickens. Himself a member of the privileged class, the novelist and editor stands up for the kid born on “the wrong side of the tracks”.

He describes his novel The Alchemy of Desire as “the counternarrative of India - the story of the underclass”. All of his writing, he admits, is pervaded by a love of his country: “India is the only thing that interests me. This is the best place to be a writer,” he claims, “the best place to be a journalist. This country is in foment. It's the future of the world, but it's founded on complexities.” One of Tejpal's many concerns is that the new, so-called “Shining” India is forgetting the principles of the “founding fathers”. Nehru's constitution is under threat from anti-corruption legislation, but the novelist is slow to condemn all forms of corruption out of hand; the picture is more complicated than that. “For the kid born in the slums of Calcutta or Mumbai, corruption is one of the few weapons available to make one's way in the world.”

Hay's move into the global arena is a smart move in every sense

This kind of complexity is at the heart of India's language problem too. Whether riding in rickshaws around the town, or being served canapés of spiced chicken and fish in five-star hotels on the beachfront, it is clear that for the ordinary Indian, English is the lingua franca rather than a literary language. The level of spoken English varies greatly. More often than not, I am met with the signature wobbling-head response, which seems to mean simultaneously both yes and no and everything in between. The poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is bold enough to put his finger on the problem. In a session titled “Twice-told Fictions: The New Life of Translations”, toward the end of a discussion between poets, novelists, translators and publishers, Mehrotra says: “Why don't we admit that sometimes the English we write makes no bloody sense?” Wordy pontificating, I am learning, is not an Indian trait.

On the other hand, despite the international nature of the festival - with star turns from Germaine Greer (pictured left), Jung Chang and Simon Armitage among others - and the many languages spoken, including a memorable “mash-up” poetry session with writers in English, Welsh, Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam all riffing off one another's work in a beautiful soundclash of cultures, the English spoken at the festival is exemplary. If anything, the eloquence of both words and ideas expressed at this relatively cosy meeting of minds points the direction for the future of the English-speaking world. Like India itself, English-language literature is polyphonic, multicultural, fragmentary and complicated. And all the better for it.

As the time nears for theartsdesk to leave this big, beautiful, bewildering country - the last night's party is followed by a paddle in the warm waters of the Arabian sea, beneath a coconut-tree sky - I feel privileged not only to have shared in its riches, the tropical climate, the abundance of flora and fauna, the exotic wildlife, the wonderful food, but also to have glimpsed its cultural treasures.

The annual pilgrimage to Hay-on-Wye has long been part of the British booklovers' calendar. Tony Benn spoke for many when he said, “In my mind it has replaced Christmas.” The Whitsun bank holiday is one of the few weekends of the year when I know, barring very exceptional circumstances, exactly where I will be. But Hay in Hay has been teetering on the brink of being a victim of its own success; like Glastonbury or the Edinburgh Fringe, it has almost become so big as to have necessarily forgotten some of what made it so charmingly exhilarating in the first place. Hay's move into the global arena is a smart move in every sense. After Kerala, the team are moving on to Dhaka to pilot a festival in Bangladesh. Within hours, Peter Florence is tweeting that this new baby has “catapulted into the premier league”. The whole thing is clearly a labour of love. By starting all over again, in places where the concept of a festival of literature and ideas is entirely new, Hay is constantly refreshing itself by recapturing the spirit that made it such an organic success in the first place. Malayalam novelist M Mukundan inadvertently summed up the Hay philosophy when talking about literature in general in the very first session: “Reach out to the world.”

At the back of my notebook there is a small library of books I have promised to read when I get home, most of them recommended by Arvind Mehrotra. Small scratches on the surface of the subcontinent they may be, but to scratch the surface in Kerala was not only to glimpse the gold of “God’s Own Country”, but also to leave with dirt under my fingernails, the scent of which I hope will linger for a long, long time to come.

The poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is bold enough to put his finger on the problem. 'Why don't we admit that sometimes the English we write makes no bloody sense?'

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Hi Dylan, Thanks for unncessary reference to the ongoing stereotype (quote "I am met with the signature wobbling-head response, which seems to mean simultaneously both yes and no and everything in between"). Its sad to see that white/westerners can never implement comedy unless it contains something thats offensive to another culture, or helps implement further racist stereotypes rather than assist in removing them. You have only furthered the former. If this is your attempt at "humour" then clearly its aimed at white people, as true comedy is something that makes everyone laugh, while offending either everyone or no-one. Shame on you.

Spot on!!

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