On the second day of the Hay-on-Thiru festival in Kerala, there’s a quiet moment that sums up something of the extraordinary spirit that drives the intellectual franchise known as the Hay festivals, wherever they are in the world.
The day’s events, readings and debates are done, a brief spell of Kerala rain has provided relief from the afternoon’s muggy heat, and out at Kovalam beach, the fellowship of writers are settling down to dinner. That’s when Peter Florence, director and founder of the Hay festivals, asks us all to raise a glass, and salute the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese dissident leader, from her 15 years of house arrest. There’s a brief moment of silence and celebration, a small space in the hectic whirl of the festival, as we contemplate the price one woman has paid for expressing dissent and for staying true to her values.
Over the three days of Hay-on-Thiru, small moments like this will recur. It happens when the fiery Tamil writer Charu Nivedita questions the way politicians operate in his part of the world, when Basharat Peer patiently explains to an audience on the other side of India how growing up in the besieged world of Kashmir might radicalise a teenager’s perspective, when the historian Simon Schama urges Barack Obama to hold to his ideals, when Tarun Tejpal, Meghnad Desai and others debate the harsh realities behind the India Shining myth.
“Do we really need two circus acts,” a somewhat jaded journalist asks at the start of Hay-on-Thiru. She’s referring to the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), which has spawned a host of smaller literary festivals in its wake, from Kovalam to the recent Bombay Lavasa festival. The similarities between Hay-on-Thiru and the JLF are obvious, heightened by the fact that they share a production team, and that one of the JLF directors, Namita Gokhale, is also an adviser for Hay. And while Jaipur is currently the larger “circus”, the Hay and Jaipur programmes have resonances: both festivals aim to be festivals of ideas as much as celebrations of literature, and both have a judicious mix of international and local Indian writers.
The local flavour is apparent at the Kannakkakunnu Palace, a sprawling, sleepy, chandelier-heavy mansion perched on top of a gentle hill. Sister Jesme, the nun whose autobiography rocked the Catholic world in Kerala, is thrilled to be photographed alongside the film star Mammooty; Shashi Tharoor and his wife Sunanda add their particular brand of glamour to the proceedings; and writers like Paul Zachariah and N S Madhavan draw large, and deeply engaged, audiences. But despite the bonhomie on the lawns, the appams-and-seer fish curry at lunch, and the Bob Geldof concert on the last evening where Sting makes a surprise appearance, Hay-on-Thiru has a more solemn feel to it than Jaipur’s garden-party atmosphere. Literature is serious business in Kerala, and Thiruvananthapuram likes a certain formality. Which doesn’t prevent Vikram Seth from delighting his audience with impromptu couplets and an instant haiku in honour of A Suitable Boy: “It is sixteen years on/ from that rather fat book/ I wrote.” Or Simon Schama from running elegantly through a historian’s alphabet (A for Afghanistan, B for Boston Red Sox, D for Decline and Fall) in a bravura performance. Globalisation and GM foods find a place alongside poetry readings; Bob Geldof makes an impassioned, articulate and relatively profanity-free argument for the necessity of development aid; and from Mexico and the Philippines, Jorge Volpi and Miguel Syjuco conduct a kind of jugalbandhi on post-colonialism.
There is, as there was in the first few years of Jaipur, ample room for conversation, and some of the best ones happen as writers find common ground in the quiet spaces in between sessions. The best part of the festival is the students, and the families who trail in from the DC Book Fair next door (where the chili pakoras and the kappa biryani were selling as briskly as the Che Guevara biographies). It is their curiosity and their intense questions that really make the sessions.
Hay-on-Thiru will find its identity and its audience over the next few years, and that may well yield, given the cultural differences between the North and the South of India, a slightly more formal festival — a gathering of writer’s clans rather than the dazzling circus of Jaipur. And if it does turn into a circus, I’m reminded of the young student who said: “We are hungry not just for books and reading, but for discussion. Here, we feel that we can listen, and we can also share what is on our minds.” That space deserves any number of circus tents, pitched anywhere in India.