Monday, October 13, 2008

Sea, sand and a cocktail of ideas

The Kovalam literary festival, the first of its kind in Kerala, has been well received. Authors, publishers and readers enjoy the close interaction with each other

By Shevlin Sebastian

"You didn't know that Jaishree Misra is the grand-daughter of the great Malayali writer, Thakazhi," says one visitor, with arched eyebrows, to his friend at the first Kovalam Literary Festival.

"You learn something new every day," says the friend. Yes, indeed, the Kovalam literary festival is a place where writers, readers and publishers get a chance to know each other better and learn something new.

"The crowd is a little sparse today." But even as she speaks several students of the Arya Central School stream in.

Outside, near the aquamarine swimming pool television journalist Sunil Sethi is hustling his crew to set up things for an interview with poet Gulzar, who looks resplendent in a starched white kurta-pyjama.

Earlier, Gulzar had told the audience about his excitement when former diplomat Shashi Tharoor, raised in Kolkata, had spoken a few words in Bengali to him. "Rabindranath Tagore is my guru," he says, by way of explanation.

The view is splendid: coconut trees and flowering plants all over. And in the distance there is the soothing sight of waves hitting the beach in a relentless flow.

"It's probably one of the most beautiful places to hold a festival," says Patrick French, the author of 'The World Is What It Is', the biography of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who has already attended 12 books festivals all over the world this year to promote the book.

Jaishree Misra, who had given a talk on her book, Rani (of Jhansi) spoke of her chance opportunity to travel with Malayalam writer, K. Satchidanandan in a cab.

"In 15 minutes I learnt more about translations by talking to Satchidanandan than in my entire life," she says.

There is an enthralling conversation between Patrick French and William Dalrymple about the pros and cons of writing a biography on an irascible subject as Naipaul. "But he never interfered with my work," says French. "For Naipaul the truth was paramount."

French gives some statistics behind the 500 plus page biography. "I must have read around 50,000 documents, more than 400 letters of correspondence and did hundreds of interviews across three countries," he says. The audience exhales a collective breath.

Jnanpith Award winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair spoke about the great impact of the poem, 'Ramanan', written by Changampuzha and how, as a child, he was deputed to race to the next village to obtain a copy.

On the sidelines, chick-lit author Meenakshi Reddy Mahadevan, of 'You are Here' fame tells a photographer, "Oh my God, I am not properly dressed for a photo shoot."
But he is a personable guy and is able to persuade Meenakshi that she looks just fine.

In the discussion of 'Writing in a globalised world', Satchidanandan speaks at length about the philosophical impact of the theme. When it is the turn of Mike Bryan, the CEO of Penguin Books, he says, "The only thing similar between me and Satchidanandan is that we are both wearing black shirts. Otherwise, our views differ. And I have a decidedly commercial attitude."

Karthika speaks about how frustrating it is that just a few writers, who have been published abroad, receive all the attention. "It is very sad," she says. She adds that in 11 years of visiting the Frankfurt Book Fair she has changed her attitude. "Now I don't give a damn about whether I can sell the rights of Indian authors abroad. The market in India is huge."

The Kovalam literary festival is a cosy affair and the atmosphere is informal. So, you have the pleasant sight of William Dalrymple and Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal sitting on the steps and having a chat. "It's great that a festival like this is finally taking place in Kerala," says M.T. Vasudevan Nair.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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