Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Off to a bright start


By Shevlin Sebastian

Caption: (From left): Minister M.A. Baby, and authors O.N.V. Kurup and Paul Zacharia

Mouths opened in surprise when M.A. Baby, the minister for education and culture appeared five minutes before the stated 10 a.m. inauguration of the Kovalam Literary Festival at Thiruvananthapuram. In his inaugural speech, he explains the reason why. “There is a bit of an adventure in inviting a minister to a literary festival,” he says.” There is always the possibility of the programme being delayed, owing to his late arrival. So, I took abundant precautions.” Thank you, Minister, for breaking the mould.

When poet O.N.V. Kurup arrives, everybody stands up in respect. He has made Keralites proud by winning the prestigious Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award. Baby shows courtesy by holding the 79-year-old’s hand, and helping him on to the stage.

Kurup spoke about the dying art of poetry, and says, “Poetry is kept in the hothouse under the artificial lights of the Indian Coffee House.” Kurup presented the Emerging Writers’ Award to Sahira Thangal.

Sahira, a mix of prettiness and homeliness, her dupatta draped demurely over her head, gives a dazzling smile, as she accepts the award. Later, when asked about how it is to live and work in Dubai, Sahira says, “The peeping mind of the Malayali is missing, and that is a big relief.”

A woman photographer, Smitha, sitting next to me bursts out laughing and nods her head vigorously.

Outside, as a photographer takes a picture, The New Indian Express columnist, Paul Zacharia, says, “What is the Kerala Sahitya Akademi doing? Such a big organization and it has never been able to organize a festival like this, where national and international writers are present. Instead, one individual, Binoo K. John, his wife, and a few friends and relatives have set up this show, and they are doing a commendable job.” Incidentally, this is the third edition.

A little further away two women writers are admiring each other’s costumes. Chinese writer Lijia Zhang holds the black blouse of South African writer Zubeida Jaffer, between her fingers, and says, “So pretty.” Zubeda says, “It’s the right dress for this kind of hot weather.” Lijia smiles and says, “I am a colourful person, so I like to dress brightly.” And she is indeed looking splendid in a black and red knee-length gown, with plastic flowers pinned in her hair.

Here is a quiz question: who is the only writer in India to get a police escort, and breathless plainclothesmen standing at the entrance of the venue, the Kanakakunnu Palace? Answer: Well, it is none other than Daman Singh, the daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. She has come to talk about her book, ‘The Sacred Grove’.

When I am about to go to the toilet, a plainclothes security officer raises his hand to forbid me, and says, “Daman Madam is using the toilet.” I reply, “I want to use the men’s toilet,” but he refuses to see the humour in it. To paraphrase the title of Manu Joseph’s internationally acclaimed novel: ‘A Serious Man’ indeed.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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