Saturday, November 20, 2010
Making Hay while the sun shines
Some vignettes from the just concluded Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram
By Shevlin Sebastian
A Kerala-based writer S.N. Sandhya presents a book of her poems to Vikram Seth during the Hay Festival. Vikram has the graciousness to ask that it to be inscribed in his name. Sandhya does so and then takes out another copy of her book and asks Vikram to sign on it. He says, “That would not be right. It is your book.”
Photographs of wildlife photographer Balan Madhavan are hanging in a corridor of the Kanakakunnu Palace, the venue. One photo shows a Niligiri Tal deer standing all alone on a rocky crag. “Look how lonely it is,” says Vikram. Balan asks the author to sign on a flex board and, astonishingly, Vikram does so in Malayalam. Watching him is DC Books Publisher, Ravi Deecee.
Ravi had met Vikram earlier. The author had asked Ravi to write his name in Malayalam. Vikram observed it carefully. Soon, he asked to see all the letters of the Malayalam alphabet. Two hours later, Seth wrote his name in Malayalam. “He is a genius,” says Ravi.
Celebrity through marriage
Meanwhile, the newly-minted celebrity Sunanda Pushkar is signing autographs for the students of the Institute of English, University of Kerala. One of them says, “Maam, we have read so much about you.” She replies, “Don’t believe a word of what you have read. There are too many factual errors.” As another journalist comes up, he hears her say, “He is so fabulous.” Immediately, he asks, “Are you talking about Shashi Tharoor?” An unfazed Sunanda says, “I should hope so. After all, he is my husband.”
Sitting on a chair nearby in a bright purple saree is Jesme. The former nun, who wrote the best-selling autobiography, ‘Amen’, laughs out loud when I tell her that an acquaintance told me that she had got married recently. “I am married to Jesus,” she says.
Jesme has bought a property, which has a hut in it. “Do you know what I am going to call my abode?” she asks. I shake my head. “Amen,” she says triumphantly.
Tamil double standards
Tamil writer Charu Nivedita looks smart in white sneakers, a green shirt, a necklace around his neck and dark sunshades. His ground-breaking novel, 'Zero', has graphic language and uninhibited sex scenes and language. “I wanted to expose the double standards in Tamil society regarding sexuality,” he says.
But he was taken aback when he was attacked by intellectuals and the mass who labelled his book as pornography. “They could not distinguish between porn and erotica,” he says. “The song sequences in our Tamil films are like a blue film, such is the vulgarity of the dresses and the provocative way that they dance. But there is no outrage about that.”
Focus on Kashmir
The most intense session during the festival is with Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer. Basharat re-states what Arundhati Roy said recently: “The people of Kashmir want azaadi (independence), no question about it.” But he is also self-critical. “Kashmir holds the record for the largest number of strikes anywhere,” he says. “But it has not led to any political solution. In fact, there is a bankruptcy of ideas.”
There are so many responses from the audience including one from Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, who says, “I am horrified that most of the killings of the young people in recent months were done by the Jammu and Kashmir police, rather than the Army.” Basharat quickly replies, “The CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] is also partly to blame.”
The long question-and-answer session seems to drain the young man. Later, a perspiring Basharat stands outside, holds his forehead in both his palms, and says, “I think my head is going to explode.”
A visitor tells Basharat that he seemed to be controlling himself when he wrote his book, ‘Curfewed Night’, about growing up in Kashmir. Basharat gives an interesting answer: “If I wrote the full truth the book would never have been published. So I held back. I will increase the truth by stages.”
Basharat’s friend, Najeeb Mubarki, a journalist, says, “At last, we are able to tell the true story of what is happening in Kashmir to an Indian audience. For too long, biased reports have been published in Indian newspapers.”
Author’s bane: critics
Best-selling British historian Simon Schama is smiling brightly while talking about the natural beauty of Kerala, when I make the mistake of asking an awkward question: ‘Critics says that your books are shallow.’
His face turns red, his eyes flashes with anger, and he says, through clenched teeth, “I keep hearing this criticism all the time. But none of these critics are able to point out which are the shallow part in my books. Most probably, they have not even read my books.”
Like Simon, young author Sonia Faleiro gets angry, but justifiably so. Sonia has written a book on the Mumbai dance bar girls and recalls the ban imposed by the state government on the girls in 2005. “It is so ridiculous that politicians are deciding on what is moral and immoral,” she says, looking livid. “How moral is it that by imposing the ban they have forced these girls to enter the sex trade?”
(A shorter version was published in The New Indian Express, Chennai)