Tomy Mathew with Robert and Margaret Minhinnick
Robert Minhinnick, former editor of Poetry Wales and along with his wife Margaret founder member of Friends of the Earth Cymru, blames his mum. His tongue is only partly in his cheek when he explains how the 86-year-old Porthcawl resident refuses to buy at the Fair Trade shop he and Margaret run in the town. 'We are,' he says, referring to most of us in the West, 'addicted to cheap food.'
Most of those present have heard the arguments before; by and large, the Minhinnicks are preaching to the converted. What is interesting about this discussion, especially when thrown out to the audience, are the complexities involved. Tomy Mathew, who chaired the session brilliantly with a potent mixture of knowledge and good grace, was swift to point out that Fair Trade is not simply an issue between the developing world and the West. 'It's about time the Indian middle class – which is 300 million strong – started paying their dues. If we are spending less than ten per cent of our income on food, we need to pay a fair price to the Indian farmer.'
Those in the audience are also eloquent and informed. Many are keen to bring up the issues of farmer suicide – a particular problem in Kerala, with five such cases in the last thirty days. But even this is not straightforward, as an English ex-pat living in a rural part of the state points out; much of this issue is also linked to alcoholism. There is also the complexity of labour issues. Kerala, the first state in India to access the world's Fair Trade markets, has, at least according to one member of the audience, the right 'social ambience' to make such forays a success. With its long-established cash crops – spices, ginger, coffee and the famous Malabar pepper – and strong trade unions, it would seem that conditions are as perfect as they are ever going to be. But of course it is never as simple as that. As one member of the audience points out, the fact that Keralan children are in school while the more relaxed legislation on child labour in neighbouring Tamil Nadu means that simple market forces – as ever – dictate what really happens.
This being Hay, the intricacies of the social, economic and ethical debates are inevitably brought back to the role of the artist. Robert Minhinnick in particular is keen to press his view that in times when he predicts the world's growing inequalities will 'blow the lid off many cultures', writers need to make themselves explicitly political. Tomy Mathew finishes the session by making the point that the festival itself is a 'fair cultural exchange' and should serve as a model not just for the exchange of ideas but for righting the wrongs of commodity exchange between India and the British, which has a long history of being unfair.
At the end Minhinnick apologises to his mum. 'She's a nice person really,' he says. However, the next generation will have to live very differently.
A Window on the World
Simon Armitage with Susie Nicklin
Simon Armitage was born in Huddersfield. Here in the Kanakakunnu Palace, among the swaying chandeliers and rotating fans, Yorkshire must seem a long way away. But the fact that the venue is almost 'the opposite of where I grew up', Armitage claims, 'in a way, that makes it the most appropriate place to read my poems.' Rooted as they are in the very particular vernacular of his own idiolect, Armitage is at pains to point out that he never expected the poems to travel, never expected to be 'halfway across the world, wearing a fancy shirt.'
He is an engaging performer and his dry wit seems to translate well to the predominantly Indian audience who have turned out in force to see this British Council event, beamed live across the planet via the internet. Armitage often offers lengthy introductions to poems, helpful in orientating the listener; when asked about this in the Q&A session, he explains his view that this is simply 'being polite' in the context of a public reading but warns against the equivalent practice in writing, citing the fact that in T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land', 'the notes tell you everything you don't want to know'.
There are poems about Batman and Robin (comic book heroes, Armitage proffers, might, in the future, be equivalents of Heracles or Zeus), getting stranded on St Michael's Mount (one 'wing' of Armitage's family are Cornish) and a man volunteering to pilot a plane ('Let's get this baby in the air!') but the most memorable impression is made by 'The Shout', which has become for Armitage like 'a signature tune or stamp in the passport.' The poem recalls a day in the poet's childhood when, along with 'a boy whose name and face I don't remember', he was sent out by an eccentric teacher to 'measure the size of the human voice'.
The poem is a reminder that 'no sound ever completely disappears'. Later, Armitage returns to this conceit when he describes poems as 'slabs you can drop down on experiences so you don't have to visit them any more', only to concede that 'sometimes the weeds grow up.' This depiction of poetry as the 'quiet voice in the corner' but also a voice that won't go away gets to the heart of Armitage's view: 'poetry is a corrective to the blunt instrument of the soundbite and the shock and awe of journalism. We are the awkward squad,' he announces, to general assent from the hall.
Witty, erudite and understated, we need more poets like him.
The Tragedy, and Complexity, of War
Feargal Keane talks to Anita Anand
'War is an environment in which nutcases can flourish.' In fifteen years as a war correspondent, Feargal Keane must have met his fair share of nutcases, 'good nutcases and bad nutcases'. His latest book, Road of Bones, however, rewinds to 1944 and a largely forgotten but particularly tragic episode during the second world war as it played out in the east. It is, says his interviewer Anita Anand in her introduction, 'an extraordinary book about an extraordinary time in an extraordinary place.'
The Battle of Kohima was part of the war in China, India and Burma largely ignored in Britain because it was, in Keane's view, 'far away and relentlessly bad news. Churchill thought it was a last stand for the British Empire, but he was about the only one.' By the time of the 'pitiless siege' of the British armies – comprising many Indian subjects of the Empire who already knew that independence was coming – by the Japanese on the tennis courts of the District Commissioner, was a throwback to Ypres or the Somme, a war of attrition where 'every yard mattered.'
Keane's historical research – and interestingly, his perspective as an Irishman – underpins the book, but his journalistic interest is in the characters of the commanders on both sides, 'the good nutcases and the bad.' The British officers deployed to the far east were often still stuck in a Victorian mindset, unable to adapt to the demands of this new 'total' kind of war. On the Japanese side, mostly the generals were the brutes of renown, where 'the idea is compassion or mercy – or surrender – was unheard of.' Keane talks for a long while about a general called Sato, an exception to this rule, a man who, in Keane's words, 'saw war for what it was: the greatest human tragedy.'
The remarkable, revolutionary thing about Sato is that he was sane. When he realised that his unit were being sent into battle with no supplies, and that a long trek in the Himalayas was utter madness, he 'put his men first' and turned back. For a Japanese commander to give such an order at this time was not only exceptional, it was tantamount to treason. Psychiatrists were used to ascertain what was wrong with Sato. Everything, it seems, gets turned upside down in war.
In the question and answer session that followed, many of the Indian audience were keen to ask Keane about Empire and it was especially interesting to hear – as at many of the talks at Kerala – how parallels were drawn between the relative familiarities of Europe with the less familiar conversation surrounding India. Keane outlined the perhaps surprising influence on Nehru's nationalism of Sinn Fein. The key difference of course was the different paths taken by the nonviolent Quit India movement and the guerilla warfare deployed by the IRA. By way of return, Gandhi proved a huge influence on Ireland's Eamonn De Valera.
But the neutrality of Ireland and the desire for independence in India had little effect in stopping hundreds of thousands of men in both countries stepping forward to fight for the British. 'It wasn't a case in either country of the evil oppressors being overthrown, allowing the newly free nation to step forward into a glorious future. It's never like that. Both countries were partly complicit in their own colonisation.'
Complexity, it seems, is the theme of the festival.
Living With Paradox
Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Sanjoy Roy
When I left this session, I thought my brain was on fire. I learnt more about India in an hour listening to Tarun Tejpal, a novelist of whom I knew nothing before Hay, than I would normally think possible by reading an entire book on the subject. As our genial host, festival co-director Sanjoy Roy, admitted afterwards: 'All you have to do is press play.'
Tejpal may not be entirely familiar in the UK, but in India he is well-known not only as the writer of three – by all accounts sublime – novels documenting different aspects of the Indian experience, but through his work as a journalist with Outlook and India Today and his editorship of Tehelka. At one time his publication faced two dozen civil and criminal cases simultaneously at the same time as an exodus of staff. It is easy to see why. Tejpal does not exactly hold back. His world view is coherent to the point of being bracing; his political analysis is excoriating.
His novel The Alchemy of Desire is 'the counter-narrative of India – the story of the underclass.' Tejpal, himself from the privileged class, wanted to 'bring the voices of people who never read to the people who should be reading about it.' These, according to the author, are 'the multifarious stories of those who find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks. The rich are boring. My own clan lives in a bubble. It's a very large bubble, but it is a bubble.' What Tejpal says about the Indian middle and upper classes could be applied even more to the West.
Warming to his theme, the novelist becomes even more animated when he moves onto politics, especially when talking about corruption. 'We're going away from the books, but this is more important. The books are not important.'
And yet. Tejpal's work is deeply rooted in the traditions of his native land. India is his only subject. 'If India pervades all my writing, that's inevitable. It's the only thing that concerns me,' he says. 'This is the best place to be a writer, 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.'
I make straight for the bookshop. Tarun Tejpal has ignited a thirst in me to understand better this shining, bewildering country, which in my lifetime is going to play an ever more significant role. His books seem as good a place as any to begin.
Adventures in the Afterglow of Creation
Simon Singh on the Big Bang
You can't accuse Hay audiences of not asking the big questions. After 45 minutes of expounding on the theory that the universe was probably created 13.7 million years ago in what is now always referred to as 'the Big Bang', Simon Singh's second interlocutor asked him straight up: 'What was before the big bang?'
It's a big question, a serious question, but the manner of its delivery – as if Singh could produce a concise, incontrovertible answer on the spot – provoked a ripple of laughter. It reminded Singh of St Augustine's response to the religious equivalent of this question: 'What was God doing before he created the universe?' Singh redirected his answer jokingly: 'Creating hell for people who ask questions like you.'
'There are a lot of questions out there,' conceded Singh at one point, referring to the fact that while there is an accepted weight of evidence for the Big Bang – making it the most credible theory we have – it is by no means totally proven. And if there is one thing this lecture proves it is that whether human beings have a creator or not, we are nothing if not 'creative, curious'.
Singh's talk, although it grappled with huge questions like these, was suffused with humour and the light touch of a consummate communicator. If my science lessons had been pitched at the level of Singh's, with an entertaining PowerPoint presentation accompanied by tangents relating to Satanic messages in Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' and mathematical proof that the Teletubbies are evil, as well as talk about lenticular clouds and the debunking of the steady state universe, I might well have taken a different course.
The session ended, appropriately enough, with the end of the universe and Singh recounting the story of how his Guardian article taking issue with Katie Melua's song 'Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing' included his own, 'corrected', version that Melua subsequently sung live on the radio. Singh played the new version to the audience. It was a sweet ending to a fascinating lecture, delivered in the spirit of both empirical enquiry and warm humanity. As he concedes himself, 'the more science you do the more miraculous you realise life is.'
22 Languages and ‘Three Cups of Tea’
The problems and joys of translating India
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is not a man who minces words. 'The problem', he says, halfway through a discussion with Namita Gokhale introducing 'only' six panellists, 'is the English language.' But this is not an anti-colonial rant, despite that it could conceivably be turned into one. India has moved on, and the impression that this session - titled 'Twice Told Fictions' - gives is that it is the UK and America who will soon be catching up. 'We all know a bit of English,' is Mehrotra's point. 'Why don't we admit that sometimes the English we write makes no bloody sense?'
It is a vernacular interjection into what is for the most part an eloquent and cerebral dialogue. It is also a dose of reality. While the Indian literati gather at this international festival, there are a billion people in one of the fastest-growing economies on earth speaking to each other in a bewildering jumble of languages, an almost endless number of bilingual, trilingual and multilingual combinations. What they have in common is English.
Earlier, the Malayalam poet K. Satchidanandan had expressed his worry that even a language with its 33 million speakers is endangered, not in the sense of extinction, but in terms of compromise. English is part of what has fuelled India's booming economy and arrival on the global stage. It is what will help millions out of poverty. But in a literary sense, and also perhaps a more straightforward linguistic one, the function of English - as a 'bridge' language - is in some ways an impediment to successful translation of India's best literary writing, even if it is a practical necessity of everyday life.
Ravi DC, CEO of one of India's largest publishers, pointed out the commercial differences between novels translated directly, for example from Malayalam to French, rather than having to process Indian languages through English. The writers on the panel seemed to agree on literary merit also; there are a dearth of really expert translators to exploit the richness of Indian literature for the world market. Another publisher, the feminist writer Urvashi Butalia, also pointed out another reason for this. Western appetite for contemporary Indian fiction is limited to 'fast-paced, urban smart-Alec kind of books'. Maybe the British and American reader simply wants to reinforce a view of India they already have. Whatever the reason, the global dominance of the US and UK market for books - both in English and in English translation - has meant Indian publishers have been jettisoning their attempt to crack it and are instead turning to Latin American, East European and Chinese markets which share similar challenges.
But the highlight of this fascinating conversation was not all the talk about French publishing giants Gallimard taking on a translation of Tagore, or the sorry state of affairs that means classical Indian texts in languages like Sanskrit and Old Tamil are almost exclusively translated by American academics, but - perhaps appropriately - the reading of a poem. Bengali poet and eloquent livewire Sampurna Chattarji and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, flowing white hair and beard with a wise but slightly mischievous glint in his eye, have been passing notes like naughty school-kids. Sampurna asks Arvind to read 'Three Cups of of Tea' in its original Bombay Hindi and then in English. It is a humorous poem and the humour translates; there is a ripple of mirth at the Hindi version and then it is my turn to laugh.
What this demonstrates, according to Mehrotra, is the uniquely Indian ability to fully inhabit several cultures simultaneously. 'We range across the world. What I mean by that is intellectually... We range across time and space.' Here at Hay Kerala, one senses that range. The lessons of translation, of sharing, of keeping cultures simultaneously alive, is one not just for India but for the world.
The Mists of Time
European Myths and Epics
'To Europeans, we are exotic. To [we Indians] nothing is exotic.' This is the conclusion of Vishnu Khare, author of close to forty publications, including translations into Hindi of the Finnish national epic Kalevala and the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg. It might seem strange that a discussion titled 'European Myths and Epics' ends with Khare railing against the concept that in Hindu culture mythology has become religion, that the Rama is 'a reactionary book', but the way the session played out, it is entirely appropriate.
Earlier Khare had expounded on the parallels between the great epic myths of pre-Christian Europe and the intricate web of stories and belief systems familiar across the Indian subcontinent. The predominantly Indian audience also seemed to agree, with an enthusiastic reaction to Icelandic Literature Award winner Gerður Kristný talking about Icelandic sagas. 'I like the blank coolness with which you narrated the story,' began one impressed interlocutor, perfectly encapsulating Kristný's impressive style.
Kristný peppered her recounting of Viking stories of which passed from the oral tradition into writing via white calfskins with references to Dallas and The Smiths. It was particularly telling that she used Morrissey lyrics rather than the Bible as a touchstone for the cliche about the devil finding work for idle hands. In secular Europe, 'we don't take these gods very seriously' and it was with curious amusement that Kristný informed the audience, 'there are still some people in Iceland who believe in them.' Chair Alexandra Buchler was swift to point out the fact that belief in a wide variety of ancient gods and mythological figures would hardly surprise an Indian audience.
The third member of the panel was Eurig Salisbury, who was there to talk about the Mabinogi. He began by underlining the distinction between Lady Charlotte Guest's nineteenth century collects of Welsh tales The Mabinogion and the four 'branches' that are the only surviving Welsh-language myths: 'love and tragedy and bloodshed and turning people into animals'. All three writers, of wildly disparate ages and backgrounds, were agreed that these national myths come from 'a very primeval place in human beings', even if sometimes 'we don't know why'.
Reading Wales, Translating India
The Bandstand seems the appropriate place to stage 'Reading Wales, Translating India', a British Council project that brings together eight very different poets working in five languages. Before the performance Sian Melangell Dafydd describes the workshop that has had the writers holed up together on the Keralan coast in a week of translation and collaboration as 'the most exciting experience all of us have had in our lives'.
The concentric circles of seats perfectly reflect the harmonious spirit with which the workshop was clearly conducted and when the poets introduce each other they seem more like a disparate group of old friends. With Shashi Tharoor on the main stage in the Palace Hall, it seems somehow appropriate that what we have here at the Bandstand is a kind of poetic international summit. English, of course, is the lingua franca; the language of introductions, the place where we meet. But we dwell in our own languages. When the Hindi writer Anamika describes Twm Morys' poetry as being poised between 'the cosmic and the commonplace' where 'chaos is made into melody', she could be describing any of the writers in the room.
Poetry transcends mere language. As Robert Minhinnick gives an energetic performance of a poem with the refrain 'this child who chokes on the Babel bone', we are reminded powerfully of how rhyme and rhythm and pace and tone and volume and pitch all play their part. Creative translation creates new meanings and Minhinnick's own verse is given an extra dimension by the punchy Malayalam of K. Satchidanandan. Tonal diversity is provided by Twm Morys and his evocation of the melancholy of Welsh folk music, a story of oxen ploughing the fields, and 'Afanc', a near-rap about a monster that even gets requests for a reprise at the press conference later on in the day.
The shared rural culture of much of Wales and India's histories is something Eurig Salisbury refers to explicitly later on, but it is clear throughout that these poets have found a meeting place between cultures in what Anamika identifies as a 'twilight zone between being and becoming'. It is distinctly Indian she says, to be always on the way somewhere. 'We are always open ended.' But Welsh culture recognises this too. This is never more evident than in Sian Melangell Dafydd's poem 'Folding Blankets in Summer', which she claims 'until last week' she had thought of as a 'very British poem'. The poem uses the simple task in its title as a metaphor for a quiet feminine solidarity, and it is telling that all three Indian women chose to translate it, with Sampurna Chatterji, ordinarily an English-language poet, rendering it beautifully into Bengali.
Chatterji goes on to introduce some of her urban poetry. I have been searching for words to describe the riot of noise and colour that flashes past as your rickshaw-wallah weaves through the chaos of Trivananathapuram, but without a deep understanding of the culture I have leant on cliches like 'riot of noise and colour'. Chatterji, writing under the Banjan tree, knows her people. She has no such problem evoking glimpses of life in Indian cities. The cultural exchange here is not just between the writers; here, you feel there is a gathering audience, not just in book-thirsty Kerala but in Wales and the world.
This sense of (at least) two-way communication is emphasised also in the tradition of messenger poetry of both Cymraeg and Malayalam and there are warm smiles around the tent as the poets have fun with SMS poems that play with the dissimilarities between heavily metrical Welsh and the freeform structures of the south Indian language. By the end, warm smiles have become stupid grins as Twm Morys gives a star-turn with his guitar and then, to finish, the low growl of his voice.
Meeting the Other
M. Mukundan talks to M.T. Vasudevan Nair
Following the organised chaos of the opening ceremony, all bare-chested drummers and swarming paparazzi, Hay Kerala's inaugural session had Malayalam novelist M. Mukundan introducing his 'guru and mentor' M.T. Vasudevan Nair as a 'living legend' who 'writes straightforwardly and subtly'. Born in what he described as 'a remote place' in a lower middle class family, M.T. repeatedly came back during the course of the discussion to his 'fascination' for reading developed in his childhood despite a paucity of books and magazines. Mukundan added to this observation by evoking an image of his own childhood self reading Dostoevsky in the semi-darkness of kerosene lamplight.
It was through references to other writers – from Kerala and elsewhere – as well as to the development of Malayalam writing from being primarily concerned with social issues, like 'marginalised people and so on' to M.T.'s focus on literary, aesthetic aspects of the work that provided the thread through what was often a delightfully wandering conversation. Talking about 'those days', Mukundan interpreted M.T.'s claim that 'nobody talked about money', to much local laughter: 'Nobody cared about money because there was nothing to buy. Now there are mobile phones.' A throwaway line, perhaps, but one that hints at the heart of an ever-evolving India.