Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.13 - Jung Chang, Biographer of Mao Zedong

Jung Chang and Peter Florence

Jung Chang settled in UK after going there to study as one of the first Chinese students who attend a university in the West. She wrote a personal memoir about Mao's legacy in China (Wild Swans), and then a biography of Mao with her husband after 12 years of research, getting the most valuable documents from Russian archives of what went on in that period.

The most shocking news was that the great famine of 1958-1961 was deliberate starvation of the people by sending grain to the Soviet Union and its satellites because Mao wanted arms; it was paid in grain to the extent of 7% of China's GDP at the time.

Bringing along her mother's tiny shoes, Ms Chang demonstrated how half the population of China for more than 1000 years had been subject to the torture of foot-binding, all for a theoretical standard of looking dainty and sexy.

Stalin backed Mao from the early 1920s, after gauging he was utterly ruthless, and therefore capable of bringing Communism to China. No one joined the Party because of Mao's charisma, of which he had little.

Peter Florence takes questions from the audience

Chang said she never met as many Mao enthusiasts anywhere in the world as in India. In the 50s, 60s, 70s, being pro-Mao was a condonable weakness; but being pro-Mao now is inexcusable ignorance.

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.12 - Simon Armitage, the Yorkshire poet

Simon Armitage reading

Simon Armitage said poetry is a thin scene in England, but it was a great honour to be reciting at the festival in TVM. He decided to recite poems that would exhibit the variety of his verse.
O Come All Ye FaithfulThis poem is a rhythmic list of all those the poet invites to escape to the hills
   Movers and shakers, butlers and bakers
   Skinheads and swayheads
   Joggers and grafters, groovers and ravers
He ends by asking all to:
   Breathe and let breathe

The Shout
Armitage was once on a mission by his crazy school-teacher “to measure the size of the human voice.” 
The poem records what happened:

We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face

I don't remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth
Boy with a name and face I don't remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.

 Simon Armitage says poems begin as daydreams

The poem is a rant by Robin the Boy Wonder, the loyal sidekick to Batman. Robin  is learning to lead his own, independent life. 
Batman, big shot, when you gave the order
to grow up, then let me loose to wander
leeward, freely through the wild blue yonderHoly robin-redbreast-nest-egg-shocker!
Holy roll-me-over-in the-clover,
I'm not playing ball boy any longer...
you baby, now I'm the real boy wonder.
The Causeway
This was one of the poems Armitage held up to show it was shaped on paper like a rectangular slab to represent a causeway. It describes his returning home with his family (wife and child) from a visit to St. Michael's Mount at a place called Marazion in Cornwall. 
Three walked barefoot into the sea,
mother, father and only child
with trousers rolled above the knee.
The life guard yawned a megaphone.
The oyster-catcher clenched its fist.
The common dolphin bit its lip.
some in khaki and some in kilts,
some in purdah and fancy dress, 

Stanza Stones
Stanza Stones is project to carve poems into the rocks on the moors along the Pennine Watershed in Yorkshire, with a woman stone mason, name of Pip Hall. Armitage recited two of the poems; here's the first called Snow.
The sky has delivered its blank missive. The moor in coma. Snow, like water asleep, a 
coded muteness to baffle all noise, to stall movement, still time. 

Armitage made a number of observations after his recitation:
Poetry is the quiet voice in the corner; it's the voice after the event.

Poetry is one person performing, without accompaniment without backbeat.

For all the talk of the death of books by e-books, etc. - poetry remains an UNKILLABLE thing.

The noise a poem makes is the poem.
To get a larger dose of Armitage's poems and comments, read on below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.11 - Germaine Greer on Lovers in Shakespeare's Plays

 Germaine Greer, Australian feminist and academic

Germaine Greer's session on Shakespeare's Lovers was an exploration of the romantic and erotic charge of the playwright's masterpieces such as Romeo and Juliet. In her talk on the lovers in Shakespeare's plays she made two radical observations

(1) all the winning instances of love occur between young lovers; mature love among married protagonists is non-existent, and

(2) among young lovers the woman is always older, and more commanding. 

 Germaine Greer after the talk

Greer pointed out that the Lover is the third of the seven ages of man in the famous speech by Jacques in As You Like It,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow.

But the Lover does not grow a beard until the next stage, that of a soldier. 

Germaine Greer said Shakespeare was not in a bad marriage

Greer narrated how in the Lover's Complaint Shakespeare has an older woman lamenting the loss of a youthful lover. It's a boy-seducer: 
His browny locks did hang in crooked curls;
And every light occasion of the wind
Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.

Small show of man was yet upon his chin;
His phoenix down began but to appear

Like unshorn velvet on that termless skin 

Joe taking notes in the front row as Greer speaks

Greer asserts that Shakespeare is unique in revealing little about what's on his mind. He has left no evidence, and gave no interviews regarding his own views on things. Not even in the sonnets does he speak for himself, but for others and through others. He is the embodiment of a plenitude that transcends individuals. 

Asked whether her book, The Female Eunuch, changed the world, Greer replied her book did not change the world but women who read her book had done so.

To read more of what Greer said, click below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.10 - Jeremy Leggett, Energy Economist and Entrepreneur

 Leggett: an impending financial crisis threatens as fossil-energy stocks are overvalued

Jeremy Leggett is an activist now, having started out in the oil industry. He started Solar Century, a small renewable energy outfit, backed by venture capital. He campaigns in the Climate Change debate on the side of those who wish to limit the use of fossil fuels.

Leggett sees three threats:
1. A
repeat of the global financial crisis of 2008, transposed to overvalued fossil energy assets, rather than securitised mortgages.
2. Over dependency on oil, and
the 'peak-oil' problem.
3. The
Climate Change threat first to life, and then to the global economy itself.
Consider #1 (Financial crisis)
In order to achieve the goal of not letting the global temperature rise by more than 2 deg Celsius, only 20% at most of the proven reserves can be burned –
80% of fossil reserves cannot be burned if we are to have a 75% chance of limiting to 2 deg Celsius!
Consider #2 (Over-dependence on oil)
Oil supply cannot grow beyond a point to which we are near. This is according to the task force of the UK Industry Task Force. That oil production will peak soon is owing to the flow problem, not to a supply problem. To fill the gap between rising demand and the depletion of existing oil wells. The gap is ENORMOUS. You'll need SIX SAUDI ARABIAs worth of new oil by 2030!!
Consider #3 (Need to reduce carbon)The 2 deg Celsius limit was agreed at the Cancun conference. To attain this target it is universally understood that the world has to reverse out of coal, oil and gas, by 2015.
Leggett says the technology already exists to lead us to a mainly carbon-free future. But these technologies are highly underused. 

Read a complete account below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.9 - Poetry Gala

Spanish poets Carlos Aganzo, Clara Janés, and José María Muñoz Quirós

Anitha Thampi, a Malayalam poet recited her poem called Ezhuthu, or Writing. These lines stand out: The strands of hair/ drip like a tree/ in the rain

Anupama Raju, a young poet and corporate educator from Thiruvananthapuram recited her poem, No Borders, which begins:
Poems sit on walls.
Moss-covered words fall gently
on my neighbour's page.

Carlos Aganzo. Carlos is a Spanish poet. He recited in Spanish a poem whose title (Oda al color amarillo) translated to English is Ode to Yellow Colour. It is a poem which brings beauty, joy and hope on rainy days.

Clara Janés was born in 1940 in Barcelona, and is a well-known poet and translator. She recited, or rather sang a poem which has only a few prominent syllables: amor, ver, vivir, morir, which are the words for love, to see, to live, and to die. She sang
Amor, mor, mori
Amor, morati, morate

Amor, amore
Amor, ver

For more click below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.8 - Tarun Tejpal, Editor of Tehelka, and Nayantara Sahgal, novelist and writer

 Tarun Tejpal and Nayantara Sehgal with the interviewer in the middle

Tejpal continued his magazine's crusade on behalf of the voiceless. Journalists need to have their feet on the ground, listening to people, and telling their true story.

Nayantara reiterated a “master narrative” is missing, as Tejpal said. There is a “wall of silence.” More than half in our country are desperately poor. Fat food, fast food, fast music, fast buck – is what the media thinks the young want. But many have higher aspirations.

To order public priorities is media's true function,” said Tejpal. What you put on the front page is a marker to decision-makers and politicians and public servants. The interviewer, a young journalist himself, said the local Superintendent of Police (SP) and District magistrate (DM) can crush you. Tejpal replied, “What kind of a lunatic state is this which brutalises the poor?”

Nayantara Sahgal at the Hay Festival

The State is there to help everyone in their own profession, not to curtail it, said Nayantara. Tejpal noted that every Indian writer is in a sense writing for some white publisher or reader abroad. That's fucking dangerous; it makes for commercial fiction, not for literature.

Nayantara was worried the world of imagination will be killed by the contemporary world of instant information. “It is necessary to de-clutter the mountains of confetti of information,” she said.

The interviewer, spoke of his experience as a reporter going our to meet the tribal people. One father told him about his son: “Woh bhuk ki bimari se mara.

Tarun Tejpal  inscribes for KumKum

Tejpal asked rhetorically, “Which country can continue to live with the fact that every year 10,000 farmers commit suicide?” Nayantara opined that Education has been our greatest failure in India. There is idealism in the country. Many work silently in their professions with ideals such as Gandhi and Nehru inspired.

Tejpal agreed that in his profession too the young reporters are idealistic. But the failure are of leadership by editors.

Things will change, but not necessarily for the better,” Tejpal said summing up. 

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.7 - Chandrahas Choudhury reveals 10 ways a novel can change your life

Novelist and reviewer Chandrahas Choudhury conducted the session

Chandrahas Choudhury is a working novelist He wished to discuss the ways in which novels work and his theme was: ten ways in which a novel can change your life.

Novels expand our awareness of sensual life. He read a passage from Suite Française by Nemirovsky to bolster his point. Through a cat's eyes we are made aware of things beyond our ken. For instance, the sound of insect wings.

Novels teach us that many things happen, not for one reason, but for many reasons. It may depend on small things. The novel is by Asvagosha, called Handsome Nanda illustrates this point.

Novelists give us a sense of ourselves, affected and modified by our landscape. Taking Willa Cather's great novel, My Antonia, we see the landscape of the prairie powerfully evoked by Jim Borden, a 10-year old orphan. 

 Chandrahas Choudhury interacts with the audience in the Reading Room

Novels clarify that there is no one answer. There may be several answers, as in the Kurosawa film, Rasho Mon. Truth is diverse and multi-form. Orhan Pamuk's novel My Name is Red drives home that point. A mystery surrounds a murder.

Novels show much of our lives are lived in the imagination. The novel is Chekhov's The Kiss. A soldier in the novel has no wife, no experience of love or sensual pleasure, nobody to go home to after the war. Something happens and from that moment his mental life is transformed.

Novels give us interiority, leaving behind our mind, and entering other minds. No other form gives us as rich an understanding of human motivations. The novel is V. Grossman's Everything Flows. A guest arrives: should the host and his wife take him in or not? There are three minds at work, the narrator's, Nikolai's, and his wife's. Readers have to be willing to enter and live up to the invitation, to think.

The private lives of human beings, the kind of knowledge that comes about in the drama of our private lives is put in the open space in novels. CC read from the novel Santu by Bibhuti Bhusan Bandhyopadyay, a great novelist of the 20th century. One of the great pleasures of fiction is losing yourself in someone else, here in the mind of a child. 

Here's a fuller account ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.6 - Andrew Miller, novelist, reads from his latest novel 'Pure'

 Andrew Miller, novelist, being interviewed outside

Miller was interviewed by Lorna Bradbury, a literary journalist from the Telegraph, London. He has written many novels; Ingenious was his first, and the others are: Casanova, Oxygen, Pierrot, etc. The novel he read from and discussed was his latest, Pure.

Jean Baptiste is the hero. He is educated beyond his class, like a superior servant. But he can't belong to the class of people he works for. He asks Armand, the organist, whether he is of the party of the future or of the past? Must look like the future. Hence, he buys a new suit in green. He is a man fragile in his own identity. As author, Miller, was interested in that. Jean is a man of reason, an engineer. These props fall away and he is no longer supported by a “convincing sense of himself.” Cast around him are people on the edge of insanity. That is like Samuel Johnson himself, The epigraph of the novel quotes the Marquis de Condorcet, “One day the sun will only shine on Reason.”

Andrew Miller with KumKum at the Hay festival in TVM 2011

Miller began reading, “A girl was crossing the road … a little auburn-haired emissary of death … ” Lorna asked how much research he did, since the cemetery become almost like a character. Miller replied it is mostly smoke and mirrors, with a little research to ensure he had not made glaring errors in dates and geography and personages at that time.

Lorna asked if Miller's aim with prose is to create the quality of poetry. Miller said he liked the care and attention that poets bring to their work. “I like worked prose that delights in beautiful sentences,” he said.

Joe asked if people in those times really believed that Reason had the answer to all the problems of life – love, living, death, suffering, etc. Miller replied that little change for the great majority of people. But for a small elite, for the duration of a glass of wine, things changed.

Andrew Miller inscribes for KumKum

Miller said it was by writing six novels that he came into his own, and realised what his interests were. People have a difficulty to express their emotions and he didn't anticipate he would be interested in that. His writing became more sensual (what it smelled like, what it looked like, etc). Miller said he tries to have a strong sense of the physical. 

For a fuller account of the session, click below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.5 - Kamala Das remembered

 Kamala Das

A session in honour of Kamala Das, who died last year, became an occasion for several poets to recount the influence she had on them.

Satchidanandan quoted this poem, which is her manifesto in An Introduction (from Summer in Calcutta, 1965):
I am Indian, very brown, born in
Malabar, I speak three languages, write in
Two, dream in one. Don't write in English, they said,
English is not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak.
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone...
She ends:
I have no joys that are not yours, no
Aches which are not yours. I too call myself I.

Arundhati Subramaniam, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, K. Satchidanandan and Anamika speak about poet Kamala Das

Satchidanandan recalled that he used to wait to read her Malayalam stories in the Mathrubhumi. Until the time of KD, Indian poetry in English was ornamental, said Satchi, naming Toru Dutt and Sarojini Naidu. 

 Poet Rukmini Bhaya Nair with KumKum and Talitha

Rukmini Bhaya Nair said it was in 1986 in a bookshop in Singapore she came across the poems of Kamala Das. Nair wrote a poem for her with these lines:
Sleek pigeon, cooing, from her Cuffe Parade
Heights, those afternoons the predators came,
Attracted by the pheromone scent of your poems.

Arundhati Subramaniam, poet, says Poetry has to be crafted, it doesn’t flow

Arundhati Subramaniam said she always feels the ache in KD's poems. There are startling images, luminous and radiant that set her off. Arundhati went on to recite Advice to a Four Year Old Girl on Her First Day of School, a rant about her own school days, when she was “simmering silently at the unreasonableness, the regimentation and straitjacketing that seem to be part of the institutional fabric of even the most enlightened schools.

Poet Anamika is serenaded by Welsh poet and singer Twm Morys

Anamika recited a poem of hers about Kamala Das. The burka-clad image of Kamala Das is etched in the Hindi poet’s mind. “Like most women, Kamala laughed her agonies away,” she added.

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.4 - Cat Weatherill tells the tale of the Sien Wife by Italo Calvino

Cat Weatherill combines her fiery female energy with wondrous tales and has a beautiful singing voice

Cat Weatherill is a professional storyteller who came to her art via a stage career. She combined the two practices in a gripping tale by Italo Calvino, called “A Siren Wife.” A vengeful husband in the story casts his wife into the sea, because she was unfaithful to him when he went off to make his fortune to foreign shores. The sirens who live in a magnificent sea-floor kingdom rescue the woman and rename her 'Froth'. The Siren wife never forgets her husband; in an effort to rejoin him she brings doom and destruction upon the sirens.

Weatherill would at points break out into song to reinforce the pitiable state into which Nina, the unfaithful wife was cast:
I can't fight the ocean
I can't fight the sea
For it's ageless, fathomless and free.

 Cat Weatherill tells the story of the Siren Wife by Italo Calvino

The husband would give no thought to his wife, Nina, whom he was leaving behind. She would labour ceaselessly in her garden where the fragrance was like a bower to the god of love. One day, a prince called Orlando came visiting and was taken with her looks, for she was luscious, bright as pearls. Under his touch she opened to him like an oyster. Orlando took her away and she led a life of leisure, and he waited on her every desire, and would not leave her side. She grew tired of endless attention and returned to her house. But when the husband came back he smelt something amiss. The story goes on. You may read more at:

Talitha, Joe, and KumKum watch Cat Wetherill

Weatherill has no qualms about changing the story to suit their own taste. In Liverpool where she comes from there is a tradition of telling stories. Unlike an actor who is enslaved to a script, storytelling is more free. She uses the actor’s skill to convey the action and the feeling in a story. She said she loves Indian stories, but thinks she cannot bring to them the necessary colour they need. Women are living longer and the tales of their middle years need to be told. The next day Weatherill would be telling stories for children. “The most important thing is to enjoy your story,” she said.

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.3 - Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, translator

Arvind Krishna Malhotra

AKM is a poet and translator of poets. He lamented that his book, The Absent Traveller : Prakrit Love Poetry From The Gathasaptasati Of Satavahana Hala, is no longer in print in India. All the poets are male, but there is no aspect a woman's sexuality that these poets do not cover.

The poetry is stark and spare, laconic even, but has the ability to surprise like haiku. Take this for instance:
                Her anger's a fistful of sand
            Slipping through fingers
        When she sees him. 
Note the compression, as though the poet has said as much as he needs to say and leaves the reader with an image sufficient for further understanding.

 KumKum gets a book signed

Mehrotra confesses he does not know Prakrit, and makes no apology for it. He noted that we translate very differently in India than in the West, where faithfulness to the original is cardinal. Joe commented that someone said, the worst translation of poetry comes from poets who want to make the translation a vehicle for their own new poem.

To read a full account click below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.2 - Malayalam writers M.T. Vasudevan Nair and M. Mukundan in conversation

 M.T. Vasudevan Nair and N. Mukundan

MT, as he is called is a path-breaking fiction writer who wrote about changes in Kerala society as it evolved from older matrilineal forms. He and Mukundan both hailed from modest rural families and had to go to great lengths to satisfy their thirst for literature.

M.T. Vasudevan Nair autographs a book

There was no TV, no radio, etc said Mukundan so only reading was available. MT spoke of how difficult it was to get published. When the poet Vallathol asked money for lunch at an appearance, they made fun of him: “A poet, and he asks for money?”

KumKum enjoyed

A writer in those days had to write about society, not himself, or psychological ruminations on a character. In those days the Form vs. Content argument was won by Content.

KumKum and Talitha relaxing

Mukundan said he read Maupassant for the drama in his short stories, and Chekhov for his novels filled with mystery and a problem to be solved. 

To read more click below ...

Hay Festival Kerala 2011 No.1 - Outline

Kanakakunnu Palace

This was the second year KumKum and I were attending the Hay Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, and we were joined by Talitha from the Kochi Reading Group. Indeed, we stayed at her lovely secluded bungalow, a short walk from the Kanakakunnu Palace where the event was held in three concurrent sessions daily from Nov 17-19, 2011.

 Peter Florence being interviewed for TV

The chielf Hay festival organisers, Peter Florence and Lyndy Cooke were there; Peter had handed on his interviewing responsibilities for the most part to other capable people, but what a pleasure to hear him quietly walk the authors through their stories, their novels and their life adventures. We met poets from several countries: Simon Armitage from Yorkshire, Twm Morys from Wales, Carlos Aganzo from Spain, Arundhati Subramaniam from Mumbai, Anita Thampi from Kerala and many others.

Bright young faces from local colleges mixed with participants from the world over.

A lass from Kerala

 A fashionable lady  of the world

Simon Armitage, the poet, gave us this line: "You are beautiful because your politeness is instinctive, not a marketing campaign."   To be among book lovers is to be among those who make the world safe. 

KumKum with Sanjoy Roy of Teamwork Productions

In the next dozen posts I will give an account of what went on, selecting four sessions on each day.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis – Dec 2, 2011

The original cover

KRG Readers were lucky in the choice of the novel for the December reading by Thommo and Priya. Can a fifties novel still entertain and amuse us? To hear the chuckling and laughter at the Yacht Club Library during the reading of a dozen passages was to have the question answered resoundingly with a 'yes.'


The story goes that Amis was visiting his friend, the poet Philip Larkin, at Leicester University, when he passed by the common room of the faculty and imagined a story lurked there. When he wrote Lucky Jim it became a hilarious send-up about university life and the intrigues among the faculty. By exploiting the enormous material for comedy that lay hidden amidst the chicanery and incompetence within the university, Amis gave the world a novel whose mirth will last a long time.

Zakia, Priya, KumKum, Talitha, Thommo
(note on the table the Banana Raisin Cake which KumKum made)

Comparisons with P.G. Wodehouse arose naturally. The novel has many similarities: improbable situations, the build-up to a climactic accident in a chapter, polysyllabic humour, and people who are ridiculous foils for the comic anti-hero. Dixon marches doggedly through a sludge of difficulties that would damage irreparably the self-esteem of an Oxford don; and here he is, a mere lecturer at a provincial university.

Talitha, Zakia, KumKum, Priya, Thommo, Gopa, Mathew, Verghese, Joe
(the merriment had not subsided)
Imitations of various accents by Dixon are a source of much farce in the novel, and readers took on the challenge. Gopa even did a fine imitation of Dixon muddling through a madrigal by opening and closing his mouth, sans sound, in unison with the other singers.

To read more, click below.