From January 30th to February 2nd of this year the well-known Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi conducted the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL). With over three hundred writers participating from different parts of the world and a host of interesting topics for discussion, it was the place to be for people interested in the world of letters. The venue too added to the charm of the festival. Kanakakkunnu Palace in Thiruvananthapuram is ideal to hold such an event as it offers a large enclosed area within which several smaller venues can be set up.
Under The Tree
Some of the venues were indeed enchanting. Like the one called Under the Tree which was exactly what it said it was, under a glorious spreading tree complete with a population of birds, bugs and squirrels. The squirrels sometimes grew so curious that they forgot their timidity and came on stage to enquire what all the fuss was about. A bug could not hide its admiration for Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar, author of the critically acclaimed novel ‘The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey’ and medical doctor and insisted on crawling up his arm through a session he was part of. Sometimes, a bird called loudly and insisted on being heard. Many a time there would then be a pause in the discussion and those speaking and being spoken to would stop to listen.
A Seamless Blend
The festival was not just one for letters but also included the performing arts. At the main gate in the morning singers from Punjab greeted the attendees with an energetic folk song and dance performance. As you wound your way up to Under the Tree where the day’s first session a musical performance was under way, you would notice and marvel at how seamlessly music from one region blended with music from another. The strains of Punjabi folk music would grow fainter and fainter and the southern music from Under the Tree would grow louder and louder as you progressed up the path. That symbolised how India has always been. A seamless blend of diverse cultures all unique yet fundamentally Indian. And in these troubled times it was a reassuring feeling.
Seated Under the Tree and listening to the Morning Raga (as the session was labelled) you browsed through the programme schedule for the day prominently displayed just opposite and tried to decide which sessions to attend. Sometimes this would be a problem since there would be two sessions at the same time with interesting topics and you would want to listen to both. But you chose anyway after a lot of fretting over the different possibilities. In between you tried to include some food by drifting into the stall selling soft flat fluffy Ramasseri idlis and delicious sambar and chutney besides piping hot tea. As you tucked into the idlis and sipped the tea you could ruminate in peace about a discussion you enjoyed.
Attending the festival one forgot for the space of four days mundane things like running a home or meeting a deadline. Here are some moments from the festival that have remained with me like scenes lit up by flashes of lightning.
Moments of Brilliant Clarity
During the session on the importance of being a liberal journalist and author Sagarika Ghose praised Keralites for being liberal and the audience swelled with silent pride. That was when a soft female voice pointed out that Kerala was liberal only for the men and not for the women in its population.
Author Romesh Gunesekera read from his latest book The Suncatcher. Romesh is a dramatic reader and as we listened we were transported to the world of the two boys in the novel meeting each other for the first time of an evening when the sun set. That is how words are magical. They transport us effortlessly into entirely different worlds in another country in another era.
In a conversation titled The X-Factor the precocious Anugraha John asked all the right questions to the two children’s writers on the stage – Alexander McCall Smith and Khyrunnisa A. The moderator (a charming schoolgirl maybe all of fifteen) was able to draw the two writers into discussions about their work and as the conversation flowed it became quite evident why the two were successful children’s writers. They loved children. They were quite childlike in their enthusiasm for the stories and characters they created and this excitement in the telling of a tale rubbed off on the reader too. That is precisely why everyone cannot be a children’s writer and writing for children is not child’s play.
Perumal Murugan spoke about his latest book ‘Amma’ which tells us about the life of his mother through his memories of her. The interviewer not only got the writer talk flowing but also translated what Perumal Murugan spoke into English. Murugan spoke of his lasting regret that he had never asked his mother to dress in colours. She always dressed in white as she was a widow. She wished to wear colours and maybe if he had insisted she would have. But he did not. And to this day that is something he feels sad about.
At one point the interviewer asked him if it was true that as a child he often butted his mother like a goat. The childlike smile that suffused his face at the memory was answer enough. What is it between you and the goat, Mr Murugan, asked the lady half in jest. Perumal Murugan’s answer was revealing. He said he tried sometimes to keep the goat out of his writing but then he often found that despite his best efforts it would somehow nuzzle its way in. Such was the bond between those who worked the land and the animals that were part of their life.
Two Diehard Mohanlal Fans
The man incites a frenzy even among the most sedate of people, I tell you. The Nishagandhi auditorium was filled to capacity and overflowing long before the celebrated actor made his appearance. As the interviewer recalled ten of the most significant roles played by the actor and the snippets flashed on the screen, the crowd cheered themselves hoarse. Two fans, one a middle aged woman and the other a young girl of twenty two held hands in new found camaraderie as they cheered their movie idol. But that did not prevent them from disagreeing when an affectionate speaker on stage called the actor a good singer and writer as well.
Such ‘rational’ fandom is possible only in Kerala.
Auto Driver, Rationalist
Curious about where I was headed, the auto driver asked me what the festival was about and when I told him this was what he shared:
“I have always made it a point to read good books. During my youth I came under the influence of Dr Abraham Kovoor, the well-known rationalist and joined the movement. I quit after a few years because I had a family to look after but the ideas have stayed with me. I married my childhood sweetheart and we did not check if our horoscopes matched nor did we consult an astrologer. We have been happy for thirty two years now. I plied my vehicle and put my daughter through engineering college. She too married a classmate of hers and we did not object and they are happy too. My wife goes to temples, though I never do. But that does not make me tell her that she can’t worship. That is not right. If she wants to go to a temple I drive her there then wait outside.”
Again, I must say that it is possible to have such a conversation with an auto driver only in Kerala.