For all its understated ambience, the public interactions that follow each of the sessions at the Alchemist Hay Festival at Thiruvananthapuram throw up interesting responses. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning novelist Andrew Miller was discussing his latest novel Pure, a Gothic tale set in a Paris cemetery in the last few years of the ancien régime, and the demands history makes on a work of historical fiction. “They [history and the historical novel] are quite different beasts,” he said. “To not be loyal to the source material is a disgrace for a historian, while it is something that the novelist will get applauded for.”
“Why is there so little French in the book?” a member of the audience asked. “I was afraid that my editor would strike it out,” Miller said. “Plus, it is so pretentious.” D’accord!
A spirited discussion of the pros and cons of diminishing State funding of cultural activities ended up generating some good-natured laughter. The State — otherwise somewhat negligent towards subsidising of culture — was overzealous when it came to celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore this year. “It is driving us round the bend,” said writer-publisher Urvashi Butalia. “It seems everybody has to celebrate; I say enough,” she added. “It is now being said that in Delhi, you just have to say the word ‘Rabinder’ to get a grant of R1 crore,” quipped journalist and moderator of the panel Bishakha De Sarkar. No, there was no strains of Rabindrasangeet that could be heard at the Hay.
When Steve Jobs was wrong
Steve Jobs, too, cast his shadow from beyond the grave, this time at a discussion on alternative medicine between Simon Singh (who has written a book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, on the subject) and Daily Telegraph journalist Matthew Bayley. More specifically, Jobs’ stringent refusal at the early stages of cancer to resort to modern medicine for a cure in favour of dietary restrictions.
“All through his life, Jobs was used to being told that what he was doing was wrong, and it always turned out that he was right. When it came to his illness, he must have thought, everybody tells me I am wrong. I am always right,” was Singh’s opinion about Jobs the maverick who didn’t listen.
Kohima on their minds
As twilight gradually approached the second day at the Hay festival, BBC journalist and war correspondent Fergal Keane spoke about the twilight moment in Kohima, the capital of modern Nagaland, when around 1,500 British and Indian soldiers were laid to a siege, surrounded by some 15,000 Japanese soldiers — the subject matter of his book Road of Bones: The Siege of K.ohima 1944. They could not risk capture; they would be tied to a tree for bayonet practice or sold as slaves.
Keane first heard the story, and the fact that a place called Kohima existed, from a friend’s father who was a veteran of that war. “It was full of people who were out of their depth,” Keane said. “And none of the participants knew that the empire was coming to an end.” The participants at Hay, though, were aware of the end of Day 2.