In 1992, Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel for literature this year, was circling the English countryside in a chopper waiting for cricketers to finish the over before landing on the edge of the pitch. He was late for a discussion on Madame Bovary with Julian Barnes at the Hay festival in nearby Wye. On landing, he announced: “In Peru, when I ran for President, they gave me a limo. In Hay, I come as a writer and arrive in style.”
When a book festival meets a well-managed picnic you get Hay-on-Wye.
Peter Florence who started it with his father in 1988 with the returns of a poker game, has extended the brand to India. Hay-in-Thiruvananthapuram is a three-day jamboree that flags off on 12th November. “Hay is traditionally less about books and more about conversation,” says Florence. “Festivals have to be fun, and mixed up like life”.
Thiruvananthapuram’s first scaled-up international book fest was wrangled by its MP, Shashi Tharoor, one of the first Indian writers to be invited to Wye. Tharoor’s “sales pitch” for his constituency was that “it offered a literate audience in an attractive setting.” In other words, after an hour of high literature, take care of your hands and legs, go get your massage.
The festival organised by Team-works, has put together a programme that showcases a mix of writers representing Malayalam modernism (N Satchidanandan, Paul Zacharia) who have been translated in English, to ‘stars’ like Vikram Seth and Sebastian Faulks. Author of White Mughals, William Dalrymple is also an invitee. Dalrymple, torn between loyalty to his own festival — he is Jaipur’s co-director — and generosity to an old Cambridge chum, says: “In Jaipur, there is a greater focus on the writer...Hay, of course, under Peter Florence made book festivals sexy. After Hay, most villages in England thought they could have one.”
Would Hay have been better placed in Delhi, Chennai or even Goa? Sanjoy Roy of Teamworks explains: “Where else but in Kerala would you have an education minister asking you 20 questions about South American writers, a secretary of tourism interested in a theatre festival... In Kerala everyone you meet is a poet, or Left leaning, Che loving, secretly Cuban and that sort of thing...What it needs is to have its literature have a pan-Indian exposure. Hay will change that.” That job has already been done, says Binoo John who has for three years been running the Kovalam Festival. “Our Malayalam writers anyway sell more books than English writers. The only thing Hay has is more money. I have local support.” Hay thus joins Jaipur’s litfest and Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda festival, as one more event and a reason to open our mind to the world.