Judi Stewart and Guy Cowley

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Judi with our lunch provider
Setting up for the concert
The band in session
Bob Geldorf in session

Our train journey started at 5.00 a.m., so we were up about 3.00 as we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find an auto rickshaw to take us there at that hour of the morning, and how easy it would be to find the right train.  It was all straight forward but as not all seats are reserved people tend to get there very early to position themselves either on the train or the platform.   We had booked 3 a/c which is where there are three bunks from floor to ceiling, if you are travelling overnight.  The bottom two bunks convert into a seat.

It was an express train but it seemed to stop everywhere and wait for ages at what we presume must be signal stops. It was a bit tedious but we were kept entertained by a young girl of about 8/9 who was travelling with her family.  She was all dressed up and obviously going somewhere to deliver a speech.

With backs and bums well aware that we had been sitting in uncomfortable seats for too long, we hobbled off the train just after 10.00. We had booked a home stay for a change.  The old house was set in a nice garden; with a sweeping staircase curving up from the ground floor to what looked like a foot bridge that passed over the would-be landing but in fact was a big open space reaching right up to the roof. It turned out that the house was only recently built but they had used doors, wood and other features from former old buildings.

We literally dumped our small bags (halleluiah - we were able to leave the big bags in the flat we were about to rent) and headed off to the Hay Festival. It was being held in Kanakakunnu Palace.  The Palace had obviously been a nice house.  It wasn’t large but it was surrounded by quite a large garden that was now grass and a lot of very dry earth. 

We had missed the opening session but we were to get seats quite readily in a follow-up session which was Marcus du Sautoy talking on ‘The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life'.  Marcus holds Oxford Universities professorship as the Simonyi Chair for the Public understanding of Science. He was trying a little too hard to entertain us but the session had some substance.

The Festival was much, much smaller than Hay but run on the same lines with about 4 sessions being on offer at once. Quite a number of the key figures who run Hay were there, as this was the inaugural event.  The British Council have gone into partnership with Hay and there are going to be numerous such events in various developing countries. 

We were really, really hungry as we had not had any breakfast. There was a buffet for speakers and delegates but nothing for the common man. A local woman found herself in the same position and took it upon herself to find some food for us all.  After talking to guards and the police, and quite a bit of hand waving, we ended up in the canteen for the met office!!!  It was basically an old shed with what we presume was a husband and wife team serving lunch to staff.  It was a little hard to tell as it was getting quite late by this point and we were the only ones there.  We were each given a Thali (plate with lots of little dishes of curry, dahl, rice, curd, chutney etc). Guy was still suffering from an upset stomach so he only ate rice.  It was rather up to me not to embarrass our hosts and our new friend who had gone to so much trouble to find us some food, so I tucked in (for those who don’t know, in India food is only eaten with the right hand and no utensils). The food in fact was great and there were no repercussions!!!

 Over the next two days we had a brilliant time attending sessions by local authors and poets as well as well known names such as Simon Schama, Rosie Boycott, Bob Geldof and Sebstian Faulks. Guy was impressed with the sheer breadth of knowledge of Simon Schama.  One of his sessions was entitled ‘An Historian’s Alphabet’ where the interviewer went through the alphabet asking 26 different subject questions.  Simon Schama had not previously seen the questions. The highlight for me was the local poet K. Satchidanandan.  He writes in English and Malayalam (local language) and many poems have been translated. I thought I wasn’t going to get much out of his reading in Malayalam but it was magical.  The rhythm was superb and I honestly could have listened to it all day.

We weren’t going to be caught out again with the lunch problem so we stopped at a supermarket (we have only found very modest sized supermarkets in all our Indian travels) to pick up some snacks. Just as the last session of the morning was finishing our new found friend from yesterday arrived with three hot lunches wrapped up in newspaper.  She had  travelled 2 hours on the bus to bring us lunch.  As soon as we had finished eating she headed home as her husband had been cross with her the previous day for getting home so late. Her chutney, which accompanied rice and fish, was the best I’ve ever tasted and her kindness something very special.

We had met a German and Canadian girl travelling together at the home stay.  They were interested in the Hay Festival and joined us for some of the sessions on the last day as well as the free Bob Geldof concert that evening. It rained a bit during the concert and nature provided quite a good light show to match what we were seeing on stage.            

The following day we took a short train trip to Varkala.  As it was only a 45/60 minute train journey so we went for the cheapest seats and stood in an absolutely jam-packed carriage.  The doors remain open throughout the journey and many of the men spend the whole journey hanging out of the open space. Health and safety hasn’t hit India!!