Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, surrounded by a creative team at the recently concluded MBIFL lit fest Image Credit: Source Twitter/Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters

I’ve just returned to Delhi from Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), Kerala’s capital, after the conclusion of the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL).

In the valedictory ceremony on Sunday evening, addressed by Goa Governor PS Sreedharan Pillai, Peggy Mohan was awarded the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Award for Wanders, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its Languages.

The award carries a cash prize of Rs 2 lakhs and a statuette. It was handed over to her by Nobel laureate for literature and fellow speaker at the festival, Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Mohan tells the fascinating, sometimes contrarian, story of the growth and development of Indian languages, including Sanskrit, Malayalam, Urdu, and Nagamese. I was especially delighted that she won. She is a witty, original, and entertaining storyteller, who writes readable rather than pedantic prose, peppered with unusual anecdotes.

Peggy is a the wife of a former colleague of mine at IIT-Delhi, the late Professor Dinesh Mohan. She used to be a striking presence on the IIT-Delhi campus, not only because of her New Foundland-Trinidadian roots, but because of the several languages she knew.

She was also associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I am currently professor. Her book shows how languages evolve through contact, even “contamination,” not by shutting or shuttering themselves to guard their purity.

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Founded in 2018, this is the 4th edition of the MBILF, 2021 and 2022 having drawn a blank because of the global pandemic. In terms of both quality and quantity, the speakers, numbering over 500, the festival was an outstanding success.

Not to speak of the tens and thousands of footfalls, which makes MBIFL not only the biggest in South India, but also unique for its ambience and energy. Despite the entry fee of Rs300/day, there were large crowds swarming all over the Kanakakkunnu Palace grounds, which was the venue.

Writers from all over the world were at the festival, with a special contingent from Scandinavian countries. Among the Indian writers, Shashi Tharoor, the local three-time member of parliament and chief patron of MBILF, was easily the most popular. He was constantly flocked by admirers and members of his constituency for autographs and photographs.

Galaxy of writers

Amitav Ghosh, Sudha Murthy, Shobha De, Gaur Gopal Das, Mallika Sarabhai, Kabir Bedi, Pritish Nandy, Nilanjana Roy, Sudeep Sen, and a scores of others notables, too numerous to mention, also participated. There was also a very large contingent of Malayalam writers, which gave the festival its distinct grounded feel.

Besides writers, there were editors, translators, publishers, literary agents, journalists, cartoonists, photographers, media persons, professors, schoolteachers, activists, and intellectuals of all shades and stripes.

The inaugural ceremony of MBIFL '23 witnessed the venerable presence of the CM of Kerala - Shri Pinarayi Vijayan, Managing Director of Mathrubhumi M V Shreyams Kumar and legendary writer T. Padmanabhan. Image Credit: Source Twitter/Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters

India - a civilisation state

Among the political bigwigs who spoke were BJP Rajya Sabha member, Prakash Javadekar, who was also the former education minister, Palanivel Thiagarajan, Tamil Nadu finance minister and DMK legislator, Mohua Moitra, TMC Member of Parliament, and Sitaram Yechury, General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which currently rules Kerala.

Though not a politician, I myself spoke on the same platform and topic, which was Indian nationalism and reinventing India.

My argument was that India, despite its many experiments and adventures with different kinds of nationalism, from Rabindranath Tagore to Narendra Modi, remained a civilisation state, with a modern democratic constitutional and institutional framework.

Audiences were thus treated to a number of competing and contrasting perspectives on idea of the new India.

Besides poetry readings, book launches, panel discussions, solo speeches and performances, there were unique workshops, musical recitals, and programmes for kids. The large team of Mathrubhumi employees and volunteers ensured that guests were well looked after and provided for.

Sabin Iqbal, Malayali writer, was the curator, but the entire group, especially the family of owner-editor Shreyams Kumar, were totally hands-on during the entire festival. They were not only gracious hosts but always accessible to guests and participants.

A well organised fest

There was a refreshing informality and lack of hierarchy throughout the festival, with celebrities easily and unselfconsciously rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi.

Mathrubhumi, the second largest newspaper group and publishing house in India’s most literate state, has a unique presence in Kerala. It was founded in 1923 and is thus celebrating its centenary. Closely associated with the freedom struggle against British colonialism, the newspaper has been a powerful force in several social reforms in Kerala.

The group, which also has a presence in radio and other media, now faces the digital challenge. Younger audiences are seeking access to news and views on smartphones and other devices, instead of bothering to read, let alone buy, a daily newspaper.

During the closing dinner, I found myself sitting between Peggy Mohan and Abdulrazak Gurnah, with my Korean friend, Suk-ho Lee, a specialist in African literature, and Mrs Gurnah, at the same table.

Discussions, interactions and bonhomie 

These dinners, indeed, were part of the charm of the festival. Informal, relaxed, and replete with good food, spirits, and music, not to speak of the lovely ambience of the Trivandrum golf course, they were memorable for conversations and deeper connections.

The previous evening I sat with our host, Shreyams Kumar, Congress Member of Parliament and celebrated author, Shashi Tharoor, Tamil Nadu finance minister, Palanivel Thiagarajan, John Brittas, CPM MP and managing director of Kairali TV, and VK Mathews, founder of IBS Software.

I could not have thought of a more diverse group, which was instantly evident by the lively disagreements that marked our conversations. But the evening was as pleasant as it was, at least for me, educative and inspiring.

Though marked by many a repartee, I would give the best bon mot accolade of the evening to Thiagarajan. Averring that his moral convictions remained firm, regardless of whether he in the treasury or opposition benches, he said, “Where I stand does not depend on where I sit.” He is right.

In fact, his remark can be extended from personal principles to larger political ideas and governance practices. These should stand or fall on their own merits, not by virtue of their political ideology or party.