Over in the central Palace Hall, there seemed to be more of a calm that befitted such a princely and tradition-filled room. I remained there for the rest of the weekend as part of an extraordinarily varied audience. There were: distinguished local retirees with a passion for language; twentysomething Malayali men asking me for my mobile number within minutes of meeting; young tourists in summer dresses and sunglasses; local professionals, well groomed and dressed; adolescent children sitting unusually still; fellow resident foreigners of all backgrounds; and many of the authors themselves, catching another speaker’s session.
By Varkala standards, the air was a little bracing one January morning last year when our elderly neighbour informed my girlfriend and me that the local Hindu temple would hold its festival at the end of the month; it would run for four days. Now, this temple isn’t large or overly celebrated; just another neighbourhood temple, really. That, combined with the fact that I was still relatively new in India and had no idea what the phrase ‘temple festival’ actually meant, led me to a somewhat understated reaction. A festival, I thought. How quaint.
Over the next couple of weeks leading up to the festival, excitement and expectations grew. On the final night, there would be a Kathakali performance that lasted all night, and six or seven elephants would join a parade at dusk down our street. It sounded like good fun, but I’d heard of festivals nearby that had fifty or even a hundred elephants. How incredible could six or seven be? You’ll enjoy, said our neighbour. Sure, I said, trying to believe him.