National Poet's tour diary: Kerala, India

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Between reading with Paul Henry at the Wyeside, Builth, and my gig with Menna Elfyn at Trinity, Carmarthen next week, I fly to India for the Hay Kerala Festival.

We pass over Mosul, Baghdad, Basra. I disobey the air hostess and lift my blind. I want to see the world, snow-capped mountains south of Turkey, the sunrise.

At Doha I wait four hours for the flight to Thiruvananthapuram. The language is Mayalam, and I determine not to use the shorter, British name. The terminal is full of white-robed, bearded men with mobile phones, each wearing a plastic identification tag on a ribbon, their black-veiled wives like drifting, elegant columns. They are on their way to Mecca for the Hajj, the biggest pilgrimage in the world.

After touch-down in Thiruvananthapuram - I'm learning to say this - I step from the building into an oven, dizzy after 24 hours awake. I share the car with Miguel from the Phillipines and Jorges from Mexico.

The drive to the hotel is noisy, the horn, and everyone else's horn, honking every two seconds as we dodge pedestrians, dogs, bicycles, motor bikes, motor rickshaws, lorries, cars along the route. It runs between palm forests lined with brilliantly coloured villas side by side with slum-dwellings, shacks, sheds, shops, factories, the hugger-mugger life of the people at the roadside.

In a few days I get used to the clutter and begin to see the detail, egrets picking beside tethered cows, a flight of hoopoes over the yellow waters of the Karamana river, old women hacking coconuts at the roadside, an impeccably uniformed child walking to school. Kerala, despite the obvious poverty, has 100% literacy.

I love my cool room at the hotel, a little house in a tropical garden of giant palms and banana leaves like the paddles of giant boats. I share my garden with chipmunks, lizards, kites, crows, crickets, a little black snake.

The festival at the Kanakakunnu Palace is a wonder, thronged with people thrilled to have it in their city. I have three events - In Conversation with Indian writer CP Surendran; a six-minute spot at the Gala Reading; and a stage discussion on bilingualism with Menna Elfyn, Paul Henry, and two Indian poets, one who writes in English, one in Mayalam.

We are joined by a young poet, Soni, who's become my friend through email. He is invited to read a poem he wrote last night at the close of the day. It's a lovely poem. He's in a wheelchair, and we use the angel-wings of four beautiful men (they are all beautiful here) to fly him up the steps into the venue. At all events audience participation is lively. We conclude that the true international language is poetry itself.

Back in Wales emails fly in from my new friends, new readers, and a message and a new poem from Soni. What a wonder the web is! It brings us together like the angels who bore Soni in his chair into the bardic circle.

Gillian Clarke
National Poet of Wales

Gillian Clarke is blogging for the BBC during her seven-date poetry tour of Wales, which runs until 10 December 2010. For more information on the National Poet's tour of Wales visit the Academi website.

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