JLF Soneva Fushi: A Bookseller's Diary
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Day 1: Friday 13th May 2022
The festival began, as these things always do, with a deep-seated fear that it was going to be a washout, in this case quite literally! The day was gloomy and overcast and heralded a definite start to the summer monsoons in the Maldives. Michelle and Louise had just flown over from Bangkok and we were joined by the JLF team and spent the morning stuffing goody-bags (sustainable gifts, of course!) and anxiously staring up at the sky. We were having our own crisis as Maldivian customs were holding all the books in order to check their contents for religious items and Verna in our purchasing team was desperately juggling trying to get them through the clearing agent and then scouring Baa Atoll to see if there was another resort with a boat going from Malé that afternoon so that we could get the books across and ready for the talks to start the next morning.
At 6pm the skies heralded the official start to the festival by whipping up a hurricane in miniature with the palm trees flying and to even poke your head out of the window was to be dripping wet. At that exact moment, 22 cardboard boxes arrived on a small fishing boat, requiring a mad dash to the jetty, a trailer and as much tarp as we could carry. But they were safe and in the shop! And as gloomy as the weather may sound, in the Maldives even the rain feels warm and with just a last minute change of venue, we were no longer on the beach but could finally settle down for a well-deserved glass of prosecco. Malsa had braved the skies and the seas to arrive on Soneva Fushi and we spent the next hour being welcomed into the festival and feeling the relief of something long-anticipated finally coming into existence. Dinner was a fantastic mix of Indian and Maldivian cuisine so I tried a fish paste not dissimilar to marmite actually, and producing much the same division of taste, and the ever-present spicy tuna in dumpling, ceviche and all other forms. As the rain continued to pour, we decided that we wouldn't let it stop us enjoying all that was now around us and headed onto the beach for a performance of the Sufi Gospel Choir whose music ranged all the way from Persian verse to Leonard Cohen! Cue some very awkward dancing as we tried to encourage all the guests to get up off their feet, which was finally helped by Sonu's joining with some very unexpected dance moves!
Day 2: Saturday 14th May 2022
I think that we were all a little mealy-mouthed this morning from the night before but the rain was bracing and before too long we were all up and running and ready for the first session of the morning - fortunately a JLF tradition is to start each day with music so that we are all spiritually ready for the session. That and some good strong coffee definitely helped. As ever it was a frantic first day spent bouncing between the two event spaces and the bookshop, trying to discover who had what books and how many we would need, with some canny towelling to help keep everything presentable. Malsa and I said goodbye and good luck, I was off to Villa 11 to start the day with William Dalrymple and the Indian Art Historian B.N Goswamy and she was to take our trusty little tuk tuk to Down to Earth for André Aciman and Shivani Sibal.
We divided the talks between us to give us a little bit of everything from art and culture with Mira Nair and Vir Sanghvi to history with Peter Frankopan and Ben Macintyre to politics and ne'er-do-wells with Patrick Radden Keefe. I was an enormous admirer of Empire of Pain and so getting to hear a preview of Patrick's next book, Rogues, a collection from some of his best investigations as a journalist was a real highlight. From bad wine to drug lords, it was a talk that managed to cover all sides of wrongdoing but woven together beautifully with digressions into the role of the journalist and the psychology of the criminal. After an entire morning of sessions, speakers, guests and organisers were all united in their need for downtime! And so we all spent the afternoon cleaning up the debris of the morning before meeting again for a final talk and then an evening of cocktails and a screening of Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding.
Day 3: Sunday 15th May 2022
The end of the weekend was in sight but every so often we mouthed to one another '7 more days!' But we were more organised and had settled into the rhythms of the festival. Malsa and I swapped venues, to give her a chance to dry off out of the rain and so that I could spend more time with my precious Book Tuk Tuk which could be seen selling each author's books as the morning wore on. Ben Macintyre and William Dalrymple were back for a fascinating conversation about spying and the relationship between fiction and history, but the star of the day was undoubtedly Huma Abedin. Utterly poised and with a calm resonance that filled the room, she spoke with Patrick Radden Keefe and Peter Frankopan about her life under the Clinton Administration. So compelling was she that she may be the first author to completely sell out of books while at the festival!
A rather startling discovery was made just as Francesca Cartier and Radhikaraje Gaekwad settled down into a beautiful conversation, filled with pictures of tiaras glinting and even a mention of a jewel-encrusted tortoise, about the Cartier jewellers in India and that is that Malsa is completely incapable of whispering. Cue much frantic mouthing as she tried to get everything organised around us but was torn between some spirited mime and running the risk of talking over the guests. Guests and co-ordinators alike then decided to be bold and throw caution to the really quite strong winds that were gathering and to take the boat to the sandbank for a cocktail. It was a toast to the start of 'The Journey', the gala event for the evening. We toured the island, mingling with authors and with sounds of historical debate floating up and into the winds before eating under the stars on the beach. The night was rounded off with a performance from the Kabir Café and their fusion of traditional Indian and rock music.
Day 4: Monday 16th May 2022
As the guests chose between Qi Gong and paddleboarding as their pre-breakfast activity we were all a-go to consolidate the sessions into villa 11 and to set up for our first talk - a conversation about luxury and dynasty between Vir Sangvhi, Radhikaraje Gaekwad, Francesca Cartier-Brickell and our very own Sonu. The room filled with fellow hosts who had come to hear the talk, and possibly snag a free coffee too! The weekday events were a little different as we moved into the workshop elements of the festival and so there were opportunities galore for everything from cooking classes to discovering one's inner child again through meditation, crayoning and just all round unabashed fun and creativity.
At this point I tried to sneak away for a small nap but was pulled back into Bollywood Dancing with Gilles Chuyen. Unfortunately having not just two left feet but two left arms and hips that creak like a rusty gate I had to choose a convenient moment to disappear. Karma then struck me for my cowardice as we discovered that a pocket hole had lost the keys to the Tuk Tuk! Cue the entirety of our engineering team scouring puddles and squelching into mud in an attempt to find it! It was too late to bring her to the readings in the afternoon so we had to make do with tricycles full of books. But we had another fascinating and impromptu insight into Indian Art by BN Goswamy before he departed from the island, a mosquito talk from our very own Akib and a small reading from Shivani Sibal. The evening was then rounded off with a world premiere small screening of the film adaptation of Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat and an enormous tropical storm right at the climatic denouement of the film.
Day 5: Tuesday 17th May 2022
By today we were pretty settled into our routines and everything was running like clockwork. While guests danced, swam and stretched before breakfast we were putting out Olivia Fraser's gloriously beautiful coffee table book, A Journey Within, in preparation for her opening session. Intelligent questions were put to her, biscuits were munched and the rain poured down again. Unfortunately that necessitated a rescheduling of our permaculture workshop but meant that everyone could concentrate on discovering their inner child.
By the afternoon, we had handed everyone over to the glass-blowing and the Soneva Soul spa team for ayurveda and something much hotter while we raced around to prepare for tomorrow, when we would split the team with half of us heading off to Malé for a day-festival arranged so that more people would have an opportunity to hear our fantastic speakers. Lakkhita was happy to step in and live out his dream of being a bookseller for a day so I briefed him and packed up two big suitcases of books that were coming over the water with us. The final event of was a lovely session at Down To Earth with the eternal crowd pleaser André Aciman, who discussed young love and anticipation to a riveted audience.
Day 6: Wednesday 18th May 2022
Everything was going too well! Just when we thought that we had a nice rhythm starting to the festival a new spanner was thrown into the works. We all arrived on the jetty at 9.45 am promptly to catch the seaplane to Malé, and as ever, the larger the group the more fuss and mess and standing around there inevitably is. Unfortunately a last minute realisation that a passport was missing meant that we missed our flight and that the weather was too rough for a second landing! Cue some anxious pacing and phone calling from Louise where two hours later, we managed to jump on a domestic flight instead. The time pressure was on as we were due to arrive at the venue at 1.15 pm and while we had been fortunate enough to convince the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, to speak about his book, another engagement meant that he had to leave at 2pm. We dashed across the waves - sometimes more in than over them! - and ran across to Dharavandhoo airport. Of course, when your luck turns, you really do watch it racing away and so we got there to discover that my name wasn't on the flight but a 'Mr George Georgy' certainly was. Malsa stepped up to the task and commenced a frantic argument in Dhivehi with the airport staff but managed to get me on the plane! However, the TV that were were bringing from Soneva Fushi unfortunately did not and had been left with the Butlers on the boat.
By now we were seriously late and even Louise's gallic serenity was shaken. But Thoriq from the Malé office was there to rescue everything and the staff at the Salt Café were lovely enough to set up the entire venue for us. We scrabbled in and after some frantic gift-bag packing in a corner and some soul-destroying negotiation with a card machine, the rest of the day ran completely smoothly. President Mohamed Nasheed's speech was a fantastic insight into the culture of the Maldives, while our two JLF authors, Marcus du Sautoy and Shobhaa Dé, appealed to both halves of the audience with very different speeches. Shobhaa had a queue of giggling audience members hoping to snag a signature on one of her romance books while Marcus had the audience in stitches from reading out some AI attempts at Harry Potter. With musical interludes from Ammaday, Igyan Rafeeu and Ahnaf Ibrahim in collaboration with Fannuge Dharin, we moved on to the Maldivian cultural portion of the event. Some excellent dystopian fiction was read out by Ahmed Mauroof Jameel, followed by a fascinating talk into the architecture of the Maldives and the coral stone Mosques in particular from Mauroof Jameel. But the final note on the event was struck by the charming Zaahie Saeed reading out from her self-illustrated and authored children's book, Laiba's Sea Adventures.
Back on Soneva Fushi, throughout the day we had had a focus on sustainability and the future of our world, with first a talk between Peter Frankopan and David Wallace-Wells that managed to encapsulated both our history and our future on this ever-changing earth followed by a brilliant workshop by Soneva's own resident Marine Biologist Laura Tranfield. Running alongside the environmental focus were sessions from Ranjit Hoskote and a photo walk with Aparna Swarup that taught new ways of seeing and capturing the world. The final treat of the day was the sunset reading session with Namita Gokhale.
Day 7: Thursday 19th May 2022
After the buzz and excitement of putting together another entire day festival in Malé yesterday, we were all fairly blanched with tiredness and drawing on the last reserves of our energy to propel us into another grand weekend to close up the festival.
The charismatic and straight-talking Shobhaa Dé joined us for another session discussing riots and trolls and how to stay indomitable in the face of protest while Ranjit Hoskote treated guests to a poetry workshop. But the surprise star of the day was that writer Sarfraz Manzoor joined us to talk about his first book, a tale of a boy from Luton discovering the magic of Bruce Springsteen and how it changed the course of his entire life. It was very refreshing to hear a very different type of talk at the festival and you could practically see the Spotify downloads of Burce's greatest hits at the end. Finally it was time for Malsa and I to run our usual creative writing class for guests followed by a sunset reading from Vikas Swarup.
Day 8: Friday 20th May 2022
11 am on Friday and it was off to Maths class! We had the charismatic and hilarious Marcus du Sautoy back again to talk about his latest book, Thinking Better: The Art of the Shortcut with Roger Highfield. Even with an audience who came in looking slightly nervous about such a subject matter - they were meant to be on holiday after all! - Marcus managed to charm and win everyone over to seeing how maths underpins everything in our lives but not in a complicated, formula-heavy sort of way but instead how maths can make us understand the world in shorter, simpler ways. Directly after this, we reflected on making art out of tumultuous times and our recent past as Namita Gokhale and the poet Ranjit Hoskote discussed the fictionalisation of the recent pandemic.
For those who weren't content to just sit back and have lunch served to them, we then learnt the subtle spice-art of Indian cooking with Suvir Saran and heard from Navdeep Suri as he discussed the honour and the doubt in translating his own grandfather's poems from their book Hymns in Blood. To finish off on another day and to herald the start of the weekend, we were then joined by David Wallace-Wells to reintroduce the sustainable theme that had permeated and defined JLF Soneva Fushi by talking about his book, The Uninhabitable Earth and reflecting 10 years on from its original publication whether his pronouncements had changed.
After a long week of reverting to plan B after endless storms and waters, it was a relief to finally be able to follow the schedule and to bring all of the guests out into the middle of the ocean for our Sandbank cocktail. Writers and thinkers dipped their toes in the sand and tried local spicy tuna delicacies while the sun dipped below the horizon. A starlit dinner on the beach was then had where midway through delighted shrieks lit the air as a small reef shark had come to bask in the shallows. The night was then seen off by a soulful and melodic performance from Shilpa Rao.
Day 9: Saturday 21st May 2022
The morning was one for the early risers as they had a choice of sessions - either more dancing to get the blood pulsing upwards to the brain or a gentler session with Pranay Lal exploring the earth beneath our feet. It was another day of tricky choices as we had two sessions happening simultaneously but a little easier on the team's feet as we had consolidated them all into one villa. Shamefully, Malsa and I were nowhere near awake early enough for the breakfast sessions and instead stumbled to a breakfast of coffee and biscuits before the first talk commenced. Session 1 was about all things Indian history as William Dalrymple was joined by Pavan K Varma to discuss the importance of the Hindu civilisation in Asia, one that is often ignored or underdeveloped in recent times, while for more recent experiences, Navdeep Suri joined Namita Gokhale once again to talk about a literary relationship that went down the generations. This was then followed by Shobhaa Dé fearlessly plunging into Indian culture now with a discussion about why her books, and the author herself, have been so controversial to elements in Indian society. Our final talk before lunch was a real treat - Gopalkrishna Gandhi spoke about his memoir growing up with a personal relationship to his grandfather, the much mythologised Mahatma Gandhi.
Now that everything was running smoothly and the sun was out, the team itself could finally enjoy the midday break to swim, sunbathe and just generally claw back some energy so it was a very relaxed but slightly sunburned group that reappeared to set up for the 5 pm session. Guests could choose from a bounty of authors as Sashi Tharoor, Shobhaa Dé, Pavan K Varma and Marcus du Sautoy spoke to one another, or they could watch an intellectual battle between Peter Frankopan and William Dalrymple as William outlined the central thesis behind his new book, The Golden Road that questioned the historical supremacy of the silk road. Once both men had put their sparring gloves aside, a drink was needed to see off the sun and we all headed to turtle beach once again. Open air dining was very much the order of the day and guests got to enjoy the buffet at Cinema Paradiso while watching Slumdog Millionaire and hearing it discussed by the author, Vikas Swarup. As the guests dispersed after loud applause, the team snuck away into the jungle to regroup at the host bar in order to roundly cheers out Michelle who was heading back to the office a day early.
Day 10: Sunday 22nd May 2022
It was the final day and boy were we feeling it! Thankfully there was some early morning yoga and meditation to ease us into the day. The fusion of art with science had defined the events of the latter half of the week and nowhere was this more true than our first sessions of the morning where guests could choose between listening to the dissection of poetry with Ranjt Hoskote or learning about science in a playful and nerdy way with Roger Highfield's book on the science of the Harry Potter stories. We also were fortunate enough to have a flying visit from Matthew Syed where he discussed the thinking behind his book Rebel Ideas and how it could be applied to life, while Sonu, Sashi Tharoor, Roger Highfield and Pranay Lal unflinchingly spoke about the tension between sustainability and development. This was followed by William Dalrymple reflecting back on his magnum opus - The Company Quartet - while Sashi Tharoor looked back on an often turbulent time in Indian politics. Our final talks of the day then became incredibly timely and topical as Pranay Lal discussed the history of viruses while Suvir Saran and Anandita Dé discussed the important role that food plays in one's mental health.
And just like that, it was over! As we shepherded guests off to the dolphin cruise, I think we were all just blinking at one another at what we had managed to pull off over the past fortnight. And, far more importantly, it meant that we could just relax and enjoy this evening's drinks and dinner journey. With a special station from Suvir Saran as well, we toasted out the night until the first strummings of the Kutle Khan Project began. While Peter Frankopan indulged in some vigourous jumping around, Marcus du Sautoy demonstrated his cognitive prowess by organising the entire party into a flash mob. As guests began to wilt from the exertion, the pull of the music became too much and any host in the vicinity got pulled to the edges of the main stage to dance away a fantastic but very long week.