Mountain Echoes, Bhutan’s first ever lit-fest, has much to recommend it: novelty, intimacy, local writers and readers, folk performances, a dash of politics and, says Jai Arjun Singh, the scenery
Before making its final descent, our plane takes a sharp right turn that brings it into the valley where the Paro airport is situated. It’s a scary manoeuvre if you’re looking out of the windows — seemingly better suited to a two-seater than a large passenger aircraft — but that’s forgotten when our feet touch the runway. For the first time, I see people taking out cameras within seconds of getting off a plane: the airport terminal is quaint and picturesque (and anthill-tiny by Delhi standards), and mountains look down on it from either side.
Up to this point some of us had been wondering why we were travelling to distant Bhutan for a literary festival that involved a familiar list of suspects (among Indian authors, that is), but now, suddenly, it all makes sense. We’re here for the scenery.
That’s being facetious, though. Mountain Echoes, Bhutan’s first ever literature festival, jointly organised by the India-Bhutan Foundation and the literary consultancy Siyahi, has been very rigorously planned and even has a theme of sorts. “We pahaari people know each other really well, regardless of the countries we belong to,” says author and programme advisor Namita Gokhale on the first evening, “These Himalayan lands are a nation unto themselves — people who live in the plains can’t understand this culture and psyche.” Conversations about mountains and mountain people — including writers and readers — recur through the fest, as in the lovely session where the poet Gulzar and author Pavan Varma (who is also the Indian ambassador to Bhutan) perform a jugalbandhi of readings about hilltop trees, misty slopes and other aspects of the natural world. Many people feel it should be enough to experience a book in solitude — that there’s no need to attend a noisy reading at a large public event — but this session is a pointer to what a good reading can achieve. The poems acquire a resonance that they wouldn’t on the printed page. The two men have impromptu discussions about what poem to read next; they softly interrupt each other to comment on how a phrase sounds in translation compared to the original; they banter with the audience.
Such intimacy is, of course, missing at well-established literary events, and more than anything else the first edition of Mountain Echoes reminds me of the inauguration of the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2006 — the only year when it was possible to attend that now-carnivalesque event without running the risk of being stampeded. Mountain Echoes has a respectable collection of authors, a decent-sized hall with good acoustics in Thimphu’s Tarayana Centre, enthusiastic (but not overwhelming) attendance from Indian invitees as well as Bhutanese book-lovers, and relatively little media participation. Which means it’s possible to find seating space when Chetan Bhagat discusses the appeal of his books to young middle-class Indians and reads out a “bed scene” along with Bhutanese actress Kinley Pelden. Or when Leila Seth — alert and eloquent at 80 — speaks about the challenges of being a lady writer and a lady judge in a more conservative time.
For the habitual Indian lit-fest attendee, there’s a sense of déjà vu about these sessions, enjoyable as they are. The more rewarding discussions are the ones featuring local writers. In “Frames and Stories”, two young Bhutanese filmmakers, Tshering Wangyel and Tshering Penjore, speak about the challenges of scriptwriting and filming in a movie industry so nascent that a newspaper was taken to court a couple of years ago for “expressing an opinion” in a short review of a film. In “Words and Arrows: Poetry and Archery”, the folk performer Jigme Drukpa explains the ritualistic significance of archery in Bhutan and performs a song about the sport. Kunzang Choden, one of Bhutan’s most respected writers discusses the need to record oral storytelling for posterity, pointing out that book publishing still has long strides to make in Bhutan.
A major highlight for many of us is the brief talk by Tshering Tobgay, who is the leader of the Opposition Party in the National Assembly of Bhutan, in addition to being a prolific and engaging blogger. At a session about online media, Tshering speaks about his responsibility to keep the people of his country informed about the issues they face and to do this — as far as possible — while supporting the positive initiatives taken by the government rather than opposing them for the sake of opposition. In a land that has subtle restrictions on freedom of expression and only around 12,000 registered Net users (perhaps a few dozen of whom blog), Tobgay’s work is pioneering as well as inspirational. After the session, the Indian attendees discuss him in hushed tones: if only more Indian politicians were as dedicated to communicating directly — and candidly — with the common man, instead of embroiling themselves in Twitter controversies.
Especially notable is Tobgay’s observation that it’s important for a political leader to write or blog regularly, “because that forces you to pause and introspect and think about things, which is something politicians don’t always feel the need to do”. Ultimately, that’s also the biggest justification for starting a new literary festival: raising questions, inspiring debate, encouraging people to think about various subjects. And if the scenery is good, so much the better.