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Saying it with books

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018
On home turf: For the first time in the seven-year history of Mountain Echoes, Bhutanese speakers outnumbered their Indian counterparts

On home turf: For the first time in the seven-year history of Mountain Echoes, Bhutanese speakers outnumbered their Indian counterparts

Words worth: Amitav Ghosh (right) delivered the keynote address—on climate change, which is also the subject of his latest book

Words worth: Amitav Ghosh (right) delivered the keynote address—on climate change, which is also the subject of his latest book

Figure of speech: Queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the founder-patron of Mountain Echoes

Figure of speech: Queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the founder-patron of Mountain Echoes

The latest edition of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival showed Bhutan’s bond with the printed word has strengthened over the years

The Drukair plane deftly skirts Mount Everest before it glides down a narrow valley in the Himalayas and hits the bullseye: Bhutan’s tiny airport. While waiting to get off the plane, which is packed with people going to the Mountain Echoes litfest (August 26-28) in Thimphu, some fellow authors spot a red carpet on the airfield. I do a spontaneous high-five with myself, only to see it being rolled up as soon as the VIPs in first class disembark.

But everything else is slightly dreamlike. Bhutan is one of the most ecofriendly countries on earth and merely opening one’s mouth to breathe feels wholesome. It helps that cigarettes are banned since 2010. I’ve heard that the fines for smoking on the sly equal some two months’ salaries locally. So I left my party pack at home, but those who can’t live without their poison pay a hefty 200 per cent customs surcharge and must apply for smoking permits.

Penalties settled, we’re on our way to the opening ceremony at the India House, which was built in the 1960s and represents the first permanent diplomatic connection between Bhutan and the outside world. That was also the decade when the first road was built — to India — and Bhutanese currency was introduced around 1970. Before the ’60s, the capital was a cluster of houses around a monastery, while peasants bartered between villages, transporting goods on yaks.

From then on, Bhutan underwent a rapid but gentle development — the first foreign tourists came in the ’70s, the airport was inaugurated in the ’80s, TV came in 1999, democracy in 2008, iPhone7 in 2016, but there are still no traffic lights! This litfest is another sign of the opening up of Bhutan. The queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, founder-patron of the Mountain Echoes festival, emphasises in her inaugural speech how much the meetings with authors have enriched life for people, including herself.

I later learn that the queen mother grew up in a village without books. “After dinner we gathered around the hearth and my grandparents told stories. I try to keep the same oral history-telling alive by telling my grandchildren the stories that my grandparents told me. It wasn’t until I went to India to study that I saw a book for the first time in my life.” Now she is writing her third book — a chronicle of her grandson, who is three years old. At almost every session, I see her seated on a throne-like chair right in front of the stage, listening keenly.

Mita Kapur, who also helms the Crime Writers Festival in New Delhi, has been running Mountain Echoes since its inception seven years ago, and tells me, “I am nuts about this festival, I love it, I love Bhutan, I love its people. The festival reflects shared cultural threads between Bhutan and India, and since we’ve kept it small, it lends itself to a lot of interaction between readers and writers.”

Small is a relative word: while last year’s edition attracted 7,000 visitors to its sessions, this year Kapur estimates the number to have grown to 11,000. Considering that Thimphu’s entire population is no more than 91,000, it is a respectable figure. “There has also been a fivefold increase in the number of books being published in Bhutan and now writers experiment with new genres as well. Book sales have gone up, there are book clubs in schools — it’s just so satisfying to see many more people reading and writing,” says Kapur.

She mentions that the authors usually spend their evenings at the Druk Hotel. Dating back to the 1970s, as the country’s first international hotel, it is endowed with the Capital’s nicest drinking den. And just like Kapur predicted, I find myself there that same night in the company of a chick lit novelist, a webzine editor, and a children’s writer, along with some reporters looking for either scoops or bottles of the local Red Panda beer.

While the earlier festivals have seen Indian authors such as Ashwin Sanghi, Samit Basu and Shobhaa De, and this year there are three Bollywood actresses plus Amitav Ghosh, Ira Trivedi, and the band Indian Ocean, what makes this edition stand apart is that, for the first time, the 31 Bhutanese speakers outnumber the 25 Indian ones. A star attraction is Kunzang Choden, Bhutan’s first woman novelist. I also chat with Chador Wangmo, who has published some 10 books — two of them in Dzongkha and the rest in English.

Wangmo writes what could best be termed Bhutanese chick lit — racy stuff, yet strangely evocative. I read La Ama, which goes something like this: a village girl whose parents are divorced gets raped by her teacher, runs away to Thimphu with her boyfriend, who then tells her he is gay and gets her a job as a performer in a nightclub, a drayang, which is one step removed from a brothel. Then she marries an alcoholic who, in a fit of jealousy brought on by the fact that she has too many Facebook friends, smashes her up, but she escapes in his car, crashes it, ends up in hospital, and is found to be pregnant. When her husband offers to take her back, she goes home to her village and starts a paan stall instead.

Amitav Ghosh delivered the keynote address — on climate change, which is also the subject of his latest book — and afterwards he tells me, “We’re having a great time in Bhutan, it’s a beautiful place with wonderful people. It was wonderful also to meet Her Majesty: a really thoughtful, interesting and well-read lady. But the high point for me was when I received a call from His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and he said that he had been up till 3 am reading The Great Derangement! It really meant a lot to me to hear that from someone who has been a true visionary in environmental matters.”

A high point for me was meeting Pico Iyer. About his latest book, The Art of Stillness, he says, “I felt really embarrassed to be talking about stillness here in Bhutan, because Bhutan is really the model of sanity, quiet and health that the rest of us aspire to. Landing here, the first thing I saw was this sign that said ‘Faster, spells disaster’.” Bhutan, he points out, could be the role model for the rest of the world where everything is just going faster and faster and social media has replaced social interactions. He himself has never even used a mobile, which seems to have made his days longer and given him more time to read.

But Iyer observes that Bhutan is changing. “Physically, Thimphu is unrecognisable to me, coming back after 28 years. On my first afternoon, I went to the Druk Hotel and back to the Swiss Bakery, what I principally remember from 1988, and I lost all sense of orientation — I didn’t know where I was. I thought, well, it is less idyllic seeming for me than it was, but its development probably means a richer and happier life for people here. We visitors have to be careful about the wishes we project — the fact that we want places to remain beautiful for our camera lenses. But when I talk to people, they sound very similar to the people I was talking to back then.”

Iyer thinks that the festival is great as it offers an opportunity for the Bhutanese to learn things from us authors, while we can learn from Bhutan. So I ask him what else he has done in the country. “I visited four or five temples. And there’s a lovely bookshop called Junction. Have you tried the hamburgers at Cloud 9?”

All the authors have been raving about those burgers, but I have made a conscious decision to only eat traditional Bhutanese food, which turned out to be unfailingly delicious.

Thimphu has a surprisingly large number of great restaurants and about half a dozen bookshops — though I hear that local readers mostly order stuff off the Indian branch of Amazon; the books are delivered to contacts in Siliguri, the nearest border town, who transfer them onto buses into Bhutan.

Occasionally, I feel that the Bhutanese worship books. One of the first things I did was visit the National Library, a gorgeous monastery-style building. Apparently people circumambulate it clockwise due to the fact that its enormous collection of religious books — by the likes of Guru Rinpoche and other Buddhist prophets — bestows one with top-class karma. At the entrance it says that the library was founded in 1967 by a previous queen of Bhutan, and I start to discern a pattern: the queens here take books seriously.

Then the festival is over. We, the spiritually invigorated authors — well, those who carried on smoking may not have become so invigorated — are on our way home. But already, the following weekend another kind of festival is being hosted in Thimphu: the 50th Asian Bodybuilding and Fitness Championships. Instead of us paunchy novelists people can gawk at 450 athletes with well-oiled six-packs. As for myself, I study the glossary provided in Drukair’s in-flight magazine and try to pronounce ‘ log jay gay’. It is the Bhutanese way of saying, ‘I’ll go and come’.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist based in Bengaluru

Published on September 23, 2016

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