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Mountain Echoes: A Literature Festival in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

The Mountain Echoes Literature festival held in Thimphu, Bhutan, which kicked off the year-end South Asian lit-fest season, was genteel, intimate and enjoyable

books Updated: Sep 09, 2016 22:58 IST
Manjula Narayan

A planeload of authors, you now know, is much like a planeload of plumbers, or morticians, or attendees at a gynaecologists’ convention. Everyone ‘oohs’ when the plane flies over the Himalayas; everyone gapes at the river running alongside the airstrip in Paro and marvels at the expertise of the pilot who smoothly manages one of the most difficult landings in the world, and everyone whips out their smartphones and determinedly, wordlessly, clicks the mountains , the giant poster of the king of Bhutan and his beautiful bashful queen, the clouds, the Druk Airways planes, and the airport building that looks like Kochi’s Nedumbassery airport in Bhutanese costume.

Paro Airport (Manjula Narayan)

Weighed down by regulation borderline-bizarre lit-fest outfits – tribal skirts matched with Janpath tat - too many items of underwear, always-fail rose-tinted glasses, and that dear companion, chronic depression, you stagger out of the airport and into the late August sunshine trailing the exuberant crowd of writers and journalists headed for the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival in Thimphu. You’ve met many of them at other lit-fests, though recollections only emerge at the inaugural party after imbibing a few stiff pegs of fine Bhutanese whisky – K5, Misty Peak and Special Courier .

Bhutan is next door but it could be a world away. It is clean, the people are cheerful and seem to actually like their royals. The democratic brain of the average Indian finds this hard to process and you gape as people leap to their feet as the festival’s patron, the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, passes by. Someone prods you to get up as she exits the room. Thankfully, no one demands you stand at attention when former royal Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan, who is also at the festival, enters. Indira Gandhi did some crummy things in her time but doing way with the privy purses wasn’t one of them. You do not, of course, vocalize such seditious thoughts in the happiest nation on earth; mostly because you are inordinately impressed by the quality of the liquor. A people are entitled to their political eccentricities if they distill such superb stuff.

Vasundhara Raje, CM of Rajasthan and the Queen Mother of Bhutan Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (centre) flanked by guests at an official dinner function (Manjula Narayan)

Perhaps star writer Amitav Ghosh is excessively abstemious and so it was that the inaugural session of the festival was focused completely on gloom, impending environmental doom, and the murderous sea: “I have friends whose houses look out on the sea and if you look out at the sea all the time, it’s actually a depressing thing. You have to psych yourself to believe that that’s a beautiful sight… The sea doesn’t love you; the sea is going to come for you one day!” he intoned adding that the construction lobby was to blame for the ongoing rape of the countryside. Incidentally, the Jaypee group, which has interests in construction, power, cement, and real estate was the principal benefactor of the festival this year. It was all too much for one gentleman, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump: “Thank you for that dose of negativity on the first morning,” he boomed.

A musician with his dranyen or lute at the Royal Bhutan University, one of the venues of the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival (Manjula Narayan)

Lit-fest regulars train themselves to look at the colourful characters who haunt these gatherings, the strummers of exotic instruments, the jesters wielding wooden penises – a good luck charm in Bhutan – the celebrity stalkers, and the almost famous. On rare occasions, the writers themselves turn out to be interesting. While everyone else was paying homage to Pico Iyer (author of The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, among others) and his wise pronouncements on the need to cultivate silence, even jokily proposing marriage to him, you discovered Witi Ihimaera, a Maori writer from New Zealand whose The Whale Rider is poetic, dramatic and strangely beautiful. “The Maoris were not decimated because we are a very aggressive people; we are also a very intellectual people,” he said during a conversation about the colonial experience.

Witi Ihimaera, author of The Whale Rider, gets festival participants to do the Maori haka (Manjula Narayan )

No lit-fest in South Asia is complete without a Hindi film star and this one had Tabu in conversation with local lad Kelly Dorji. The Bhutanese audience is surprisingly knowledgeable about Hindi and Telegu films too and flashbacked gleefully to Tabu’s early avatar as the Ruk Ruk Ruk girl, she of the magnificently jiggly thighs. The highlight, though, was an admiring Pico Iyer (him again!) standing up in the audience to ask how she had “summoned that extraordinary intensity” for Mira Nair’s The Namesake. The actor responded with a meandering story about Mira Nair instructing her to approximate the Bengali-accented English of a long-time immigrant. It didn’t answer Iyer’s question but everyone nodded happily, because, well, we were in Bhutan and it’s impossible to be curmudgeonly there.

Kelly Dorji and Tabu (Manjula Narayan)

Lit-fests are tough work for the journalists covering them. Getting self-obsessed writers to say something they haven’t said a million times before is about as easy as smuggling Pokemon eggs into Gujarat these days. The Jaipur Lit Fest has become so wildly successful that the experience approximates throwing oneself before a juggernaut. In comparison, Mountain Echoes is genteel, intimate and enjoyable. And when all the public mutual back scratching by famous persons becomes unbearable – as it always does at these jamborees – you can escape to beautiful Thimphu with its superb farmer’s markets, karaoke bars, cafes, beautiful prayer-flag-festooned walking trails and giant Buddha statue – the tallest in the world at 169 feet.

“You know most people attend these things to get laid or to network. But I’m here to get some work done, to write. I just couldn’t at home,” a writer says.

One of the tallest Buddha statues in the world watches over Thimphu (Manjula Narayan)

Perhaps more literary festivals should aspire to this level of Zen, this sense of EF Schumacher-like small-is-beautiful. But then they’d have to bottle Bhutan’s clear mountain air, replicate her fantastic cuisine – the succulent fiddlehead ferns cooked in yak’s cheese are especially delicious – and somehow duplicate the wry humour and good cheer of its people too.

It’s all you dream about on the plane home with the authors-who-could-be-morticians-gynacologists-plumbers.