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Mountain Echoes: Bhutan's literary festival

A unique literary festival in Bhutan brought the works of writers — and publishers — back to the centre stage. Indrajit Hazra provides an inside view.

books Updated: May 28, 2011 07:52 IST

‘Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara.’

This isn’t the right description of how I ended up staring out of a window of Hotel Namgay Heritage in Thimpu for  hours last week. My journey into the great wide open as part of a group of writers, journos, publishers, filmmakers and general riff raff (read: non-venture capitalists) was less ‘beat’ than the aforequoted journeyman’s. But Jack Kerouac’s opening lines from The Dharma Bums retrofit perfectly with my state of being as I contemplated the clouds that rolled in to cover the hilltops above me for four days.

The May 20-23 Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in the Bhutanese capital was a deep-bowled noodle soup of writers talking about their craft, experts sharing their fears and excitements about the future of reading, and audiences being given a guided tour of the world that lies behind the world wide web of infotainment of which books are only one (shrinking?) vehicle.

But for me, along with the pleasure of watching clouds eating up mountains, was the luxury of switching on my writer’s light. I was nabbed for this presumption expertly by Kai Bird, whose Pulitzer-winning biography of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus co-written with Martin Sherwin, is a masterpiece of the genre. In a session I shared with novelist Samit Basu, Bird stood up and quoted George Orwell to describe the two of us: “All writers are vain, selfish and lazy.”

In a perfect setting in Thimpu, playing host to a bunch of people from Bhutan, India and far flung places like Britain and the United States, I didn’t have the  gumption to finish what  Orwell had said about writers. But along with sharing some of the sideway observations I had made over the four days, I now take the liberty of completing Orwell’s remark that Bird had left hanging in the air for good reason: “...and at the very bottom of [writers’] motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”


After being ousted from the world of publishing following the charge of sexually harassing a colleague in Penguin Canada, David Davidar has returned under the spotlights. While getting to the bottom of his new publishing house — Aleph, named after the story by Argentinian master Jorge Luis Borges (to read the story go to www.elaleph — was top agenda for all those beady-eyed writers, Davidar read out from his soon-to-be published third novel, Ithaca. The novel is — how’s this for a selling point? — set inside the “mysterious” publishing industry.

“It’s a world I understand and have been a part of for many years. So I told myself, ‘Why not?’” Davidar told me while picking on some deer meat. As for Aleph’s tie-up with Rupa, a publishing house not quite noted for high-end literary things, Davidar’s explanation was convincing. “I needed someone with a great distribution set-up. I’m talking about a top-end literary line that will produce bestsellers.” Sounds like a tricky yet delicious narrative to me.


Well, if Davidar was the prowling star, Zubaan editor, reviwer and writer Anita Roy had reason to celebrate. On the last day, after everyone had packed up — restaurants shut by 10 pm in Thimpu — she was checking her email when she got the good news.

“They’ve accepted my novel!” she said the next day in Paro, breaking into the first of 26 jigs outside the lobby of the stunning Hotel Zhiwa Ling. Her novel for young adults, Dead School, accepted by a British publishing house known to be the patron of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is about a dead young boy coping to be, well, dead. “‘Homework?’ said Jose in dismay. “But I’m ‘dead’,” read out the author from the first chapter. The hills around Paro were alive with her whisky-fuelled impromptu reading.


But Bhutan also had its adult moment when Namita Gokhale read out from her new novel,

Priya in Incredible Indyaa

. After she had finished reading a colourful passage about a woman having copious sex with an old boss, she told us the genre of her book: Hag-Lit. The kids at the back broke into a cloud of giggles.