Report: Bhutan Echoes 2023
In its 12th edition, the rebranded Bhutan Literature Festival celebrates stories, traditions, and the joy of storytelling
Located high in the Himalayas, the diminutive kingdom of Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, has happiness woven into its national fabric. The Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index as a development indicator was enshrined in its 2008 Constitution, and until last year, the tagline, “Happiness is a Place” was inscribed on the nation’s Tourism Council’s blue poppy emblem. The national flower beckoned the world to experience this mystical land’s joyous beauty and, in Pico Iyer’s words, “stainless quiet.”
With 70% forest cover and a population of 8,00,000, Bhutan — locally known as Drukyul or The Land of The Thunder Dragon — is heaven for nature lovers. The 90-odd minutes that it takes to get to the capital, Thimphu, from the airport in Paro introduces the traveller to the country’s magical charm, its grazing yaks, and hills stretching into the horizon.
At the Royal University of Bhutan, one of the venues of the festival, which was built in 2003 by the current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, men dressed in traditional knee-length robes (ghos) and women in ankle-length kiras enthusiastically attend sessions of the Bhutan Echoes festival. Known in its earlier incarnation as Mountain Echoes, the literary event was renamed The Drukyul Literature Festival or Bhutan Echoes during the pandemic. This year’s theme of ‘Reconnecting and Reviving’ permeated the many discussions at the festival that included ones on spiritual abodes, folktales, entrepreneurship and the nuances of language.
At one of these, the royal patron of the festival, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, spoke to environmentalist-diplomat Dasho Paljor Jigme Dorji about her third book Dochula: A Spiritual Abode in Bhutan, which documents the Druk Wangyel Complex.
Kunzang Choden, the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English, spoke about folktales being beyond the idea of plagiarism. Choden has been documenting her country’s oral traditions, folklore and women since the 1990s. “When we talk about folktales and grandmothers like me, who are reconnecting with our beliefs, how do we revive them? Do we take them and give it to others the way we heard them? Some folk stories are dark. Are we going to change our folktales to meet the expectations of today? We need to think about how we should handle and pass on our folktales,” she said.
Diplomat and author Vikas Swarup, who was in conversation with Bhutanese author Chador Wangmo, spoke about how he wrote Q&A (adapted into Slumdog Millionaire) and shared the 3Cs of being a writer: “Curiosity, Confidence (in the story you are about to tell), and a Computer (for required research and knowledge-building).”
Nepalese entrepreneur Binod Chaudhary, also known as the “Wai-Wai man”, discussed the migration of people from India, Nepal, and Bhutan to developed countries and stressed the need to provide the youth with opportunities. “The power of ideas and entrepreneurship is more important than anything else,” he said.
International Booker Prize-winning author Geetanjali Shree delved into the historical context of English acquisition in India and its impact on culture and education. She highlighted the distortions brought by English during British rule, which often led to hierarchy and feelings of inferiority. She acknowledged that while English has found its creative voice in Indian literature, there is a need to appreciate and preserve the country’s rich linguistic heritage.
Authors Kunzang Choden, Passang Tshering, Yeshey Choden and former publisher, Penguin India, Meru Gokhale discussed Bhutan’s nascent publishing industry.
While YouTuber-turned-author Ekta Chaudhary shared insights on gardening, dancer Madhura Pathak conducted workshops on Kathak.
Other participants at the festival included authors Radha Chakravarty, Julia Trouilloud, Rolf Hermann, Aanchal Malhotra, Shrayana Bhattacharya, Dechen Wangdi, Toby Walsh, Sheela Tomy and Christopher Kloeble.
Taking a break from serious litfesting, the participants and the press contingent also trooped into The Grey Area, the country’s first gastropub owned by actor Kelly Dorji, one of the festival directors. Lest you think that Thimphu is only about litfesting, it also has quite an exciting nightlife with interesting karaoke bars and pubs like Mojo Park and Space 34.
Any visit to Bhutan is incomplete without sampling the excellent local cuisine that includes sumptuous ema datshi, ezay or garlic chutney, wild mushrooms, and nakey tsey or fiddlehead ferns. Burp!
Life here is unhurried — a stark contrast to the frenetic pace of life in India’s metropolises. Still, the country may be small in size, but its dreams and aspirations defy its geographical confines. Bhutan Tourism’s new tagline, “Believe” is an exhortation to every citizen to be an active participant in the nation’s metamorphosis. Bhutan Echoes fits in perfectly with this new credo. Much more than a literary festival, it aims to project Bhutan onto the world stage by showcasing its culture, heritage and unique way of life. In this, it definitely succeeds.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.