Mountain Echoes: Litfesting in the Land of the Thunder Dragon
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Mountain Echoes: Litfesting in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Unlike most cultural jamborees, the Mountain Echoes literary festival seems to be getting better with each passing year

books Updated: Sep 16, 2017 16:17 IST
Manjula Narayan
Manjula Narayan
Hindustan Times
Mountain Echoes,Bhutan,literary festival
Students of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts at the festival venue. (Picture courtesy Mountain Echoes)

Most of the time, literature festivals are tedious. They are full of important people saying very important things to audiences that hang on to every word because, hey, everyone wants to come across as more-intellectual-than-thou. This must be why I spend most of my time at the big momma of litfests, the Jaipur Literature festival – I’ve covered it for almost a decade now – hiding under the tables on the press terrace.

Traditional dance performed by students of the Sersang school. (Courtesy Mountain Echoes)

The Mountain Echoes Literary Festival held from August 24 to 27 in Thimphu, the capital of neighbouring Bhutan, is different. It is genteel and the audience – even the many school kids who attend -- seems to be genuinely interested in reading, in culture. This was my second time at Mountain Echoes – yes, I know, the life of a books page editor is incredibly hard – but “no disease is like a surfeit of luxurious ease” etcetera so I expected to feel jaded, to want to cower, away from the action, in the pretty wooden library at the Royal University of Bhutan, the venue for most of the festival events.

The Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the festival’s chief patron, with Shashi Tharoor. (Courtesy Mountain Echoes)

The programme was stuffed with ridiculously eminent intellectuals, Indian authors, Bhutanese authors, international authors, a hip fashion contingent, and a famous filmi type to hold aloft the fluttering flag of Follywood. And then there were Shashi Tharoor and Padma Lakshmi, denizens of the celebrity stratosphere who blind everyone with their divine effulgence (insert sly emoji just about here). So yes, I’ll admit I was assailed by the feeling that I should be home diligently working on the novel that’s still stuck at useless un-impregnating-mental-spermatozoa stage after all these years.

So weary was I that by the time the welcoming drametse ngacham or the dance of the drums was done, I was ready to run off to the borderlands of Doklam to fight the Chinese army single-handed. Thankfully, just about then, the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the festival’s chief patron, and Khenpo Sonam Bumdhen, a red robed monk, launched into a talk on Zhabdrung, the ruler who united Bhutan back in the 17th century. It was also the first time I heard of the Divine Madman, a fascinating personality in Bhutanese myth and religion, who ridiculed hypocrisy and social convention. I was hooked. The Divine Madman pops up so often in my conversations with Bhutanese people that, a day later, I hopped on a motorbike and rode through the mountains to Chimmi Lakhang, the lovely quiet temple to him in Punakha. But that’s the subject of another piece entirely.

Padma Lakshmi and Barkha Dutt (Courtesy Mountain Echoes)

Back at the litfest, fetching young magician Neel Madhav did his thing; Barkha Dutt got into debates on feminism with clearly empowered women averse to the word; and Jerry Pinto literally swept me off my feet. “I do this with everyone who asks for a picture with me,” he said. Imtiaz Ali tousled his hair some more and glowered sexily at everyone; Devdutt Pattanaik looked suitably impressed on hearing that the Bhutanese hang tiny wooden phalluses outside homes to ward off the evil eye just like “Indians hang lemons and chillies” (Oh, the heavy symbolism that’s escaped us all thus far!); Ruskin Bond exuded good cheer as he does at all times except when pesky tourists ring his doorbell in Landour in the middle of the afternoon – “Off, you buggers; Mr Bond is not at home!”; and Ashwin Sanghi held forth about his admirable work ethic and his great love for Scotch. Incidentally, K5, a whisky named after current monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king of Bhutan, is excellent.

Read more: About Mountain Echoes, 2016

Sometime in between all this, Padma Lakshmi wrung her hands about the paparazzi, her reputation, and her battle with endometriosis, in that order, and rather gracefully, dodged questions about Salman Rushdie. In an interview that appeared a week later, her former husband made snarky comments about her intellectual abilities. Ah, some men never get over their breakups.

Yup, most of the time, literature festivals are tedious. Surprisingly, Mountain Echoes, like the best Bhutanese spirits, only gets better. That is high praise indeed from an utterly blase litfest veteran.

First Published: Sep 15, 2017 22:24 IST