The hills were alive with the sound of musings on the recently concluded Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu.
Mountain Echoes, the Bhutan Festival of Literature, Art and Culture, 2013, opened in Thimphu with a session that featured Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. She spoke about her childhood — but audiences expecting fond reminiscences of playing hide and seek with servant girls in golden palaces were in for a surprise. She spoke about how her father, who was present during her birth in 1955, cut the umbilical cord with a sharpened length of bamboo and handed her over to her grandmother. She spoke about grazing cattle, milking cows, harvesting maize. Festival co-director Namita Gokhale — who was in conversation with Her Majesty, and as astonished as everyone else in the audience — remarked that this was not anyone’s typical picture of royal life.
In the session that followed, Her Majesty demonstrated just how atypical she was. She seated herself in the first row as Amish Tripathi took the stage. After reading out a passage from The Immortals of Meluha, Tripathi was asked how he wrote such strong female characters. He said, “I have always been surrounded by strong women. They didn’t take shit from anyone.” Later, he dropped a “damn” and a “goddamn.” Her Majesty didn’t so much as flinch. Last heard, Tripathi wasn’t in a dank dungeon smarting from whiplashes but thousands of feet above, tweeting, joyously, “On the way from Kolkata to Mumbai. Home sweet home!”
At a theatre workshop in another venue, Mahesh Dattani instructed the participants to form a circle. “Inhale as you raise your arms and exhale as you lower them — till you feel like a bird.” After a few iterations, he asked how they felt. “I felt as if I reduced my body weight,” said a student. An urban planner said, “I felt all alone.” On the walls around them was an exhibition of contemporary Indian paintings curated by Anjolie Ela Menon. Overseen by reprints of A. Ramachandran’s Ek Nayani, Jogen Chowdhury’s The Blue Saree and Tyeb Mehta’s Diagonal, Dattani launched into his next exercise. “Stick that tongue out. You’re a puppy. Pant like a puppy. You can’t feel shy. You’re a puppy.” Afterwards, a participant climbed on a podium and pretended it was a mountain top. The real acting challenge came later. He had to pretend that the view was more interesting than the prospect of a date with Katrina Kaif.
Elsewhere, Jane De Suza, author of The Spy Who Lost Her Head, and Bachi Karkaria wrestled with the idea of making people laugh. “Sense of humour is like virginity,” Karkaria said, to loud laughs from the audience. “You either have it or you don’t.” She then read out a piece where she’d observed how alike Mother Teresa and Shobhaa De were, not least because the work of both women involved a lot of soiled linen.
On the last day of the festival, the Sunday when Nepal beat Bhutan in the King’s Cup football finals at the Changlimithang stadium, a moon-faced comic named Ulap Leki mimicked the sounds of a bird, a train, a scooter, a chainsaw, and a zipper going up and down. And after a session about Bhutan’s murals, many of which depict a certain part of the male anatomy, the emcee joked, “What a great way to start the morning! A bit of spirituality, art, harmony and phallus paintings on the wall.”
The atmosphere throughout the festival was genial and non-stifling — but this did not preclude the discussion of matters of importance. The issue of gender stereotypes, especially, came up in several sessions. Rahul Bose, who was in conversation with Aparna Sen and Lily Wangchuk, the first woman president of a registered political party in Bhutan, revealed that his mother “smoked and drank... and was a lousy cook,” while his father “cooked like a dream... and gave us oil massages.” Sen said that stereotypes are sometimes a function of the cinema we end up watching. “If you grow up with [Satyajit] Ray’s Mahanagar, where the wife works shoulder-to-shoulder with the husband to solve the family’s economic problems, then you have a different perception of women than if you grow up watching movies with item numbers, where all the woman says is that she’s there for the taking.”
Ani Choying Drolma, singer of Buddhist hymns and chants, spoke of growing up in a home with a violent father and a cowering mother. “As a child,” she said. “I always wanted to beat up boys.” Barkha Dutt spoke of her mother, another journalist who refused to cover flower shows and chose, instead, to report from the war front. A few members of the audience furthered, however inadvertently, the stereotyping debate. A schoolgirl was found clutching a Nicholas Sparks novel. And during an excellent session about the environment, which focused on the folly of building a road through one of Bhutan’s most treasured national parks, the woman seated next to me found her attention wandering. She took refuge in her copy of Yeewong, Bhutan’s first and only women’s magazine.
Like all Bhutanese women in the audience, she wore the traditional kira. (The men wore the gho.) I asked her if they always dressed formally. She said no, but this was a special occasion as the Queen Mother was present. The theatre workshop, on the other hand, offered the opportunity to witness a Bhutanese youngster in track pants and a pale pink T-shirt with the legend “The Original Road Trip... East to West... Chicago to San Francisco,” and lime-green Nike sneakers. The swoosh was a bright yellow.
Environmental concerns found their way into the poetry sessions as well. The Filipino writer, Maria Rosa ‘Bing’ N Carrion, read a poem from her anthology titled Word Weavers. (“Shall we leave the future generations/Nothing but parched earth?”) Later, the moderator of the session, Jerry Pinto, stood up to recite poems by Charmayne D’ Souza and Dom Moraes. White bookmarks from the volume in his hand fluttered down like leaves. When the floor was thrown open for questions, a woman read a poem she’d tapped out on her cell phone, charged by all this poetry.
Later, a 10-year-old girl from Grade V, Thimphu Primary School, read a poem about the Karmapa’s sister. Even the emcee was inspired. Her poem was titled ‘My Love Song to India’.
The audience made it clear that this was the kind of event they didn’t come across frequently in a country that was still opening up to the rest of the world. One of the women who raised her hand with a question was a doctor who’d cancelled her appointments that Saturday. She’d give these patients priority on Monday, she said. And yet, there were concerns from the Bhutanese about aping the rest of the world. Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, journalist and Founder/Director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, questioned the need for 24x7 media coverage and there was spontaneous applause when she remarked that most forums on television are more about shouting matches than self-reflection. Pramod Kumar KG, festival co-director, spoke — in his closing address to this English-speaking gathering — about being more inclusive of local literature, and announced that there would henceforth be two additional co-directors, from Bhutan.
Among the more entertaining sessions were those that delved into the evolution of customs and language. Tshering Tashi, author of several books on Bhutan and a regular contributor to the country’s national newspaper Kuensel, laid out the legend behind the “annoying habit of chewing paan and spitting.” Earlier, he said, the country was filled with savages who ate each other until Guru Rinpoche weaned them off this practice by advising them to eat paan, whose red juice symbolised blood. Another session revealed the genesis of puchkas. A British mistress, looking out of her house, noticed a man selling pani puris. “Push cart,” she yelled. “Push cart.” Her servant, who didn’t know English, ran to the gate shouting “Puchka!” Apocryphal or not, the story made people smile — as did the deft handling of the more questionable audience questions. When someone asked, apropos of nothing, why some Buddhists ate non-vegetarian food, the speaker smiled and replied, “That’s because we Bhutanese really like meat.”
Mountain Echoes, produced by the literary agency Siyahi, is a diplomatic exercise intended to enable the exchange of thoughts and ideas between two neighbouring nations — but Dorji Dhradhul, a first-time author, proved that a little advertising and self-promotion was entirely in keeping with the spirit of a festival that celebrates books. Asked to read from his Escapades: Awakenings, he shrewdly chose a passage about a girl forced into sleeping with a man old enough to be her grandfather. “No hand had ever ventured to that part of her body,” he read, and then asked the audience innocently, “I hope I am not boring you.” Most heartily assured that he wasn’t, he read some more, till a violent struggle ensued between the characters. Then he stopped. “What happens next?” someone asked. He replied, “Buy the book.”