Literary Review

Literary notes from Bhutan

(From left) Serena Chopra, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wagchuk and Malvika Singh. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Photo: Special Arrangement

AUGUST 19

Few hours before the flight to Bhutan: A friend, with what can only be misplaced kindness, tells me that landing in the airport in Paro is apparently one of the most dangerous ones in the world. I spend the rest of the time looking up videos of the landing, online.

Druk Air Flight 205: Almost everyone aboard is on their way to Mountain Echoes Literary Festival 2015. After spotting familiar faces, exchanging hellos and eating a surprisingly satisfactory airplane lunch, I settle down to be properly terrified. It’s great timing too, because just then the pilot announces that we have begun our descent.

I can’t completely concentrate on being afraid, though. The view outside is too distractingly beautiful. We lose altitude and draw closer to the thick, rain-laden clouds, scattered over what at first looks like an uninhabited stretch of forest-covered mountains, before the brightly coloured roofs start appearing, like flecks of paint on a green canvas.

Historian Nayanjot Lahiri is sitting next to me. So far, we haven’t really talked. Now, she turns to me and smiles, “Look at that! Beautiful, isn’t it?” I smile in return, understanding her need to share this experience, even with a stranger.

On the bus to Thimphu: A few of us are still talking about how beautiful the airport was, how calm and quiet the small, traditionally designed space. It's raining outside, a gentle, persistent rain which adds a pleasant chill to the air. The entire bus is buzzing with bits of conversation. Behind me, I catch Mayur Sharma and Bahaar Dutt discussing the air and water in Delhi. Next to me, photographer and author Serena Chopra points out landmarks: an iron chain bridge moved from its original location, giant, brightly coloured faces painted directly on the mountains, caves dug into the rock and deities put in, new high-rise buildings with jarringly incongruous glass façades.

On the way, we stop at a little shop right on the edge of the road. Someone buys a bag of peaches and passes it around the bus. Every so often, Mayur laughingly asks if we are there yet. Finally, we are.

Inaugural ceremony, India House, Thimphu: After a quick check in at Druk Hotel, we have arrived at an already packed hall at the Indian ambassador’s residence. While we wait for Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, who is also the royal patron of Mountain Echoes, to arrive, I take in the beautiful traditional dresses the Bhutanese guests have on: the women in silk Kiras and Tegos, the men in their Ghos. Just as I am wondering how the kira is tied, a Bhutanese woman leans towards a lady sitting next to me, “I love your sari! But how do you put it on?”

There are welcome notes by the directors and the organisers and a heartfelt speech on the Queen and her accomplishments by Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay. Finally, the Queen Mother addresses the audience. In a dulcet, dignified voice, she talks about her vision for the festival, which is an India-Bhutan Foundation initiative, powered by the Government of Rajasthan.

The 6th edition of Mountain Echoes coincides with and is part of the celebrations of the 60th birth anniversary of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan. It’s a beautiful ceremony, though for me the highlight is definitely the performance by the young students of Sersang School, who sing and dance with such endearing earnestness that it is quite impossible not to smile.

AUGUST 20

Royal University of Bhutan: The university is surrounded by mountains, clouds, and every shade of green that exists. The different campus buildings are all built in the traditional style, with deep browns of the wood and bursts of bright colours at the edges. There’s a courtyard where students are performing the traditional Bhutanese dance, Joenparlegso Zhabdro, which kicks off the festival. Everything is awash with excitement and colour. Festival Director Siok Sian Dorji declares the festival open, and then the sessions for the day start.

Druk Hotel: It's been a long day, and my head is full of all I’ve heard and seen and experienced. Like many others attending the sessions, I’ve taken notes too, jotting down little nuggets of information and anecdotes. While not everything at the sessions is new, the parts that are make all the difference. I unpack the memories one by one: the fascinating session on Asoka with Nayanjot Lahiri and Sudhir Kakkar, the predictably packed hall as Kalki Koechlin performs her monologue with arresting charm, Tshering Tempa’s beautiful wildlife photographs, the warmth with which Patrick French answered the students’ questions on writing biographies, and finally, Dadi Pudumjee’s Simple Dreams, a performance by The Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust that transforms umbrellas and pipes and bedsheets into birds, animals, and rivers.

It’s late evening now, and the fusion band North East Breeze is playing at the clock tower, which is next to Druk Hotel. Earlier, I had sat on the steps, listening to their renditions of popular Hindi songs. Back in my room, I can still hear them as I get ready for dinner.

AUGUST 21

Buddha Point: We take a taxi in the morning to the gigantic 169 ft tall Buddha Dordenma, a Shakyamuni Buddha statue. It is under construction, and the rain water has turned the dug up ground around it into slush. Even then, the view is stunning. The whole of Thimphu city lies in front of us, cradled by mountains and clouds and trees, giving off the distinct impression that it’s being guarded by them.

On the drive back to the venue, we chat with our taxi driver. His name is Mann and he replied to us first in English, then in fluent Hindi and then, learning that a couple of us are from Kolkata, in fluent Bengali. He’s never been to India, but he’s picked up both languages from TV and radio shows.

Royal University of Bhutan: The second day has an equally large turnout, and there are numerous students from schools crowding the bookshops. I ask one of them if he has been enjoying himself. “Oh it is wonderful! I am really excited about Chetan Bhagat’s session”.

There's a whole day and a half to go before Bhagat's session, though, and the festival, with its three venues, has a line up that has really got something for everyone. I have spent the entire tea break nursing a cup and browsing the schedule; just so that I can figure out how to catch everything I want to.

Clock Tower: Well, I obviously didn’t end up catching everything, but I did manage to catch a lot of sessions— there was Sudhir Kakar and Rahul Jacob’s on Kakar’s new book, The Devil Take Love; activists Ruchira Gupta and Tandin Wangmo’s discussion on trafficking, the female body, sex work, and legal challenges that come with prostitution; Janice Pariat and Meru Gokhale on the process of writing and publishing; and the session titled Himalayan Style with Thomas Kelly, Jambay Dorji and Pramod Kumar KG, which discussed the architecture of Bhutan and other Himalayan regions.

While I haven’t made my way to the Taranyana Centre yet, the reports from those who have are brilliant. Both of Paro Anand’s workshops have especially been a hit, with almost 300 students in each one. “I was afraid that the children would be shy, quiet, when the session is all about shouting and letting go. But they were just wonderful!It was so much fun,” says Anand. “One of them walked up to me later and said, ‘Ma’am, I really like you,’” she adds.

Now, the Bhutanese band ‘Sunny and the Leones’ are playing at the Clock tower. Their music is fast, happy, and really, their name is quite ingenious too.

Motithang Palace: Our dinner tonight is hosted by the Queen Mother, who has thrown her home — which is almost surreal in its beauty — open to the Mountain Echoes panellists and guests. With immaculate hospitality, the Queen greets each one of us personally, and the spread, in all its deliciously authentic, cheesy, spicy glory, is worth writing paeans about.

AUGUST 22

Druk Hotel: It’s the last day of the festival. The weather is a little better. While the sun still refuses to come out, the rain stops intermittently. The first session of the last day is on Gross National Happiness, as formulated by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan. Clearly, a must-attend session.

Taj Tashi: We reached just in time, to an entirely packed room. The session, with Lyonpo Dorji Choden, Dasho Karma Ura, and Dalip Mehta in conversation with John Elliott, turns into an in-depth discussion on the very concept of GNH, and what happiness means to the king.

The rest of the day is a little more laid-back, and the crowd grows thinner. Many panellists, finished with their sessions, have left for a spot of sightseeing. After lunch comes Chetan Bhagat. It would seem like a quarter of the city is packed into the hall, and I find the smallest bit of space to stand. I can’t see Bhagat’s face, but I can see the star-struck ones of the children standing next to me. Clearly, Bhagat’s popularity has crossed borders without losing any sheen.

Dinner, Taj Tashi: Our last dinner at the festival is hosted by the Prabha Khaitan Foundation. There’s a big bonfire and the sharp nip in the air has pushed everyone closer to it. I spot Mita Kapur, the producer of the festival, and notice the understandably relaxed slope of her shoulders. After all, her work here is almost done, and so is this trip, full of books and conversations, beauty and surprises.


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