Literary festivals are usually judged by the caliber of people that they draw and their locations. On that basis, one that has just concluded in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was definitely a winner. Not only did the writers get to meet the 28-year-old monarch, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and other royals, but at Thimphu's great altitude (7,656 feet) it almost certainly qualified as the highest literary festival ever.
Bhutan is a small Buddhist nation sandwiched between the major powers of India and China and is the world's youngest democracy—its first elections were conducted in March 2008. It prides itself on an idealistic development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which bravely strives for “kindness, justice, and equality” and environmental preservation.
The Bhutan Literature festival was an unexpected window to the possibility of harmony and happiness in a troubled region, and a generally troubled world.
This was the setting for Mountain Echoes, a four-day festival attended by daily audiences of more than 200 people, mainly from Bhutan and India, with over 40 speakers, that drew on the country’s rich folk and oral traditions for inspiration.
Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, who opened the festival with a speech on Bhutanese culture, is the author of two books, Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, and Of Rainbows and Clouds. She was followed by the prime minister, Jigme Yoeser Thinley, who explained the GNH philosophy.
Three days of Gross Literary Happiness followed. The venerable Indian poet Gulzar, who won the Best Song Oscar last year with his lyrics for the hit "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, read poems on nature and the mountains in Hindustani, with accompanying English translations by resident Indian ambassador and author Pavan Varma.
Writer and recently elected MP Sonam Kinga talked about “katsom,” a sophisticated vernacular form of poetry, now nearly extinct, that uses an acrostic alphabetic style. Kinga also spoke about the rapid changes in Bhutanese society as it modernizes, and his personal journey from childhood in a remote mountain village to the new Bhutan.
Sessions moved to and fro in time and mood. Historian and biographer Patrick French spoke about the biography he wrote in 1994 of Sir Francis Younghusband, an imperial adventurer who later transformed into a premature hippy. The book enjoys cult status in Bhutan, especially because of its account of an historically controversial 1904 British expedition to Tibet.
A panel on the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata (in which I participated) studied the pragmatic morality of this living text. Even archery, the national sport of Bhutan, made an appearance with archery poems and rousing bow and arrow songs that are a part of local cheerleaders’ repertoires.
At the other end of the spectrum was a session on blogging, where Tshering Tobgay, leader of Bhutan's two-member parliamentary opposition, discussed his use of online outreach as a political tool. Graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee gave an on-the-edge account of the art of anime, while bestselling writer Chetan Bhagat, a youth icon of South Asia, read a naughty passage from his latest novel.
And then of course there was Bollywood. Two sessions on scripting and films debated the inspirations and dangers of big brother Indian films, and documented the hopes and dreams of the fledgling Bhutanese film industry.
South Asia is witnessing a renewed interest in literature, be it print, oral, or digital. India's Jaipur Literary Festival was attended by 35,000 people last January. Local book festivals such as the Doon readings in Dehra Dun and the Kalaghoda festival in Mumbai are increasingly popular. The first Karachi literature festival in Pakistan, inspired by the Jaipur model, was held in March this year. It was filled with talk of books, ideas, and culture, and was an exhilarating success. In all these events, the common effort is to appreciate and promote rooted local writing, and for readers to be able to see, recognize, and understand themselves in the books they read.
In celebrating both the local and the global, the Bhutan Literature Festival was an unexpected window to the possibility of harmony and happiness in a troubled region, and a generally troubled world.
Namita Gokhale is a writer and publisher. She is also co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and program consultant to the Bhutan Literature Festival.