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October 16, 2016

What Sets The Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan Apart

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

The seventh edition of the literary festival in Bhutan, held recently, draws one with its unforced silence, discipline and the presence of royalty

“…and, will you marry me?” There was a stunned silence and then hesitant laughter, after the super-sharp, attractive lawyer with defiantly bouncy curls asked for writer Pico Iyer’s hand. A momentary blush lit up Iyer’s face, a flicker of coyness, before he and the audience got the joke. Though I should add, it was only half a joke. Several women later said that they would have loved to propose to the rather reclusive writer with the silky voice and a way with words, who lives in Kyoto with his Japanese wife when he is not globetrotting to literary festivals the world over — or disappearing into a Benedictine monastery in California.

Intellectual pursuits…
I have been to a fair number of literary festivals — from the mammoth Jaipur Literature Festival to smaller, more intimate ones. But the seventh edition of Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan is indescribably special, and rewarding. It isn’t because we are halfway up to heaven in Thimphu: the air thin, the densely green hills unviolated, the pristine Thimphu River rushing along, the clouds so clean you can see your soul in them (that is when the rain clouds aren’t visiting), not to speak of the innate dignity of the Bhutanese.

Nor even because of the evident contrast between the disciplined audience in Mountain Echoes and the unruly and elbow-shoving mobs in most litfests, overrun as they are by socialites of both sexes with literary aspirations, celebrity hunters, those who ask the most inane of questions, people in love with their own voices and those who want to sport a badge of intellectual honour. Until not too long ago, to be described as an ‘intellectual’ was not really a compliment. The pompous ones were sarcastically labelled as such. But, after literary festivals became chic, and your branded bag did not get you enough cachet because everybody had one, brain power was suddenly cool, and writers sexy.

There is a tick-tock-ed-ness about the way the three-day festival unfolds. Sessions end on the dot. People are asked not to leave the auditorium while a panel discussion is on. Nobody eats chips, chews gum or carries on private conversations. Perhaps, it has to do with the presence of the royal patron of the festival. Always referred to as Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, she is present at many sessions — always sitting through each one. A hush descends each time she appears in her elegant silk kiras. Everybody rises as one when she enters, and sits down only after she gestures them to do so.

The seemingly unforced silence and good behaviour may also have much to do with the diverse and interesting topics chosen for discussion, the humour and wit of the Buddhist monks, including a young and charismatic, plain-speaking Rinpoche, the tellers of oral folk tales and the debuting Bhutanese writers who keep us riveted. And, we are reluctant to skip sessions, despite the enticing landscapes and monasteries of the little kingdom nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. Nor does the glam quotient of the festival take away from the business of writing — or, indeed, the philosophy and spirituality that are gently being served.

…And royalty too
Certainly, glamour is here. In abundance, but it is subdued, unobtrusive. There is royalty from India: Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan and a member of the Scindia clan from Gwalior, who is an eloquent speaker. This is Raje’s first time at Mountain Echoes, despite the fact that the government of Rajasthan is one of the sponsors, as is literary consultancy Siyahi. Because, well, the CM, a voracious reader, is, by her own admission, afraid of flying. On the last day, she made quite an entrance, wearing a pink kira. Wish I could have captured the expression on the Queen Mother’s face when she saw her wearing the elegant Bhutanese national dress.

There was royalty from Bollywood as well. Tabu is no stranger to the mountain kingdom, or to the Queen Mother. She moved around quite regally and her session with Kelly Dorji, who has returned to live in Bhutan, was ‘houseful’ with people sitting in the aisles. The doors closed early. Tabu glided about in her wine-coloured sari, with her hair in a retro chignon, and an insouciant thin braid tucked in on one side.

Perhaps, the actor will return soon to Bhutan. The debut novel of the former diplomat, high commissioner to Bhutan and author Pavan K. Varma is going to be made into a feature film, half of which will be shot on location in Bhutan — as he announced in a conversation in a session with your columnist. The novel has an enigmatic title — When Loss is Gain — and is a love story. But not just any old love story. It has many passages about spirituality and an engaging comparison between Hinduism and Buddhism. You can be sure that Gulzar, whose poems Varma had translated, will be in the picture — cheering him on if nothing else.

Bhutan may feel like cloud nine. And there is a real though more pedestrian Cloud 9, a charming restaurant said to have the best burgers in South Asia. All festivals have high tables, exclusively for the royalty of the literary universe, and real royalty. But Cloud 9 is a great leveller: the stars came down here to gorge on the burgers.

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