Bhutan: Literary festival, Mountain Echoes
Like the recently held SAARC summit, the Bhutanese environment seems to be having quite an effect on visiting writers attending the ongoing literary festival, Mountain Echoes.
But perhaps because it involves writers, instead of politicians, sexual jokes, night hunting and gossip accompanied some of the topics during the second day of the literary festival being held here in Thimphu.
“I’ve heard most of the Indian writers before, but here they seemed more relaxed and better engaged with the audience,” said publisher and editor-in-chief of Penguin India, Ravi Singh, who has attended several other such literary festivals in India.
“I don’t want to sound condescending, but I’ve been impressed by every single Bhutanese speaker as well,” said the publishing company’s editor. So far, Bhutanese writers such as Kunzang Choden, Dasho Karma Ura, Dasho Kinley Dorji, parliament member Sonam Kinga, opposition leader Tshering Tobgay, and Siok Sian Pek Dorji have spoken at the festival.
Ravi Singh said he had observed that Bhutanese writers were trying to find their way in this new landscape, in reference to the first ever literary festival being held in Bhutan. “There’s no self indulgence,” he said, adding that the Bhutanese speakers have been thinking “outside the sphere” and in a “deep” and “honest” way.
By ‘deep’, Ravi Singh was probably referring to his afternoon session with Dasho Kinley Dorji, which touched upon Bhutan’s development, and its cultural identity and preservation approach. Dasho Kinley was subjected to a number of tough questions. For instance, Singh asked Dasho Kinley, whether there is a “worry when championing this (national identity or shared culture) through your writings or otherwise, that there is a danger of homogenising, because you’re talking about human beings?”
Dasho Kinley replied that, as a socially diverse country, the pluralism of society was accepted as part of the national consciousness.
During the question-answer session, an audience member observed that Dasho Kinley’s session showed a desire to “freeze” culture at a “particular point”, when it is actually a dynamic process. Dasho Kinley replied humorously that personally, “I’d like Bhutan to have remained hidden.” He said that Bhutanese society is also engaged in this debate, and that a middle ground or path has to be found.
Dasho Kinley’s session also included a joke, as narrated to him by a traditional storyteller, that involved infidelity and animals.
The honesty of Bhutanese writers, as described by Penguin editor, Ravi Singh, was perhaps most reflected by MP Sonam Kinga, who in response to a question on ‘night hunting’ provided a rather too detailed narrative description of the rural culture. “It’s a kind of dating or courtship,” said the MP, “which the coming of electricity has undermined.” The MP was actually speaking about katsoms or Bhutanese alphabetic poetry, and had briefly mentioned the practice during his presentation.
Another highlight of the second day of the literary festival was award winning author Patrick French’s quest for Younghusband. The author of Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, said that Bhutan would probably not be in the “strong position” it is today if not for the present monarchy being established in 1907. His Majesty the first Druk Gyalpo, Ugyen Wangchuck, accompanied British officer Younghusband as a mediator during the former’s invasion of Tibet at the beginning of the last century.
French said that the invasion was the “most remarkable but most pointless campaign by the British Raj.” He explained that, as a result of the campaign, “a trade mart was opened in Gyentse, and that was it.”
The historical author also added that he is currently working on a book, of which, Bhutan will be a major part.
The last session of the day focused on blogging and new media. Opposition leader Tshering Tobgay, who is a prolific blogger, and one of two politicians, who uses the internet to publicly interact, shared his online experience.
He pointed out that he uses his blog, which he referred to as his own private newspaper, to encourage people to discuss issues.
Although he acknowledged that his readership represents a minority, he said, the blog “forces me to think all the time, similar to a journalist.” He added that more politicians need to blog, and not just before elections but throughout their terms.
He also pointed out that his blog receives the most discussion from topics that deal with the law and the media.
Although the three-day literary festival ends today, some participants, despite appreciating the quality of presentations and interaction, pointed out a negative aspect.
“There’s so much to learn, I’m not going to be able to process it all, there’s so much information and that’s the only downside to it,” said visiting journalist Omair Ahmad, who added that there was certainly a difference from other literary festivals by having it in Bhutan. “I’m glad it’s going so well.”