Mountain Echoes: Day one

Asian Window,18 May 2010


Mountain Echoes: Day one

Namita Bhandare from Thimphu on Bhutan’s first literature festival:

Talk about journalistic privilege. Ambassador and writer Pavan Varma’s beautiful, willowy daughter Batasha looks at me sympathetically when I whisper to her: “I really have to file.” So, notwithstanding her seven-inch heels, she gamely takes me up through the kitchen and service area to her father’s fabulous wood-panelled study, sits me down on his computer and five minutes later I am in business. Batasha, incidentally, is a journalist, so the empathy is easy to understand.

Earlier this evening, the Queen Mother, Arshi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the ‘chief royal patron’ of Bhutan’s first-ever literature festival delivers the keynote address at the India House Auditorium. With the clear voice of a very young girl, she talks of Bhutan’s rich tradition of oral literature and how the arts play a crucial role in the understanding of culture. There’s only a hint of disapproval when she mentions that Bhutanese youth are somewhat more inclined towards ‘television and other distractions’ and hopes that the litfest will ‘inspire creative writing in our youth’.

The Queen Mother is the eldest of four sisters, all of whom are married to the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Each of the sisters has her own palace, the king lives in a log hut. Bhutan’s monarchy follows the principle of primogeniture: the eldest male son is the heir. When the king abdicated, it was in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, a 30-year-old bachelor who is the son of another wife, not the Queen Mother.

The Queen Mother’s eldest child is a girl, Sonam Dechhen who accompanies her mother for the inauguration dressed in yellow silk brocade. She is attentive and courteous and holds her mother’s handbag for her. Later, the Queen Mother proudly tells me that her daughter, a Harvard Law School graduate, is Bhutan’s first constitutional lawyer. Sonam who looks no more than 17-years-old to me shyly mentions that she is also the mother of a five month old baby.

The highlight of the inauguration is a keynote address by Bhutan’s first prime minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley who was elected to a five-year term last year. Thinley’s talk, not unexpectedly, is about his country’s concept of Gross National Happiness. “Are we as communities becoming more civilised through the process of development?” he asks. “Are we more secure, more at peace with ourselves?” By the end of his 30-minute talk, there is not one person in the audience who isn’t a convert. “Our material growth has come at the cost of impoverishing our minds and our spirit,” he says. Arshi Dorji, whose husband, the fourth king, developed the concept of GNH in the early seventies, listens carefully. “GDP-led market economics is unsustainable and does not result in happiness,” the prime minister says. She nods vigourously.

Is happiness quantifiable? Apparently yes. There is a complex set of equations and permutations that have been worked into GNH. And the last census report asked people the all important question: were they happy? According to Thinley, 3 per cent said they were not very happy, 52 per cent said they were happy and 45 per cent said they were ‘very happy’. The Centre for Bhutan Studies is at present conducting its next survey. I’m told the results will be out in another three months.

The prime minister has a surprise up his sleeve. Apparently, he had earlier asked Pavan Varma if he would agree to have his newest book, Becoming Indian, released during the inaugural function.Varma declined, saying it would be inappropriate. Nevertheless, Thinley pulls out a wrapped copy of the book, requests Arshi Dorji to release it, while Varma looks on.

But there is another reason for true happiness at India House: the nine puppies recently delivered by the Varmas’ labrador. Renu, Varma’s wife, hand-stiched little flannel coats for them. After all why should happiness be a human perogative alone?