Mountain Echoes in Thimpu

Seminar Magazine



It was poetic, lyrical and most unusual. There was none of the hype, the pushing and shoving, the endless public relations jig. Instead, there was a sense of camaraderie and a gracious respect for one another. For me it was a privilege to attend the first ever literary festival in Thimphu, with the Queen Mother as its patron. The inauguration of Mountain Echoes by Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, at the auditorium of the Indian Embassy, hosted by the Ambassador, Pavan Varma, was a charming launch replete with happy welcomes and poetry readings from both nations, Bhutan and India.

Her Majesty lit the lamp, and welcomed the participants, establishing Mountain Echoes as a yearly event that will bring writers and poets together in Bhutan each year. This was followed by an address by the Prime Minister, His Excellency Jigmi Yoezer Thinley, on Gross National Happiness and Bhutan’s quest for an inclusive governance of the Kingdom where growth is marked on indicators of happiness. As a young nation that functioned as a democracy even under its much loved Monarch, Bhutan is experimenting with a way of life that could become the mantra of the future in a fast globalizing world. We all have a great deal to learn from their chosen path particularly in a greedy and strife ridden world. This was followed by a series of readings that set the mood for the days ahead.

Ambassador Varma hosted a wonderful evening thereafter in his home, spilling onto his garden where dinner was served under decorative Bhutanese canopies with the dramatic backdrop of a pristine, lush green mountain rising up high from the banks of a crystal clear river. It was a magical setting with the Prime Minister, some members of his Cabinet, leader of the opposition, former and present diplomats, scholars, writers, poets, all the participants together, getting acquainted with each other. The Indo-Bhutan Foundation with Siyahi; the Tarayana Foundation, and others had calibrated this event with care and dedication it was clear from the moment the lamp was lit by Her Majesty.

All the sessions thankfully lacked the predictable pomposity of the celebrated exclusive packaged authors who trapeze from festival to festival, actively pushing their envelopes forward. In sharp contrast, this was a non-pretentious exchange of work, ideas, compulsions and camaraderie. It was comparatively small and therefore people attending were able to connect with each other in a fruitful way, letting down their guard as they shared their experiences with one another.

Author and organizer Namita Gokhale in conversation with Pavan Varma in his avatar as a prolific author, was the first intervention. A return to roots culture and identity – It was a riveting exposition with Varma at his eloquent best, speaking out with nuanced restrain, but saying it all. His ease with words, his turn of phrase as he emphatically established his strong point of view, had the audience mesmerized. This was followed by Words as arrows poetry and archery, a fascinating dialogue between a young poet and writer from Shillong, Kynpham Sing, whose poem, Shillong in Haiku, summed up the urban horror of India graphically, and Jigme Drukpa, a folk performer and ethnomusicologist who explained songs sung at archery competitions, played an exquisite string instrument as he danced and sang a special song. Resounding applause.

Then there was Kunzang Choden, a Bhutanese writer of stories, expert on the food and social mores, in conversation with publisher Urvashi Butalia on the theme Of women, By women. Bulbul Sharma and Dorji Penjore on folktales and shared stories; Chetan Bhagat, popular with the young in Thimphu, talking about young writers and young readers; poet Gulzar reciting poems about nature with Pavan Varma translating them for the audience, an extraordinary and memorable jugalbandhi; Patrick French was there in dialogue with Sadanand Dhume on the Quest for Younghusband; Omair Ahmad, author of A Storytellers Tale, and Dasho Karma Ura talked about Bhutan the inner self and then did another session with Mitali Saran on encountering the Himalaya; Namita Gokhale and Pavan Varma had a lively exchange, moderated by Sadanand Dhume, on Ancient Epics, Modern Times; Pek Dorji who heads the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, Ravi Singh of Penguin, Choki Tshomo, Dasho Kinley Dorjie; the Managing Director of Kuzoo FM radio; Leila Seth and Namita Bhandare; Shekhar Pathak on Mapping the Himalaya; and many others made Mountains Echoes a grand success.

Lunches and dinners, one hosted by the Home Minister with an array of unusual Bhutanese cuisine from Yak Skin to Wild Boar curry, a rock music concert at the Clock Tower, an audience with His Majesty at the Indian Embassy where Gulzar Sahib and Pavan Varma gave us the pleasure of another jugalbandhi, much sharing and laughter, added a special dimension to this extraordinary experience in the magical Kingdom, tucked away in the high and formidable, stunning and protective Himalaya.

As Gulzar Sahib has written about Books in his poem dedicated to them :

They peer from beyond

Glasses of locked cupboards,

They stare longingly

For months we do not meet

The evenings once spent in their company

Now pass at the computer screen.

They are so restless now, these books ?

They have taken to walking in their sleep

They stare longingly

And he goes on, ending with ??

But what of

The pressed flowers and scented missives

Hidden between their pages,

And the love forged on the pretext

Of borrowing, dropping and picking up books together

What of them?

That perhaps, shall no longer be!?

This Literary Festival organized by Mita Kapur of Siyahi, and the many others that she conceives of and puts together with deft professionalism, helps to push the envelope and keep books alive and kicking; authors, both aspiring and established, excited with their creative juices flowing, despite the sound-bite culture that has overwhelmed us all; and most importantly, these events are the oases of sanity that nurture and propel flights of the imagination to reach beyond the Himalaya and the skies. At Mountain Echoes it was the young high school audience interspersed with the predictable types like us, that silently, but firmly, endorsed the importance of such encounters.

The grace, dignity and hospitality was unforgettable. Three Cheers