Once upon a time, in Thimpu..

  • Times of India,29 May 2010


Once upon a time, in Thimpu…

Last week, on a cold, but diamantine evening, the wispy Tripti Kharbangar, vocalist of the Shillong rock band Soulmate, brought the neighbouring mountains down on the Clock Tower square, downtown Thimphu, Bhutan. The Clock Tower square, located off the capital’s main artery, Norzin Lam, is an amphitheatre of sorts. The backdrop is made up of the pine-packed hills of the Himalayas, frozen in time like some crenellated, giant prehistoric animal.

It was against this dramatic backdrop that half the grossly happy population of Thimphu watched Tripti explode rhythmically into orgasms of highoctane sounds. They clapped, whistled and danced, and presumably went home feeling superior to their friends who missed the best evening of the Mountain Echoes, a culture festival, held under the auspices of the India-Bhutan Foundation.

The event was a brainchild of India’s ambassador to Bhutan, Pavan Varma. The four-day festival, on the face of it though, seemed to have done the impossible job of actually rousing no controversy at all if only because the participants seemed to have taken a secret vow not to antagonise their colleagues and co-sufferers of the host nation.

The star was, of course, the unmistakable Gulzar whose moonlight and river and lost love poetry went down very well with the moonlight and river and the lost love audience.

The thing with Gulzar’s poetry is that it is crucially dependent on his own deep, tobacco-smokey voice to trick tears out of a genteel crowd on a wine-sodden evening, leaving them feeling a little silly the next morning. This was hardly a drawback because the poet was there in the flesh. The crowd, a little more Indian than Bhutanese, loved the maudlin magic, and rooted for him.

You could see other artistes — of varying degrees of prominence — as well. There was Shashank Ghosh, creator of the unforgettable Quick Gun Murugan, Namita Gokhale, writer and a key architect of Mountain Echoes, Penguin Books’ Editor, Ravi Singh, academic and writer Sanjoy Hazarika, children’s story writer and poet, Sampurna Chatterjee, author Patrick French, and Bhutanese writers like Kunzang Choden, Sonam Kinga and Dasho Karma Ura on more or less permanent display.

Flaunted like a trophy for the first half of the week — and missing totally in the second was the Indian novelist and emerging TV panellist, Chetan Bhagat who looked at all times as if he was going to say something very important, but was determined not to say it because the coffee was just not right. Or maybe it was not so important after all.

There was the vivacious Bollywood actor, Tisca Chopra, lending a dash of colour to the, at times, dowdy proceedings. All in all, it was a merry crowd and once the drinks, especially the hot arrack fermented from buckwheat, went around, it was possible to take literature seriously.

The Bhutanese are a hospitable people. Musicians, drivers, writers and politicians are all uniformly happy. They all love the King who is young (29) and handsome. Your correspondent’s driver was Kachru, who had done a diploma in tourism from Salzburg and thought Europe couldn’t hold a candle to Bhutan.

Funny thing is that he is right. Bhutan is Europe without the urbane affectations. The roads are clean and straight, the river clear and white, the air fresh and cold even in summer, which is now. This is a very fairytale kingdom indeed, a gossamer land floating amidst the peaks of the Himalayas, tenuous as the mist drifting through its blue pines, and the pagodas and palaces rising like visions from its snow-powdered mountains.

Even in Thimphu, the traffic is not much. Unlike Delhi or Mumbai, no one is in a hurry to reach anywhere, presumably because everyone has already arrived; certainly no one seems to be killing himself for a living. As Kachru says, “What do you need money for? When I am old, the King will take care of me.” Bhutan is in the middle of putting a universal pension policy in place, and health care is free for all.

With a king like that and a land like this, why would anyone want to write? Happiness makes words redundant. Writing is for truly sad people. There were quite a few haunting the capital last week in Bhutan.