The Himalayas are booked

Mid Day,15 May 2010


The Himalayas are booked

With the Bhutan Lit Fest kickstarting tomorrow, literature fests just flew out of stuffy 5-star conference rooms into the wild mountainside. And everyone, even the average book lover, can drop in for free. Sowmya Rajaram finds out why literary agents, best-selling authors and bookphiles are suddenly looking for good walking shoes.

IT’S what dreams are made of, or great scripts. You wake up on a sun-drenched morning in a 150 year-old hotel, set off on a city tour and get back before lunch to engage in a chat (in between hysterical laughter) with Zimbabwean-born Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith. The evening sets in and you are holding a stiff martini in hand, your feet sunk into a fat bed of lush grass, while a beatboxing and poetry slam session are on. Ah!
An eventful holiday? You wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that this is what the itinerary reads like on a typical day at one of the few literature fests that the sub-continent hosts. The fifth DSC Jaipur Literature Festival that was held in January this year is chased by Mountain Echoes, Bhutan’s first ever literature festival that kicks off tomorrow in the capital of Thimphu. It’s expected to be another ‘bookish’ event that’s a melange of non-bookish activities, including travelling.

They’ve got the numbers
It’s little wonder then that Le Passage, the official travel and tour organiser for the festival, has created a four-day pre and post-event itinerary for festival goers; one that includes long drives to Haa valley and Dochula Pass, known for their picturesque views and historic forts, squeezed in before and after sessions with graphic novelist Sarnath Bannerjee and author Chetan Bhagat, among others.

At the time this article was written, bookings for the festival were in the range of 80, a clear thumbs up for the marriage of literature and location. “We really didn’t expect large numbers because this is a segment-focussed event. We are surprised,” admits Ichcha Dhupia, Assistant General Manager-Special Projects at Le Passage.

The choice of location is rarely random. Award-winning writer and historian Patrick French says the Himalayan mountain kingdom lends itself to the event perfectly. “It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve visited. It hasn’t been destroyed by insane developers like much of the Indian Himalayas have.” Interestingly, Young Husband, the book he intends to discuss here, has a mountain theme, with much of the story set in the Himalayas.

It’s probably got to do with well-crafted planning on the part of people like Namita Gokhale, director of the DSC Japiur Literature Festival and programme consultant for Mountain Echoes. She says every literature fest needs a powerful local component to help connect the location with the books, sessions and authors chosen. “With Mountain Echoes too, the idea is to build voices from across the mountains and evoke them in the literature, music, culture and philosophy.”

It’s a free-for-all
For book lovers and literary agents, it means a planned opportunity to soak in culture while discussing literature.
Ahalya Naidu, book editor and founder of Literary Angels, combined a visit to the Jaipur fest with sightseeing and serious shopping. “I always wanted to see Rajasthan, and this seemed like the perfect excuse to do so. It fell in line with the Delhi Book Fair too. After Jaipur, I spent a few days exploring Rajasthan before I took off to Delhi,” she says.

This picture is contrary to that of a decade ago when literature festivals attracted intelligentsia to a five-star hotel conference room, for a chance to throw questions at authors lined up on a dias. Mountain Echoes, like the Jaipur festival, is free and open to everyone. No registrations; just general bonhomie in an informal setting like Thimphu’s Tarayana Center that promotes rural crafts and education among locals.

Author Sampurna Chattarji, a participant at Mountain Echoes, has chosen to read extracts from her novel Rupture (2009, HarperCollins). “The point I want to demonstrate through my readings is that the mountains can tug not just at the heart but also the imagination of those who grew up in pristine and breathtakingly beautiful surroundings. A location adds a wonderful dimension to any literary festival. Writers are always looking for new experiences; a new place can only heighten the joy of sharing your work with other creative minds,” she says.

Books can sell hotel rooms
It’s the location-can-make-literature philosophy that drove the birth of the DSC Jaipur fest, says producer Sanjoy K Roy. “The whole point of holding a literature festival in a place like Jaipur was to make it a democratic gathering of book lovers from across the world. We chose everything carefully — a heritage hotel like Diggi Palace, and non-literary activities and performances that included folk music. The idea is to give the festival-goer an experience that goes beyond a book and author. It’s not about people speaking from behind a podium.”

What a lit fest means for a landlocked mountain country like Bhutan is a serious shot in the arm for tourism.

Randhir Brarm Sr. Vice President — Strategic Planning & Development, Le Passage, says, “Bhutan has been relatively closed to tourism. It’s an expensive destination for tourists other than Indians. An event like Mountain Echoes creates awareness about the destination, slowly translating into tourism growth in the region.”

The numbers corroborate his statement. Every year, Roy’s company Teamwork Productions books over 2,400 rooms across hotels in Jaipur for delegates and authors. The growing numbers spur the economy, streaming in funds to develop heritage. “Each year, we generate between Rs 5 to Rs 11 crore from the festival, all in a matter of five days. That’s what good leveraging of a location can do.”

See Thimphu like a pro
Must visit: Taktsang monastery. Located in Paro valley in western Bhutan, it’s perched on a cliff 900 metres above the valley. Also called Tiger’s Nest, it caught fire in 1998, but the holy cave was left intact.
Must do: The weekend market close to the river offers a selection of masks and handicrafts at prices cheaper than at shops.
Must eat: Ema dartsi (red chillies cooked in melted cheese), Dartsi (cow’s milk cheese) and warm arra (local firewater).
Must buy: Choektse (painted lama tables), Thankgas (a Tibetan silk painting with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity)

Beyond books
What happened at the Jaipur Literature Fest?
Poetry readings by Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi, performances by Jaipur Kawa Brass Band, Rajasthani folk musicians, Titi Robin and Gulabo (who presented French world music), a production of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives featuring Baul singers, Sufi Qawali from Sindh, performances by Sara Michieletto and Sharat Shrivastava, Amit Chaudhuri (blues, jazz, rock, and techno), Biddu and DJ Jason Singh.

What can your expect in Thimphu?
A visit to:

>>The famous afternoon market
>>Chimi Lakhang, a fertility temple located on a picturesque hill
>>Ta Dzong, the national museum, Rinpung Dzong, a fortress, Drukgyel Dzong, the ruined fortress from where the Bhutanese repelled several invasions by Tibetan armies
>>Simtokha Dzong, the oldest fortress of the Kingdom which now houses the school for religious and cultural studies

>>How to participate
Mountain Echoes — a literary festival
May 17-21
At: Tarayana Centre, Thimphu
Main airport: Accessible from Paro airport by taxi or bus, it’s a 45-minute ride into the heart of Thimphu
Flights to Paro airport: Delhi-Bhutan flights are only thrice a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday
Entry: free walk-in
Log on to:

The handbook
How to marry literature with travel

>>Check out the itinerary in advance and decide what sessions you want to attend and what you can miss.
>>Do some research and figure what city sightseeing you are interested in and how much time it’ll take. Try and fit it into the time that you have between sessions you’ve chosen to attend.
>>Step out of the venue for lunch. It’s your chance to eat at local joints and savour street food. The way to the heart of a city is through its tastebuds. Yak meat, Momos and Ema Datshi, a dish made of cheese and chilli, are local specialities in Thimpu.
>>Before making bookings, check with travel agents and tour operators about offers they may have introduced to promote travel to the destination.
>>If you are in the mood for an extensive trip, either do it five days before or after the festival, using your location as the starting point. You’ll save on cash.

International book fests coming up

For the world’s best second hand book finds
Hay Festival
27 May to 6 June

Hay-on-Wye, a small market town in Powys, Wales, home to 1,900 residents, is the destination for bibliophiles who cross rivers and fly halfway across the world to camp in tents here for the yearly Hay Festival. This year, find special imprints and drop in at discussions with ex-Pakistani supremo Parvez Musharraf, playwright Tom Stoppard, and Nobel Prize-winner Nadine Gordimer.

Nobel laureates and books by a beach in Jamaica
Calabash Festival
28 May to 30 May

Sounds like a perfect holiday? Well, almost, because this one gives you the opportunity to meet and interact with Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Geoff Dyer and Russell Banks on the sands of Treasure Beach on Jamaica’s South Coast. Plus, a rare screening of late Jamaican director Trevor Rhone’s 1976 comedy classic Smile Orange, a performance by Reggae superstar Freddie McGregor and an acoustic exploration of the lyrics of Bob Marley’s final studio album Uprising.

International greats in Prague
Prague Writers’ Festival
06 June to 10 June

Meet the likes of Iain Banks and Derek Walcott at this popular literary festival that’s one of Europe’s liveliest gatherings of renowned authors. Book readings, presentations, screenings and concerts are part of the schedule.

Top 3 quirky trivia
Bhutan’s national sport is archery. Because it’s a Buddhist nation, a bow and arrow can only be used for play, and when making arrows, one can use only feathers that are found on the ground; no birds can be killed. Each village has its own archery range and most competitors use traditional, hand-carved bamboo bows.

Bhutan uses Gross National Happiness (GNH), not Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the primary indicator to gauge the health of the country’s economy. This is based on the premise that human society’s true development takes place when material and spiritual development occur side-by-side.

TV came to Bhutan only in 1999. The delay was a safeguard against excessive modernisation.