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Climate change and preserving identity dominate Bhutan’s literary festival

Starting with a sobering talk on climate change, this year’s Mountain Echoes festival also tackled Bhutan’s national identity and how the fledgling democracy would negotiate inevitable change and the aspirations of its younger generation.
At the festival in Thimphu, Bhutan’s unspoilt beauty and its status as a carbon sink emerged as a source of pride. Getty Images
At the festival in Thimphu, Bhutan’s unspoilt beauty and its status as a carbon sink emerged as a source of pride. Getty Images

How do you preserve your identity when sandwiched between the two largest, most populous countries on Earth? These and other questions about the changing face of Bhutan were brought up at Mountain Echoes, a three-day Bhutanese literary festival held in the capital Thimphu from August 26 to 28.

Run by Siyahi, a literary consultancy based in Jaipur, India, in conjunction with the India Bhutan Foundation, the festival, now in its seventh year, has evolved from an event largely dominated by Indian writers to a wholly Bhutanese festival. But the journey has not been easy.

“For the first time, we have more Bhutanese speakers than Indians,” said Bhutanese author and festival director Tshering Tashi. “But we had to beg, cajole and arm twist.”

Indian author Namita Gokhale. who is also a festival director, added: “Bhutanese writers are so modest, so humble, that we have had great difficulty in getting them to come up on stage and talk.”

One of the goals of Mountain Echoes is to get more Bhutanese to start reading. This is not easy in a country where until recently stories were handed down orally from generation to generation, often in isolated villages whose only source of books was a monastery.

It was an achievement then, that this year’s festival featured writers ranging from children’s authors to Buddhist monks. The audience was equally diverse, too – students rubbed shoulders with the country’s Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

The festival began with a sobering talk on climate change by Indian author Amitav Ghosh, who discussed his new book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Ghosh was unequivocal in saying that disaster lay in store for the world in general, but particularly for mountain kingdoms such as Bhutan.

“There is a lot we can learn from Bhutan’s eco-friendly ways. But for no fault of their own, they are going to face a catastrophe,” he said. Bhutan is a small state in the Himalayas and many of its glaciers are rapidly retreating.

Ghosh was also vocal about a key message of his book: how writers and artists have ignored climate change. “Obviously literature can’t solve the problem of climate change, but as a writer, I feel that it should at least reflect the issues of the time.”

Many audience members had much to say about Bhutan’s fierce sense of national identity. “For the first few years I did not come to this festival because I thought there were too many Indian [writers]; we’ve had enough of Indian imperialism,” said one member, who did not want to be named. “This year I am glad we are talking more about Bhutan.”

There was a deep pride in Bhutan’s unspoilt beauty, unique status as a carbon sink and its pioneering “gross national happiness indicator”, which saved it from the unbridled growth that has consumed India and China. But equally, there was frustration at being typecast as a tiny, quaint, picture-postcard country. And much worry about how a fledgling democracy – Bhutan became one only in 2008 – would negotiate inevitable change and the growing aspirations of the young.

In one session titled “Brand Bhutan”, Dasho Ugen Tsechup Dorji, a prominent businessman, spoke about Bhutan’s evolving identity. “Tourists tell me Bhutan is so beautiful. Please keep it this way. And I ask ‘Do you want me to put it under a glass bowl?’ The reality is we can’t keep it that way. At the end of the day, if people don’t get richer, if the young don’t get opportunities, we will have problems.”

Travel writer Pico Iyer, who was born in England to Indian parents, also warned about the dangers of keeping Bhutan in a bubble. “We visitors have to be careful what we wish for other countries. We practise an imaginative colonialism. We want places we travel to stay quaint, while we live in New York.”

Rapidly changing traditions in Himalayan climbing, mostly for the worse, were the theme for Dhamey Tenzing Norgay, the son of pioneering mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, who works to help the Sherpa community. “Hillary took only four photos on Everest, two of my father and two of the peak. None of himself. Can you imagine it in today’s Instagram world?” said Norgay, referring to the first successful expedition to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953.

In a lively session, Indian writers Ira Trivedi and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan talked with Bhutanese writer Monu Tamang about how the young in both countries were becoming more open about relationships, despite traditional restrictions. “But not that open,” said Tamang. “People reviewed my book on my Facebook page but they inboxed me all their thoughts on the [relationship] bits.”

Amid all the talk of rapid change, some of the most popular sessions were also about staying still. Speaking on the art of stillness, Iyer said: “The best thing when faced with a crisis is not to panic or move around, but to be still.” Bhutan, at the crossroads of its future, would know that better than any nation.

Kavitha Rao is a Bangalore-­based journalist.

Updated: August 31, 2016 04:00 AM

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