Unless you happened to be a writer in search of new audiences or, like me, a journalist tempted by a free junket, there seemed little reason to go to the second edition of Mountain Echoes, the Indo-Bhutan literary festival in Thimphu (May 20-23). A list of half-dozen Indian authors with the biggest star being Shobhaa De and a score of Bhutanese whose names you’ve never heard before is not a bait. And yet, by the end of the four-day litfest—five, if you include the one-day retreat (an excuse really for a getaway at an incredible resort in Paro, but I’m not complaining!)—I dare say each of the hungover Indian literary team of writers, publishers and journalists would snap up an invitation to edition three next year.
Part of the charm was Bhutan. For most of the Indians, it was their first visit. But it says much for the programming that despite the many lures of Thimphu—the mountains, the museums, the monasteries, the bars and nightclubs—the organisers managed to keep their flock riveted to their seats through the back-to-back sessions from ten in the morning till 5.30 pm. That shouldn’t have surprised us, considering we were back in the hands of the team that created that success called the Jaipur Literature Festival—the same clever mix of ideas and fun, the matchmaking of Indian with local writers to generate debate, a Bollywood brigade (scriptwriters Imtiaz Ali, Jaideep Sahni, Rohan Sippy and actor R. Madhavan) more than able to hold their own with the writers, and the winding down with music, wine and food, but without the crowds and the confusion.
It was a fitting answer to the war of words about who really owned the Jaipur litfest—did it owe its creativity solely to co-director William Dalrymple, or did the Indian team who started it have what it takes to create an original litfest of their own? They have, and did—Mountain Echoes was a Jaipur litfest wound down: warm, intimate, not too overpowering to discuss the things that isn’t often discussed at international litfests: vanishing stories, languages, customs, traditions, textiles, architecture and what writers can do to keep them alive.
It was a theme on which Bhutan’s writers had much to offer. There’s Sonam Kinga, a scholar and deputy chairman of the National Council of Bhutan who spends his spare time collecting and translating Bhutan’s epic poems, lozeys, passed on over centuries through oral songs. The English-educated Kinga, with little knowledge of his traditional literature, started translating lozeys when he found a toilet paper inscribed with one or two verses of an 18th century lozey. The language and the characters, springing alive in a way that he’d never known before, hooked Kinga forever: he now has two books of lozeys out.
With no publishers and high printing costs, one would think it’s tough to be a writer in Bhutan. All of them are self-published authors but it’s not like the vanity publishing we know. They could teach our publishers a thing or two about marketing. Take former diplomat Lily Wangchhuk. Last year, when she wrote her first book, Facts About Bhutan, she couldn’t find a publisher abroad. They kept trying to turn it into something it wasn’t: a guide book. Then Lily decided to publish it on her own, hawking it to every outlet, official and unofficial, she could think of. The result: 25,000 copies sold in less than five months. Nor is her book cheap: it’s priced at Rs 1,250.
It was a success story that brought David Davidar to her side, asking her to write a book for his new publishing venture, Aleph. It was very much the Davidar approach that Shobhaa De described so wickedly: grand, without introductions, never considering that he could be refused. Lily was a little taken aback—she had never heard of Davidar before. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing for him. But it was that kind of litfest—it didn’t matter who you were or what you wrote. We were among friends.