By Saket Suman
Thimphu– Druk Air flight KB 205 that took off from New Delhi on the afternoon of August 24 was no ordinary flight. At Terminal 3 of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, scores of passengers looked on in awe and could sense the excitement brewing in the air as stalwarts from the literary world queued up for the immigration check. The humble Ruskin Bond seemed tired of the long queue, then came Jerry Pinto, followed by Ashwin Sanghi and the list of heavyweight writers only kept increasing with the passage of every minute.
As the cabin crew prepared for takeoff, these stalwarts pulled out their novels and it was quite a sight to behold! Fancy an entire aircraft, flying high over the Himalayas, with all its occupants sharing a common interest — the love for books. There were readers, there were writers and there were visitors to the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival from several quarters of the world.
After a splendid two-hour drive from the Paro airport, the gathering of the literary fraternity reached the picturesque capital of Bhutan but there was little time to soak in the countryside. Everybody headed to a glittery event hosted by Indian Ambassador Jaideep Sarkar for the inauguration of the annual literary extravaganza where Bhutan’s Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, staged a poetry recital along with a 16-year-old student from the Bhutan High School. It was twenty minutes of absolute silence, a meditation session for visitors and a sneak peek into the Bhutanese way of life and thinking. Togbay’s humble nature and splendid performance was greeted with a roaring round of applause.
The same evening, the country’s Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, stressed upon the fact that this literary gathering is the most anticipated event in Thimphu’s cultural calendar and that she has personally seen its impact on young Bhutanese. She was also delighted that in the eighth edition of the festival, Bhutanese authors had outnumbered Indian authors.
But it was not quite the same a few years ago. Bhutanese are shy and simple people by nature and just three years ago, they were unwilling to participate in the festival and even those who did, were not too stage-friendly. Festival co-director and acclaimed Indian writer Namita Gokhale spent hours building their confidence. “Hold on to your microphones as your Indian counterparts will snatch every moment on stage,” she had told Bhutanese authors at a tea-party earlier.
Over the next three days, it was a cultural milieu of sorts. On one hand, you had headline Indian authors interacting with their Bhutanese counterparts and, on the other, there were young Bhutanese students — innocent and curious — getting a walk along the Indian way of life.
Consider 18-year-old Sonam Palden, for instance: He only knew that India is a “huge” country in the neighbourhood but after attending sessions by Indian authors, he found out that the people of the two countries “are very similar”.
“I know a lot more about India than I did before. I was so surprised to know the similarities between Buddhism and Hinduism thanks to Devdutt Pattanaik. I also got an autograph of Ruskin Bond,” said Palden, who bought a copy of Shashi Tharoor’s “The Great Indian Novel” from the festival store.
As the day’s programme reached its culmination, most of the visiting Indians made their way to the local pubs, primarily Mojo Park — the hub of Thimphu’s nightlife. Here, they interacted with local Bhutanese, sang songs at the open-mic session and, of course, a lot can happen over vodka shots! While the Bhutanese were seen gathering around the likes of Barkha Dutt and Imtiaz Ali, the Indians also came face-to-face with the live band culture of Thimphu, which is not quite the scene back home.
And to avoid any untoward circumstances, which fortunately did not arise, festival director Mita Kapur mingled in the crowd, on each of the nights, a glass of wine in hand.
The three-day literary extravaganza in arguably the happiest country of the world turned out to be more than just a gathering of book lovers and writers. With dinner diplomacy and actual engagement of visiting Indians with Bhutanese locals in pubs, handicraft shops and musical evenings, the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival has indeed set a benchmark for events of its kind in the subcontinent as far as enhancing people-to-people contact is concerned.