From the Land of the Thunder Dragon
Mountain Echoes has kicked off to a promising start here in Thimphu, Bhutan. There's usually only so much you can say about a literary festival, but here's one whose location has everyone gushing.
From landing at the gorgeous Paro airport to taking a small walk around a part of Thimphu, a city said to have a population less than South Delhi, a city that didn't used to have proper roads or too many cars even 10 years ago (but has since made up for both), to the majesty of the Himalayas, there's something about this place. I don't know how long the honeymoon period lasts (by 3 years, it's worn off for one foreigner/ resident I spoke to) but so far, so good.
(Hold on, I know it's just been 1 day, and the festival really kicks off tomorrow!)
Speaking of majesty - it's not until you come here and get a good dose of the charisma of this particular royal family, that you understood what people have been raving about. In the Queen Mother's speech, she literally had us at hello - or at least "Hamari sapno ki raani" while welcoming Sharmila Tagore, and has clearly read and enjoyed Seth, French and Dalrymple.
Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk is really not what you'd expect, especially given the other queen mother (who we may always remember as Helen Mirren played her, now, but I digress) -- In Bhutan, the queen mother is gracious and seems to charm everyone she meets. I'd extend that to the royal family, as far as we've briefly met them - King Jigme Wangchuk and Queen Pema are not only poster-children for royalty, but as captivating in real life as the fairy tale wedding would have you believe.
Gushing over royalty apart - and it's fairly interesting that the same group would have no truck with royalty or their airs elsewhere - there's definitely something in the air. It hits at your cynicism, somehow taking the jaded and turning it into something deeper and more resonant. I don't know whether that's me or the Himalayas talking, but this tiny kingdom definitely has a lot going for it.
I had a brief chat with Bhutan's first elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, about elections coming up in 10 months, but also said his message to India is largely that of gratitude and appreciation. This is gratifying for India, because it so rarely happens - most other countries in the neighbourhood have plenty to grumble about ("big brotherliness" and such perhaps giving them genuine ammo).
Other snippets for you - most Bhutanese people speak Hindi, have been hooked on Indian soaps for a quite a few years now (though that may be losing space to Korean soaps at the moment!). I clearly have a lot more to learn about Bhutan, its culture, what young people here are into (apart from Korean soaps and "not reading", it seems), but will keep you posted.
The star attractions at this fest are an eclectic mix, from Vikram Seth, to Gulzar, to Sharmila Tagore (who one Bhutanese girl lost a bet over, when I confirmed to her friend that "yes, that lady standing there is in fact Saif Ali Khan's mother"), not to mention stalwarts like Patrick French and William Dalrymple, who count the Queen Mother amongst their loyal fans.
Ambassador Pavan Varma -- while hosting the inaugural lighting of the lamp session at India House -- did announce that Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk had written, asking if he could be invited! He's actually not here, due to scheduling problems, it seems, but I'm sure he'd fit right in. While at one level there will be inevitable comparisons with the Jaipur literature festival (same core team members organising both, some of the same participants) though this one cannot and should not aim for that sort of massive scale, there's something about Bhutan that leaves you a little less jaded.
There is definitely an air of anticipation, and I am looking fwd to a couple of sessions - including one I'll moderate, between Ali Sethi, Ashok Ferrey, Sujeev Shakya, Kunzang Choden and Shazia Omar...That really is the sub-continent for you, isn't it?
Let's see how it goes. If you're here or want to be, tweet me @amritat!
More about Amrita Tripathi
Amrita Tripathi is a news anchor with CNN-IBN, and also doubles up as Health and Books Editor. An MA in Philosophy from St Stephen's College, Delhi University, she has also taught a few undergraduate classes at her alma mater, informally! When she is not tracking health issues, Amrita is busy chasing the literary dream. Her debut novel Broken News was published in 2010. Before joining CNN-IBN, Amrita worked with The Indian Express.