Of loving and leaving Bhutan
Bhutan is one of those places that just leaves an imprint - but as I write that, I think of other places visited, people met, and wonder what the difference is. Gross National Happiness index apart, what is it about the Bhutanese that leaves such a mark? Well, we undoubtedly met a remarkably charming bunch - including brief encounters with royalty - but the landscape itself is breath-taking. There's something about being in the shadow of such magnificent mountains. Mountains and prayer flags ... that'll do it, every time
Photograph by Nishat Hayat
From the airplane, if you've done your booking right, you'll be sitting on the left side of the plane as you fly in, and on the right side of the plane as you leave Bhutan. The helpful Druk Air pilot will point out the Annapurna range of mountains, Kanchenjunga, and the majestic Mt Everest. People - well-travelled people, I hasten to add - clapped as they spotted it, though one person did sound a trifle disappointed -"That's it? Where's the snow?!"
Back on the ground, it's not just the physical - there's a spiritual presence that's hard to miss. I daresay many people go in sceptical, but for me, it was a beautiful re-introduction to Buddhism. A group of us traveled to one of the most revered places - Tiger's Nest, in Paro. Also called Tatskang, it's where Guru Rinpoche is believed to have touched down, along with his tiger. The cave is holy and gives off an energy - the cave is where he meditated. There is something wonderful and serene about the atmosphere. You must keep in mind, that it takes about 2 hours of climbing to make it up here, but boy is it worth it.
We were also given "blessed" cheese balls by a darling Tibetan monk, who apparently took pity on our starving motley crew!
Photograph by Neela Venkatraman
What else can I say about this wonderful kingdom, which will hold its second-ever elections next spring? The Prime Minister Jigme Thinley told me his message to India was one overwhelmingly of gratitude, for its support over the years.
Politics and the official party line apart, I have to say I was struck by just how adorable Bhutanese children are (I could be heard telling all and sundry that "I want one", but let's not read into that, shall we?!)
Sharmila Tagore was a hit - from the Queen Mother to schoolchildren, she made time for her fans.
Photographs by Nishat Hayat
I'm not sure what the grander "purpose" of literature or cultural festivals is, besides serving as a platform for people to meet. And on that front, this one was a profound success. Yes, there could be more Bhutanese representation, yes there could have been more time for audience participation, but what a refreshing change to have a smaller group interact more thoroughly, and it's always a good thing to leave people wanting more, n'est-ce pas?
Photograph by Nishat Hayat
I enjoyed my session with Patrick French, on India: A Portrait. He fielded all sorts of questions - including on his next "Himalayan task" ... Quite literally. He is writing a book on the Himalayas, and is traveling through Bhutan at the moment, getting a handle on his material. He doesn't choose small topics, does he?! But definitely has a way of picking out anecdotes and interviews that illuminate a large canvas, so that is one to look forward to. French is no stranger to the area either - having written Younghusband and Tibet, Tibet (which I must read post-haste!) and having attended the coronation of the Fifth King Jigme Wangchuk and Queen Pema this past year, he's as much a Friend of Bhutan as a Friend of India. (I don't know, am I not allowed to confer such a status?!)
On the final day of the session, we did have very strong readings from Namita Gokhale and Kishwar Desai as well - taking a stand on ownership of the feminine voice.
The "SAARC summit" that I jokingly referred to, was a fabulous one as well, and we got great feedback. How could we not? With wonderful authors - Kunzang Choden from Bhutan, Ashok Ferrey from Sri Lanka, Ali Sethi from Pakistan, Sujeev Shakya from Nepal, and Shazia Omar from Bangladesh - it was a packed session.
Photograph by Upasana Dahal
I did rack my brain looking for a common theme to tie them all together, and settled on "the identity of politics"... Kunzang read from a book, detailing her journey to a school run by Irish nuns, how at 9 she was harangued about her surname, and also the trauma of being bullied by a girl from western Bhutan who mocked her for being a girl from the East. The betrayal was palpable, and it was a moving tale indeed. Ashok Ferrey read from Serendipity, and demonstrated what happens when we don't talk about the elephant in the room - in this case a Sri Lankan expatriate who is horrified that her daughter (brought up in England) considers Sri Lanka home... They never do get around to talking about the girl's Tamil parentage, and that is something that clearly sticks in the throat, splintering their entire relationship.
Ali spoke about an incident where he was forced to face one of the fractured identities in his home country - having never had to choose before between being Pakistani and being Punjabi... detailing an encounter he wrote about in the New York Times, which culminates with him unable to leave an area at threat of flooding by a certain road, because Baloch militants are taking out Punjabi passengers and shooting them.
Shazia spoke about emancipation and women - a touching story about a woman who decides to use her limited funds to help her daughter get an education, as opposed to spoiling her no-good husband with extra desserts ... it ends with the woman "emancipated and loveless", listening to her husband snore. She got more than her share of understanding smiles from Kishwar Desai, Sharmila Tagore, and other women in the audience.
Sujeev spoke about the challenges Nepal is dealing with today - in many ways the counter-point to Bhutan's struggle with sudden change and democracy. How groups are pushing to have their main identities taken into account - with his community, the Shakyas pushing for a sort of charter of representation.
The icing on the cake was a young audience member talking about his experience studying in South India, no less (generations of Bhutanese have studied in India, from boarding schools in Kalimpong or Sanawar, to a monastery in Mysore, to Delhi University).
I keenly felt the need for people to speak about identity, to re-claim their narrative, and could not have asked for a better, more articulate group.
I could go on, but instead, we will look to put up some of the video from our sessions, and invite you to weigh in with your comments.
Were you at Mountain Echoes? Are you in Bhutan? Tweet me @amritat or @ibnlive with your feedback.
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.