Nothing quite prepares you for the magical landing in Paro; one of the world’s most dangerous airports. It’s breathtaking setting amid green peaks of Bhutan’s Himalayan range conveyed a feeling of awe mixed with serenity. Apparently only eight Druk Air pilots are trained to commercially land here; more reminiscent of a mountain airstrip than of a major airport of an independent country. Even the capital Thimpu, reached through winding roads high up over a sparkling gorge, is like a beautifully quaint town out of a postcard. Bhutan is one of those places that evokes an aura of myth and mystery in one’s imagination, and somehow it didn’t disappoint, despite the rapid development it went through recently. Bhutan’s challenge is to be part of the modern world while retaining its essence.
I had been invited to the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. Listening to the wisdom of writer Pico Iyer talking about the art of silence took on a new relevance in a place far removed from frenetic bustle. His advice to spend time on one’s inner health made infinite sense, to not just do something, but do nothing, for half an hour a day. Bhutan’s respected Royal Queen mother, Royal Patron of the festival and a writer herself, while conversing with Penguin Random House Editor Meru Gokhale on how to deal with challenges, simply stated, “Everything passes. Just Be.”
For Pico Iyer the local is very particular; comparing modern Japan to a wise old man wearing a cool new t-shirt, imbibing change without being transformed at heart. Rooted in the local yet connected to the global was a running theme.
Preserving oral stories and histories is important for a country sandwiched between two giants, India and China, which managed to protect its kingdom and ward off enemies. Myths and history merge and are inseparable. Ancient cultures with common threads were discussed in a fascinating session which I moderated with Omair Ahmad, author of Kingdom at the Centre of the world: journeys into Bhutan, the award-winning Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera, and Kunzang Choden, founder of a museum of storytelling in central Bhutan, which includes stories of women, long ignored.
Historian Patrick French skillfully navigated us around the world in 50 minutes, covering Bangladesh, India, Turkey, the Middle East, UK and USA. The politicisation of religion, and the surfacing of anger, along with the language of anger, is emerging as a common phenomenon.
Feminine strength was highlighted while discussing individual stories from a wide range of Indian women. Amid patriarchy, sexual violence, poverty and societal expectations, there is also hope for new opportunities, celebration of bonds among women, and an openness about sexuality. Within this fault lines emerge. Research on India’s largest marriage bureau shockingly reaffirmed the age-old preference for light skin, with even modern dating apps catering to this with photoshopping teams.
Amitav Ghosh reflected on the impending catastrophe of climate change, poignant to hear in this pristine country which is attempting to redefine ‘progress’ on its own terms with the concept of Gross National Happiness.
In a festival dominated by Indian writers, I was the only Bangladeshi. Bhutan was perhaps the first country to recognize independent Bangladesh, festival co-director Tshering Tashi proudly reminded me, as we discussed the need for greater literary exchange between Bhutan and Bangladesh.
The intimacy of the festival, the engagement of the authors and the audience, and the warmth of the Bhutanese, meant that I left with great memories, new friends, rested and invigorated, with a lot of ‘soul’ food for thought.