Cli­mate change and pre­serv­ing iden­tity dom­i­nate Bhutan’s lit­er­ary fes­ti­val

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

How do you pre­serve your iden­tity when sand­wiched be­tween the two largest, most pop­u­lous coun­tries on Earth? Th­ese and other ques­tions about the chang­ing face of Bhutan were brought up at Moun­tain Echoes, a three-day Bhutanese lit­er­ary fes­ti­val held in the cap­i­tal Thim­phu from Au­gust 26 to 28.

Run by Siyahi, a lit­er­ary con­sul­tancy based in Jaipur, In­dia, in con­junc­tion with the In­dia Bhutan Foun­da­tion, the fes­ti­val, now in its sev­enth year, has evolved from an event largely dom­i­nated by In­dian writ­ers to a wholly Bhutanese fes­ti­val. But the jour­ney has not been easy.

“For the first time, we have more Bhutanese speak­ers than In­di­ans,” said Bhutanese au­thor and fes­ti­val di­rec­tor Tsh­er­ing Tashi. “But we had to beg, ca­jole and arm twist.”

In­dian au­thor Namita Gokhale. who is also a fes­ti­val di­rec­tor, added: “Bhutanese writ­ers are so mod­est, so hum­ble, that we have had great dif­fi­culty in get­ting them to come up on stage and talk.”

One of the goals of Moun­tain Echoes is to get more Bhutanese to start read­ing. This is not easy in a coun­try where un­til re­cently sto­ries were handed down orally from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, often in iso­lated vil­lages whose only source of books was a monastery.

It was an achieve­ment then, that this year’s fes­ti­val fea­tured writ­ers rang­ing from chil­dren’s authors to Bud­dhist monks. The au­di­ence was equally di­verse, too – stu­dents rubbed shoul­ders with the coun­try’s Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

The fes­ti­val be­gan with a sober­ing talk on cli­mate change by In­dian au­thor Ami­tav Ghosh, who dis­cussed his new book The Great Derange­ment: Cli­mate Change and the Un­think­able. Ghosh was un­equiv­o­cal in say­ing that disas­ter lay in store for the world in gen­eral, but par­tic­u­larly for moun­tain king­doms such as Bhutan.

“There is a lot we can learn from Bhutan’s eco-friendly ways. But for no fault of their own, they are go­ing to face a catas­tro­phe,” he said. Bhutan is a small state in the Hi­malayas and many of its glaciers are rapidly re­treat­ing.

Ghosh was also vo­cal about a key mes­sage of his book: how writ­ers and artists have ig­nored cli­mate change. “Ob­vi­ously lit­er­a­ture can’t solve the prob­lem of cli­mate change, but as a writer, I feel that it should at least re­flect the is­sues of the time.”

Many au­di­ence mem­bers had much to say about Bhutan’s fierce sense of na­tional iden­tity. “For the first few years I did not come to this fes­ti­val be­cause I thought there were too many In­dian [writ­ers]; we’ve had enough of In­dian im­pe­ri­al­ism,” said one mem­ber, who did not want to be named. “This year I am glad we are talk­ing more about Bhutan.”

There was a deep pride in Bhutan’s un­spoilt beauty, unique sta­tus as a car­bon sink and its pi­o­neer­ing “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness in­di­ca­tor”, which saved it from the un­bri­dled growth that has con­sumed In­dia and China. But equally, there was frus­tra­tion at be­ing type­cast as a tiny, quaint, pic­ture-post­card coun­try. And much worry about how a fledg­ling democ­racy – Bhutan be­came one only in 2008 – would ne­go­ti­ate in­evitable change and the grow­ing as­pi­ra­tions of the young.

In one ses­sion ti­tled “Brand Bhutan”, Dasho Ugen Tsechup Dorji, a prom­i­nent busi­ness­man, spoke about Bhutan’s evolv­ing iden­tity. “Tourists tell me Bhutan is so beau­ti­ful. Please keep it this way. And I ask ‘Do you want me to put it un­der a glass bowl?’ The re­al­ity is we can’t keep it that way. At the end of the day, if peo­ple don’t get richer, if the young don’t get op­por­tu­ni­ties, we will have prob­lems.”

Travel writer Pico Iyer, who was born in Eng­land to In­dian par­ents, also warned about the dan­gers of keep­ing Bhutan in a bub­ble. “We visi­tors have to be care­ful what we wish for other coun­tries. We prac­tise an imag­i­na­tive colo­nial­ism. We want places we travel to stay quaint, while we live in New York.”

Rapidly chang­ing tra­di­tions in Hi­malayan climb­ing, mostly for the worse, were the theme for Dhamey Ten­z­ing Nor­gay, the son of pi­o­neer­ing moun­taineer Ten­z­ing Nor­gay, who works to help the Sherpa com­mu­nity. “Hil­lary took only four pho­tos on Ever­est, two of my fa­ther and two of the peak. None of him­self. Can you imag­ine it in to­day’s In­sta­gram world?” said Nor­gay, re­fer­ring to the first suc­cess­ful ex­pe­di­tion to the sum­mit of Mount Ever­est in 1953.

In a lively ses­sion, In­dian writ­ers Ira Trivedi and Meenakshi Reddy Mad­ha­van talked with Bhutanese writer Monu Ta­mang about how the young in both coun­tries were be­com­ing more open about re­la­tion­ships, de­spite tra­di­tional re­stric­tions. “But not that open,” said Ta­mang. “Peo­ple re­viewed my book on my Face­book page but they in­boxed me all their thoughts on the [re­la­tion­ship] bits.”

Amid all the talk of rapid change, some of the most pop­u­lar ses­sions were also about stay­ing still. Speak­ing on the art of still­ness, Iyer said: “The best thing when faced with a cri­sis is not to panic or move around, but to be still.” Bhutan, at the cross­roads of its fu­ture, would know that bet­ter than any na­tion.

( Kavitha Rao is a Ban­ga­lore-based jour­nal­ist).

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