A literary culture is fast developing in South Asia.
Literature festivals, big or small, successfully sweep the South Asian region.
South Asian countries are vigorously undertaking scholarly endeavors by hosting various literature festivals that have become annual events, especially in Pakistan and India. This year, Bhutan held the third edition of its literary festival, titled ‘Mountain Echoes.’ The event was held from May 20 to 24 in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Commencing in 2010, the event is a joint venture of the India-Bhutan Foundation.
Bhutan seldom captures global attention and remains hidden behind other South Asian countries when it comes to the promotion of literary pursuits. Though a number of outstanding writers have emerged from Bhutan proving their mettle in the international arena, they have not yet been given the recognition they deserve. Mountain Echoes gives such writers a platform from where they can proudly showcase their talent.
This year’s festival was attended by well-known South Asian authors, including Vikram Seth, Ali Sethi, Kishwar Desai, Ashok Ferrey, Dayanita Singh and Gulzar. They rubbed shoulders with their Western counterparts including Patrick French and William Dalrymple. The festival, meticulously planned, was arranged through the patronage of the Queen of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.
The India-Bhutan Foundation gets due credit for conceiving Mountain Echoes and making it a successful event. The foundation was formed in 2003 when the King of Bhutan,
Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck offered his services to support India in reinforcing their relationship. The groundwork of this initiative was carried out in 1958 when the late king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck first established friendly terms with Jawarharlal Nehru.
Though Mountain Echoes is a step forward, Bhutan’s literary culture remains fragile to say the least. Bhutanese writers don’t enjoy the same limelight as their Indian and Pakistani counterparts. Bhutan has also experienced a sluggish literary evolution. Kunzang Choden, author of Circle of Karma, became the first Bhutanese woman to publish an English novel in 2005. Bhutan does enjoy a healthy oral culture but its literary domain lacks vigor, which needs immediate rejuvenation to compete with other South Asian countries.
The problem in Bhutan lies in its social strata, which is skewed towards the elite comprising bureaucrats and politicians, who seldom pay heed to the growth of literature. Most intellectuals, writers and readers belong to the middle or lower class thus making it difficult for them to pursue their literary activities. Furthermore, the country’s low literacy rate is also a reason why the culture of reading and writing is still sitting with closed wings. Mountain Echoes will help the country step out of a cocoon of unfamiliarity to new trends in literature. The benefits of such a move will be economical, political and social, thus engaging in meaningful dialogue with other countries.
Of late, South Asian countries have hosted their own literature festivals featuring local and international writers. Sri Lanka’s Galle Literary Festival has been held annually since 2005. India has been hosting Asia’s largest literature festival, Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) since 2006 while Pakistan’s Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) made its debut in 2010. Though the Galle Literature Festival has been going on for seven years, it has failed to muster as much popularity as JLF and KLF,
Though the Galle Literature Festival has been going on for seven years, it has failed to muster as much popularity as JLF and KLF, primarily because of the plethora of writers that the events in Jaipur and Karachi draw and the media coverage they receive.
primarily because of the plethora of writers that the events in Jaipur and Karachi draw and the media coverage they receive.
Following the examples of JLF and KLF, Nepal took a daring stride by hosting its own international literary festival in 2011. The Kathmandu Literary Jatra was a three-day event featuring William Dalrymple, Mohammed Hanif and Tarun J. Tejpal. Bangladesh also organized a literary event, the Hay Festival, in 2011 in collaboration with the British Council. The festival featured Bangladesh-born, Londonbased award-winning writer Tahmima Anam along with Bangladeshi poets and writers Kaiser Haq, Farah Ghuznavi and others, British author Andrew Miller and British television journalist Nik Gowing.
Looking at these yearly pursuits, one might wonder if a literary culture is brewing up. The younger generation in South Asia, India and Pakistan in particular, is more open to ground realities as they seem to accept inadequacies of their respective governments and society and boldly express their thoughts in their written works. The shift in trends and attitudes has indeed facilitated both Pakistan and India to promote regional harmony through literature.
Such literary festivals not only motivate local writers in showcasing their best work but also highlight the South Asian region. Regional conflicts have tarnished the image of South Asia for decades. Festivals such as these give Western authors a chance to interact with their South Asian counterparts and realize the positive side of the region that is often buried beneath skirmishes.
Mountain Echoes is one such joint endeavor that supports the mandate of the India-Bhutan Foundation to strengthen bilateral ties and enhance educational, scientific and cultural cooperation, bringing people of both countries closer. Organized for the third year in a row, Mountain Echoes heralds a new era of engagement and partnership between India and Bhutan to stand united for the promotion of literature in South Asia.