Re­gional Echoes

A lit­er­ary cul­ture is fast de­vel­op­ing in South Asia.

Southasia - - Contents - By Muham­mad Omar Iftikhar

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.

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