Monday, May 24, 2010

Notes from Bhutan: haiku readings, blogging politicians

Had a good time at Mountain Echoes. Didn’t attend all – or even most of – the sessions, but I still spent more time listening to discussions than I’ve done at any lit-fest in the past three years. The festival wasn’t stuffed with heavyweights but it had a respectable collection of names, a decent-sized hall with good acoustics, and enthusiastic (but not overwhelming) attendance from Indian invitees as well as Bhutanese book-lovers. Very efficiently organised by Mita Kapur and the Siyahi team too. In some ways it reminded me of the first edition of the now-carnivalesque Jaipur Literature Festival, which, believe it or not, was once an intimate event where it was possible to attend a discussion without getting in the way of a stampede. (For more on this, see the January 2006 archives.)

A few notes:

- Many of us were knackered on the first evening, when we were required to attend the inauguration and sit through speeches at India House, Thimphu. Being in a headache-y haze, I barely registered anything of the Bhutanese prime minister’s lengthy speech about “Gross National Happiness” (note: happiness can be found in simple things like not listening to lengthy speeches), but the highlights of the evening were the short poetry readings that followed. There was a wonderfully sardonic recitation by the Khasi poet Kynpham Sing of his cynical yet strangely affectionate poem “Shillong in Haiku”, about the degeneration of a place that doesn’t know if it’s a town or a city. Here are samples of the haikus that make up the poem:

Scotland of the East–
roads pockmarked by jumbo pits,
cars do twist dancing.

Cars over potholes–
gut-jerking see-saw, always
full of expletives.

Famed Umkhrah River–
reeking serpent of sewage,
bodies and drowned gods.

Iewduh Flyover:
hanging garden of the world’s
second-hand garments.

Multi-lane by-pass:
amazingly by-passing
construction for years.

Central Library–
the emptiness of shelves is

Reading it on paper (or on a website) isn’t the same thing as hearing Kynpham’s clipped, serio-comic recital. It was brilliant, and I look forward to the publication of his haiku-poem book, which is currently in manuscript form.

(Note: that’s an old photo of Kynpham from the 2009 edition of the Jaipur lit-fest)

- When you’re in the mountains, the idea of national identity becomes amorphous. “We pahaari people know each other really well, regardless of the countries we belong to,” author Namita Gokhale told me later that evening, “These Himalayan lands are a nation unto themselves – people who live in the plains can’t understand the psyche.” The theme of mountains and mountain people, writers and readers, ran through the festival, notably in a beautiful session where Gulzar and Pavan Varma
(prolific author, current Indian ambassador to Bhutan) performed a jugalbandhi of poetry readings that touched on mountains, trees and other aspects of the natural world. The format had Gulzar reading one of his poems in the original Urdu, and then Varma reading out his English translation.

I liked the informality of this session – the two men would occasionally interrupt each other to comment on how a word or phrase sounds in translation compared to the original, and then flip through the book to decide what poem to read next; Gulzar chuckled shyly whenever the applause became very loud, as it often did. I know many people who feel that it should be enough to experience a book in solitude – that there’s no need to attend a noisy reading at a large public event – but this session was a pointer to what a good public reading can be.

- For me, and for many other Indians present, one of the eye-openers was the very eloquent Tshering Tobgay, who is the leader of the Opposition Party in the National of addition to being a prolific and engaging blogger (here's his website). At a session about online media, Tshering spoke about his responsibility to keep the people of his country informed about the issues they face (even if he risks annoying the authorities in the process) and to do this, as far as possible, while supporting the positive initiatives taken by the government rather than opposing them just for the sake of opposition. For a country that has subtle restrictions on freedom of expression, and where Internet penetration is so low that there are only around 12,000 registered Net users, his work is pioneering as well as inspirational. If only more Indian politicians were as dedicated to communicating directly – and candidly – with the common man.

I also enjoyed Tshering’s observation that it’s important for a politician to write or blog regularly, “because that forces you to pause and introspect and think about things, which is something politicians don’t always feel the need to do”.

- On a lighter note: in Jaipur two years ago, an audience comprising adoring young school-goers lapped up Chetan Bhagat’s every word. In Bhutan, Chetan had a trickier task: he had to charm an audience that included people who hadn’t read his books. Once again, he pulled it off, combining gentle self-deprecation with sharp volleys aimed at those who are against “populist” writing. I was moderating his session, and when I asked how becoming a high-profile public figure had affected his life (he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people recently), his answer was typical Bhagat. “It gets me interesting assignments,” he said, mentioning his stint as a Miss India judge, “Dozens of women walk towards you in swimsuits, you have to look at them very carefully. Hard job, but someone’s got to do it.” But the real applause was reserved for a short reading that featured Bhagat and a local actress named Kinley Pelden. To the delight of the audience, they read a “bed scene” from Bhagat’s latest novel 2 States, and ended with the demure-looking Kinley enunciating the line “So we’re just fuck-buddies?” Could be a first for a Bhutanese actress at a public event.

- Tisca Chopra, who played the mother in Taare Zameen Par, moderated a session featuring two young Bhutanese filmmakers: director/editor Tshering Wangyel and scriptwriter/director Tshering Penjore. During the audience Q&A, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, the director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (she also participated in the blogging session), told an amusing story about the film-reviewing culture in Bhutan being so underdeveloped that a couple of years ago a newspaper was taken to court for carrying a short review of a local film. “What gives you the right to say this about the movie?” they were asked. Many of the Indians in the audience giggled at this anecdote, but I was tempted to point out that the state of film-reviewing and film writing in India is not substantially better, given the size of our film industries. (Earlier post on mediocre film writing here.)

- Author Kunzang Choden signs one of her books

I met Kunzang a few years ago when she was in India (an old post here) and I was very pleased to get my hands on her self-published book Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan. More on that soon. Will also put up more notes on the fest when I have the time.


  1. interesting haikus, thanks... the first jaipur fest must have been untouched and good. :-) :-)

  2. So glad to have happened on your blog again, i'm going to read it regularly now. This post on Bhutan and its literary festival was a great read! also cool to get an unsnarky look at Chetan Bhagat who is really far more interesting than people make him out to be. Why is it a crime to be a popular writer? Why do you instantly have to be looked down on?