By Sumit Chakraborty,
Apu opens the door and asks his new bride to enter. “Amar ghor,” he says. Aparna, decked out in her wedding finery, walks in with halting steps. Moments later, she sits by the window, wracked by near-silent sobs. This immortal scene from Apur Sansar was screened for a packed hall as Sharmila Tagore, the Aparna of the reel, recounted her real-life experiences of working with the legend called Satyajit Ray.
But the references of “Manikda” or Nayak or Loreto House (where Sharmila enrolled after being asked to leave her former school for acting in a film) weren’t being played out in Calcutta but in a place which though just an hour and a half away by air is effectively many worlds apart — Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.
Nestled in the emerald green hills and gentle summer breeze of the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Mountain Echoes, the Bhutan festival of Literature, Art and Culture is currently underway. This four-day celebration of the creative mind, which started on Monday, is a cosy gathering of people who want to tell and hear the stories behind the stories. And it has attracted names like Vikram Seth and Gulzar.
A joint effort by the India-Bhutan Foundation and Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi, the festival enjoys the patronage of Bhutan’s Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, who inaugurated the festival on Sunday at India House, the residence of Indian Ambassador Pavan K. Varma, himself a prolific writer. In its third year now, Mountain Echoes is being held under the guidance of authors and Jaipur Literature Festival co-directors William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale.
The days boast of a kaleidoscopic line-up of sessions, ranging from Vikram Seth’s libretti to Wendell Rodricks’s take on “style in the kitchen”. Then there’s Gulzar’s travel poetry and conversations with authors new and veteran. Bollywood has found much favour, be it a talk on how a story becomes a script and a script a film or a very filmy rock concert by the Delhi band Eka in the town centre where the entire population of Thimphu seemed to have converged on Monday evening!
A dinner hosted at the Taj Tashi by Calcutta’s Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Techno India Group for the launch of Pramod Kumar KG’s Posing for Posterity: Royal Indian Portraits by Queen Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuk was like a sensory overload, where one could suddenly find oneself sitting beside Gulzar, rubbing shoulders with William Dalrymple at the bar or sharing pasta with the wacky Arshad Warsi!
But Mountain Echoes is not just about Indian and foreign writers. It’s as much about Bhutanese writers and Bhutanese readers, with participation from the likes of bestselling author Kuenga Tenzin or Kunzang Choden, the first Bhutanese woman to write in English. Tea-time chats with the local people are as insightful as the sessions about this traditionally modern people who got the television and the Internet the same year (1999)!
One of the highlights of the festival was the first session on Day Two, held at Taj Tashi. Eloquently titled Rolling Clouds: Dreaming Mountains, it had Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple — or Willie if you will — and Patrick French talking about the many routes to travel writing. Vikram spoke about his wholly accidental journey through Lhasa and Tibet and how when he got tired of telling people about his travels that he took his dad’s advice and wrote up From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet.
A young Bhutanese lady in the audience addressed her question to Vikram, which can be summed as: “Bhutan lies between two giants, China and our dear friend India. Given that the two countries don’t really engage with each other and if things turn bad we the people of Bhutan will suffer the repercussions, I want to ask you if you have considered writing about China, given your knowledge of that land.”
Vikram is not keen on writing about China just yet, he said, but the question is itself an answer — to why a meet like Mountain Echoes was needed and how it is working wonders.