In an article he wrote in 1995, Pico Iyer touches upon the misfortune of small South Asian countries, like Nepal and Bhutan, which have always faced an existential conundrum that impels them to choose between progress and heritage at every historical juncture. By holding on to tradition, you risk getting isolated and sidelined in this global village. And conversely, you risk losing the essence of your collective identity by choosing to open the floodgates to forces of modernisation. As Iyer wrote, “The only thing worse than being forgotten for these countries is being discovered.”

Iyer himself had first discovered Bhutan some 28 years ago, flying in from Calcutta to this back-of-beyond region of the world. “I’ll never forget the first time I arrived in Bhutan,” he said, again in the capital city Thimphu after all these years, speaking at the seventh edition of the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival, which concluded here last week. “I’ll never forget the approach to Paro [airport], the landing, the coming out, and realising you’d arrived on another planet.”

Bhutan still retains this otherness today. It even cultivates its geographic, cultural and political status as a total outlier. Bhutan is different from every other place in every possible sense. That is its USP, and that, mind you, is why you must choose it as your next holiday destination. So goes the PR spiel that puts a spin on Brand Bhutan. Most visitors to this part of the world do indeed tend to believe that they are headed to some other planet. But all their hopes of alighting upon the never-never land of their dreams are dashed no sooner than when they actually arrive in Thimphu. The striking thing about the city today is how similar it is — in landscape, demography and culture — to so many other cities that we know of. It has everything you might find elsewhere, including a well-known, trademark annual
literature festival.

One thing that Thimphu does seem to boast, and that most other urban environments visibly lack, is a direct contact with nature. Which is to say, nature at its Romantic best, of the hills-and-streams variety. It’s the kind of regenerative and tranquil place that makes everyone behave in a very cheerful and positive way. Here you feel quite like what a weekend at a health spa might make you feel. Though it does have its obvious benefits, it gets to you after a point. The question arises: how does one give vent to one’s urban cynicism in such an idyll (an unavoidable cliche) as this?

Well, one way to do that is to skim through Amitav Ghosh’s new book on climate catastrophe. It’s called The Great Derangement, and it predicts the collective death of humanity at the hands of mother nature. There’s a dose of cynicism for you. Ghosh was the festival’s latest celebrity catch (though Tabu, the Bollywood actress, too had flown in with us, down, I think, somewhere in Business Class). Ghosh’s words — “We are facing a very, very grim situation” — were like music to my ears, even if I understood their import. I understood the sense of urgency, of hopelessness, the words were trying to convey.

One thing that Thimphu does seem to boast, and that most other urban environments visibly lack, is a direct contact with nature. Which is to say, nature at its Romantic best, of the hills-and-streams variety. It’s the kind of regenerative and tranquil place that makes everyone behave in a very cheerful and positive way. 

After Ghosh’s talk, a questioner prefaced his comment to the author in this way: “A very good morning to you, sir. And lots of negativity, early in the morning.” Ghosh had earlier spoken, among other things, of the sea engulfing and eliminating whole cities, typhoons and cyclones, disease epidemics, large-scale evacuation plans, glacial lakes reaching melting points and so on. “Some of these lakes,” he said, “are above Thimphu. If one of these lakes were to melt… imagine the wall of water…”

Some degree of alarmism is necessary to talk cogently, realistically, about climate change. And Ghosh wasn’t making any of this up. Still, when I later ran into the journalist Max Rodenbeck, the South Asia beareau chief for The Economist magazine, he seemed to have been slightly put off by Ghosh’s death-knell prognosis. “You know, he is a great writer and I really like some of his work,” Rodenbeck told me, shaking his head. “But you know… I think he’s being a little…you know…I don’t think Bombay is going to drown.”

All this aside, there’s still a palpable sense of optimism that any tourist has to contend with in Bhutan, the country that gauges development standards in terms of Gross National Happiness. An optimism that is often counterbalanced by random conversations you might end up having with some of the locals here. 

When Tenzin, a 19-year-old Thimphu resident, told me about his dreams and aspirations, I was struck by how much they were marked by an underlying urge to escape what some would identify as basic Bhutanese ethos. He wasn’t wearing his country’s national dress, for instance, and he talked about how desperate he was to get to Delhi and from there, one day, possibly, to America. “I don’t like some of the rules here. Like you can’t smoke. You have to pay a fine to cops if you’re caught smoking. I have been caught twice,” he said with a “silly me” grin. 

I invited Tenzin to the literature festival, but he demurred, saying that he’s not the bookish kind. He liked playing video games instead, he told me, and he liked doing nothing at all, and he liked sleeping 15 hours a day. Pretty much a mirror image of what I mostly like doing. But when we together entered a bookstore, Tenzin admitted to reading novels. “The problem is,” he said, “when I pick up a novel, I can’t put it down. I have to finish it in one go.”

The importance of reading — for pleasure, for insight, for self-development — was one of the central themes at the recent Mountain Echoes. According to one of the co-directors of the festival, Siok Sian Dorji, the previous year was declared as the National Reading Year in Bhutan. “In the broader picture,” Dorji said in his opening address for the three-day event, “we are beginning now to imagine why literature is so important for our society. Performance arts and literature are critical for a balanced society and essential for our GNH [Gross National Happiness].”

In Bhutan, a country of under a million souls, millions of books are being read every year, Dorji reported. Pico Iyer, too, later congratulated the voracious readers of Bhutan — devouring whole tomes overnight, like Tenzin claimed to have done. “It’s wonderful to be in a place where reading is at an all-time high,” Iyer said. Ah, that note of unreserved optimism struck once again! Maybe, I remember thinking, Amitav Ghosh should write his next book on reading.