As an Indian journalist attending a Bhutanese literature festival, I’d assumed that the conversations would centre on our part of the world, and the similarities and differences both countries share. But I was pleasantly surprised to find not one, but two stories of migration in Singapore and Hong Kong, on Day 2 of the Mountain Echoes literature festival. Though they were rooted in these milieus, the lessons they offered were universal.
Consider Bhutanese filmmaker Zuki Juno’s documentary Searching For Wives, featured in the New York Times op-doc section, about a Singaporean photo studio that takes pictures of South East Asian men who want to get married. The film, which was screened at the festival, turns the spotlight on Patha, a lorry driver, who expresses what he hopes for in his future bride. Without casting judgments about the phenomenon or the men who participate in it, Zuki deftly depicts how everyone desires love across identities, and how the studio resembles a dating app that has travelled through a time machine, into the past.
Filipino photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani’s book We Are Like Air tells the story of migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, many of whom are mothers who have left behind families to support them financially, through the story of her own mother. The motive to create this photo-book becomes evident once you understand the meaning behind the name. “Migrant workers are like air: a necessity, but often unseen,” Bacani explains. Her black-and-white photographs are a look into their internal lives. “They’re more than their jobs,” she said, “they’re human beings. They want to wear lipstick and heels!”
“My name I cannot tell,” is how Raj Kamal Jha, chief editor of the Indian Express, begins his novel The City and The Sea. It examines the aftermath of a rape case in Delhi; the book was born of Jha’s urge to respond to the 2012 Delhi gangrape case, at a time when he wasn’t in the country, he told Manjula Narayan in a session titled ‘Novelist in a Newsroom’. “I wasn’t in the newsroom at the time, I was a helpless observer,” he said. One point of his focus in the book was the juvenile who is an accused in the case; Jha found that at age 7, he left home to work and would send money home. “I attempted to tell his story, because I believe that every person has a story,” he added.
“The book was intended to go to a place where facts don’t. Where journalism is about the 5 Ws and H (who, what, where, when and how), fiction is about the question ‘what if’,” he said. On the subject of fake news, he said that lies have longer and faster legs because of social media and technology, but asserted that we exaggerate the power of fake news. “Those who consider the news important are creating filters,” he said.
Jha said that he saw an underlying unity and similarity in the Delhi rape case, a school shooting that took place at around the same time, and the Syrian refugee crisis. “We don’t have many shared experiences these days,” he said, “but we unite in sadness. There is solidary in sadness.”
The year 2019 saw so many individuals attempting to scale Mount Everest in a limited window of two days that a photograph of the resulting ‘traffic jam’ went viral. A session titled ‘Everest: Reflections on the Solukhumbu’ raised pertinent questions about over-tourism, Everest and the Sherpa community. Sujoy Das (trekker-photographer), Lisa Choegyal (author and New Zealand’s honorary consul to Nepal) and Tenzing Chogyal Sherpa spoke about how Solukhumbu isn’t just the Nepalese district which is home to the world’s highest mountain and its basecamp, but also the homeland of the Sherpa community. “People think of Sherpas as high-altitude porters or mountaineers, when in fact they are an ethnic group,” Tenzing clarified.
Choegyal added that they have now emerged as master climbers themselves “and have taken up other career options too. But what remains unchanged is their connection to Khumbu,” she said. Tenzing said that the foundation to pursue other careers was set up by Sir Edmund Hillary, who is revered by the people of the district. “Tourist numbers are only increasing,” said Das, adding that what has changed the most in the area is the infrastructure – mobile connectivity, lodging, other amenities – which is not necessarily an entirely good thing.
In Thimphu, the inconsistent WiFi and data connections don’t allow one to be glued to their phones. But then you’d be a fool if you wanted to look at your notifications tab more often than the mountains.
“Water bodies are deep in our genetic memory, and our pre-historic past features stories of the search for water,” said Sudipta Sen, professor of history, in a talk about the religious connotation of the Ganga. Sanjeev Sanyal, who serves as the Principal Economic Adviser, said that the river exists as many things – the physical river; a religious, cultural and poetic entity; a political one; and that all these identities co-exist and are fluid. “We have evidence that since the Iron Age, Ganga was considered the most important river,” Sanyal added.
In fact, the river became the centre of politics during the days of the Magadhan empire. Evidence of the presence of the Ganga in the history of these times is in the form of a coin of Samudragupta with Ganga on the obverse, and a statue from the Gupta period. She went on to become a pan-Indian concept, even in Mahabalipuram in the south, Sen explained. “The Ganga absorbed animist traditions and transformed them,” moderator Nandini Majumdar noted.
Sen posed a dichotomy he sees in the river: How can an everyday commodity like water be sacred? And how can a revered river be desecrated and contaminated?” he asked, adding that we must give to the river as much as we take from it.
Marryam H Reshii, food critic and writer, Lt Colonel Kesang Choeden and Chime Paden Wangdi, a horticulturist and social worker, held forth on the subject of spices and the gastronomic landscape of Bhutan, particularly the need to save cooking traditions. Choeden, who holds the distinction of being one of the first two women police officers in Bhutan, narrated the story of how she left the force to pursue her passion: cooking and working on recipes. “As I made strides in my career, I strayed further away from my passion… I thought I could serve my country better by preserving its food traditions,” she said.
Choeden said that the Bhutanese are a modest people, and when the country opened its doors to tourists in the 70s, they were perhaps shy about serving up their food – dried meat, cheese and other staples which they thought non-Bhutanese people would consider outlandish. “As a result, we were serving food that was anything but Bhutanese. Reviews began pouring in about how the cuisine is bland and inauthentic – which is far from true.”
As part of her effort, Choeden has started her own restaurant where she serves authentic food beyond ema datshi – the dish many associate with the country. She also encourages farmers to cultivate crops that have been part of the cuisine since centuries, because finding authentic ingredients has also become tough. “Half our food is cultivated, and half of it is foraged. The foods one finds while foraging are nourishing and often cannot be grown, such as ferns and plants that house good bacteria,” she explained.
Reshii proved to be a storehouse of knowledge about spices, dispelling myths about what is Indian and what is not. “Coriander, cloves, cumin and chillies – neither of these are from India. 150 years ago, there was only long pepper to spice up dishes… Vasco Da Gama brought the chilli to Goa, but it was given serious attention only after the Marathas brought it to Madhya Pradesh, after which it dominated – that is the power of spices,” she explained.
Day 3 promises conversations about magic, poetry, Bhutan’s national animal and artificial intelligence.
Updated Date: Aug 26, 2019 13:47:30 IST