At the Junction bookshop in Thimphu the manager is reading Sartre’s Age of Reason. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of Nausea for months,’ she says, ‘but the Indian distributors won’t send it up.’ On a stand in the centre of the shop there are glossy photo books: cute, scruffy waifs; austere Himalayan panoramas; a coffee-table celebration of carved wooden phalluses (the Bhutanese strain of Buddhism employs phallic symbolism with zeal). These are the books laid out for souvenir shoppers. On the shelves, there’s a section dedicated to Ancient Greek drama, another to 19th-century Russian novelists (all in English translation). There’s a volume of Elizabeth Bishop, and some Freud. She has sold her last copy of Infinite Jest but still has a copy of The Pale King.
I take a copy of Barthes’s Mythologies over to the counter. On the floor is a stray dog, one of the custard-coloured mongrels that roll in Thimphu’s dirt by day and howl to one another at night. The manager strokes the dog’s patchy fur. ‘His name is Motay,’ her companion tells me. ‘It means “the fat one”. People here feed him because he barks only at the police.’
On the main square outside there are monks and nuns wearing burgundy robes; some have prayer wheels, others have cell phones. Most of the local men are wearing the gho, a robe with a knee-length skirt a little like a kilt, and the women the ankle-length kira. Bhutan wants its traditional dress to be more than a gimmick for the tourists: at many of the city’s institutions there are signs insisting ‘Formal Dress Only’.
I sit down with the Barthes and open to ‘The Lost Continent’, an essay that scolds the West for stereotyping and exoticising the East. ‘This same Orient which has today become the centre of the world,’ Barthes writes, ‘we see… all flattened, made smooth and gaudily coloured like an old-fashioned postcard.’
I’ve been invited here to take part in a book festival, which is being advertised by the Buddha. There are sky blue posters outside the shop, and above a banner of sponsors’ logos, the Master of Dharma says: ‘If You Want To Find Wisdom, Throw Away Your Books.’ Book-chucking seems an inadvisable way to promote a literary festival; perhaps the slogan is a koan, the sound of one publicist’s hand clapping. Bhutan is anyway a place of paradox; it has freedom of speech, but cigarettes are illegal. Capitalism was introduced by an absolute monarchy, which acceded to a constitutional democracy less than a decade ago. In the West, Bhutan is largely known for its much-vaunted neglect of GNP in favour of GNH (Gross National Happiness), as well as the controversial exodus, between twenty and thirty years ago, of more than a hundred thousand refugees to Nepal. At one of the discussion events, a festival director, Namita Gohkale, describes Bhutan as ‘the one country in the Himalaya that has the privilege of maintaining its culture and its traditions’.
The walls of Thimphu valley are steep and smoothly contoured, like a half-open almanac as it narrows to its seam. Along the seam runs a tributary of the Brahmaputra as it makes its way from the Great Himalaya, up at the Tibetan border, down to the narrow Siliguri corridor that arches over Bangladesh, connecting India to its north-eastern states. Post-colonial geography is often absurdly inconvenient, but Bhutan’s position overlooking the Siliguri is particularly so. Since events in Lhasa in 1959, Bhutan has had no diplomatic relations with Beijing. The borders to the north are closed; its external affairs are conducted with the assistance of New Delhi.
The festival is called Mountain Echoes, and for three days there have been discussions, screenings and lectures on Himalayan culture and landscape from both Indian and Bhutanese perspectives, as well as debates about Bhutan’s pace of development – extraordinary even by south and east Asian standards. In the late 1950s, when Barthes wrote Mythologies, there were still no roads in Bhutan (outsiders arrived by mule, on foot or, if they were Indian diplomats, by helicopter). Television and internet were introduced a little over a decade ago, and the first freely elected prime minister took office in 2008, making Bhutan the world’s youngest democracy. Mountain Echoes began a year later.
To assess the properties of a material, chemists study the way it interacts with others. In Bhutan, along the high Himalayan frontier between Asia’s two superpowers, powerful reagents are being thrown into the mix: Buddhist theocracy is fizzing with free-market economics; Chinese inducements are abrading India’s traditional privilege; donkey tracks are being poured with tarmac; the world’s happiest people are learning how to want.
But what some of them want is Freud, Barthes and shelf-loads of Tolstoy. They want information that’ll help them tip-toe between Chinese and Indian ambitions, and emerge with their pride and culture intact. They want a festival at which it’s possible to hear the Queen Mother lecture on tradition, then a stand-up comic tell jokes about the King. There’s little chance the Bhutanese will throw away their books just yet.