Nitisha Kaul gave a tantalising glimpse into Bhutan at the DSC South Asian Literature Festival
Where is faraway? How do we get there? If we do, will we only find we have not come far enough?
On the second day of the DCS South Asian Literature Festival at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, novelist, academic, and traveller Nitasha Kaul took us on a journey to a faraway land: Bhutan, the tiny mountainous kingdom which struggling to make its presence felt between two giant neighbours – India and China. She introduced us to its people, their lives, their interests and some of their literature.
Kaul began by giving the audience a whistle-stop history tour of Bhutan, taking in key aspects of religion, modernisation, development, cultural production and how all these complicated factors influence public life. She painted a vivid picture of a very traditional society trying to come to terms with modernism: Buddhist prayer-wheels collide with Bollywood magazines, people develop anxieties over five-star hotels which are taller than traditional forts, young people swap Bhutanese clothes for jeans, and pierce their ears.
The picturesque mountains and misty streams give the impression of another Shangri-La but, as Kaul demonstrated, the reality is more complicated and more interesting than that.
An hour was never going to be enough to introduce such an unfamiliar country and its literature; the snippets Kaul read from various books were well chosen and made you want to find out more, from the Bhutanese Queen Mother's description of "The Land of the Thunder Dragon" to one of Kaul's student's stories about love around the prayer-wheels.
Unfortunately, none of the literature Kaul introduced is available in Britain. Thanks to her and this festival, faraway came a little bit closer yesterday, but unless books can cross borders more easily, Faraway seems in danger of remaining out of reach.