Lit fest: If Bhutan had a space programme, there would be no dearth of Bhutanese astronauts, going by the number of school students who raised their arms in response to a question by the children’s science author, Lucy Hawking, at the first session of the literary festival, Mountain Echoes, held at the Tarayana centre, yesterday.

The author had asked the audience, many of whom were either standing or sitting on the floor as the hall was packed beyond capacity, to raise their arms if they would travel to space. Almost all of them, the majority of whom were preprimary students, did.

The students even volunteered where they would like to travel: Jupiter, Pluto, Mars, the Moon, and even the black hole.

Following the author’s talk, the students then proceeded to interrogate Lucy Hawking on not just her writing and science but other issues like which movie she would like to act in, which she was kind enough to answer-Casablanca.

There were so many questions for the author, that the students continued to interrogate Lucy Hawking even during a later session she was moderating for the French science fiction novelist, Pierre Bordage.

The author of fifty-five novels and forty short stories, Pierre Bordage, was also subjected to his own share of questions by the students, some of which veered off topic, but which he still kindly responded to.

The French author pointed out to the audience that it is not only mathematics that can be used to travel across the universe but story telling. And that a key to a successful story is to learn to inhabit whatever world created for the character and seeing it through their eyes.

However, it was also pointed out that the science fiction genre is in decline. While science fiction is seen as a philosophical reflection of life on earth and not just about robots fighting each other in space, the author explained the genre is in decline because in times of instability, like war or financial crisis, people want to read happy stories.

Bringing the audience back to earth, three upcoming Bhutanese writers, spoke about their books, the reading culture in Bhutan, and the challenges they face.

Pema Gyaltshen, who writes short stories about animals to inculcate love and kindness among children for animals, showed through filmed interviews of her students, that Bhutanese authors are hardly known or as popular as their international counterparts. She pleaded with the students to read more books authored by Bhutanese.

Rinzin Rinzin, who began by asking how many students knew him prior to him becoming a writer, to which only one student raised an arm, then proceeded to introduce himself. The writer said he started off as a cattle herder, then a monk, who then pursued a western education during which he wrote intermittently, and finally a politician. However, after losing his seat in the last election, which he described as an “eye opener”, a return to writing occurred.

He pointed out that today, children are mostly stuck to their televisions or mobile phones, and that oral story telling is dying out. To make his point he asked the students in the audience, if they knew of the popular Bhutanese story of the yak and the buffalo. Only a few hands were raised.

Chador Wangmo, who has authored several children’s books, including one in Dzongkha, spoke about the challenges of being published in Bhutan. She said that publishers had discouraged her from writing children’s books and focus on guide books instead. She added that her motivation for writing is to encourage creativity and imagination among children, and therefore she had not been persuaded.

Mathematician Marcus De Satuay began his session with a gun shot. He used a recording of a shot to introduce the French Mathematician, Évariste Galois, who died in a duel at the age of 20, but on the night prior to his death, had made a breakthrough in mathematics.

The French man had left behind a language on understanding symmetry, on which Marcus De Satuay has also written a book. He explained that symmetry is the language nature uses to convey important information, for instance like how bees recognise the symmetry in flowers as a source of food in an otherwise chaotic environment, allowing species to survive.

In response to a question on why mathematics had not prevented the recent financial crises, Marcus De Satuay said that mathematicians had in fact predicted the event, but that it had not been understood. He said that education systems globally need to teach math innovatively so that more people relate to the subject and can understand when such predictions are made.

“Maybe in Bhutan we can do something different,” he said, referring to the education system.

A highlight that packed the Royal University auditorium in Mothithang to beyond capacity was Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin’s monologue, Just Another Rant. The monologue began humorously, which had the audience cracking up frequently but ended seriously on the conditions faced by women, particularly in India, such as child marriage, but also could apply in other parts of the world.

Her Majesty The Royal Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck presented Bhutanese author, Karma Tenzin Yongba’s latest book, The Darkest June, during an afternoon session at the Tarayana Centre.

Two workshops for young writers by one of India’s top writers Paro Anand wrapped up the afternoon sessions.

Movies were also screened at the Nehru Wangchuck Cultural Centre, and musical and dancer performances concluded the first day of Mountain Echoes.

Gyalsten K Dorji