• Published 13.10.17

The writer-poet Jeet Thayil had once told me that one needs to routinely exercise if one wants to be a writer. Recently, writer Arundhati Roy said the same, that when she is writing more, she’s also working out more.

As I hurried uphill towards Taj Tashi from Hotel Druk in Thimphu on Day 3 of Mountain Echoes 2017, I thought to myself that one needs to work out not only to be a writer but also a books correspondent!

That’s because literary fests are popping up all over India and its neighbourhood, each of them packed with stellar sessions, book signings, interviews and cocktail evenings. For a lover of books, it’s sensory overload that gladdens the heart as much as it strains the calves.

And if you are at Mountain Echoes, the literary and cultural festival of Bhutan that turned eight this year, there’s the added excitement of everything happening oh-so-close. Presented by Jaypee Group, Mountain Echoes 2017 was organised by the India-Bhutan Foundation, in association with Jaipur-based literary agency Siyahi, and powered by the department of tourism of the government of Rajasthan. The festival enjoys the patronage and active participation of the Royal Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

While the festival has grown in size and stature in these eight years, it has retained its unique warmth and intimacy. So while you queue up for the evening tea and snacks, the person behind you could be Buddhist monk  Emma Slade, raconteur Jerry Pinto or bestselling writer Ashwin Sanghi! Well, you’re more likely to bump into Ashwin in the line for whisky but... you get the drift. 


Whisky, in fact, was ever-present at Ashwin’s session, titled ‘The Karma of Writing’. “I have always maintained that there’s no writer’s block that a peg of whisky doesn’t cure,” he said, drawing big laughs at the Royal University of Bhutan. And he took the audience through his set of Ws — writing, work (family business), wife and whisky, “which makes all of this writing happen.”

The writer of bestselling novels like Krishna Key and Sialkot Saga had a five-fold set of advice for young and aspiring writers:

1. The first golden rule is — write. There are far too many people who think about writing but don’t write. It doesn’t necessarily have to be writing a book. It could be a short story, or a blog entry. Many people have graduated from being bloggers to writers.

2. The second part of this journey is being tremendously persistent. Writers by their very nature need to be very thick-skinned. Because rejection is part of life. With my first book (The Rozabal Line) I was rejected 47 times and I had to self-publish it. So, it is important to be persistent. Because there are far too many great writers who don’t stay the course.

3. Don’t get too affected by what people say. I see so many young writers getting worked up when they receive a negative review or when a critic tears apart their book in the paper or a bad review appears on Amazon. You know what, you can’t please everyone. As long as you can please the majority, you’re doing a good job. Try and please a few more people every time, if possible.

4. The most important, I would say, is, don’t lose the day job. Because it’s going to be many, many years before the royalty cheques start coming in.

5. Assuming that you are successful and you do make it, retain your humility, keep your feet on the ground. 


A lit fest is as much about meeting favourite writers as it is about discovering books. After hearing Emma Slade’s story, I cannot wait to read her book, Set Free. Hers is a fascinating journey from banking in Hong Kong to Buddhism in Bhutan. In conversation with the honorary British consul in Bhutan, Michael Rutland, Emma revealed how she traded her party clothes for a nun’s robes. Doesn’t she miss them?

“Oh no. Because behind the clothes I was confused. The clothes were very nice. But inside I was hollow. I hadn’t come alive!” she said with a big smile.

“I lost my father quite young and I didn’t know how to make myself feel better. I went into the financial markets because it offered glamour, and power and success. I thought I would be safe. I thought my heart would be healed and it would be all right. So I went looking for money because I was very sad. Of course, the hilarious thing is, seeking safety, seeking security and money, I ended up being held hostage on a business trip to Jakarta, wearing one of my gorgeous suits and those lovely shoes. I mean you’ve got to laugh at the irony of it.”

“I think when you are begging on the floor for your life, and a man has a gun at your head, when you survive that, you have the courage to do anything. Because what have I got to lose now? I am free, in that way.”

Her book is called Set Free, published by Summersdale Publishers, and available in India as an e-book, Rs 385.

The second book that I want to read is Leila, the debut novel of journalist Prayaag Akbar. Everyone at Mountain Echoes seemed to recommend it, with the writer blushing dutifully every time someone praised his book.


The third book on my must-read list is Lone Fox Dancing: An Autobiography by Ruskin Bond, published by Speaking Tiger Books recently.

On Day 2, Bond spoke before a packed auditorium. “Over the years I’ve written many stories which are autobiographical, because I am a very subjective writer, I write about my own life and about people I’ve known and experiences I’ve had. I don’t think I am a very inventive writer so I depend a great deal on what’s happening around me. I thought that may be it’s time now that I wrote a complete autobiography since I’m getting on now. ‘Lone Fox Dancing’, I thought, would be a good title because at various periods of my life I have been on my own… it is good to be on your own sometimes. Being lonely is one thing, being on your own or alone is another, that’s a choice you make. In fact, it was a poem I wrote some years back, when I went out to the hills late at night and saw a fox dancing in the moonlight. It goes like this:

As I walked home last night, 
I saw a lone fox dancing
In the bright moonlight.
I stood and watched,
Then took the low road, knowing
The night was his by right.
Sometimes, when words ring true,
I’m like a lone fox dancing
In the morning dew.”

How can you not want to immediately read Lone Fox Dancing after a session like that?

Bond said that it had been “the most memorable event... I might even miss the flight day after tomorrow.”

We all “echoed” his sentiments entirely.

Text and pictures: 
Samhita Chakraborty