In the Kingdom of Bhutan, where Covid-19 is relatively well controlled, every new episode of the pandemic still leaves us wondering what’s next. Two nationwide lockdowns have disrupted the easy life in a country of 750,000 people. The pandemic has caused social and economic upheavals with the closure of borders, the stoppage of trading, the shut-down of schools and colleges.

Among other businesses, the country’s small printing and publishing houses and bookstores have had to sail into uncharted territory. Online reading and distribution of books have become more popular in times of lockdown, and efforts continue to produce publications despite disruptive times.

Early publishing

Early writings in Bhutan were classical Tibetan texts in Choekey, and spiritual works that were written in calligraphy, some of them traced back to the 13th century. Later works were printed with wooden blocks or xylography. With the advent of a secular education in the 1960s, English language works began to appear. When the first newspaper started in 1986 as a weekend paper, many people asked, “Why is it distributed on a weekend when we’re not working?” Reading, then, was regarded as something you do at work, or for spiritual pursuit, not for pleasure.

Apart from the newspapers that have a small but growing readership today, Bhutan remains a largely oral society where tales are shared through word of mouth, dramatised with eloquent proverbs, in a mixture of the national language, Dzongkha, and English.

There are a handful of publishing houses in the country. KMT press specialises in spiritual texts and writings in Dzongkha. Other presses print mostly on order by individuals and organisations. English writing – largely children’s stories and folk tales – and early attempts by aspiring writers has started appearing over the past decade and a half.

In the absence of professional editors and designers, writers rely mostly on friends to assist with the editing and production. Bhutanese printers being relatively more expensive, most books are printed in neighbouring India.

The pandemic has created logistical challenges and escalating costs because almost all printing material is imported, including paper and ink. Anyone planning to publish a book has had to deal with limited and erratic supplies during 2020.

“With the spread of Covid-19 in the neighbouring state of India and travel restrictions there, costs of raw materials have shot up,” said Karma Nima, general manager of the printing press in Kuensel, one of the larger presses in Bhutan. “Transportation has become a hassle and charges are skyrocketing.”

An explosion of reading

If tales of the pandemic are keeping people riveted to the social media, the forced isolation and physical distancing has brought about an unexpected turn in the country’s growing literary culture. With the closure of schools, colleges and public libraries, some innovative Bhutanese have started reading programmes through reading competitions, book exchange, and reading groups.

A citizen’s initiative to encourage reading, “10 Pages a Day”, is inspired by the King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who, in the year leading up to 2020, had been urging students and teachers across Bhutan to read more. “Imagine if we read 10 pages a day, at the end of a month, it could add up to a book.” His oft-quoted statement inspired a group called Volunteer Teachers of Bhutan to launch one of the several reading and writing initiatives that became popular during the pandemic. Teachers across the country encouraged their students in their own localities to read.

A “Well-read Bhutan” campaign was launched to mark Bhutan’s 113th National Day on December 17, 2020. Participants were asked to post a video of a reading and review of a Bhutanese book. The response was overwhelming, with more than 375 reviews from readers as young as five years old to those in their thirties.

The more popular local books in English are Kunzang Choden’s series of folk tales and Karma Phuntsho’s History of Bhutan, and a growing number of writers and artists are trying their hand at illustrated stories for children

Book donation drives before Covid-19 had enabled 11 libraries to be opened across central and eastern Bhutan, in places like a hair salon, grocery shops, and even the homes of teachers. Volunteers also distribute books in Trashigang and Nobding. These volunteer-run libraries, where people can borrow or swap books, have become a new source of books for children and the youth since schools have been closed. During the current lockdown, areas like Sherubtse College in the east and Lobesa, near the old capital of Punakha, are still open to book swaps.

With more time being spent indoors, the Bhutanese are also turning to storytelling on online platforms to keep children occupied. A locally produced series on Facebook, Dragon Kidz, encourages reading among the young ones. In one of the dozen or more videos, singer and actor Tshering Dorji delights his own son with a reading of a child’s tale – The Raven and the Owl, a well known Butanese fable retold by author Rinzin Rinzin. Sonam Norbu of VTOB believes that online initiatives like these have encouraged reading during the pandemic and will boost the culture of reading in Bhutanese society.

Inside bookstores

Despite a difficult year in terms of book sales, Passu, the founder of the online site Booknese believes that all these activities and reading initiatives will put a focus on Bhutanese writing and storytelling in a country inundated with international publications. Online book distribution is a completely new game in Bhutan. “It’s what we need in an oral society where people do not really read unless they have to pass exams,” said Passu. Booknese is an archive of books by Bhutanese authors, and describes itself as a platform to “showcase, review, rate and discuss Bhutanese books and literature in general”.

As Bhutanese books are still a relatively small collection, bookstores also have a large international collection of books that come through distributors in India. But given that bookstores have remained closed for most of 2020, bookstores in the capital, Thimphu, like Junction Books, find their shelves half-empty with imports becoming more difficult and Bhutan’s import priorities focussed on essential food and daily supplies.

At Bookworld, which specialises in self-help and spiritual books, business has slumped as tourists disappeared overnight. It is trying a book delivery service for the first time. “We initiated home delivery to control crowds at the shop. Initially response was good,” said the store owner, Devika Chettri. “But later we got just one or two orders a day, and sometimes none at all. Demand depends on new book stocks and individual’s interest.”

The normally busy bookstore at the international airport has been shut since travel was restricted after the first Covid case was detected in March 2020. Today, books line the floor-to-ceiling glass frontage of the store in the departure lounge that sees very few passengers taking limited internal flights.

New books in the pipeline

Still, even as bookshops are going through lean times, Bhutanese publishing has continued to see new titles. Difficult times engender creativity and expression with new narratives. The year 2020 saw the publication of several new children’s books, and many free e-books on wild cats, in both English and the national language, Dzongkha, that were made available for children in the highland communities of Bhutan where the snow leopards live. Bhutan Foundation, which produced these books initially to spread awreness, decided to offer them online during the lock-down.

According to the Centre for Bhutan studies (CBS), 270 books were registered for an ISBN in 2020, up from 246 the previous year. However, many of these were books were probably written before the pandemic. Among the new releases during the pandemic is a collection of news articles by a former journalist, Gopilal Acharya titled Byline: Selected Writings 2001-2019.

Covid-19 has also inspired some literary expression. A 342-page anthology of poetry, prose and art – by contributors ranging in age from 8 to 80 – that captures the pandemic experience, entitled Bhutan at Her Best, was launched in spring. A former minister, Thakur Singh Powdyel, came up with the idea for the book proceeds from whose sales would go towards the country’s Covid funds: “I have seen profound thoughts of patriotism, fellow feelings and gratitude from across our citizenry at this anxious moment,” he said. “This is Bhutan at her best.”

Reinventing the flagship festival

A recent development in publishing in Bhutan is the Drukyul Bhutan Echoes literature festival. Bhutan Echoes grew out of the Mountain Echoes festival of literature, art and culture held yearly in Bhutan for a decade with the Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, as patron.

An initiative of the India-Bhutan Foundation that began in 2010, Mountain Echoes signalled Bhutan’s foray into a literature festival that drew writers from India and the world to the Kingdom. The Drukyul festival of literature and the arts represents a new phase of the annual festival, which still invites writers from outside the country, but with plans to strengthen Bhutanese participation and promote literary interests and development. Local organisations and the India-Bhutan Friendship Association supports the annual festival. This represents a widening of the friendship between the two countries, and collaboration that extends to a literary exchange.

The organisers see the pandemic as an opportunity and reason to experiment. “We could not host a physical festival due to the pandemic, but we managed to get around it by initiating online activities which received very good responses,” said one of the festival directors, Kelly Dorji.

These online activities include Lockdown Reads, a social media campaign whose aim is “to create a reading community to keep ourselves engaged, inspired and connected to each other through books!” People from all walks of life are featured in videos talking about the books they read during the pandemic, and their recommendations for reading. Bhutan Echoes has declared that the campaign has reached more than 400,000 online engagements in the early months of its launch.

The patron of the festival, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, inaugurated the annual celebration of literature and the arts on June 10. The festival also launched a book in the national language titled Lhoyi Chojung, written by the tenth Chief Abbot of Bhutan, Panchen Tenzin Chogyal, who held office in the mid-eighteenth century. The book, offered as an online publication because of the pandemic, was translated by Lopen RInchen Yoeser.

The Drukyul festival has partnered with the 10 Pages a Day reading initiative, thus integrating reading as an essential part of a literary programme. The initiative has more than 4,700 members already. Currently, the festival is working on a series to capture the stories of Bhutanese people during Covid times, and on creating animations of Bhutanese tales to make them more popular amongst the younger generation. The aim is to interview people from a cross section of society to have them share stories or thoughts a couple of times a week. The festival is also hosting an online project, “Storytelling by Grandparents” on video.

So, when the Covid-19 rollercoaster finally comes to a stop and the world returns to a more stable pace, tales of the human experience during the pandemic will continue to find readers and audiences in Bhutan. The pandemic has, in fact, already become a best-seller theme.

Siok Sian Pek-Dorji is the founder of the non-profit Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy. She is on the editorial team of The Druk Journal, a journal of thoughts and ideas published in Bhutan. She is a former director of the Mountain Echoes Literature festival in Bhutan.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.