Changing Sikkim's literary future one book at a time

Books, reading and literature have become a common topic of discussion lately, whether it be due to local events like #ReadandGrow or media spotlight on libraries in Sikkim. Even online, regular activities to spur creativity like 30 days of poetry or random writing prompt competitions have mushroomed on various platforms. 

Changing Sikkim's literary future one book at a time

Books, reading and literature have become a common topic of discussion lately, whether it be due to local events like #ReadandGrow or media spotlight on libraries in Sikkim. Even online, regular activities to spur creativity like 30 days of poetry or random writing prompt competitions have mushroomed on various platforms. 

But how do books and their related activities weave into the bigger scheme of things? Do they help people understand certain areas of society or give a glimpse into gender disparity? Do they serve a bigger purpose?

The answers are obviously a lot longer than this article can provide but this is a start to identifying and scrutinizing if that interests anyone who cares about this subject.

In February, there was a panel discussion on English writing from Sikkim with six of the state’s most well-read writers, albeit they were all men. Although unsurprising, it must have been disappointing to some because soon after the main panel discussion ended, a young audience member pointed out the absence of women writers during the Q/A session. She asked if it had to do with the patriarchy. 

There were a few titters from those present in the room but the panellists took up her question without hesitation and answered that no, despite patriarchy being a part of our culture, it wasn’t due to this that there were no women writers on the panel. They clarified that Sikkim had only one published writer, Yishey Doma, and she hadn’t agreed to speak at the event. 

Fair enough, right?

But Simrin Tamhane, a 25-year-old from Gangtok is one of Sikkim’s youngest published writers, with her debut book ‘Thousand and One Prayer Flags’ having come out in 2017. Nevertheless, this could be one of the instances where the media hasn’t done its job in identifying local talents. 

Tamhane’s book of poetry traverses across Sikkim and America, describing in a moving simplicity the many emotions of a young adult, from grieving the loss of a loved one to finding familiarity in new spaces. Her work reflects the modern and young Sikkimese finding their way in the world and ruminates on dealing with newfound emotions. 

Now, her addition to the panel might have given it some diversity. It is terribly redundant to always find an older person, mostly a man, as a writer talk about their work and writing in general. There are too many men in the business and it is high time a woman or queer person finds the confidence to write and publish. 

With all due respect, the panellists are brilliant writers who have opened up new avenues for young people who want to pursue a career in writing but whether they are aware of their privilege in the industry is quite unclear. 

In the same breath, when it comes to privilege, those who own smartphones and have an Internet connection have the freedom to choose how they purchase and who they purchase from. Since the world is shifting towards sustainability and conscious buying, a practice people must slowly give up is the ordering of books from online stores. Not only do the parcels take time to arrive but it hurts the business of local bookstores. Granted, some e-commerce websites can give unbelievable deals yet a bookstore is more about the experience than of fast purchases. 

Take Gangtok’s most famous bookstore, almost a cultural landmark, Rachna Bookstores as an example. It grew from a modest space to a café cum B&B and a hotspot for events all while keeping the essence of the original idea of a bookstore. The place invites people in with ease and gives them a place to unwind. 

This is a similar concept to other bookstores around the country. For instance, Blossom’s, Bangalore’s go-to for readers (and every other tourist or student) allows people to sit for hours within the mountains of books piled high to the ceilings and read them, giving them the freedom to browse and choose without any hurry. This generosity has proven beneficial to their customer growth since residents of the city and those who studied there prove to be loyal patrons, dropping by frequently for a calming shopping experience. 

Sikkim has yet to grow in terms of book shops as there is still a dire lack of them in all four districts. Namchi got its first two months ago, and there is hope that its presence will push people to read more and stave off the lure of discounts on Amazon. 

The reader might ask if it is at all pertinent to give their money to a local bookstore rather than an online business. 

To foster buying from local businesses, one of the most pleasant events of this year has been the #ReadandGrow book fair that was organized by the Student Wing of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha. 

From pick-and-choose activities to participate in, to book donations and panel discussions on writing and various guest speakers, the event reached out to citizens of all ages and their motive was simple: to encourage people to read more. 

There was a seamless blend of culture and craft – bookstalls for individual ethnic communities of Sikkim ran alongside local bookstores. One could pick up a book on the cultural history of the Limboos at the beginning of the stall line and have an assortment of fiction novels to add by the end of it.

Why is this important enough to be pointed out? It’s because reading and writing aren’t limited to English. Sikkim has a plethora of languages and scripts, this one knows, but the literature that exists in these languages are now decreasing due to lack of usage. One of the significant takeaways from #ReadandGrow is that a Sikkimese writer can write in any language and a reader can read in any. 

Unfortunately, the dominance of colonial culture reduces the value of indigeneity in the more tech-savvy generation’s mind. Sure, most schools have Nepali/Tibetan/Rong as a second language, but what is the point if students study these only for grades? Communities need to reclaim the basics and nurture a love for their roots in the youth. 

After all, like Alphonse Daudet puts quite simply in ‘The Last Lesson’, one’s language is such “that we must guard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language it is as if they had the key to their prison”. Of course, this doesn’t mean literal enslavement – rapid globalization pushes forward the English-speaking agenda and that itself can be used as an example here. Not to mention the fact that this has been written completely in English, is as ironic as is amusing. 

Given that this is a rather small discussion for a topic that has multiple points to be mulled over spanning society, gender, queerness, semiotics, economy and more, it is quite promising to see it actually begin. Books, after all, aren’t just its literal definition of pages wound in a cover. They can transport people and transform history. The new generation of Sikkimese bookworms are just on their first chapter.