A hackneyed passage into paradise

I approached Omair Ahmad’s The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan with a certain amount of trepidation. I have been writing about Bhutan and the Bhutanese refugee issue for nearly half a decade now and, over the years, I have honed my own analyses and opinions. Although I welcomed this new text as an addition to the paltry literature on this Himalayan kingdom, so often misunderstood by outsiders, I was wary of its perspectives. With issues as divisive as the ones affecting Bhutan, there can be no middle ground. Although the author claims to have attempted to do justice to both sides—the ruling class of Thimphu and the Lhotshampas (for some reason he never uses this term, which in Bhutan’s official language means ‘people of the south’)—he has not succeeded. Ahmad has clearly sided with the Thimphu regime.

In so doing, he has done an injustice to the other side: namely the Bhutanese refugees.

For a book that claims to be an “insightful mix of political history and travel writing,” Ahmad would have done well had he travelled to one of seven (now dwindling) refugee camps in eastern Nepal, and engaged in his own first-hand journalistic enquiry. Instead, he relies all-too-heavily on secondary sources. He quotes extensively from a report by Amnesty International, which covered the early protests in the south of Bhutan. But since then, Human Rights Watch has published several reports on the plight of the refugees, which one can only deduce the author either doesn’t know about, or willfully ignores.

Where Ahmad shines, however, is in his coverage of Bhutan’s ancient and modern history. But the book begins to falter when it deals with contemporary and contentious issues, such as ethnic cleansing and the kingdom’s place on the world stage. It’s true that Bhutan nervously watched the political upheavals unfolding in neighbouring Sikkim in 1975, which had a co-religious ruler. The two monarchies also held outstanding ties. But the circumstances that led to Sikkim’s merger with India in 1975 and, in the late 80s and early 90s, the suppression and depopulation of the Lhotshampas and sporadic pro-democracy protests—were entirely different. Bhutan’s third king inflated his country’s population to 1.4 million in 1970 in order to secure membership to the United Nations. Although India sponsored its membership, Bhutanese rulers were shrewd enough to gather that the threat to its sovereignty emanated from India.

Unlike Nepal, which in the 1960s began courting China with the aim of counter-balancing India’s heft, Bhutan has remained a steadfast ally of its major donor and investor. As evidenced by the recent change of guard in the country, where former Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley’s party was ousted in its second democratic elections, Bhutan’s overtures with regard to its northern neighbour may come at a price. India has a military presence in Bhutan’s Haa district, where it trains the Royal Bhutan Army and supports road building; India is also the biggest donor to the kingdom’s military budget. In fact, Bhutan’s first five-year plan was funded by India, which ushered the country into modernity. Despite passing the throne to his popular young son in 2007, former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck (known as K4) still calls the shots.

But you will have to look elsewhere to find such nuggets, for the book’s aim seems to be to present a hackneyed narrative of the kingdom as a mountain paradise, albeit with a darker past. As a book that talks of Bhutan as being at the centre of the world and on the cusp of major transformation, one would expect some insights into its geopolitics, and hints of things to come. But Ahmad utterly fails in these aspects. The book has not provided adequate space for discussion of Bhutan’s tryst with democracy, nor does it delve deep enough into the lives of its people, whether in Thimphu or its rural regions. In fact, apart from a trip to Ogyen Chholing, a couple of days’ drive east, he hardly ventures out of the capital. The Paro valley, a one-and-a-half hour drive from Thimphu, doesn’t count—it is home to the country’s only international airport, and so is a necessary journey for almost all visitors to the country. This is quite a handicap for a book claiming to be a travel narrative. While several anecdotes such as those on night-hunting (the traditional—and increasingly controversial—practice in which suitors barge into the rooms of unmarried women and spend the night) and on the country’s focus on developing postal stamps in order to safeguard its sovereignty are thrown in, these morsels hardly make the book a definitive historical account.

What Ahmad has tried to do in the first few chapters is weave in a narrative of a nation’s founding. This, given the paucity of material and his reliance on myths and legends, is hard to challenge. All I can say is his recycling of history is not only accessible, but also a fascinating read. But even in this he has failed on several counts. On page 21, he writes about Sangsten Gampo, the Chinese king who married Bhrikuti, the Nepali princess. But to Ahmad, Bhrikuti is a Chinese princess. Bhrikuti played a key role in spreading Buddhism in China but his attribution of her being a Chinese princess shows that he hasn’t done his research. Similarly, he writes that in 1791, the Chinese marched to within five kilometres of the Nepali capital. As a student of Nepal’s history, this was completely new to me. Five kilometres within Kathmandu means the Chinese were well into the Valley. I have never come across this account, and Ahmad doesn’t tell us where he got the information.

Chapters with titles like ‘The King That Was’ and ‘The King That Will Be’ seem to be designed to euologise the monarchy, and in turn cast Ahmad as a royal apologist. In short, Ahmad’s is an attempt to reinforce the tired Gross National Happiness narrative that Thimphu’s rulers (and much of the Western media) are themselves happy to perpetuate.

However, ‘The Road to Ogyn Chholing’ stands out for the sheer force of its narrative and observation. Ahmad inserts himself into the narrative here and there, but it doesn’t quite have the feel of travel reportage. The name of the country Bhutan itself derives from two Sanskrit words: Bhot (Tibet) with the suffix Ant, meaning an end. Bhutan is unique in that it’s culturally close to Tibet, but financially dependent on India, but this uniqueness is also not sufficiently highlighted.

Although primarily a fiction writer (he has published a novella and two full-length novels), Ahmad has honed his reporting skills writing for Outlook magazine, reporting from places such as Kashmir. What we expect from a writer of his stature is a nuanced piece of work with sharp analysis and a critical take, rather than a patchwork of material gleaned from Thimphu’s elites, that masks the simmering discontent and ground reality. These emerged both suddenly and profoundly in the build-up to the parliamentary elections held in July this year, and one has to await a text which can do these contemporary Bhutanese issues justice.

The kingdom at the centre of the world
Omair Ahmad
Aleph Book Company
Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He tweets @DeepakAdk

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