Thursday, March 29, 2012

Barbara Crossette's "So Close to Heaven": Book Review

This report from the "vanishing Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas" focuses on the last monarchy, Bhutan. As a New York Times journalist based in India, Crossette favors a style akin to her newspaper. The book unfolds as if extended feature articles in a tone mixing personal encounters with interviews with diplomats, royalty, and, via translators at times, everyday folks. There's a distance between her and her interlocutors which is expected, given her position and strategy.

Veering between popular history, travel notes, political analysis, and stories from her own experiences, the 1995 book takes on a lot in fewer than three hundred pages of text. It succeeds more when it explores the often wretched predicament of animals mistreated by Bhutanese who don't want to kill "sentient beings," but who find loopholes to eat meat butchered out of their sight, or who abuse beasts they will not euthanize for fear of karmic retribution. This was the most memorable chapter, perhaps for the voiceless emotion enriching an otherwise human-focused direction.

Another chapter, retracing the steps of a grandmother who was born in 1914, shows the changes Bhutan's experienced, especially in recent decades. You get some sense of how it feels to be there--warm afternoons, freezing nights, howling packs of dogs, silence otherwise. It's more impressionistic than in-depth, but she gives a sense of how Westerners present and past responded to Bhutan and other small kingdoms as a practical geopolitical problem and an opportunity to play off British and then independent India and Chinese interests from the other side of the high summits.

There's not a lot of natural description but there's a refreshing lack of rhapsodic effusion over Buddhist-this or quaint-that. Compared to a more personal account such as Lisa Napoli's 2011 "Radio Shangri-La" (Amazon US review), Crossette's "elevated" attitude allows her to reveal her own bias, but based less on personal encounters concentrated as were Napoli's in Thimphu, the kingdom's capital, or Jamie Zeppa's 1999 "Below the Sky and the Earth" (reviewed 5-21-12) teaching in rural areas.  Crossette wraps it up, for instance, in Bumthang, and this gives some guarded hope that such an enclave might escape the fate of Tibet, which her coda notes once thought it could rest secure as such a treasure-house of teaching, lore, and folkways. Crossette shifts to a Himalayan survey-travelogue so she can emphasize how Bhutan's situation shows it at the mercy of Nepali and Indian-supported immigration of largely Hindu populations.

This is controversial, but Crossette takes a side, as she admits. She does not ignore the opposition, but she minimizes it as propaganda in the service of non-Buddhist political powers. Coverage by other reporters and media has tilted against the Buddhist kingdom and for southern separatists and rebels against the monarchy.

Crossette shows as an attempt to balance this record how Nepal and India--as in Sikkim and Ladakh--have overwhelmed the fragile cultures and religious traditions that, since Chinese occupation of Tibet, have cut off the small entities on the other side of the mountains from their common heartland and center of spirituality and trade. For instance, the entire population of Sikkim is equal to the growth in a year of Nepalese demographic increase. With no protected border for hundreds of miles, illegal immigrants enter Bhutan easily to take advantage of education and social services. As with Sikkim and Nepal and Ladakh, the Buddhists get pressed against the Himalayas, as Indian-dominated and Nepali-Hindu directed populations seek to supplant and occupy the region.

The vast majority of this book shows Bhutan's struggle. The backgrounds of the region's conquerers, culminating not with Britain despite its centuries of "protectorates" and "hill stations" so much as India with or without Nepal, cast a shadow on what Bhutan faces now. Sikkim and Ladakh loom as cautionary tales. It's hard to argue with Crossette's advocacy, although her tilt is marked if moral.

She does favor Bhutan's monarchy. Despite its dodgy deeds according to some critics who've gained the ear of the West, Crossette makes a strong case for Bhutan (as well as the diminishing Buddhist and native populations in Sikkim, Nepal, and Ladakh, and the Muslim-dominated regions further to the northwest under Pakistani occupation) as possessing its own ethical and political right to exist as a repository of traditional ways and lifestyles. The romanticism of the "happiest kingdom on earth" since promoted internationally aside, and published in "I fell in love with a Bhutan man" memoirs, Crossette forces us to confront the impact of ecological devastation of the Nepal side of the hills, of Bhutan's attempt to hold back India's intrusions, and Sikkim and Ladakh's compromised cultures. (Amazon US 3-20-12)

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