Sunday, December 9, 2012

Launsell Taudevin's "With a Dzong in My Heart:" Kindle e-book Review

Recently, e-books self-published or by similar initiatives with publishers have proliferated on all topics. Bhutan among them, and this reissue of a 1994 title for Kindle in 2010 adds to the lengthening list. This Australian-born, Singapore-based, nomadic pan-Asian financial consultant offers a flintier glance at this faraway kingdom, from an extended stay earlier on in its transition to modernization.

Contrasted with So You Are Thinking of Going to Bhutan by James W. Gould (Kindle, 2012), this is extensive and well organized. Unlike Yakking with the Thunder Dragon: Walking Bhutan's Epic Snowman Trek by Mark Horrell (Kindle, 2011), Taudevin favors then-emerging centers, even though these were in more primitive, less populated form a quarter-century ago. Compared to Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Trish Nicholson (Collca e-books; Kindle, 2012), "With a Dzong in My Heart" (much more drolly and dryly) breaks from the mountains to cover the sights and the capital but shares an ethnological interest in the impacts of a professional Westerner's 1988 stint.

He's posted there in Thimphu to serve the Departments of Agricultural-Animal Husbandry-Forestry, so his perspective alters from the trekker or tourist. Apropos: "The difference between a tourist and an aid worker is that the tourist has to pay for his travels, while the aid worker travels for his pay." He observes from "Columbus to World Bank experts, travelers carry a multi edged sword of opportunity in the one hand and a dagger of cultural, even human destruction in the other. It makes no difference whether the traveler is in an air-conditioned limousine or carries a backpack." Development enters with experts like himself, along with destruction of a culture he seeks to capture as it globalizes.

The "patient chaos" of Calcutta, where he waits for a week, earns his clinical eye as an freelance aid worker assigned to Bhutan by the Asian Development Bank. Coming from Jakarta, he notes the effects of colonialism and how they endure even as a bit of his hard-won tropical cynicism acquired in facing down bureaucrats and toadies eases with the smiles he notices in India's crush on the streets. Back then, he can't find much to read in Calcutta about his destination, so he lands knowing little.

But he explains the architecture of its stacked dwellings smartly, enough detail to get beneath the typical tourist's glance. He rides a Bondey farm's monorail, built by Japanese. He passes Dobji Dzong, restored to house the kingdom's worst criminals. He inspects the Indian border town of Phuntsholing and the Bengali counterpart of Jaigoan with its predictable jostle and bustle. And, he considers how due to the kingdom's single lateral road's exposure to landslides, trade must often detour down into India before returning up to Bhutan.

Although the capital, Thimphu, was one-eighth its present population, the dogs, flies, stench, and cynical bargaining appear in firm place before his jaundiced gaze. "The problem was to avoid being becoming mesmerized by the exotic at the expense of the reality." He notes, for instance, amidst the centuries of accumulated cat urine, dust, and pigeon droppings at the decrepit but bustling Wangdiphodrang Dzong the monks' combination of devotion and lassitude, or the trash littering the monastic courtyards at Paro. 

Taudevin shares with Michel Peissel's 1968 immersion into a then still-feudal land (recounted in Lords and Lamas: A Solitary Expedition across the Secret Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan) a keen eye for bureaucratic sinecures and rank-pulling functionaries who thwart him; he plays the game of giving in to get ahead. He glimpses the reality behind the royalty, as opposed to many accounts when the authors thank the monarchy in acknowledgments which may obscure the disparities in evidence.

However, he welcomes the chance to get away from Thimphu (much as Peissel), and he marvels at how "your every sense is controlled by the splendid confines of what nature allows you to see." A glimpse of a farmhouse, a dzong, a splendid vista follows, as the winding highway and the slow pace forces one to adjust to a landscape brooding and spectacular.

As his rainy stay lengthens, he misses the livelier Asian posts of his career--and vegemite. "All too often, I experienced the sensation of being in a deserted street, windows shuttered on all sides, hiding Bhutan from me and me from Bhutan." He recognizes Bhutan's allure; he understands the gap between those who live there content and himself, nostalgic for a return to more unsettled settlements to the south. He tries golf, he watches soccer. It's often a testy narrative, but his direct personality and blunt thoughts make this an honest report.

He explains Mahayana Buddhism well; he delves deep into bodhisattva concepts, six realms of  existence, and chhortens. I learned about the Tibetan chhaktshello ritual and syllabic meanings for "om mani peme hung." He finds that the many small lhakang chapels, without a fixed center,  gather the viewer to find enlightenment around one, "somewhere inevitably, gently." He considers how Western attitudes draw away from the uncertain, the intuitive, the open-ended. "We are afraid of impermanence, and live our lives by fixed principles and plans. Is that not a paradox in itself?"

Speaking of fixations, some typos enter; slips crept in. The second rather than the third son traditionally entered a monastery; Fr. [William] Mackey, the Jesuit who founded Bhutan's first college, was not American but Canadian; the ubiquitous phallic decorations are attributed more to stand for the yab-yum generation of compassion or to ward off evil, than they are "fertility symbols."

However, this proves an engaging set of reflections. He segues from a vandalized, littered campers' shelter on a miserable night high on Phojuding to a scene of a funeral below down the slope, and then to a discussion of death rituals. He connects more cheerful visits to Thujida and Cherri to a poignant sense of what travelers claim to find but what may elude them, as journeys such as his, removed from family for long periods, do not broaden the mind but only one's parameters. Among these, he must search for meaning, and wonder what his photos (lost, stolen?) cannot capture from Bhutan for him. (Amazon US 12-9-12)

1 comment:

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