Thursday, January 3, 2013

John Wehrheim's "Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness": Book Review

Here's a deeper look into these pages. Previous {Amazon} reviewers laud John Wehrheim's evocative b/w photographs; these compliment his sensitive, lively, insightful text. A companion to the DVD he co-produced, "Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness," about the modernization-by-moderation Gross National Happiness project in this Himalayan kingdom turning constitutional democracy, the last land ruled under a Tantric Buddhist ethos, this book--originally in hardcover 2008, but slightly revised for the better 2011 in paperback--transcends its coffee-table appearance.

That is, after fifteen years as a hydropower consultant working in Bhutan, 1991-2006, what he presents peers into the Bhutanese, many of whom he honors as "my friend" in the calm, steady narrative. As in his similar pairing of story and image, "Taylor Camp" from Kaua'i, the clash of the recent with the traditional underlies his perspective, allowing him to record patiently the varying reactions from the natives to a world that wants to barge in, attracted to an Asian area's remote charms and natural wonders. But this does not mean he romanticizes a place where television in 1999 brings unwelcome temptations, and advertising tempts people away from the Buddhist admonition to let go of desires.

Fittingly, after a deftly conveyed history of Bhutan and its context within Indian-fueled border struggles where the nation its novel way wins a recent war on terror, the geographically east-west path begins in Paro, where one lands at the airport. Wehrheim explores the Drukpa heartlands, in western and central regions, and treks follow drives into the northern interior near Tibet. A climb up to Taktshang doesn't seem to faze him. We learn of the Divine Madman and patron saint Drukpa Kinley, and the girl turned goddess Yeshe Tsogyal.

In the Thimphu chapter, we visit his hosts Jack and Karma; she relates her family's saga which shows the difficulties of many in this land where subsistence farming exacts its toll, and which in its abandonment the capital lures some young folks eager for civil service and bright lights. "TV ruined my life," laments a bumper sticker. Wehrheim as an engineer observes astutely how the modern buildings in traditional style gloss over concrete and steel the folk patterns but the structures cannot sustain the shapes that have evolved gracefully with organic materials.

In Punakha, Wangchu takes him into the forests. A yellow dog, one of the ubiquitous barkers, hassles him one night. A yelp is heard later. A leopard has taken off the cur, like a cat with a rat, the beast hanging limp in firm jaws.

Bhutan's predicament might be akin to that of small prey between big beasts. Glacial melts worsen conditions; the fate of Nepal and its deforestation, and of Tibet with the loss of its timber, overshadows this nation as it tries to balance sustainable growth with a reluctance or eagerness (the capitulation of Sikkim lingers as its doomed neighbor) to rule one's self. The central regions of Wangdi, Trongsa, and Bumthang give the author a chance to join a royal celebration, that goes on for weeks it seems. The king having abdicated at fifty for his son's reign, the son urges his people to further democracy. But, they fear the corruption and graft of their neighbors will infect the Bhutanese polity.

Before this event, my favorite chapters take us nearer the northwest frontier with Tibet. First, Wangchu and companions escort Wehrheim into Gasa. A hot spring, and elegant portraits of its bathers, enhance a bawdy set of exchanges, as if the Wife of Bath reincarnated. The territory of Laya and then rival Lunana follow. The Layap, more laid-back, exemplify a "hidden" people tucked away out of sight of the Tibetan trade routes, 12,000 feet up. Conical hats perched on the women and the forthright, practical attitude of the locals make them a memorable bunch. Their "night-hunting" custom of matchmaking seems a twist on my Lao or Hmong students' tales of similar "abduction" where all the family are complicit!

As with the Lunap, the people over in Lunana, they seem far removed from what we know as neighbors. The Lunap have practiced polyandry as the men are away so long and this kept the population low in a harsh terrain. A more reticent and gruff lot, they contrast with the Layap.

In a moonscape, Wehrheim, a water expert, knows that he cannot get sick from a "sacred spring" that high up. He drinks a cold draft. He gives in as his heart stops and energy invades his body. He relates a terrible and powerful afternoon spent coping with the aftereffects of the "naga."

Reading these encounters, the vivid and textured photography interspersed to often comment directly or subtly on the narrative, you learn about the sensibility of the people. Gradually, your own time and space retreat, as with the impact of the "naga's water," if not so dreadfully. Receding from our own surroundings, the harsh and gentle notes mingled in this account merge and rise.

Unlike more heavily promoted reports from Bhutan, falling into New Age rapture or (see my reviews of "Radio Shangri-La" by Lisa Napoli and Jamie Zeppa's "Beyond the Sky and the Earth" for a relevant pair) "I went there and fell in love" revelations, "Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness" allows a longer gaze than a first-person voice, through the camera. While limited of course to his choice, the added visions open up the reader to become a viewer. He tells us in an afterword: "The words and events are true but not always in the order and sequence implied."

In Wehrheim's last chapter, in a bar in Thimphu Town, he tells an ambitious Indian who wishes to push Bhutan twenty years forward that such a jolt will leave it like Sikkim: invaded by immigrants, overrun by India, touristed and commodified. Forty years behind Bhutan may be, but better that than the fate of Tibet after that period. In a parallel conversation with a Tibetan-descended man, whose family in part escaped, Wehrheim sums up his subject jauntily. "Happy peasants in bountiful fields. A King who's too good to be true. The usual. I'm making photos, shooting video and collecting stories. Everybody in Bhutan's got a story--some of them might even be true." (Amazon US 11-1-12)

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