Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ken Haigh's "Under the Holy Lake": Book Review

While another Canadian teacher of English in the late 80s in this Himalayan kingdom's eastern remote reaches has gained nearly a hundred reviews on Amazon US for her well-written narrative, "Beyond the Sky and the Earth," appearing in 1999, this Ontario native, who parallels in his decision to leave grad school and no job prospects for a (nearly parallel in time) immersion instructing youth in grammatical niceties should be equally known. I liked Jamie Zeppa's account (see my own review in May 2012). But I did not know of Ken Haigh's 2008 story until I looked for more well-crafted, no-nonsense encounters in print from this often-romanticized realm.

After Easter Sunday Mass in Khaling (despite the Buddhist state religion, teachers often come from India and Catholic regions), Haigh looks back over the scene. "There were bright green highlights on the pasture, almost yellow, and deeper green in the pastures of the ravines. A lone white cow ambled down the hillside and onto the road where it was struck by a passing truck." (70)

What Haigh shares with Zeppa is a determination to avoid the soft-focus, combined with an acknowledgement of the love-hate feelings that may come once the initial confusion or infatuation wears off and the reality of separation from Canadian comfort sinks in. He relates his training, his hesitation, and his acceptance. He inserts a few excerpts from his diary to share his frustrations during the first summer's monsoons. Then, he adjusts with winter's better weather. He braves the bus to the capital, Thimphu, and he begins to get the hang of local habits.

Curricula debates, rodents, fatalism, preparing students as critical thinkers despite the rote parroting expected for the antiquated exams occupy his time. He even gets elected chairman of the Community Development Association, despite himself. The titular lake, diplomatic dinners, always more bureaucracy, the "tsechu" festival, a haunting glimpse of a blue-eyed stranger in a forlorn canteen: these typify the range of his chapters. He heads down to the Indian border, and up for his second Christmas among the Brokpa herders in truly remote Sakteng.

Unlike his counterpart's initial teaching situation, he's not in a hamlet accessible only by a day's journey from the "ghally lam," the east-west lateral paved highway. He's at the high school on the main road, not far from where Zeppa will later teach at the nation's first junior college--whose original site is now Haigh's assigned post. Still, at least in 1988, this is not a frequently visited spot, and taking into account the changes that such a road accelerates since Haigh's two-year stint, you get a sense of vast differences amid the relative (dogs aside) silence.

He writes straightforwardly, free of affectation. Simple black-and-white photos convey the sense of the places and faces. A small map suffices but it's not detailed; a glossary, reading list, and a few footnotes document his search for a rebel king's holdout near Khaling, for instance. He covers the essentials of the area's politics and history quickly in the "Accidental Area" chapter, and he keeps a keen eye out for the culture shock that's inevitable for any long-term foreigner. He realizes the temptations to play up the eccentricities and oddities, but he balances this with a frank representation of the interwoven familial and class connections that entangle the Bhutanese in a system that Haigh shows us in as honest and direct a fashion as he can, given his reliance on the English-language medium chosen by the monarchy to teach its citizens, across a land easy to praise but more difficult to analyze from a Westerner's perspective. (Amazon US 12-31-12)

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