Latest review of Radio Shangri-La

This one in India, where the book came out last year:


Rahul Jain: Bhutan has of late hit the headlines in the global media because of the much-publicised marriage of its young Oxford-educated king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal, to a commoner, Jetsun Pema –an Asian version of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton, minus, of course, the massive media coverage that the latter enjoyed.

These days, it has become an obsession, and a fashion, to talk of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in relation to Bhutan. It is a concept that owes its origin to the previous king of the Himalayan nation and father of the present incumbent, King Jigme Singe Wangchuk. The former king thought GNH to be a better reflection of the overall well-being of his countrymen than the universally accepted GDP measurement with or without the purchasing power parity concept.

Lisa Napoli’s book Radio Shangri-La is also conceptualised around the same theme and offers an excellent overview of what the Orient still craves for and what the Occident is looking forward to. Sadly, neither is available in the right degree to the craving souls of humanity.

This non-fiction account is premised around the setting up of Kuzoo FM, a radio service which is new to the Himalayan kingdom, where television was allowed in 1999 and Internet made its debut in 2006, leavened with reflections. Being a journalist has helped Lisa in observing events around her with acuity. In one sense, the book is autobiographical and in another, reportage, but then one needs to give in to the journalist in the writer.

It is a juxtaposition of Bhutan, a country just stepping into modernisation and democracy shepherded by its Oxford-educated king, and the 24×7 fastpaced life of an American back home.

Though the title of the book depicts Bhutan as the happiest kingdom on earth, the reality stands out in sharp contrast. For the record, a recently published report in a Bhutanese daily (another novelty in the country, since it was only in 2006 that Bhutan allowed two private newspapers to start publishing) said that farmers in the country spent more time in courts than on their farms. Agriculture is still the mainstay of the majority of Bhutanese.

The story has two protagonists, both swirling in a vortex of despair. One is a woman nearing 40, based in Los Angeles, trying to find the meaning of her life and/or feed meaning into it. The other is a Bhutanese young woman in her early 20s, working in an FM radio station and seeking to enjoy life in the fast lane, one punctuated by love and affection.

The book is timely and relevant in the sense that the Euro zone crisis, or rather, the global economic slowdown, has just driven home the point of happiness or its absence in materialism. Sadly, if the advanced countries are repeating the mistake with regularity, the developing and the least developed ones are failing to draw lessons from that. The bottom line then is that happiness remains a chimera as one finds it neither in the serene and picturesque Buddhist kingdom nor in the crass materialism of advanced countries.

Lisa Napoli Rabdom House Publishers, 2011
RS 399, 309 pages Paperback/Travel

However, it would be a mistake to assume that this is an occidental perspective of an oriental kingdom. In patches, of course, it is true that the author is trying to understand the whys and hows of the native. But she soon gets over it and shows herself throughout the book as a student of different cultures, one who is always at loggerheads with her own identity and self. The author feels that happiness as an idea is being sold even as the newly educated youths – a small but increasing percentage in a country of 6.5 lakh people – are transfixed between modernity and tradition, and in most cases, opting for the former. The other persistent theme in the book is Bhutan’s reluctant transition from monarchy to democracy, which understandably is a time-consuming process. Bhutan, for the record, went to polls in 2009 to bring about a democratic form of governance. But monarchy is still in the political blood of the Bhutanese. The transition to democracy, the role of all forms of media, the public perception of the transition to elected government induced and introduced by the King, and the general misconception and ignorance of the land-locked kingdom form the backdrop of the plot.

Scaffolding and land movers, like they dot Indian cities, are changing the landscape of Bhutan where urbanisation is taking place at a rate of knots. During the last decade Bhutan’s urban population has grown fourfold. Radio ShangriLa is also a commentary on the socioeconomic status of the Bhutanese society and its new-found worldliness. The author, however, also juxtaposes the ruling class’ misgivings about luxury on the domestic front with the government’s policy of welcoming high-net-worth tourists in order to help preserve the serenity of the land: a fact that the nation’s first elected prime minister, Jigmey Thinley, discussed with the reviewer during his visit to Guwahati.

The GNH concept of Bhutan has also been studied by Japan and other European countries, though not many in the USA have even heard of the country some 105 years after the world first saw traces of it through the much-maligned campaign by British General Younghusband through the photographs of General John Claude White, the commander of the Indian empire, which were first published in a National Geographic issue in 1914.

Overall, this is a good book for those who want to understand Bhutanese society, its politics, its society, its economy and its transition to democracy, although, as the author warns, “Bhutan is not a checklist kind of vacation on which you hit the hot spots, not an easy place, not a luxurious place to adore. It has many flaws and it is rife with contradiction”.


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