Nepali Times
Pico makes an ass of himself


".one of the most revered travel writers. Born in England, raised in California, educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard, his essays and other writings have appeared in Cond? Nast Traveler, the New Yorker. His books include Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling off the Map."

Google Pico Iyer and this is what comes up: an immediate applause for his worldliness, erudition and accomplishments. So it was no surprise that when I saw his article Tale of Two Kingdoms in Time I thought, at last, someone who can put an intelligent handle on this silly Bhutan vs Nepal thing into proper perspective. I should have paid more attention to the sub-title. Reading it, I got into one of those situations where one feels so insulted, invectives and murderous thoughts flow senselessly.

Iyer has obviously cobbled together one of his periodic essays for Time, his former employer of four years, with little respect for history or reality. His puerile attempt at comparing Nepal and Bhutan was irritating; the destruction of his usual clever language bemusing, his commentary clich?d and the conclusions specious.

Let's get one thing straight: Himalayan Kingdoms both might be but that is where the similarity ends. He regurgitated the oft-quoted litany of quirks that is supposed to confirm Bhutan as the new Shangri-La. All sentient souls this corner of the Indian sub-continent know that Bhutan's Gross National Happiness sags with sadness when 100,000 of its ethnically-cleansed population languishing in the eastern plains of Nepal for the last 15 years are taken into account.

A few boutique hotels and a promise to relinquish the throne in 2008 make not a magic kingdom or a noble king. The Bhutani subjects' attachment to their medieval costumes rapidly wears off in the shopping malls of Delhi, go-go bars of Bangkok and, one might add, Casino Tara of Boudha. And, pray, why drag in religion? The practice of Christianity is now constitutionally allowed in Nepal, but it is a recent import largely spread by unspiritual promises of economic advancement.

Nepal is slowly coming to terms with the implications of democracy, instituted as recently as 1990. The going has not been comfortable or even certain, compounded by the 10-year-long Maoist insurgency. However, Nepal continues to remain a vibrant country full of appealing anomalies. Nepal may have welcomed tourists in the 70s with the easy promise of hashish and hedonism but the natural beauty and the curious charm of its pluralistic peoples have always been the real attractions. Even Bhutani citizens are welcome here but it has always puzzled
me why we are not allowed to enter Bhutan freely.

We have never closed our doors on visitors: western governments have with their alarmist travel advisories. Its foreign, defence and economic policies all but governed by India, Bhutan can ill-afford to sneer at Nepal's present misfortunes with righteous sniggering. My suspicion is that Bhutan's widely-advertised disdain for Nepal is actually a perfectly-pitched but delusional ploy to mask fear and envy. Nepal represents all that Bhutan can't be due to its geographical and international insignificance, its myopic vision that confuses self-preservation with seclusion and the ruling clutch's realisation that its hold on powe (royal and political chicanery notwithstanding) is finite.

To quote Iyer '.the first law of modern life is that everything is as impermanent as an image on a screen; the only form of continuity is change'. Deep within, Bhutan knows that it can't stop the clock from ticking and controlling the time it will inevitably tell.

Finally, by coining linguistically-challenged words such as 'Nepalmed' with its non-Nepal connotations, clumsy stabs at promiscuous semantics and scurrilous second-hand comments about Nepal and, especially, Nepali women, Iyer has made an utter ass of himself. By criticising Nepal while romanticising Bhutan, he has merely followed trend, missing a chance to correct it. He once said that the most important challenge in the writing process for him was clarity. Since clarity was clearly lacking in his article, perhaps it is he who should be listening to the King of Bhutan, deposing himself of all literary and analytical responsibilities in 2008. Or, better, sooner.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)