Nepali Times
Kingdoms in cloud-cuckoo-land


When writer Jonathan Gregson was born in India, there were four Himalayan kingdoms: Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim. And from childhood, Gregson had a fascination for these mountains, a fascination nurtured by the Nepali orderlies who talked about home, by summer holidays in Darjeeling looking out at the mountains of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, and by a boyhood friendship with Prince Jigme Singye Wangchuk at school in Calcutta.

What Gregson has tried to do in Kingdoms Beyond the Clouds: Journeys in Search of the Himalayan Kings is pick up vestiges of this allure for all things Himalayan and find a chord that runs through them: the god-kings of the Himalaya. Fifty years later, only two of these kingdoms remain: Nepal and Bhutan. The geopolitical might of the region's two superpowers, India and China, had obliterated Sikkim and Tibet. Gregson, meanwhile, had turned into a travel writer, trotting around the world doing postcard journalism to fill the pages of papers back home.

Kingdoms Beyond the Clouds is a 500-page saga of Gregson's search for constitutional monarchs, shy kings revered as gods by their subjects, and the descendants of others whose kingdoms have disappeared. But tracking down these kings (even his former classmate who by now is King of Bhutan) and then pinning them down for interviews, however, seemed as difficult as trying to find the yeti. But here they are: the Dalai Lama, King Birendra of Nepal, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan, 'Prince' Wangchuk, the present 'Chogyal' of Sikkim, and last but not least, the Mustangi Raja Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista.

Inevitably, given Gregson's background as a travel writer, Kingdoms Beyond the Clouds belongs to a genre of semi-journalistic trave-logues in the half-way world between serious research and a piece in the travel section of the Sunday Independent. Although Gregson is not as bad as some of the others, we really can't seem to get away from these patronising parachute essayists who expose their ethnocentrism. For example, how does describing Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and King Birendra as "looking like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee" because they are both dressed in daura suruwal, coat and topi give us any extra insight into Nepal's constitutional monarchy? But it has to be granted that some of Gregson's barbs at King Birendra's secretaries are richly deserved, and his descrip-tion of their devious obtuseness hits the mark.

The three chapters in Kingdoms Beyond the Clouds that deal with Nepal will be rewarding for Nepali readers because of the rare glimpse it gives into the inner workings of the Royal Palace in Kathmandu, and perhaps also into the mind of the monarch himself. (See facing page.)

Gregson is intrigued about how King Birendra, vilified during the Jana Andolan for vacillating on restoring democracy, has now re-earned the respect of the Nepali people. "King Birendra has reinvented himself as the model constitutional monarch," he writes, ".What really puzzled me was how to reconcile the benign, ever-smiling monarch I had just met with the bogeyman depicted in so many accounts of the 1990 Revolution." He goes on to say that by taking a step back from the political arena, the monarchy is no longer held responsible for Nepal's disorderly transition to democracy. He concludes: "Perhaps for these very reasons, (the monarchy) is better loved.the system of monarchy is so deeply entrenched that it would take a far greater upheaval than the Jana Andolan to turn most Nepalese into republicans."

It is about the Jana Andolan itself that Gregson has some unconventional views. He concludes that the scale of the uprising was exaggerated, it was confined to Kathmandu and that the anti-monarchist turn of the demonstrations was not spontaneous but "carefully orchestrated". Then he goes on to say that compared to most other popular revolutions, "the Jana Andolan was a pushover. It was almost too easy a victory." Compared to what, Jonathan, Tiananmen Square? There is really no need to compare Kathmandu 1990 to Rangoon 1988 or Beijing 1989. By Nepali standards, these were unprecedented street demonstrations, with unprecedented and seriously escalating violence. It is to King Birendra's credit that he saw the writing on the wall and began the process of consultations that led to the transitional government and the new constitution.

The two Jigmes in the book, the Mustangi Raja and the King of Bhutan, seem to wear their crowns with unease. The Mustangi Raja comes across as a simple, likeable man who is comfortable with his status in the "kingdom within a kingdom". Yet, there are rumblings. Mainly from the bulldozers building a new road from the Chinese border to Lo Manthang. He doesn't like the road, but has no power to stop it.

Gregson goes to Bhutan twice in search of the classmate he played tag with and is treated, well, royally. He doesn't therefore probe too deeply into the real reasons for the Bhutanese refugee crisis, and lets King Jigme off the hook when he is told that the Lhotsampas voluntarily left Bhutan attracted by the free food and lodging in the refugee camps in Jhapa. International observers of Bhutan who like to think King Jigme is being pushed by hardliners in his fold, and that the monarch himself is a moderate, will find his statements a revelation. The king repeats the radical Bhutanese position of blaming Nepal for the crisis. What is it about Bhutanese officials that they can only say how well their country is doing by putting Nepal down? Gregson falls into this trap, too, and in his praise for exclusive $200-a-day tourism, snobbishly trashes Thamel and Nagarkot, glossing over the enormous benefit trekking has been as employment generation and income to the Nepali countryside.

Gregson gives a hint about which side his sentiments lie when in the epilogue, he concludes: " certain stages of a country's development, a benign king is preferable to the overhasty adoption of an already corrupted version of democracy." So, now we know: the author is from the "Singapore school". Gregson seems to have done his homework on recent Nepali history, so he should have known that we did try the "guided democracy" model for 30 years, and that didn't work either. Nepal's democratically-elected leaders after 1990 have squandered their own hard-earned freedoms, they have insulted the Nepali people by frittering away the gains. But it is also true that many of the roots of abuse were laid during the Panchayat years. Let's not blame democracy for the misdeeds of venal and self-serving politicians. Unless Gregson is trying to say that democracy is not good for poor countries, and is meant only for rich ones in Europe which have had two centuries of practice.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)