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Posts Tagged ‘Gross National Happiness’

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Photo: Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times
Customers browsing through books in Thimphu, Bhutan. Literacy is growing in the isolated Himalayan country.

Bhutan is a small Himalayan country best known for its focus on Gross National Happiness. I know two other things about it, and they are contradictory. One is that the Hindu Nepalese ethnic minority gets so little happiness there that many end up in refugee camps in India for decades.

But the other thing I know is that Suzanne found Bhutan to be a magical place when she traveled there after her time as vice president of Red Envelope and just before founding Luna & Stella. A Buddhist monk in Bhutan even provided her with a name for her first-born. (She translated it into Swedish and used it as a middle name.)

Nations are complicated.

Here is a recent article I liked about Bhutan’s growing literary culture. It’s by Jeffrey Gettleman at the New York Times. “Not long ago, when Bhutan’s government tried to enroll children in school,” he writes, “parents hid them in the attic and bribed government agents with butter and cheese to go away. Families needed their children as field hands. The last thing they cared about were books.

“But … literacy is taking root across these deep green mountain valleys — it’s now around 60 percent, compared to 3 percent in the 1950s — giving rise to a surprising underdog literary scene.

“The number of bookshops is increasing; there are around a dozen in the capital, Thimphu, and a few more in far-flung districts. Bhutanese writers are publishing books more than ever before — fantasy novels, poetry, short story collections and especially folklore. Each August, Bhutan hosts an international literary festival. …

“It’s a delicate dance of letting in outsiders without getting steamrollered. Historically, Bhutan has sealed itself off, a Shangri-La nestled in the highest, snow-capped mountain range in the world. Before the 1960s, few foreigners set foot here; it was only in 1999 that television was allowed in. …

“This new generation of Bhutanese writers and novelists see themselves as occupying a special role: as guardians of their nation’s culture. Many are relatively young, in their 30s and 40s, and love to reminisce about growing up in villages without radios or TVs or even roads, wearing traditional clothes and eating traditional foods (such as hard cubes of yak cheese the size of Starburst candies). They feel an urgency to write about the old ways deep in the mountain villages before that lifestyle totally disappears.

“ ‘Create?’ asked Tshering Tashi, a writer, journalist, tour guide and co-director of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. ‘That’s a luxury. Our foremost job is to record.’ …

“Mr. Tashi, 45, is determined to track down the last of the traditional shamans and spiritual hermits — the custodians of Bhutanese legends — and write their stories, not his, before they take them to the grave. On one mission, he hiked two weeks into the mountains where no roads reach; he finally found his target, an old hermit who had been living by himself for 70 years. …

“Gopilal Acharya, 40, is a poet with dark eyes, a natty beard, crisp plaid shirts and a slightly coiled vibe. He writes in English, like most Bhutanese writers, because that is what he studied in school. (Several indigenous languages are spoken in Bhutan but relatively few books are printed in them.) …

“Mr. Acharya is passionate about Bhutanese folklore. He wrote a book of children’s tales that celebrate a way of life rooted in isolated hamlets where even today, on windswept mountainsides, people till fields of buckwheat with yoked oxen and wooden plows.

“ ‘These stories are how we are anchored as a society,’ he said. ‘We don’t have military or economic power. Our culture is all we have.’ ” More here.

For yet another angle on Bhutan, check out this Washington Post article on why some residents hate the nasty politics of their new democracy so much, they are pining for the old days — and the “absolute monarchy under a beloved king.”

 

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