Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Review

Lingchen Dorji’s Home Shangrila: A novel from Bhutan (2014) is a semi-autobiographical novel rooted firmly in the doubts and desires of those who flock to Thimphu after college to compete for coveted positions in the civil service. The story is told by Rinzin Dorji, a mid-scoring Life Sciences graduate. 
After a temporary job as an interviewer conducting the first ever household census, and working briefly at the Department of National Properties, Rinzin fails to be selected for more permanent positions or scholarships, and joins Thimpu’s growing ranks of unemployed youth. This is the demographic that has the real-life government and planners worried because of its potential for deviance and vice, but smoking cigarettes (the novel is set before the lifting of a ban on tobacco) remains the extent of Rinzin’s moral and legal waywardness. His time is taken up instead by tramping around Thimphu responding to interviews and worrying about how he will live up to the expectations that his education has instilled in him, in a city where his qualifications have meaning but only the toppers succeed.
After swearing off cigarettes, he is finally accepted into a Library Sciences course in Scotland, and moves to Aberdeen. The city is cold and grey, full of people who look “similarly preoccupied with their own business.” Interactions with Aberdonians do not find much mention beyond misunderstandings in shopping centres and abortive attempts to find employment. A friendship struck up with fellow-student, Duncan, develops, but then vanishes on the next page. Rinzin discovers a renewed interest in Buddhist books and films, and finds refuge online, talking to friends back home and trying to describe how everything feels “hollow and dream like”. His aversion to the bustle and anonymity of life in a western city and the resulting soul-searching is reminiscent of the introspection that characterises much foreign writing about life in Bhutan, and leads, predictably, to the same general conclusion: life is better back home.

Not a lot happens to Rinzin in Scotland, perhaps because of his homesickness, and there is never any possibility that his stay will be anything more than an interlude. As the novel’s title – Home Shangrila – makes clear, the real search for happiness and contentment (and likely, a plum government post) can only begin in earnest once he returns to Thimphu, where he can articulate the cliché with more confidence: “I became more Bhutanese by going to the West.”
-Ross Adkin is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu.