Rape. Prostitution. Child labor. Corruption. Alcoholism. Welcome to Shangri-La. Society’s ills in Bhutan, hidden to tourists who pay for pricey vacations there, are the main “characters” of a new book by author Doji Dhratyul called Escapades Awakenings: A Novel From the Kingdom of Happiness.
Happiness isn’t very evident in this 590-pages novel, six years in the making. It is at once riveting, disturbing, and important.
To Bhutanese, the themes will be familiar, if not taboo; to outsiders who idealize the nation as unspoiled, and believe it exempt from problems that plague the rest of the world, they will be shocking.
The book’s main character is the fictitious Chechey, a modern Bhutanese woman whose given name is “Thruebaab,” for the blessed rainy day on which she was born. She is the product of forced encounter: her teenaged mother, Gakeey, had been forced to sleep with a visiting dignitary (who remains unaware of the consequences of his actions, and who reappears later in the book.) Chechey’s 7-year old-brother is sold into the service of a rich Thimphu-dwelling family who can only be described as evil.
By force of will, and a healthy dose of karma, Chechey manages to save him, and to exact revenge: By becoming the richest and most powerful woman in the nation. She does that with her feminine wiles in a shocking way.
Author Dhratyul (his pen name) is a father of two. After he reached out to me on Twitter, we arranged to have his book hand-carried to the US, where I live, by an American tour guide. It is available in Bhutan and internationally on Amazon.
The following interview was conducted via email, and edited for space:
Q: Where are you from in Bhutan? What kind of work do you do now?
DD: From Bumthang now settled in a small village called Mepisa in Chukha District. Presently I am working with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests to help our farmers market their produce.
Q: Is the book based on real incidents in your life or that you’ve observed?
DD: Yes and no. Yes ! because they are mostly based on real life’s incidents. They are part of my life’s journey. But you will know better that how many more such sad stories are being enacted in many parts of the world as I write this. Well, real lives stories may be more tragic but surely not as dramatic like as I have tried to portray.
No ! because Thruebaab alias Chechey is my creation. But I like to believe that there could be many living and dead Bhutanese women who could easily connect themselves with some or complete parts of Chechey’s life.
Q: Writing a book is a long and thankless and isolating process. What was your aim in telling the epic story of Chechey / Thruebaab?
DD:To me so far I must say it was a fun, enjoyable and a fulfilling. Strictly speaking the book was a pleasant surprise outcome of my writing hobby.
The motivation to write this story originated in 2006 in one of my work related tours to lower Zhemgang. We had about a week of walking during the tour. It was during this tour when I saw the stark differences between the lives in these villages and the urban areas which I wanted to share with my luckier urban population. I think it was basically an outburst of my deep-rooted personal concerns on these and some other aspects of our society.
Also it is my sincere hope that this book will – Encourage, Enthuse and Entice Bhutanese Women to Empowerment and Excellence.
Q: Fascinating that you chose to write the story of a woman, mostly. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
DD: Well for sure I don’t qualify to be labeled as feminist. But I always had a deep concern for women’s rights. I guess this has got to do with my experience with my mother’s life.
Q: Do you feel like there are strides being made to combat child slavery and rape in Bhutan?
DD: The situation has changed a lot from those that I described in my book but many challenges still are hovering. Actually this book is also an outcome of my personal interest and concern on the subject of gender issue especially from the point of view of women gender as the disadvantaged one even in our context. Most of us tend to claim that Bhutanese women enjoy equality with men and while I have been always feeling uncomfortable with such views.
You know we have since couple of years RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women) dedicated to uplift the opportunities for women and NCWC (National Commission for Women and Children), a government agency responsible to uphold or support the rights and opportunities of women and children. Also many legal instruments supporting women and children are being put in place. But having said that I believe we have a long way to go.
Q: A lot of Bhutanese get angry with foreigners (like me) who they feel idolize or glamorize Bhutan, or criticize it. Have any Bhutanese been angry with you for being frank about the flip side of the so-called Shangri-la?
DD: I believe there is no reason in the book for anyone to be offended or get angry. We cannot be oblivious and ignorant to isolated sad true stories such as in my book. If we do not expose and nip them in its infancy, many more such sad stories could indeed easily be not just the flip side but permanent way of life as is evident everywhere else. But you will kindly agree that happiness is not yet the flip side of development but the mainstay of Bhutanese life and society. I hope this is appreciated and for all to observe in Bhutan.
My book portrays issues such as child labor, sexual exploitation of rural women, alcoholism and many others but I would not call these as the flip side of the Shangrila. We believe Shangri-la is Bhutan. People no matter how poor or sad they may be, I still believe there is lot of contentment, smiles, joys, fresh air and water everywhere. It is not for anything that Bhutan is the land of Gross National Happiness. Happiness is the vision. Happiness is the goal. Happiness is the way of life. My dream is… Bhutan will continue to be the Kingdom of Happiness for all times to come as I have captioned on the front cover of my book.