Reminiscence: Petition & Politics takes its reader back to the days of the late 1980s when Bhutan, the Land of the Dragon, was awakening to the sounds of modernity, and her people’s minds were muddled by the comfort of yesterdays and the demands of tomorrows. The present then had given some people the loudest of voice while some were muffled to the point where they could not even hear their own. The author, Hari K. Chhetri, a Foreign Service Officer of the Royal Government of Bhutan at the time finds privilege to the inside churnings of the country’s politics and it is his narrative that we see in this book. It is presented as a memoir that is soaked in a socio-political narrative. The purpose of the book in the words of the author himself is to “to relate [his] experience and put the record straight” (iv). The book begins in the settings of the year 1988 when the Government of Bhutan plans a hasty and unpropitious population census targeting the southern districts and categorizing the people in groups ranging from F1 to F7 with no explanation of where the English letter F comes from. If F1 meant “Genuine Bhutanese”, F7 meant “Non Nationals” which could mean immigrants or illegal settlers. The others in question fell in one of the groups in between. The author gets involved in writing a petition to the King of Bhutan and seeking his Royal intervention in pacifying the tribulations caused by the census. In a twist of fate, it is this petition that propels the trials of thousands of Bhutanese refugees and therefore giving the author a well-founded need to bring the story to its entirety.
The significance of bringing truth to limelight is immediately seen upon opening the first pages of the book. Quotations from Lord Buddha and Lewis Carroll alert the reader’s mind and by the time the preface pages are read, the emphasis on truth is so heightened that the expectation of any reader is raised to the highest. I pounced on the chapters in a hungry search. The author as per his choice of the book’s title spends the majority of the book reminiscing his days as a government diplomat and as a result of which avails the readers access to government records such as the minutes of meetings of Lhengyal Shungtsong (the Council of Ministers or Cabinets) and National Assembly. The author’s presentation of excerpts from meetings of Lhengyal Shungtsog and that too from different years is impressive and he uses these to competently argue his point of why he had to be involved in the petition writing. He also reproduces Kuensel (then the only newspaper in Bhutan) clippings from the late 1980s to validate his narration.
However, there are times in the course of narrating the submission of petition to the King that the author’s emotions come to play. His frustration with the Government policies conflicts with the frustration with his fellow petition writers and this bottled-up feeling permeates through the pages threatening to falter his quest for revealing the truth, in turn affecting the reader. While he staunchly retains the use of names of people even while being a harsh critic of that person, there are instances where he hesitates to call certain people by names and instead presents the subjects as mere “he”(pp19 and 41). This inconsistency forces the reader to delve in between lines and review the author’s stated intention. If truth be told about one person, why not for some others? This part of the narration stops the reader and automatically sends her to a psychoanalytical mode with numerous questions streaming across pages. In addition to the sense of slight reservation felt here, the tone of the author shifts back and forth from that of a firm narrator to that of a character in contemplation. For example, page 25 begins powerfully, “Words were weighed; the language was reviewed. It had one single purpose. The petition must fittingly and correctly reflect the seriousness of the issue, and seek reasonable redress from our Sovereign. All of us shared one common concern. That our action was not misunderstood and that our honesty, integrity and loyalty were put beyond question”. This flawless tone captures the climax of entire narration of the book. However the author suddenly loses momentum and goes into what sounds like a Shakespearean monologue. The paragraph immediately following the one quoted above starts with, “To my mind, however, the die had already been cast. I did not think it was a word or group of words that was going to be questioned. As I saw it, it was not going to our thoughts either…They were merely reflecting the facts…It was action…Action carried a motive, hence, was questionable” (25). He ends this paragraph with almost an unclear yet ominous in connotation, “All of us, however, were not on the same wave length. Some saw things more clearly than others”. The assertiveness seen before is lost here. This may perfectly reflect the nature of environment of the time that the author is reliving here, but the abrupt shift in narration disturbs the presentation of the pivotal moment of the petition submission, which to me is the nexus of the book. The question of why this contrasting shift occurs is worthwhile to ponder. A hint of repentance for not being able to stop the plight of fellow citizens and the turmoil of his loved homeland, and therefore a subconscious blame game? Is this the truth then? A book of repentance and apology to his people? And yet the author’s feeling of unsettling disappointment towards his own people lingers on until the end. At one point, he writes, “Unfortunately, even the tragedy of being rendered stateless by a government did not seem to have reinforced in us our commonality and cement us together, typical perhaps of our ethnic characteristics” (181). This statement made me wince. After a brave coming forward with boldness of a true citizen, this mentality comes across as self-pity. I would rather read the inability of “cement[ing] together” as a consequence of living half a lifetime as refugees and as the behavior of a suppressed and traumatized population than blame one’s ethnic characteristics. If not for one’s ethnicity, the Bhutanese refugees would have been long lost in the masses of the world. If not for ethnic characteristics of the descendants of brave ancestors who tamed the mosquito infested tropical hills of Southern Bhutan to lush farmlands, the Bhutanese refugees would not have withstood those agonizing years in the refugee camps.
This book is a must-read for any Bhutanese who was old enough to remember but not understand why the peaceful home of theirs suddenly turned turbulent and subsequently no longer belonged to many of them. It offers the unseen picture of behind-the-scenes of the eventful late 80s and early 90s. For younger Bhutanese, they will have to listen or read stories about Bhutan before you read this book. You will not learn the stories of Wangchuck Dynasty or topography of the country. It is not a book to learn legislative or judicial system of the country in detail except for the fact that the Government can arrest without a warrant and deem thousands illegal without proper trials or representations. Non-Bhutanese will have had to read other books on Bhutan to fully comprehend this book. References to other books on Bhutan by scholars like Michael Hutt, Leo E. Rose and John Claude White have been made, but slightly used. The picture of a dzong at the end is not referenced and has little use to the book. Similarly the map of Bhutan in the beginning is undated and rather raises more questions instead of serving much purpose.
Hari K. Chhetri is one of the very few Bhutanese luminaries who can lend insight to the politics and history of Bhutan. This paperback, I am sure, is just the beginning of many to be expected from him. Even with the limited readership amongst the Bhutanese community coupled with almost non-distribution and marketing support for a massive sale, the book has found a very good middle ground in terms of its pricing. It neither diminishes the value of the author’s erudition nor makes the readers inaccessible to his wealth of knowledge. With his academic background and his experience in serving the Government of the Bhutan at a high ranking official level, his books can be treasured as reference books and could be catalogued as primary sources of information. As much as a need for more books, there is also a greater need for more Bhutanese readers. Our stories need to be kept alive!
(The writer, who resides in Georgia, Atlanta, often regularly writes on various contemporary issues for Bhutan News Service. She can be reached for comments at email@example.com)