Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truth is beauty, unless it isn’t

There is at least one question that bedevils all relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic, filial or the vastly complicated one you have with yourself (for which I can’t think of an existing word but will propose the one suggested by a smarter friend, ‘autorelationship’): Is this the sort of question that takes so long to get to, what with run-ons and parenthetical clauses, that you’ve completely forgotten where it was going? The answer to which is: That’s the sort of cheap shot that’ll pad out a word count nicely and further alienate hostile readers.

Okay, here’s the question: Is it better to be truthful, or gentle? Is it better to hold up your version of the best mirror to life that you can, or is it better to minimise the pain you inflict, especially on loved ones? When honesty and compassion are mutually exclusive, which do you choose? Will what you do not know, or refuse to believe, not hurt you? And, for the cherry on top, does ‘better’ mean ‘more useful’, or does it mean ‘more meaningful’?

It’s all very confusing. To take a meek example, I’ve previously griped in this space about the problems of book reviewing. If you happened to say you like the book of someone you know, people will assume that you pulled your punches. On the other hand, if you give your writer friend some brutally honest feedback on his short story, he might never talk to you again. How much tough love can a relationship survive—and if it happens to be the autorelationship, will it just reduce you to a pile of quivering dysfunction? Though, really, would you be able to tell that anything’s changed?

Okay, that’s several questions, but I’ve done rigorous research via a Facebook status update that reads: ‘Would you prefer that your friends told you the truth, or what you want to hear?’ In response, my friends said things like, “I’d answer truth but I think that’s what you want to hear” and “Too late for philosophy, of course you don’t drink too much, have another beer!” and “What friends?” and “Truth… although, if harsh, softened with presents” and “Why do they have to tell me things? Can't they just listen adoringly?”

The answer leaps out from the data: I’ve really got to find some new friends.

The best reply, in my estimation, was: “The bare truth...and then help me deal.” People do largely seem to self-report as wanting honesty from the people in their lives, but if reality is anything to go by, their commitment to the project is dubious at best. If you actually give them the truth, they aren’t all that keen on it, or on you anymore. But at the same time, so widespread is this tenuous grip on principle that real honesty, even when it’s positive, hasn’t a chance in hell of being taken as anything but more fakery.

After years of socialisation about the merits of truth-telling, we wash up, gasping and sputtering, on the shores of the real world. In this largely overrated place, my guess is that people who actually spend most of their time being overly honest to other people’s faces are likely to be pretty lonely people, and/or people of whom other people, with fewer scruples, make rough dolls in which they stick big pokey pins. I should know.

So the next time you streak your hair or leave your spouse or proudly show off your new car/book/baby, think about what you’re really asking, and potentially getting, when you say, ‘So what do you think’?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thimphian week

So there I was stuck in Thimphu, Bhutan, so delirious with fever that I could have sworn that my friends were out bar-hopping rather than sitting by my bedside. But then these fevers make you think the darnedest things; for instance, on the way back from the Bumthang Valley we stopped in a tiny restaurant for lunch, and I’ll be buggered if I didn’t imagine that columnist Jug Suraiya was sitting at the next table. I put it down to the antibiotics and swallowed another paracetamol.

The next day, thanks to the classiness of my companions, we dined at India House with the Indian Ambassador, and not only did I notice that I was seeing Jug Suraiya again, but I also had a long and delightful chat with him. It was obviously time to ramp up the medical attention.

The next morning the doctor ordered me off the trip. I staggered off to the office of Bhutan’s national carrier Druk Air to book myself on a flight home, and, since Druk Air has a vast fleet of two aircraft, was waitlisted. We passed the time with two policemen from the Royal Bhutan Police who drove us around the sights, including a wildlife preserve that features the national animal, the takin—a cuddly cross between a goat and a cow—and fed us chow mein and beer at a restaurant called Musk. (They have a very low crime rate in Bhutan).

That’s where Yeshey Dorji came to meet us. I don’t know what I would have done without him after my friends were gone —probably wander around Thimphu’s bazaars buying the many-splendored wooden penises that the Bhutanese love to string up all over the country. Yeshey had written in response to this column a week beforehand, inviting me to get in touch when I was in Thimphu.

Over the next few days, as I waited for my flight, he took me firmly under his wing. He mysteriously ‘had’ my air ticket confirmed, took me to lunches and dinners, archery contests, and on scenic drives. He even drove me to the airport at five o’clock in the morning. It appeared that he genuinely liked nothing better than to bounce out of bed before dawn and drive around for hours, being nice to itinerant travellers.

NB: Archery. The Bhutanese take this very seriously, and can be found contesting in thick drizzling fog at 6am, each team taunting the other across the field by hopping on one leg and emitting stylised screeches of contempt. The occasional spectator hit doesn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm one bit.

Through Yeshey I met Kuenzang, a young newspaper reporter, who stood us some drinks at the cosy Bhutan Times café and introduced me to a bunch of other reporters and editors whose daily struggle to find stories in Bhutan amounts to epic heroism.

And then there was the friend of one of my friends—a strikingly beautiful Bhutanese princess with a razor-sharp mind and a wicked sense of humour, who took me to a great Japanese meal and told unflaggingly entertaining stories. I tried very hard to keep track of how she’s related to whom, but genealogies defeat me entirely (though I do recognise the present monarch and his father, seeing as the incidence of their picture leaves the phalluses in the dust).

When the skies finally cleared and Druk Air was able to take off from the airport in the Paro valley, I feasted simultaneously on the fantastic lunch of spiced sausage and rice and the eyeball-to-eyeball view of the highest Himalaya that drifts by the window.

I asked everyone I met what a resident of Thimphu is called: a Thimphuite? A Thimphian? Nobody knew. But that’s what I was for a week, and I loved it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

When life hands you lemons...

...some people make lemonade. Me, I prefer to whine about it to anyone who'll listen.

The sad truth about travel is that you can't win 'em all. No matter how charmed a life you've led, no matter how prepared you are, every once in a while a journey will turn out to be a dud. So it was with my recent foray into Bhutan, accompanying a friend who is researching a book on this most beautiful of countries. He invited a couple of us along on his mammoth drive from the west to the wild east, scheduled over three weeks. What was to think about? I bought a train ticket to New Jalpaiguri, he picked us up at the station in the canvas-topped Mahindra Classic jeep that he had driven from UP, and off we went, with the top down, our USB drives playing good music, and lots of sunscreen rubbed into our faces.

I'm not a believer in signs, but if I were I'd have been wary: I'd busted my ankle, was fighting a cold, we ran into a storm first thing, and just before I left my horoscope told me straight up that I would be plagued by a series of unfortunate events. You can't really ask for anything more direct.

Five hours' hard driving across the last gasp of West Bengal brought us to the border town of Jaigaon, which in the local language means 'Don't ever come here unless it's really necessary'. We crossed the border into the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing, which in the local language means 'Jaigaon is about the only place that can make us look good', and checked into the Druk Hotel where we scarfed excellent Bhutanese dishes like ema datsi (green chillies cooked in cheese) and pork cooked with radish, along with some of Victoria's finest grapes.

They don't like to let you rattle around Bhutan unsupervised, so they make sure you're up for it by putting you through an incredible set of bureaucratic calisthenics. It took us from 9am until 4pm to get our special permits and vehicle permit to travel beyond the capital at Thimphu. Because of the Thimphu Tsechu festival there wasn't a hotel to be had for the night, so we'd have to drive straight through to Wangdue, a total of nine hours from Phuentsholing. We made one stop at Chukhu for chow mien and beer, and one stop at Thimphu to pick up our vehicle permit at the reception of the Druk Hotel, where they'd kindly also left us some club sandwiches and french fries which we ate like savages standing at the counter. We got to Wangdue at 2.30am, having driven through rain and fog and some terribly beautiful country.

The next morning we took off at noon for what was supposed to be a six hour ride to the fabled Bumthang Valley. This turned out to be more like nine and a half hours what with stops and more night driving and some blood-curdling fog on the Yotong La pass during which I promised that I'd never do a wicked thing again if only I never had to drive though this kind of mountain fog again. We arrived in the strangely wild western town of Jakhar, in Bumthang, under a beautiful moon.

The thing about the Mahindra Classic is that you can be in Bhutan, last of the pristine lands, and never once breathe a lungful of clean air. Maybe it was the diesel fumes, maybe not, but I woke up with such a high fever and such a vicious cough that I had to be taken to the local hospital, where a lad without the faintest shadow of facial hair put me on about 10,000mg of antibiotics straight away. So while the fabled loveliness of Bumthang unfolded outside my window, I lay in bed for two days, sweating and hallucinating. On the third day I was well enough to spend half an hour at the tsechu at Tamshing monastery, and to sit by the Bumthang river for a while, but the drive back to Thimphu the next day brought the fever right back.

The Indian Army doctor we consulted advised me not to carry on my journey in the open jeep unless I wanted to risk secondary infections like pneumonia. Crashing disappointment had to be weighed against the possibility of ruining the trip for everyone later. So here I am, stranded in Thimphu waiting for a flight out, while my friend is halfway to the east already. Not that it's been at all uninteresting, what with princesses, policemen, local journalists, and green plastic praying mantises. But I'll tell you about that next week.

Heaven’s choicest blessings

Weddings are emotional events, and the days and months leading up to them typically times of very special family togetherness. The process of conceptualising, organising and implementing the ceremony, the fact that a son or daughter is going off to start a whole new family, the enthusiastic opinions of pretty much anyone with a mouth and tongue—all of it guarantees a precious kind of bonding and a good deal of blood on the flower arrangements.

I can’t think of many downsides to being in Bhutan this October 3, but there is at least one big one: that I could not be at the wedding of a college friend, one of the most extraordinary and incandescently bright women I’ve ever known. I’m not exaggerating. She majored in some rarefied form of biology; put on dramatic solo recitations of Longfellow to entertain us; composed and sang music; is an outstanding artist; and to this day is a superb athlete who completed a triathlon a couple of months ago.

This totally amazing woman, who is now a reverend, is getting married in upstate New York today. I’ve never met the man who will become her husband later today, but I wish I could take him out for a cup of coffee, sit him down and talk to him about what an amazing person she is, and what an honour he should think it to have her in his life. He knows, of course—everyone who knows her knows—but I’d still like to make sure he understands this well.

The closest I ever get to feeling like a parent is when my friends and relatives get married, at which time I also congratulate myself on having opted out of parenthood, because I’d be terrible at it. For one thing, whenever I stand over a newborn I feel like the Wicked Witch of the East, because right after cooing and feeling pleased about baby’s peerless cuteness, I think, Oh god, poor benighted little soul, it’s going to have to learn so many things, and wake up early to go to school for years and years, and then work all its life, and put up with lots of little cruelties, and suffer various heartbreaks, and then get old and croak. And that’s if all goes well.

Similarly, while everyone is busy beaming at the bride and groom and being thrilled about wedding food and love and other perishable items, I sit there worrying about whether they’ve examined their decision, whether they know what they’re doing, whether they’ve seen the dark side of their beloved, whether they will be treated right, and whether they understand how much sleep children deprive you of.

That makes me well up with worry, and then people misunderstand. I remember bawling years ago because my friend the groom was all grown up and embarking on the wonderful but difficult journey of his own life; but his other friends thought I was lamenting the fact that I wasn’t his bride.

It goes without saying that the urge to protect people from their (often perfectly pleasant) lives is an idiotic, fruitless project, no matter how well intentioned. The whole idea is to let go, and cheer them on from the sidelines even if the race they’re running seems perilous. That’s why the reactions we institutionalise tend to hug the safe shores of platitude. In India, that’s usually the safe shores of incredibly ungrammatical platitude.

So congratulations, Kiri and Marcus, and be happy. I may be stuck on this Bhutanese mountainside when I should have been at your wedding, but let me just say: May Heaven’s Choicest Blessing Fall Upon Happy Couple.

Don’t worry, be happy

There are many things I have striven to do in my life but never managed. One is to write these columns in advance so that I can travel without my laptop. Another is to visit Bhutan, that beautiful, sensible little country snuggled into the north-eastern border of India. One of the main reasons I want to visit is that they are best known for being less concerned with GDP than with what they call GNH, or Gross National Happiness. The king of Bhutan became the first head of state to make happiness an official yardstick of his country’s well-being.

Economists, who run the world thanks to their expertise in keeping their heads mainly up their behinds, think this is laughable at best and disgraceful at worst. But their bluff is increasingly being called as the world asks itself if income, production and consumption are really the best way to measure the health of a society, and begins to consider the possibility of evaluating progress on the basis of a more holistic human experience instead. They call it happiness economics, and while it’s not likely to replace traditional economics entirely, it may well end up being seeing as a legitimate and necessary supplement to traditional measures of a country’s well-being.

We are finally asking, for instance, how much happiness we actually get out of money, and whether health care and education might have a role to play in addition to money. The answers (‘not incrementally much beyond a certain point’, and ‘what do you think, genius?’ respectively) are surprising only if you happen to be an economist. Even French President Sarkozy is introducing a Happiness Index for his country and eschewing what he calls the “cult of figures”.

The idea that happiness may be an important component of quality of life is slowly gaining traction among academics and social scientists, which means that we should soon have reams of dull literature on the subject. There is already a vast such body—a Happy Planet Index, for instance, and a Journal of Happiness Studies. We can finally sleep at night secure in the knowledge that professors at Harvard are diligently ruining happiness by studying the hell out of it.

According to a University of Leicester survey called the World Map of Happiness, Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia, and the eighth-happiest in the world, and frankly, that’s good enough for me. Wikipedia also says that in 2005 survey “45 percent of Bhutanese reported being very happy, 52 percent reported being happy and only three percent reported not being happy…the Happy Planet Index estimates that the average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is within the top 10 percent of nations worldwide, and certainly higher than other nations with similar levels of GDP per capita.”

In his delightful book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner finds himself beguiled by the Bhutanese mindset, though he can’t quite wrap his American head around it. “In a wealthy, industrialised society…we are discouraged from doing anything that isn’t productive—either monetarily or in terms of immediate pleasure,” he writes. “The Bhutanese, on the other hand, will gladly spend a day playing darts or just doing nothing.”

This is obviously the place for me. By the time you read this I will just have driven into Bhutan on a three- to four-week road trip. Weiner writes: “driving in Bhutan is not for the meek. Hairpin turns, precipitous drop-offs (no guardrails), and a driver who firmly believes in reincarnation makes for a nerve-wracking experience. There are no atheists on Bhutan’s roads.” But I don’t care; I expect to be suffused with an ineffable bliss from the moment I cross the border. I’ll let you know when it wears off; watch this space.