There are two broad categories of responses I get whenever I tell someone I am from Bhutan. The first one, usually retorted by immigration officers in the US goes something like, ‘What is a Bhutan?’ ‘Is it a real country?’ and on more than one occasion, ‘Did you just say Utah?’ The second category of responses, typically accompanied by a shriek of excitement is ‘OMG, I’ve always wanted to visit’ or ‘is it really the happiest place on earth?’
For the second group of people, at least in their conception of Bhutan, there’s a special romance attached to it. It evokes lush green mountains, blizzard-embroidered skies, and faultless lawns interrupted only by a couple of barking dogs. But surely there’s more to the fever than that—and objective measurements of quality of life and scholarly calibre don’t account for any of it. All happiness indices considered; Bhutan, as the world knows it, is still a relatively new place, one that is still struggling to find its soul.
Only 150 years ago, the country was a rough trade route between Tibet and British India. Today the mood is of new democratic parties and political discourse, tall buildings that are painstakingly adorned with mythical symbols to ward off evil spirits, and smartphone apps that tell you which days are auspicious. Incomes have tripled in the last decade, and a new culture of food and art are gradually brewing. It is no longer a dingy outpost inhabited by disparate ethnic groups catering solely to distant travellers – so why do so many of us still treat it like one? The erroneous undertone is of a place that is grieving for the lost places of the past while awkwardly embracing a new world coming rapidly.
By and large, the narrative put forth by popular media propagates the notion of a naïve blissful nation – albeit enticing – where tribes of smiling people are constantly gripped in song and dance, which sees itself as the be-all and end-all definition of happiness. This is a dangerous half-fiction which needs to be fought on all fronts. It incubates anti-intellectualism and progress, and perhaps even more troublesomely, manages to distort how Bhutanese people perceive themselves.
Our fatuous obsession with Happiness comes with connotations of entitlement, of welfare, of magnified privilege, grounded – unfortunately – in more than a germ of truth. We have all come in contact, with people who care less about the structural wellbeing and ethical landscape of this country and more about our perceived level of happiness by the outside world.
To Western eyes Bhutan can seem like a precious relic from a lost century. It is under populated – as low as 700,000 people – and heavily forested. Buddhism and Buddhist values permeate the Bhutanese way of life, and its people are garbed in 17th century belted robes. But we need to stop dubbing ourselves as the nation where time stands still, and move together with the rest of the world. We need to define our own version of happiness – one that benefits all Bhutanese people.
Bhutan is a place that is dripping with unremitting paradox; Our far-sighted Kings have paved the path to make Bhutan a place that holds the key to learn and grow, but to the vast majority of Bhutanese people, even a bus ride to the city seems an otherworldly journey. Our longing for commerce and entrepreneurship are inhibited by our beliefs that worldly possessions induce unhappiness. And our system of education manufactures young people who are talented and driven, but also anxious, with little curiosity and a cynical sense of purpose.
To me, Bhutan is beautiful and surreal; it has a kind of majesty to its voice. To everyone who has been wondering, it is a happy place but not because we’ve invented 72 metrics to measure it. The essence of Bhutan’s originality, much like its happiness is defined by its people – whose sense of irony is stronger than their moral fibre, who are always ready to help an onlooker, and whose hearts are ultimately in the right place. Bhutan is quirky, quaint, and mainstream all at once and it has the ability to evoke nostalgia for a time one was never part of. I am well aware that I have a home grown bias, but there is something serious and serene about this place, and it possesses the ability to continually redefine itself, in new waters and new experiences.
Much like the Himalayas upon which the country is perched – Bhutanese people are made of resilience and harbour deeply rooted values, but we have a curious fragility – the risk of losing ourselves behind the clouds.