“There are truths we learn as children: There are dragons; there are kings. The cunning hero outwits the giant; the barefoot penitent wins the crown. …. In Bhutan, all such stories are true.” Omair Ahmad’s third book The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys Into Bhutan revolves around such stories, with insightful glimpses into the history, mythology and contemporary politics of the Himalayan nation. The book also talks about why Bhutan is important to a proper understanding of India and China. In an email interview Ahmad discusses the challenges while writing the book and why the trip to the Ogyen Chholing museum in Bumthang remains one of his more memorable trips. Edited excerpts:
At a time when everyone talks about China, why did you choose to write about Bhutan?
I think it’s a little too easy to get lost in the capitals of the big countries—in Beijing and Delhi we spend so much time talking about the “Asian century”, about China as the next superpower, and India as the rival in waiting, that we are in danger of falling for our own propaganda. A better way to understand the influence of China and India is to see them from the perspective of a place like Bhutan, which sits between them, and has been influenced in one way or the other by both these great civilizations for the last 1,500 years.
It was incredibly difficult to start from outside of Bhutan when I did in 2005, but after visiting in 2007, a number of venues opened up. One was simply to listen to Bhutan’s journalists, politicians and others from the country. Dasho Karma Ura and his Centre for Bhutan Studies were an incredible resource, as was Kuensel—Bhutan’s oldest newspaper—which has all of its reports online. I also benefited from the kindness of former Indian diplomats who had served in Bhutan, such as Salman Haidar, Dalip Mehta and Pavan Varma. Over time, as Bhutan opened up, and more newspapers and magazines have come up, it has become easier, but I still feel that I have only captured a small corner of information on the country.
I just tried to write in a way that I found interesting, also I spoke endlessly about it to my friends—boring them to tears, no doubt. For me writing is a form of conversation, and once it seemed that I could talk about it confidently, then I could write about it. And finally I had the good fortune of having Ravi Singh, one of the finest editors in India, help me work out the balance. It is not a small thing to have a good editor.
The book touches upon sensitive issues such as the Nepali refugee crisis and Bhutan’s experiments with democracy. As a writer and someone who knows Bhutan well, how did you keep your objectivity?
Tell us about your memorable moments while travelling for the book.
Ah, there were far too many, but my trip to Ogyen Chholing in Bumthang was fabulous. It was like with every kilometre I was travelling a little farther back into Bhutan’s history, perfectly preserved, and a lot more substantial than the modern tourist-friendly cities of Thimphu or Paro.
A book on Gorakhpur, my dad’s hometown in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I want to use a series of interlinked short stories to map out a history of the town, its history, politics, economy and place in India—everything from the founding of the town, to its liberation by a bandit in 1857, to the indigo plantations, Gandhi’s great speech in 1921 and Premchand’s inspiration, the mafia networks, Gorakhnath Mandir, Nepal’s politics—there is a lot to tell.