Sunday, May 3, 2009

Don't Fall Off the Mountain

"Don't Fall Off the Mountain", an autobiography book written by Shirley MacLaine narrates her childhood days in the suburbs of Virgina, adult days in New York and Hollywood, and the adventurous journeys – in search of her true identity – from the deserts of Africa to the high mountains peaks of the Himalayas. She writes about her involvement in the civil rights movement in the United States to her escape from the political revolution of the small Himalayan Kingdom.

She talks about the intolerance of the white Americans towards the African-Americans during the segregation and the Jim Crow's era. She takes a tour to Mississippi to “see their world through their eyes”. It was a era when every white, no matter what his work was, was a member of the KKK. She writes about the first hand accounts of the brutal acts of the KKK.

She describes about a journey she took along a klong in Thailand. Suddenly, an infant toppled head first into the klong and the parents don't make any attempts to save the infant but just watch their child drown. She rightly says that Buddhist believe that death is part of the cycle of life. But, I am not sure if she is right when she claims that many Buddhist will not interfere (will not try to save the drowning child) because we believe it is preordained fate. I am not sure if it is just a made up story or it actually happens in Theravada Buddhist culture – I'll have to do some more reading or will have to talk to some one. I find it hard to believe.

In remote Kenya, there is a small warrior tribe called Masai. Refusing to adapt to the white man's world, they prefer death to civilization. They rejects any form of development and feels that they're the elites among men. When a child enters adulthood, he will have to kill a lion single-handedly or die trying. It signifies their manhood and the skin of the lion they killed were hung from the door as a prize. Wives have value. They were purchased for a specific number of cattle, the price being fixed by the woman's father. Shirley describes about her stay with those tribes and gives a detailed account of their life-style and rituals. She becomes the Masai blood sister after a new born baby girl gets a name after her. Finally when she says good-bye, the chief asks her to tell her husband that he is going to buy her for five hundred cattle. “When he comes, we do business”, and with those words, they depart.

Then, she travels though India and describes the landscapes, people, and culture. She stops wearing pants and shirts and wears sari instead. After few months of stay at Kolkata, she finds herself a yoga instructor to instruct her. He says that the ultimate aim of yoga is “the liberation of the spirit, the union of the soul with the universe.” He said that get the inner truth continually and with startling clarity when we are on the mountain sanctuary. Thus, shes introduced to Bhutan.

One of her friend knew the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dasho Lhuendrup Dorji, and he makes an appointment. She expects an old man sitting in lotus position, wrapped in saffron robes, and mediating. Suddenly a tall, slim and young Mongol of about twenty eight, dressed in black mohair trousers and red sports jacket walked towards her and introduced himself as “Lenny”. Lenny talks about his stay in the States while he was a student. Their conversation touched on New York City, Grand Central Station, Wall Street, LA Dodgers, etc. He talks about Bhutan and says it is still in the bronze age – only one telephone switchboard at the border, no electricity, and no wheels (except for the Indian industrial engineers who were constructing the highway from Phuentsholing to Paro). Anyways, she gets a permission to stay in Bhutan for a month.

Dasho Dorji was on his way to Switzerland – where His Majesty the third King was admitted to a hospital – to pay respect. So, he instructs a loyal Indian guide to go with Shirley to Paro. They travel along the Phuenstholing-Paro highway – which was under-construction. At Paro, she mets Dasho Nishioka and his wife. She visits few places like Taktshang and meets few spiritual masters.

Suddenly, the political environment in Bhutan gets hostile and all those people who are close to acting Prime Minister were arrested and acting Prime Minister was exiled. Dasho Lhendrup's non-Bhutanese wife(Mary) gets a mail saying that she should leave the country from a good friend of her. They make their journey to Phuentsholing and tries to cross the border. The guards catches them and takes them to Phuentsholing guest house. The army offered exit permit for Mary and Shirley but denied permit to Bhalla (the Indian guide). They tries to escape by hiding Bhalla under the luggage but gets caught at the second gate. Finally the queen grants an exit permit to Bhalla too and they leave the country to Kolkata. Mary narrates how the former Prime Minister Jigme P. Dorji was assassinated. She says that they were playing a card game. PM Jigme just won a game with a royal flush and was laughing when a bullet shot from the kitchen door of the guest house at Phuentsholing hit him. He died after some time after profuse bleeding. His last words, as per Mary who was holding him, was “Serve the king well.” The criminal was caught but he never spoke a word after getting caught. Thus they couldn't get into any details about the assassination.

She doesn't really go into the details of that incident, although I would have loved to read it. The book is written quite well and I would recommend to anyone who would want to read History, although she only offers one sided point-of-view. I would also love to hear from anyone who knows about those incident or would appreciate anyone who can direct me towards few materials about it.


  1. For authentic history of Bhutan and other topics read the comprehensive book 'Facts about Bhutan' by Lily Wangchhuk. The first all in one book on Bhutan by a Bhutanese.


  2. Why do I get the feeling that this person called Shirley MacLaine wrote stories based on shallow facts?

    Anyway, if you are interested in that part of Bhutan history, there's a book based entirely on it. THe book is banned in Bhutan but it is still available across the border. I have been told that the story is a little biased and written from one perspective. However, I bet, it would still make an interesting read. The book is titled "Bhutan; The kingdom in Crisis" written by Nari Rustomji.

  3. Hi Shankar, Thanks for your suggestion. I am absolutely certain that she did not write about it.

    Kinga, thank you for directing me to that book. I requested the book from a different university since my university doesn't have one. I'll have a look at it. Hopefully, its not full of craps :)

    Regarding this book by Shirley, I think you're right. I didn't believe her narration about Thai parents letting the child drown, Thai people preferring to watch a person suffer in bloodshed rather than stopping the fight, etc.

    Regarding her writings on Bhutan, she was just writing only from one small angle. She seemingly has only one source - that lady PA of Dasho Lhendrup - on those political instability. Her sole purpose of going to Bhutan was to learn/practice yoga and Paro was the only place she stayed for her entire month. In one of her narration about two Bhutanese soldiers trying to take away the Indian guide when she tried to make a telephone call cracked me up. She made those soldiers look like some scared children doing some mischievous things when their father looked away from them and act serious when his eyes are on them :P Nevertheless it gives some insight into what was actually going on in Bhutan during that era and especially with that young PM who was quite ashamed to say he is from Bhutan.