A few thoughts about Butter Tea At Sunrise, by Britta Das
A friend of mine bought this book from a bookshop in a hill station, as a souvenir of her trip there. “A year spent in Bhutan”, is the tagline. Descriptions of mountains and local customs, etc. What’s not to like?
Britta is an Orthopaedic doctor from Canada who volunteers to work in a small hospital in Bhutan, the “last unspoiled country in the world”. The story is set in mid-2000s. The book chronicles the year she spends there. Not to break any suspense (since it’s mentioned in the author bio), she meets her future husband, an Indian, during this stay.
As a book? I didn’t personally like it too much. Britta doesn’t seem to see much good in the place she’s living in, talking endlessly about the poverty and how the people get by on so little. When she visits the homes of acquaintances, she only briefly mentions the topics of conversation and the psyche of her hosts, focusing on the threadbare appearances of the homes instead. Her future husband several times talks of the spiritual beliefs and the customs of Bhutan, which she never explains in detail. Instead, those passages are devoted to how he held her hand, how they looked at the stars, how he seemed gentle and vulnerable… you get the idea. Paul Theroux she isn’t.
About her patients, she sees and describes them through her own western lenses. One young woman, suffering from a back disorder, decides to leave for home midway through the treatment because her family needs to harvest crops. Britta is horrorstruck - how could someone leave her treatment like this? No thought is given to the idea that if that harvest fails, the family will have no food to eat for the year. In another case, a young boy seems developmentally disabled. Britta diagnoses the problem correctly (though it isn’t her domain), but doesn’t reveal it to the mother for fear of frightening her. Later on, the mother takes the boy to a well known hospital (in India) and get the same diagnosis. As far as I can make out, the only purpose this whole section serves is to highlight how miserable the local peoples’ lives are. The upward struggle, the fight to improve their lives, is neither seen nor captured in the book.
Maybe I’m too harsh here. Possibly I should be judging the book on its merits, whatever they are. Unfortunately, the taste it left in my mouth (as an Indian reader who identifies with the subject of the book and not the writer) was too much for me to ignore. Would not recommend this book to anyone.
Given the subject matter and presentation, it will continue to be sold at places in Asia where foreign tourists gather. Sigh.