Monday, January 12, 2009

Survival of the richest

I take pleasure in walking in the streets of Thimphu. To feel the pulse of the capital and to experience various mini-worlds we have within. But someone would spoil my escapades. Someone would spot me and would pull over offering me a lift to wherever I was heading for. Walking, I guess, is not too decorous for someone of my “status”. It is a sad development, or undevelopment, for a society that has seen motor cars only in recent decades. As a child I walked for a day to reach the road-head and another three days of grueling truck ride to get to the boarding school. The same, I guess, was true for people of my generation. I am just wondering when and where we lost our roots. Someone once said to me that Thimphu has the highest number of Landcruisers per capita in the world. Another economist told me that one of the indicators of a nation’s progress is the number of land-cruisers. The more the land-cruisers the less developed a country is. This may be a joke, or a cliché, but it is an intelligent one that provokes some rethinking about our ways of doing things.

Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche once remarked that we never enjoy the present. Either we live regretting the past or we keep worrying about the future. Fitting to his observation, Thimphu’s middle and upper class families are today so fussy and worried about the school their children go to. No more are government schools good enough, but private school, pre-school and day-care centers are in rising demand. NP (North Point in Darjeeling) is even returning to fashion these days. A simple question like “do you have children,” is immediately followed with “which school do they go to?”. Followed by a series of ungracious remarks on the quality of education in Bhutan, or the lack of it, and that “someone” but not “we” should do something.

As I write this article sitting and seeping a hot masala tea in Khamsa Café, two women on the next table are envying few of their friends who have gone to America. “She is working for a millionaire, lo!” says one. “Oh yea?” comes the reply. I didn’t mean to snoop on them, but they are talking so loud without any courtesy to other clients in the café. Their conversation slowly jumps to a good hair saloon that has opened somewhere in the town. And how much Bhutanese hairdressers knew nothing about hair and how much they were looking forward to the upcoming trip to Bangkok to get it fixed. What a tragedy of unthinkable proportion! Poor souls! It must be hard for them to go around with their hair in such a mess.

“He has one son studying in America and a daughter in Thailand.” That’s how one gets introduced these days among Thimphu growing middle class. On another occasion I heard a man remark, “Bangkok is damn boring yaa! “You bump into Bhutanese at every turn. I think I will go to Las Vegas.” “Wow!” I thought. I am not sure if he ever made it to Las Vegas though. Describing people has also changed. If you can’t place someone, you are hinted with “that guy who drives a blue Prado.” Replacing what used to be “that dasho so-and-so’s niece’s husband”. Besides, for unconventional minds like me, I am often advised by my well-wishers to own a posh car if I wanted to win some government tenders or contracts. Or if I wanted people to open the restaurant doors for me. You just laugh it off until of course you are stopped by a traffic policeman when driving around in a small Maruti. People do notice you more and are more courteous if you step out of a shiny Toyota. And so, some people buy these expensive toys to counter this disrespectful populace. But many invest fortunes to make up for what they are not and to impress others.

It is just amusing that people don’t live for themselves anymore. They live for others. But not by practicing the Buddhist principles of compassion or altruism. Rather, dreading what others will think of them and what others will say on them for not having this or owning that. In vying to keep up with someone’s lifestyle, a social war has erupted in Thimphu where the name of the game is survival of the richest. No more is your social standing based on the Civil Service grade or the university you have graduated from. These are passé. You are noticed, and frowned, for owning an old Nokia mobile phone. And more vividly by the size of the car, or the brand, you drive. There is the growing social competition to outdo each other. Some things, of course, never change. The dress you wear is still an indication that you are somebody or nobody.

Finally the American dream is gaining momentum with even young some Bhutanese mothers supposedly minting greenbacks in the Big Apple. Most, I am told, are babysitting. Someone’s child, of course. It dreads me to imagine what will become of those hundreds of “abandoned” children here - when they grow up. One of the highest crime rates in the US was recorded in the late eighties. Analysts say they were children from the hippies’ generation of the late sixties who didn’t receive proper parenting. May be my fear is too far fetched. For now, perhaps, I should think of what to do with my old mobile phone.


  1. Good read and quite true.
    By the way, the whole thing has been written/pasted twice.

  2. Yea I know, but I just want to get it to a larger audience. ha ha ha.

    You know, sometime back I was with a former colleague attending a workshop in KL. The organisers had put us in a 3 star hotel while some participants from other countries were given 5 star. My colleague made such a mess (and made fuss about everything) although both of us knew that his house in Thimphu didn't even have a European toilet. One should never forget his/her roots, I feel.

    Thanks for reading, please pass on and have a good day


  3. quite true but little exaggerated

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  6. Very nicely sums up the flux in which the urban Bhutanese are.

    Not all of these developments are undesirable. Behaviour determined by comparison with others is normal and is observed even at workplaces. Everybody compares with how the organisation treats their colleagues and determine their motivation levels.

    Such actions bring in competition.

    And competition is essential for the development of the self and the society. Being satisfied with what is given can only breed mediocrity and rarely new ideas. Some wise man said 'If I do the same things I have been doing, I will get the same results'

    But definitely there is a balance and a tipping point where some things can become absurd and unproductive as identified by the author.

  7. just wanted to comment on the part about private schools la. My nephew is hitting the school going age, and when my sister asked my opinion on which school to choose, i promptly said "druk school." because they can afford a better education for him, so why not? and yes, it is a matter of better education. i went to that school one day, and i was impressed by what i saw. i know, govt schools have a lot to worry about, a lot of children to educate...that many children in thimphu itself do not go to school is another matter, and that there seems to be no law in place to ensure that these children are sent to school another matter entirely. getting back to the private school issue.......i went to druk school one day, and i loved what i saw. the children are not afraid to come and talk to you, they have been taught that, they are confident, they have a good command over language, in fact those kids speak better english than some "educated" adults i know.
    and then there is the new group of graduates. i wish i didnt have to criticise them, but really. bhutanese people do not have a great reading habit. will you be shocked if i tell you that when i was in school, i was punished for reading a "novel" in school? not even in class, in school at recess. a "novel" was some kind of dirty word. i am not saying that this is the trend in govt schools, i was just very very unlucky with the teachers. but i studied in the govt schools in bhutan, and i can tell u they are not doing well. drama, co curricular activities, art, dance, sports...where are they? maybe in your time, the schools were still good. in mine..well, i never got the chance to participate in a play in my whole life, and i was india, i belonged to a drama club, and i learnt so much from there. someone should do something, and it is not "us". well, i can take care of my nephew, i will make sure that he develops an interest in reading, i will tell him great stories, i will take him places...what else can i do? i will put him in a private school where he can play sports, learn art, do plays, have fun. and grow up whole. its just that it would be great if the schools in bhutan pick up from the private schools and take the matter of education seriously. it seems like the teachers have lost enthusiasm. the only thing i ever see happening in govt schools are classes, and even that is not fun anymore. when i was in school, the "fun exercises" that came after every chapter was just ignored by the teacher. i will also tell u something the education officials said to me recently,,,"it is in the hands of the teacher, they should take the initiative. it is not our job."
    isnt it? to draw up better curriculum, to make sure that teachers know that such activities are important, that learning is supposed to be fun? because frankly....they dont know.

  8. Dear Di,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you most of the issues you have raised.

    I have just written a very strong article on the quality of education, or the lack of it, depending on how you look at the issue. The article is called "Need for a paradigm shift in education?" which BT will publish soon.

    I have raised issues like curriculum, co-curricular activities, teachers' motivational level etc etc.

    Take care of your nephew. I know it won't make a dent on the quality of education. But as I always say, "You are being a part of the solution" by doing what you have to do as a guardian/parents and as a citizen.

    So stay tuned…..


  9. Wow! Very thoughtful, Dorji. I sure do like what you wrote. It reminds me of how amazed I was once to see my students-turned-civil-servants owning a car and me still looking for a lift or taxi to office and back home. The first priority among the current generation of civil servants is clearly "buy a car." (One of my cousins did that too, surprisingly) It is easy to get with the special vehicle loan for govt employees. Of course, how they manage the expenses that ensue is something to really wonder about.
    I bought my first maruti800 after almost 15 years of service and it wasn't easy managing it with all the extra expenses and the monthly instalments (though small, as my loan was small). Soon I had to sack it off. Today, after four years of consultancy I still managed to buy just another maruti800 but I'm managing it better this time with no instalments and better income to pay for fuel. I get to whereever I wish to go. No problem. I think it's a matter of choice between 'living within your means' and 'living beyond your means.' The former will keep you going comfortably. The latter can only land you in bigger debt.
    But, frankly, people look up to you only if you have wealth and flashy cars and looks, by virtue of which you also get better opportunities, whether job or business or favours etc. People believe your good intentions only if you are wealthy. The wealthy attract more funds than do the unwealthy and the irony is that the latter needs it more than the former.
    Of course, among the flashy are also the unwealthy who want others to believe they are wealthy, to gain favours and to be respected. This world is such. The Buddha natured human are vulnerable. And, this is exactly where the challenge for GNH comes in, I think.

  10. You are spot on regarding Survival of the Fittest. Our society has really become one where many people have become so brand and status conscious that they don't even mind living beyond their means to keep up with the Joneses (in our case it would be to keep up with the Dorjis). It is also worth mentioning how so few people who are affluent or comfortably off are involved in charitable works for their communities at large. The change needs to come from our people in small meaningful ways if we are to attain GNH in the future.

  11. Hi...
    First of all congrats on coming up with a blog which really concern the modern bhutan and the prejudiced mindset of the younger generation in facet of cultural dilution...
    Competation is good as long as it is healthy and productive...which i dont see in bhutan.