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.