Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Addicted to titles and designations

I have no explanation to this but I find it quite hilarious - Bhutanese love, and almost an obsession, for titles and designations. Whereas in the West people are known by their names, half of Bhutan knows the other half only by their titles. And nowhere is this practice cuter than in the dzongkhags where the decentralisation process has given rise to scores of titles that are perfectly localised.

The most versatile word is sir (pronounced ‘sar’). Even an illiterate farmer in the remotest of villages addresses you as "sir" these days. But what is interesting to hear is when sir is used in combination with one of your job titles.

In the remote Kheng Gongdu I was asking for the animal husbandry officer. But no one understood me until someone translated my request as "gonor sir" and promptly a young guy in his thirties turned up in front of me. If you need some medical assistance ask for HA sir (pronounced ‘echey sar’) and don’t ask for agriculture extension officer because the correct title is “sanam sir”. And if you looking for the gewog admin you must either say “gao madam” or “gao sir” depending on whether it is a woman or a man. HRO has become "echaro sir". But my favorite is “store sir”, which I discovered in Mongar. I asked someone for some water at an official lunch and someone shouted, “store sir!” at a man who promptly pulled out a bottle from the cartoon. Caller on radio shows refer to female RJs as madam (pronounced "may dham"). And of course during the tour I was given an "artala" (orderly) to help me carry my filming gear.

The practice in the rural areas is basically done with respectful innocence. But what about in urban Bhutan where if you utter someone’s name it would be difficult to connect to the right person instantly. Like the former zimpoen is known as Dasho Zimpoen. Only few know him as Dasho Dorji Gyeltshen. Likewise “health secretary” or “DoR director” or RTO or “Paro Dzongdag” or “Kurichu MD” will connect almost instantly to the right person. Within my circle, while my immediate colleagues know me by my name, many soldiers and security guys refer to me as ROM director. In social and official gatherings in Thimphu people are introduced with their official titles first and, may be and only sometimes, by their name. Many a times, people are OK with just the title or designation. Then of course subsequently we end up asking, “What is that OC's name? Yes, that guy with specs.” We know the guy, we know he wears specs and we know he is the OC but we don’t know his name. That's what happened to me trying to get a drangpoen's name.

This phenomenon is interesting in a country where our Buddhist teachings require us to forgo everything that is transitory. I thought titles and designations were temporary.

Just an observation… no explanation…..

(in the photo - with NFE "may dam" in Jurmey)


  1. hilarious write up...i laughed my lungs out especially at third para..

  2. lol... but where is the photo with NFE "may dam?......