Monday, November 30, 2015

Visit of my friends from the US

My friend, Justin Milano, blogged on his first visit to Bhutan. It is titled Breakthrough in Bhutan.

Justin was part of a larger group of friends - who have come together in the last few years - drawn by a common interest to discover a way of living - and most probably by some karmic consequences. We call ourselves the Contenment Family.

In Breakthrough in Bhutan, Justin shares a powerful experience that he had in Athang Rukha while in deep meditation at the temple. He visioned his past lives unfold - a life of pain, suffering and isolation and thankfully also came the liberation. It just amazes me that he did get that in Athang Rukha. I had one too but will leave for some other time and place to tell that story.

Then, of course, the fairy-tale wedding that he describes is what my friends, Nim Dorji and Pema Rinzin organised in Dodedra Monastery. Read Justin's blog since I cannot express better than he did there.



Monday, November 23, 2015

Photo journal of a travel to interior Bhutan

Nothing is more enriching, humbling and fulfilling than trekking into interior Bhutan to see, meet and know your own people. And bring to them a little help you can. There was a time when I said to myself that one day when I become rich I would help others. That day (me becoming rich) never came. So one day, some nine years back, I just started off doing things.

Rest as they say is now history. Nine years and countless journeys into this region I have realized that you are not really helping anyone. No one really needs the help that we imagine. All they need is someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on and someone whom they can say, he will always be there for us. You need some money, of course, but not more than an average person like us can't afford of what you would spend for a Saturday night out in Thimphu.

What you really need to bring is yourself. Many of us from the governmnent, NGOs, etc. come but we rarely bring ourselves. We bring our ego, official positions, pride and lots of prejudices.

No! Just bring yourself. Your pure heart (that we all have). You will find how wealthy, resourcesful and innovative you are.

Travelling to interiors of Bhutan takes both physical and mental efforts. I keep going as long as my coffee supply lasts
I have concentrated my social works in the last 9 years in Rukha village. Now I am using it as the base camp.
Phub Dorji completed high school and couldn't get to college. He returned to his village unlike most Bhutanese youth.
Eco-friendly machines. Oxen are still used for ploughing the fields.
This rooster always chooses my window to throw me out of my bed every morning. Lucky for them, I am veg
Learning about others ultimately makes you find yourself. I found myself and who truly I am - among the Oleps
Lawa in Athang Geog is my next destination.

The people there have nothing but they offer you everything they have. In urban areas it is vice versa.
The traditional gift to welcome a guest into a village. I love this tradition.
It is rare that your presence becomes the reason for the village to come together and celebrate. Simply humbling.

Ara time in Lamga Village

I feel more welcome here than anywhere on Earth

This woman lost her left eye to a simple cataract disease. I am trying to save the other eye.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Wise Man of the Village

Rukha Village, somewhere in Central Bhutan, 15 November 2015 – I am sitting on the deck of a house – seeping coffee and reading a book – and occasionally looking away towards the village – spread in front of me - as it slowly comes to life from the long Autumn night. From the horizon, the Sun is slowly climbing up from behind the Black Mountains throwing a sharp ray towards the valley. In the distance, farmer Sanga is harvesting his rice while another farmer, Bechu, is singing to his oxen as he ploughs the field for the next plantation. 

“Kuzu zangpola”, a voice comes from behind me. I turn around and see a face smiling at me. “Kuzu, Kuzu. You look familiar but what's your name?” I ask him. “I am Kado from Lamga,” he replies. “Oh, Lamga! Yeah! I am supposed to visit this afternoon. You have come up very early,” I tell him. “Daw Gyeltshen insisted that I reach here early,” he informs me. “I think he wants to make sure that I visit Lamga this time,” I tell him. We both laugh.

A hearty breakfast, with the American students I had brought along to Rukha, is followed by a visit to the Rukha temple where I am building a house for the monks. By mid-day we head for Lamga. Kado insists that he even carry my camera besides my bag.

The bridge built specifically for my visit
The path to Lamga is a vertical drop that I have to hold to shrubs and lemon grass plants every now and then lest I roll down to my destination. But I survive without a slip. Then at the foot of the mountain after an hour-long walk downhill where my knees were almost giving up we come across a reception party waiting for me in the forest. “There was no need for any mid-way snacks,” I tell Aap Naki and Gyeltshen whom I remember from my previous visits. “We were told to accompany you safely across the river,” they tell me – pointing to a temporary log bridge they made for me. "One man got washed away last year". The river is big and swift and enough to wash me away if I slipped into it. But I have done this before and I walk across without any help. 

Lamga is a new settlement at an hour walk from Rukha through the subtropical jungles filled with spiders, scorpions and snakes. The people here are of different ethnic group with distinct language of their own – Phojib. They shuttled between Phobjikha and Lamga until, in 2005, the government made them choose between the two places to settle them permanently. Strangely, they chose Lamga. “Why did you guys give up Phojikha,” I ask Kado. “It is warmer here and the land is more productive,” he replies. “But Phobjikha is more developed now,” I continue. “I don’t know. We followed our elders like Ap Mindu, who died last month,” he says with a little remorse. In fact Aap Mindu was the only sharp guy in Lamga. He passed away at 73 leaving the village without his wisdom and guidance. Because of inter-marriage within just four families, the people of Lamga are not the brightest. "We feel lost without him," Kado tells me sadly. I also feel their pain. I had known Ap Mindu too. He considered me his friend and mentor and often visited me in Thimphu. 

They offered me everything they had.
As we enter the village, I scan the place. The last time I visited was in 2008 with Sonam Pem, Pema and a Thai student. I was an active volunteer then for Tarayana Foundation that built them permanent houses, which has now become one of Foundations’s feathers in the cap. “You guys have done well,” I remark. “It is all thanks to you,” Kado replies. "Noooo! Not me. I was just a volunteer. You should thank Tarayana," I hit back. Kado continues, “The whole village has gathered in Daw Gyeltshen’s house. They are all very excited that you are visiting us.”

Yes, the village has not only gathered there but they have pitched a tent in the field, have prepared a grand feast and have lined-up to greet the guest of honour (me!). I wish each and everyone of them – by names of those who I remember. As is a tradition in Bhutan, the women welcome me with a heap of rice, eggs and incense stick in a basket containers – as gifts. I accept them and offer Nu. 100 each for every woman in return. Then I take my place inside the tent and ask them to join me. A small sacred marchang (wine ceremony) follows and then suja (butter tea) and dresi (rice with butter and saffron).

“Thank you all. I don’t know what I have done to deserve all these, but thank you,” I tell them. “Well, you have done so much for us and we were very sad that you stopped visiting us. We heard that you came to Rukha several times in the last few years but by the time we knew, you were already gone.” Daw Gyeltshen replies. Everyone nods with him. I feel a sense of guilt.

With my people - in my land
“Well, I know. The last time I was here was in 2008. But since Sonam and Passang were doing a great job I didn’t feel the need to visit the sites.” I reassure them. “Rukha was different. The Oleps didn’t want to work and someone also had to also supplement what Tarayana gave them to keep the project going. They were so poor. They couldn't even feed themselves. So I had to be with them through out. You guys were different. You were much better placed. Then in 2009 I was called to the service at the Palace from where actually I did help settle some land disputes you had with the government and the cases of people without land. So you see, I had not forgotten you at all.” “Yes, la. For what you did when you were at the Palace, the 25 families will never forget that. We even tell our children about how we got back our land,” Daw Gyeltshen goes on. The 25 families had lost their land to the State after they had left it fallow for over 20 years. I helped them to submit an appeal to the King who kindly granted the land back. "Don't thank me. You should thank our King," I remind them.

The Lamgaps now only have one dream. They don’t have a community hall or a temple. And with their wise man gone, they turn to me for help. I obilge. “Let’s do that! Together, we will build one. A small tshokhang (community hall). I will supply all the materials and you will put everything together,” I tell them. The village, I am told, hold their annual rituals under tarpaulin sheets. Lunch follows and dances and songs to celebrate my visit - and the project that we have agreed to do together.

As the Sun starts its descent towards the distant mountains I bid goodbye to the Lamgaps and make my way towards Rukha - promising to return to celebrate the Bhutanese New Year with them. I make the vertical climb uphill - looking back at the village from time to time, and some strange thoughts cross my mind. “Who am I? Why am I so happy, contented and satisfied when I am in this area? Why do I feel so close to these people?”.  Then I just conclude, philosophically, that maybe I was one of them in my previous life. In fact I feel so home out here. 

Now I am one of them. I feel that I am back to my people. This is my land. And with my friend, Ap Mindu, gone I am their leader. 

I feel like the new Wise Man of the village.

The village of Lamga - My new home

Monday, October 26, 2015

Middle-Path Journalism – A conceptual framework

Bhutan embraced fundamental political changes in 2008 with the adoption of a written Constitution - and with the general elections that brought in the first elected government. However, in the words of the patron of Bhutanese democracy, His Majesty the King, democratic governance is a means towards the country’s greater aspiration of gross national happiness (GNH). As Bhutanese society slowly internalizes the fundamental principles of participatory governance, it should be noted that no country has built a strong democracy without a vibrant mass media.

The Bhutanese media has its genesis in the modern development era that began with the launch of the First Five-Year Plan in 1961. As a tool to keep the people informed of government decisions, Kuensel, the national newspaper, was started in 1967. It began as an official gazette. Radio NYAB followed in 1973 as a youth radio and later became the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the national broadcaster in 1986. Both Kuensel and BBS had the mandate to inform, educate and entertain the Bhutanese people alongside the country’s overall goal of modern socio-economic development. In other words, development journalism, a media model developed in Asia in the last 30 years, was practiced.

With Bhutan embarking on the road to western-styled democracy, there has been a proliferation of independent media with 12 privately owned newspapers and 4 commercial FM radio stations. In other words, the role of the media has now changed. The question, therefore, is what kind of media model has the new Bhutanese media adopted. Every major society developed a distinct media model based on its history and socio-political evolution.

At the outset, Bhutan’s thrust into democracy has come in an unconventional manner. It has come as another noble initiative of the institution of monarchy. Hence, it is obvious that the West-centric media models postulated under different political evolutions are not applicable in Bhutan. Besides, Bhutan although a small country, the historical, ethnic, social and cultural contexts are complex with a population of little over 700,000 speaking 18 different languages and coming from as many ethnic groups with distinct cultures, traditions and worldviews. Adding to this complexity is the fast changing mindset of a young population. 60% of the country is under the age of 24. These basic reality have to be factored into this academic inquiry. Above all, something as important and as defining as the mass media needs to take into account the fundamental Values the nation hold dear.

The western media model is rooted in western philosophy that shaped the values over the millennia. Thus the traditional Four Theories of Press and the Fourth Estate model promote individual values and rights such as freedom, liberty, equality and justice. Whereas the Bhutanese society, like much of Asia, celebrates community and collectivism (maang in Dzongkha). In addition to that are values like compassion (nyinzhey) and commitments (tha-damtsi) that have contributed to maintaining everything that is good about Bhutan. The fourth and the last Value is contentment (chhokshay), which happens to be the core concept of Gross National Happiness. The new form of journalism rooted in these profound, indigenous and local Values is what I would like to call the Middle-Path Journalism.

This new thinking also comes at a time when the traditional forms of mass media are collapsing all over the world as a result of the social media. The Fourth Estate Model and Four Theories of the Press are being challenged by this new form of citizen's journalism. 

Bhutan with its profound Buddhist tradition and an extraordinary development philosophy of GNH can and should develop its own media model. The Middle-Path Journalism Model, which I propose, could also provide an ethical framework to advocate for contentment, community, compassion and commitments as core values of Bhutanese and Asian journalism in place of West and Euro-centric mass communication models that thrive on, and at times further inflame, conflicts, controversies and commercialism.

(From my talk at the Second Bloggers Conference, Paro College of Education, 25 October 2015)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Oleps - the last hunter-gatherers of Bhutan

The newly constructed farm road from Taksha Zam to Rukha is carved out of sheer vertical cliffs that it would take a lot of courage, almost blind faith, to hop into the power tiller that had come to pick me. I decided to walk – not because I was scared but because I love walking. I have always walked this route; the first time in 2007 when I was assigned by Tarayana Foundation to document this unique group of people – the Oleps.

So I dropped my bags in the tractor and told them to go ahead while I made my way to Rukha on foot. Two locals remained with me to give me company. Even being able to walk free of my backpack was in itself a huge relief. For many years, following my first visit, we had to walk for two days under the scorching Sun or a torrential rain carrying everything on our backs. There was only one rudimentary footpath that ran along the river and through the leech and snake infested jungles crossing even a dangerous landslide area. The trek was so difficult that every time we made it we felt a great sense of achievement. In time a farm road was built and someone bought a power tiller – not only relieving us from the heavy loads but also shortening the two-day arduous trek into a day-long walk.

After five hours of hitting the dusty track, through some beautiful sub-tropical forests and vegetation, we reached Samthang – the first settlement lying along the banks of Harachu River. There we were invited into the house of an old friend, Tashi. His wife had, as usual, cooked some rice and nga-dho tshoem (smoked fish), a local delicacy. I made my hosts happy by gulping down a mound of rice and several rounds of the fish curry.

Another five hours of journey on foot and with the final few kilometers taking us uphill we reached Rukha.

Place, people and culture
Rukha stands on a plateau with the houses lined-up along a raised perimeter of a large farmland. The Oleps have settled here in 1982 when this land was granted to them by the King. They were originally hunter-gatherers, the last ones in Bhutan, perhaps. And together with the cousins, the Mongpas, they are considered as the first inhabitants of Bhutan. Since time unknown they lived off the forest practicing hunting, fishing and shifting cultivation. In the early 1980s as their hunting ground became part of a national park the Oleps appealed to the King and received a permanent place to settle in Rukha. However, while they got the land they didn’t know how to farm and slowly their number dwindled because of poverty and malnutrition. They worked as day laborers for the more affluent villages of Athang – getting paid in food grains with which they fed their families.

In 1997, Her Majesty Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck who was trekking in the area stumbled upon them. Story has it that she was deeply saddened by their conditions. They were living in makeshift bamboo huts and in total misery. Years later, when Her Majesty founded Tarayana, Rukha was selected as the first project site. In 2007, just before the project got implemented I was hired to photograph and do some documentaries on their origins, language and the way of life. I immediately became attached to them making me volunteer for Tarayana and visiting them regularly even after the project closed. Tarayana helped them build permanent homes, send their children to school, start fishery and bought them seeds and farming tools. In time, they bounced back to life and they also embraced me as one of them.

The Oleps are part of a larger group, the Mongpas of Central Bhutan. But the origins of the name, Oley, and the history have been lost in time. They are often grouped with the Monpa - a term to loosely describe the non-Indian non-Tibetan groups that inhabited the southern regions of Tibet. However, the Oleps with their language, culture and traditions and the dependence on forest for livelihood would link them closer to the Nagas, Kukis and Mismis of North Eastern Himalayas. They are today confined to Rukha; numbering just 121 souls. And with their unique language (Olekha), culture and traditions they are the smallest ethnic group of Bhutan.

What is even more fascinating of their origins is their own version, which, of course, is bit sketchy. Their cousins, the Mongpas, have retained the legend that the Oleps and the Mongpas are direct descendents of one of the nine brothers of the Sun. The brother in time married a visiting fairy from heaven after he captured her - one fine day. To make sure that she didn’t fly away he clipped her wings and hid them in the bushes. They bore a son and a daughter. The mother, one day, discovered her wings and flew back to heaven – never to come back. Seeing the children deeply saddened, the father decided to go to heaven - promising to get her back but also cautioning that he may not succeed either and may be killed in the mission. “If you hear me shout aatsa (painful cry), it means that I have lost the battle,” he told the children. Few weeks later a cry of aatsa was heard and subsequently the injured father dropped down from the sky. He died of injuries few days later. The son and the daughter obviously angered by the death of their father traveled to heaven to demand compensations from the Gods. They were given a hunting dog and a rotary mill. This, the legend says, is the reason why the Oleps and the Mongpas have been practicing hunting and shifting cultivation.

The legend of Pelden Lhamo
Crowning the village of Rukha is a hill where once a temple stood. The temple was dedicated to Pelden Lhamo – the guardian deity of Bhutan. Legend has it that Pelden Lhamo (Mahakali) came a subdued a demon that was terrorizing the village. To ensure that the demon didn’t resurrect again she planted herself on top of the hill. A temple was built there but was later destroyed somewhere between 1933 and 1936. The period is deduced from the age of one of the oldest men living, Ap Tekpa, who is almost 90. Tekpa recounts that when he was a boy a deadly disease (probably referring to the smallpox epidemic that hit Bhutan between 1931 and 1933) had wiped out the entire village. The Oleps were living in the mountains overlooking Rukha back then. “For years after the village got empty no one dared to visit the place,” he adds. “Then few years later the temple was razed to the ground.”

In 2009 as the project was nearing completion the Oleps asked me to help rebuild the temple. I initially declined as I was more focused on alleviating them from misery rather than guiding them towards their spiritual path. But on a second thought I realized that a community temple was more than a religious monument. It brings and binds the community together. It gives them hope when they are in despair and happiness and laughter in times of annual religious celebrations. So I agreed to help and together (I would say more they than me) we rebuilt the temple from the scratch.

In December 2013 we consecrated the temple and on the same occasion the entire village took a vow to stop killing animals altogether and subscribe to the Buddhism. They were mostly animist until then. While it might be a triumph for environmentalists and serious Buddhist practitioners, I had an uneasy feeling that we might have just changed their lives, history and traditions forever. Not that I encouraged them to hunt, which was outlawed way back in the 1970s. But all along as the project got implemented my colleagues from Tarayana and I battled with changes that we were bringing to this community.

On my return journey, my friend, Kinza, insisted that I rode in his power tiller. “I want to have the honour of giving you a ride. You have done so much for me - and it is much faster.” I obliged. Two others got in insisting on coming to see me off.

As Kinza skillfully negotiated the narrow track of the farm road carved out of the vertical cliffs, my eyes scanned the world that was slowly moving away from us. My first visit and the poverty I saw back then seem as far as the distant mountains now. May be change was good - and inevitable if this community was to survive. And as long as these people maintained its unique identity, pride and sense of humanity and gratitude, which they do, they can boldly move towards a brighter future.

When we reached our destination – the highway point where I had left my car, I hugged my friends and we wished each other that “we would meet again".

In Bhutan there is no such thing as goodbye. 

(This article was written for Tashi Delek magazine, Jan 2014)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Contentment Valley

I had another wonderful day-trip trip to Athang Rukha – my adopted village. Actually it is my village now. They are me and I am them. And a place that I would happily retire for the rest of my life. Thanks to the farm roads now it is so easily accessible.

As always there is always a new story to tell from the visit there. This time I came across a little girl who has a lump in her upper belly. The child was brought to Thimphu a year back but astrologers told the parents not to take her to the hospital. So the family returned to the village without seeing a doctor. She has this lump ever since. I have asked the parents to bring her to Thimphu again and left some money for the travel. I plan to take her to Dr. Sonam Dukpa and run all the tests that may be necessary. I have assured the parents that I will bear all the medical expenses. I am ​just praying that it is not something life-threatening. She is a beautiful little girl - full of life, energy and brain. 

My plan to turn the whole valley into fully organic is gaining steam. The people there are excited. The valley is comprised of five villages of Samthang, Rukha, Lawa, Lamga and Thaphu. We have planted the first mango tree. Other fruits like avocado (my favorite), passion fruits, kiwi and other tropical fruit trees will follow. We will need to do at a decent scale. We will promote the valley as organic and we will promote agro-tourism. If there is one place we can make it happen it is there. If there one person who can make it happen, it's me!

My filmmaker friend from Thimphu, Pema Rinzin, who came along this time asked me what can people expect being there. "Nothing!" I said. "Nothing?" he replied. "Yes, really, it will be nothing. It will be for people who have everything and are going crazy with it. It will be a place to unwind and find your true self. Just as I found myself by coming here for the first time in 2007".

He was thoroughly confused. And so was I. 

The village is a bowl-shaped settlement granted to the Oleps by the King in 1982 (They were hunters-gatherers untill then)

The energy of the place is incredible. I always find it hard to leave after being there even for a weekend. 

These lands belong to Gangtey Monastery, which the locals share-crop since time unknown.

The hamlet of Samthang has 5 houses and beautiful flat paddy fields. Samthang, Mitana, Lawa, Lamga and Rukha make the valley

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Develop Football. Keep the Nation United

The humiliating defeat of our national football team in Qatar might have dampened the spirit of many football enthusiasts in the country. A 15-goal loss was unexpected because we thought that we had reached a different level with our qualification to this round.

However, there was silver lining from that gloomy night - in fact a golden one. Going through the online comments from Bhutanese from all walks of life and from the small diaspora spread across the globe, it was simply overwhelming to find so much solidarity and support for our team. Every Bhutanese on Earth was united behind the dragon boys. And very few actually expressed their disappointments.

The political elections of 2008 and 2013 have divided this country along strong party lines. That’s the price of democracy, one would guess. Now, this division is in addition to professional egos, personal likes and dislikes and familial relations and animosity that have been around. So anything to bring or keep the nation together should be encouraged, supported and promoted to the fullest.
The national solidarity we see around our football team came by as an accident and not by any kind of design. That makes it even more special while at the same time calling for some positive reinforcements. The fact of the matter is we cannot expect it to bloom into something really significant unless we invest in it. Just as it appeared from nowhere, it might also disappear in a similar fashion. Hence we should celebrate this coming together as a nation through football, nurture it and let it grow so that it take us all to new heights. I have always said that we don't lack resources; we lack resourcefulness. That is holding us back from becoming a great country.

The dragon boys are young and so they have a long career ahead of them. Unlike an average Bhutanese these boys have strong determination, commitment and sense of purpose. Every match that they have lost since winning over Sri Lanka they have gone down fighting till the last. If we invest in them not only our football standards will reach the next level, we would have found another way to keep this country bonded.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ordinary People Inspiring Stories - Chencho Gyaltshen

The first time I met Chencho Gyeltshen was in Lungtenzampa School. Having scored Bhutan’s winning goal against Sri Lanka, Chencho became an overnight sensation and was invited in a panel discussion with HE Khamtrul Rimpoche that afternoon. 

Chencho scores against Sri Lanka making him a star
Having watched him in the field, I was pleasantly surprised to find a boy who was humble, soft-spoken and very reserved. On the stage, he felt totally out of place in the presence of the young Buddhist master and other panelists. “I really don’t know what to say. I haven’t achieved anything to be here with such illustrious speakers,” he started off. His voice dried up on him several times even before he completed a full sentence. Seeing him in trouble, Namgay Zam, the moderator, gently came to his rescue and hinted, “You can tell the students how you made it to the first eleven.” Chencho felt better. Khamtrul Rimpoche also gave him a more reassuring smile. Chencho resumed. “Yes. Let me tell you how I got to the main line-up of the national squad,” he said. “We were playing in Dhaka against Bangladesh and towards the end of the match the coach signaled to me to warm up. I did and after a couple of minutes I was asked to enter the field. I checked the time. We had 15 minutes to go. I said to myself, ‘Well, all the years of handwork now boils down to just 15 minutes. Prove yourself, man!’ and I went in and gave the best of myself. When the game ended the coach came up to me and patted my shoulders. I knew then I made it”. The children in the hall applauded. Chencho gained more confidence. “In life, opportunities come in small doses. You have to grab them and give your best”. He went on to narrate how he still faced difficulties in convincing his parents and relatives about being a professional footballer. He is often told by everyone that football won’t bring food to his plate. “But I believe in myself and I work hard. I still work very hard. I always go for practice 30-40 minutes before the coach arrives. He sees me working harder than others.”

I caught up with Chencho after the symposium where some tea were arranged for the speakers and the guests. Namgay Zam introduced me to him. Chencho bowed down to me almost in reverence as we shook our hands. “You know, Chencho, I have a suggestion, if I may,” I told him. “Yes, sir,” he replied. “You should forget your college plans for now. And instead focus on football. Keep playing for the national team”. “Yes, sir,” he replied as his face brightened. I suspect that he finally found someone who was speaking his mind. “When you are out from pro football at around, let’s say, where you're 29-30, you can go back to college. There could be some sorts of scholarships for former players. You can graduate at the age of 33 and then you can then start a new career. And assuming that you will eventually be retiring at 60, you will still have 27 years of whatever career you will be choosing after football.” “Las la,” Chencho replied. I continued, “And come back to me, if you need help to go back to college. But keep playing for now”. 

I hope he does because he will go very far. By that I mean really really far. College can wait for now.

(Many professional players in Italy go back to college after their football career. One of them was Paolo Rossi who led Italy to World Cup victory in 1982).  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lunch. No lunch. We are writers

“Sorry, sir, we are waiting for the projector,” NawangPhuntsho, one of the founders of the Community of Bhutanese Bloggers, apologises for the delay. It is already 10.30 and we were supposed to start at 10. More than 30 bloggers had gathered at Hotel Namseling for the first “unofficial” gathering of the Community of Bhutanese Bloggers. Unofficial, because in Bhutan all large meetings, conferences are sponsored and/or organized by the government. This is a private initiative. But the turnout is impressive. People from different walks of life and stature have come together – drawn by something they share in common – blogging.

The delay is far from being bothersome. I use the long waiting time to catch up with Sangay Khandu, a parliamentarian and an ardent blogger, and Gyaltshen K Dorji, a journalist who writes on technology for Bhutan’s national newspaper, Kuensel. I meet other people that I have met only in the cyber space. Among them is Rekha Mongar. "Nice to meet you after reading all your blogs," I tell her. Others are also as excited to meet me in person. “Sir, I have been reading your blog since my schooldays,” they come extending their hands. I feel flattered. 

Finally, after an hour, the LCD projector arrives. We all clap our hands and dub it as the chief guest. Nobody seems to mind the delay. “Punctuality is not in our culture. And since cultural preservation is what we do, we should maintain this too,” I remark. We all have a laugh. The First Conference of the Community of Bhutanese Bloggers sets off. Riku Dhan Subba is the first speaker.

Riku says that of late he has been blogging about the importance of staying connected to his village. “Maintaining my roots gives me an immense pride plus an identity and connection to the community that I belong,” he says in his presentation. “I visit my village at least 5 times in a year”. Riku’s talk is simple, humble and humorous. But what catches everyone’s breath is a story of a radio. “My father was the first guy to own a radio in the village. People gathered every evening around the radio to listen to it. Among people who came was also someone who would become my mother. I was told, that’s how they met,” he says timidly. The hall burst into laughter and applause. Riku continues, “And this is a picture of a tree in my village – a very special tree. Why this is special to me?” he asks. How are we supposed to know? “I was born under this tree,” he adds. “My mother didn’t stop working even when she was pregnant. She went into labour and I was born – under this tree”. Another round of applause and laughter. Riku’s stories were simply awesome.

Sangay Khandu, an MP from Gasa and prolific blogger, goes next. “My talk will be boring compared to Rikku’s,” he starts off. “But since I am an MP, I will share my knowledge of being one for seven years now.” Sangay enlightens on how bills are passed, issues raised and how legislations are enacted. ‘Always something new to learn everyday. Today I learnt about what House of Review really means,’ I updated my facebook page. It is true. I thought House of Review was something else.

Ugyen Lhendup, a small and unassuming guy, takes the stage next. He is an economist and talks about how pro-poor policies and public investments between 2007 and 2012 have brought down the poverty rate in the country. He had done an independent research and analysis and blogged about it. Among the series of slides with figures and charts something catches the eyes of everyone. 1953 is marked as the start of the Five Year Plan in Bhutan. The conventional wisdom and all textbooks say 1961. “Isn’t it 1961?” someone enquires. Ugyen goes dead sure on this. “I read the proceedings of the first National Assembly of Bhutan and there it is clearly mentioned that we are now starting off the planned development process. The year is 1953”. “He may be right,” I add, “Our Third King instituted the National Assembly in 1953. I also read somewhere that the planned development process was originally the idea of the Second King. So it is possible that the idea was carried forward by the Third and that he could have made it official in 1953 when the first National Assembly was convened ”. Another new thing learnt. Another to be verified. I love discovering.

The last to take the microphone is Tshering Dolkar, a professor at Royal Thimphu College. She takes us on a long journey of hers as a writer. From writing poems and essays for Kuensel as a student to writing textbooks for schools when she worked in Education Ministry. "Then I discovered blogging and found I could publish my writings. Then later on the facebook where I shared my writings and passions with great writers," she adds. “I have never authored anything and so in that sense I am not a writer but here are some poems I wrote through the years,” she proposes timidly. She reads couple of them and we are all blown away. “Why is that they were never published,” I thought. I didn’t ask her though.

Open discussions followed on subjects ranging from personal freedom to inspirations and motivations as to why we write what we write. The chairperson, Nawang Phuntsho, had to stop the deliberations because the conference had overshot the time – by only 3 hours. Lunchtime was long gone. There was no lunch ordered either. No budget. But the founders wanted to have this conference anyway. To start small. To start somewhere. So no issues whatsoever. We leave the place smiling - having heard great stories and made new friendships; and inspired even much more to pursue what we all share in common – writing.

Lunch or no lunch.

(The next conference is in Paro in October and I am already looking forward to it)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rejections and disappointments

Disappointments are a part of life. Just as bravery is not the absence of fear but your ability to suppress it, success is not the absence of disappointments. It is your ability to bounce back again each time you fail - or fall.

I had my share of rejections and disappointments. I will list down only some ten percent of my lows in life here. The other ninety percent? There were not even worth the space in my memory.
Be like a Bobo doll, everytime it is hit and
it falls, it bounces back smiling

At 5, I was denied admission to Tashigang Dzong to become a novice monk. Otherwise by now I would have become Dorji Lopon instead of remaining as Dorji Wangchuk. :)

At 7, I was rejected by Don Bosco School (Kharbandi). I entered a year later after Her Royal Highness Princess Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck granted me a kasho. Sometime God appears as a princess. (I named my second daughter after her, incase I forget her kindness. I am absent-minded).

At 16, when I was about to appear for my ICSE, my paternal uncle who was to send me to a medical school was killed in an accident. My dream to become a doctor came to a dead end. Instead of Shillong, I suddenly found myself sent to a plywood factory in Phuntsholing by the Directorate of Manpower to work as an operator helper. I cried every night I got home after work.

At 18, the love of my life went with another man. Poor soul (she!)

At 20, I got rejected by Druk Air. I wanted to be a pilot or an aviation engineer. To add to the injury, someone got in my place.

At 26, while I was away and still doing my university studies my mother passed away after a long illness. My world crashed in front of me. I was not only devastated, I was close to depression and lost a year recovering and nearly missed my graduation quota.

In my professional career I was killed many times (for details, read my memoir when it comes out). I was passed over for promotion several times. I was sidelined. Everything doable within human limits was done to me. But I kept smiling and everytime I reinvented myself. From being the chief engineer, I chose to become a simple television producer. That's why I said at the Mountain Echoes 2015 that life is not linear; sometimes you have to take a lateral route. Sometimes you need walk backwards to launch forward. 

I even had to resign from an organization (BBS) that I had built with few others. There wasn't even a simple tea party for my departure after serving there for 20 years. There wasn't for other pioneers either. Can you imagine, how disappointing can that be? But again, I bounced back becoming a journalist and made a name for myself as a columnist for Bhutan Times - nation's first private newspaper.

Then finally when I thought that I was done with all my bad Karmas; when I was at the peak of my career, fate knocked on my door and said, "wait we are not done with you". In a a minor scuffle in front of my house someone nearly killed my wife - accidently. I spent a month in the hospital and almost six months thereafter nursing her back to health. The months following the accident were some of the most difficult periods in my life. I felt defeated, destroyed and dejected - all at the same time. For the first time I found hell. But as Churchill once put it, if you are going through hell, keep going. What else could I do? I kept going. On the flipside that whole incident made me strong. Nothing scares me now. In fact I cherish every person I meet or work with, every opportunity that comes around and every day that I wake up. Being to hell and back, I tell you, is a great way to appreciate simple things in life - things like just being alive.   

So if people think that I had a smooth, seamless and illustrous career, it was absolutely not the case. It is just that I don’t talk about it or brag about it; and I don’t even think about it at all. More importantly, I keep bouncing back like the bobo doll. I keep reinventing myself. I have not only done that, I have even thrived in every new profession that I ventured into - from engineering to filmmaking to journalism to teaching.

If there is something that I have learnt about life, it is that it goes on. 

So keep falling. Keep bouncing back with a smile. 

As for me, to put it alla Decartes, I think. Therefore, I am (a bobo doll).

Saturday, July 25, 2015

So again, what's in a name?

My village, Pam in Trashigang, according to one version of the story, was founded by my paternal great grandfather, Tashi Tshering, who built a house that still stands today. The house was referred to as Tsogoen Phai (loosely translated as the Manor -Noble Family). Over time, the name received further alteration and is now locally called Tsoram Phai. The house is now inherited by my distant uncles and cousins. 

In front of Tsogoen Phai in Pam (before the village disappears)
Tashi Tshering came from Kurtoe Sukbee after he was appointed as Trashigang Nyerchen and when he retired he built a house and called the place Pam, which in Kurtoep means "temporary village". In time, people from Rangshikhar also used the area above Pam (called Tabteng) as pasture for their cattle. In time some also settled there and intermarriages took place between the two hamlets. So everyone in Pam today trace their origins to the Tsogoen Phai or to Rangshikhar. I am related to both, as my paternal grandfather, Memay Jigme, came from Tabteng while paternal grandmother, Abi Sonam, was the youngest daughter of nyerchen Tashi Tshering.

Although my family has not inherited the ancestral house, we have retained the family’s traditional responsibility of conducting an annual ceremony in the main temple of Trashigang Dzong. The community of Pam on the other hand, since time immemorial, makes annual offerings to the local deity of Trashigang Dzong, Garab Wangchuk, before every plantation season.

This is the story of my village. The story will, however, soon become history with the recent decision by the government to absorb Pam into Trashigang Thromde (township). The move will not only change the physical landscape of the village. It will erase the history, alter the traditions, kill the culture and create endless familial disharmony.

As a final nail in the coffin, two new names have been given to the village, Pam-Maed and Pam-Toed, which are historically incorrect and linguistically insane. For, Pam, as I have mentioned above is neither a Dzongkha word nor a Sharchop phrase but is derived from Kurtoep. Hence, one cannot add a Dzongkha word to a Kurtoep name.

So again, What's in a name? Well, you don’t just change a name of a place. You eventually throw away your history. You lose your past and ultimately you will lose your character - as an individual, as a community and as a nation.

It seems, though, these things really don’t matter much to people nowadays, except to some rural nostalgic like me.

(Pam-Maed is actually called Pam Lham Phra. Lham Phra means "below the footpath" because the traditional mule track between Upper and Lower Trashigang used to cut right through the village)