Sunday, April 25, 2010

Parenting on values and traditions

I went for a teachers-parents meeting today. I just went for one reason. My daughters feel proud to show off their school to me and may be they also feel proud to “show off” their father to their teachers and their friends. Whatever, I don’t want to let my daughters down. That’s the only reason I attend the parents-teacher meeting.

My wife and I leave the teachers to do their job in providing them the formal education while we focus on passing on some soft skills that may come handy in life – good values. In other words, teachers and parents have distinct responsibilities. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying who is more, or less, important - teachers or parents? I am saying, to cite a cliché, teachers and parents are like the two wings on which our children can fly. And if either party play the part well, our children can fly very high.

Of course, I do meet the teachers. I say hello to madam principal. I sit down with respective class teachers to ask few questions. "Is there anything I could do or I should know?" "Are my daughters causing any problems in the school?" "Hope they are not behind with their assignments." After receiving no to all my questions, I sign the participation form and walk away with pride. Other than that I only make sure that my children are enjoying their school and they are moving ahead with their studies.

My job does not allow much time with my family and so I am careful about doing at least the bare minimum. Attending the parents-teachers meeting, collecting them from the bus top when I am in Thimphu, trekking to a temple on a Sunday afternoon, going for a movie together (they take me because we get free access. I know most of the film producers).

But what is more, my wife and I try to focus on imparting good values. This is where parents should take their role seriously and don’t leave it to the teachers. I teach them the difference between right and wrong, respects for elders, regards for colleagues, reverence for the King, love for the country, compassion to those less fortunate and fear for God. My wife, being a Japanese, hammers them on cleanliness, discipline, good manners, honesty and hard work. When I come back from tours, I also talk about how we sleep in tents and huts and bare floors because that’s the reality in some places in Bhutan. And not to take their good life for granted because “out there” there are people who have nothing. My younger daughter, who is seven, sometimes gets too inspired that she sleeps on the floor in my sleeping bag and calls it “sleeping like in Mongar”.

There is the on-going debate on the “degrading” quality of education and “substandard” graduates or educated lot. I am just wondering where exactly we are going wrong. In imparting the hard knowledge or in giving the softer skills – or in providing both? I am not saying that my way is the right way. In fact my regular absence from home makes me anything but a perfect father. My consolation is that, in any case, there is no formula for successful parenting and only time will tell if I have been a successful parent. But if we are little more serious in passing on our values and traditions, I am certain that we will have lesser to complain on the quality of education and the teachers.

Just try……

Lastly, my definition of education. "When you have forgotten what you have learnt in school and still be successful in life, you were well educated"

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reflections on a journey with the King

The three-week tour over and on my way home I sit in one of the many “resorts” in Bumthang and scribble down these thoughts. What has this epic journey through 6 dzongkhags, several villages and thousands of faces taught me? In the end, what has remained of the journey on me as a person?

Definitely, the 10 day-trek from Mongar to Nganglam passing through some of the remotest part of this country will remain etched in my memory for a long time. We have been to some of the most dramatic and exotic places where breathtaking sceneries made you lose a heart beat and where the heat, as comedian Phurba Thinley described, gave us free steam bath all along and the climbs so steep that the footpaths nearly touched our noses. And if the climbs were steep the descents were horrible. Do that few more time and you will lose your knees. The whole trek was as tough as it can get but the end result was rewarding. It gave us sense of achievements and valuable life lessons. It has made us understand our country better and more sensitive to harsh local realities. It taught us to cherish who we are and what we have. Because out there are some people who have nothing.

The brief visit to Rangjung (I was born just few miles from there) brought back my early childhood memories – especially of my late mother who was, at that time, the only one to believe in me. I don’t remember but apparently I was slow to learn to speak and late to walk. In fact I started walking properly only when I turned three and uttered full sentences only when I was four. Many had given me for a disabled
yongba and for a long time my father called me by that name. But no one is to be blamed. Even when I was past seven, I remember the whole family having a great time over my Supandi acts. I had very short memory power and very often I was unable to convey full messages to our neighbours because I would have forgotten the words by the time I got to their house. But my mother believed in me. We were extremely poor and often we didn't get three full meals. But my mother always kept us happy with endless jokes, bed-time stories and songs. She never had one bad day.

And this time, as I stood in front of more than 7,000 people in Rangjung as His Majesty addressed the gathering, I shed some tears of nostalgic happiness and of a great sense of achievement to have come so far in life. More than thirty years have passed since I walked barefoot and went hungry among those mountains. My mother would have been very proud had she been alive. But I am sure she is looking down on me with pride from above.

So for those of you who still have your mothers, make a call today and say how much you love them. When they are gone, they are gone!

To be honest, I have not done much for the community where I was born. But I have promised to do more. As a start, I managed to reconnect to few of my relatives whom I have not met for a long time and make new contacts with people I had not known before. In a nation in pursuit of GNH, true happiness (and not pleasure) should start from individuals and then should spread to communities and then to the whole nation. Only then we achieve our national goal.

The visit to Tashigang town, where I spent some years of my youth, to say hello to all the people I had known, and who were still there, was a cute experience. Back then I was popularly known as
kota and I had many anees (aunties) and ajangs (uncles) because I eyed some of their daughters. This time, when I walked in to their shops my anees still greeted me as kota. But my uncles would tell my aunties that I was now a dasho (?) and they were all little embarrassed. But I just hugged them and told them that kota was okay. Because for me that just meant their affections had not deterred even after so many years of not seeing each other. It was also wonderful to get some free chewing gums like I used to.

The royal tour took us to many places. Wherever we went there were
tshokchangs, songs and laughter. Meaning, if there is a place where gross national happiness could succeed, this has to be the country. Of course, there are merriments in other countries but what they don’t have is a leader who is committed to make their people smile and be truly happy and content. We have that in our King whose favorite dance “Jang taley tshokha” makes people collapse with laughter. And of course we had Phurba Thinley, Gyem Dorji and Khengtala whose mere appearances were met with a standing ovation.

Laughter and tears apart, we have a King who genuinely cares for the well-being of the people and in return is loved and revered. The way the people rush to get a glimpse of our King – some walking for days, and the way His Majesty sits down, listens, makes them smile and inspires is something that makes every Bhutanese proud. The fact that the King walks to places like Gongdu to see their conditions in person and treks along the southern borders to secure our borders; one can only feel assured and confident to be Bhutanese. Listening to His Majesty talking to children we can expect a brighter future for our siblings. The unique privilege of appealing directly to the King is a manifestation of the faith and confidence in the institution of the monarch as the ultimate source of justice, equality, hope and nationhood. His Majesty’s
soelra of thongdrels to the people who thereafter decide to hold annual drubchens in their village is important to uphold the community vitality and cultural continuity of this nation.

They say the end of a journey is a beginning of a new one. The one through Kheng is over but it is not “over” until we leave behind, or take back there, something that will make a difference in their lives. True, we cannot solve all their problems but still over time if we all do our bit, these less fortunate should catch up with the rest of the country and join the fun. Otherwise, the whole effort we have made and what we saw would have no meaning. Likewise the visit to my birthplace would have no meaning if I don’t reconnect to my roots or if I forget the people who gave me free chewing gums.

And the journey
with the King would serve no purpose, and might as well do the trip alone or not do at all, if my perspective has not widened. Or if my Vision remains as myopic as my eyesight or my memory - as bad as when I was a child.

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)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Return of the Native

I am in Rangjung standing facing my native village, Tongling (Radhi Gewog) where on the fifth day of the first month of the fire sheep year (February of 1967), my mother put me into this world. The small hut I was born used to be near Dungyi Gonpa, the ridge above the village of Tongling. Visits to places - especially your native village and where you grew up, bring back memories and nostalgia – especially of people associated with those places.

It may sound strange but I spent the first five years of my life preparing to be a monk. One of my maternal lineages dictates that one male member become a lama and I was the Chosen One by my grandfather lama. I didn’t have any uncles - my late mother was the only child. My earliest memory is of me accompanying my grandfather as he visited the adjoining villages of Chaling, Radhi, Phongmey and Shongphu to perform religious rites.

I also remember going with my mother who had to do the gongla-woola on the Tashigang - Buna road that had just reached Riju. Except for the untimely death of my grandfather when I was five, I have only happy memories of my native place. After my grandpa died, my father, who was working in Thimphu, had other plans for me - to pursue modern education.

Don't know why, but even 38 years since I have left for my father's village in Tashigang Pam and then further on, this place is still very close to my heart and I hope to return someday for an extended period. I guess it is because it is a place I have seen with the innocence and idealism of a child without any prejudice or being judgmental.

I am also of the view that one should never forget one’s roots or origins. Because if you lose your past, you also lose your future. In other words, if your future is disconnected from your past it will be unrecognizable and something that will not identify with you. That's why we put some much importance on history. The history of a nation is a sum total of the histories of its people and its communities. You lose your history, your lose your identity and you lose your sense of direction and we all lose as a nation.

Rangjung has become totally unrecognizable. Except for the beautiful monastery, everything that has come in place of the green paddy fields and the legendary mango tree is a complete disaster. The big beautiful tree is dwarfed by ugly concrete structures that try to ape traditional houses. Another so-called "town planning" is going on over here - not enough of having failed miserably in Khuruthang, Bajothang and elsewhere in the country.

Still, a stanza from a song by the Beatles rhymes well with my mood and thoughts as I scan the whole valley. It is a brief but a wonderful moment to reflect on your past and move on to your future with a nostalgic smile.

There are places I remember

All my life, though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living

In my life, I've loved them all

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Those naughty boys

(I just visited my old college after 25 years and couldn't help reproducing an article I had published some time back)

As a student in Deothang Polytechnic in the early eighties, I was the eternal third in class. One professor who was very fond of me would keep repeating, “If only you gave up your sports and other distractions and be more regular with your attendance, you will come first! And you have to stop being naughty and going around with those naughty boys.” But I couldn’t care less no matter how much he insisted. And at the end of every semester, when the exam results were announced and the third place was to be given out, a chorus would precede the announcer, “Dorji Wangchuk!” And everyone would have guessed it right.

We may have been naughty, no doubt, but we were never vicious, violent or crooks or criminals. We were only adding colors and spices to the otherwise monochromatic life of Deothang – that consisted of daily lessons, practical workshops and an unpredictable weather. In doing so, we kept everyone happy in our vicinity. Even back then, we were practicing GNH and we were implementing wholesome education by organizing class picnics, archery matches and trekking expeditions. During annual concerts, we would entertain the whole town. Namgay Retty would be at the drums, Sonam Wangchuk was good with his guitar and Dorji Namgay and Phuntsho Wangdi (Kado) would croak some Beatles numbers and I always thought I was better than Kishore Kumar and Elvis put together. As we often rumbled the hostel room, Tshering Nidup, Deepak Kulung and Dawa Penjore would be our only audience clapping and joining in occasionally for the chorus. Then one by one the whole hostel would be in our room until the warden could come and issue another last warning at midnight.

And like all boys of our time, we were martial art enthusiasts and fans of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. We took to Karate from an Indian master with, of course, pathetic results. But it helped boost our self-confidence, especially with the opposite sex, and no one dared mess around with us. And once, pursued by an angry villager, after a routine raid on his orange trees, I discovered that I could even run fast. So when the annual sports day came, I went on to set few short distance records to the amazement of the college cook who became my fan and served me with bigger portion of food. I was always starving back then.

Dorji Namgay was the undisputed table-tennis and badminton champ and together with Sonam they made up the doubles team. Dorji was also a good footballer and with Tshering, Deepak and I, we were probably the best defense the college football team had ever seen. Namgay was always in the first six of the volleyball squad and also played the spare goalie and did all the fights with the referee for every decision he made. Dawa was the top basket ball player and never missed a lay-up.

Of course we did attend classes - to meet the minimum requirement though. We were more interested in things that would be more useful for us as practitioners in our professional life. And if there was something we really hated was what those so-called “good” students were good at - learning by rote each and every lesson (at times without understanding the meaning or its practical application in the field). Those “good students” would never argue with teachers and would be submissive at all times. We couldn't that take that either. But our system, however, was on their side. Because they could reproduce ad verbatim what was being taught, they scored higher marks and were commended. They were often referred to as “tip top” students. Whereas we were classified as “naughty boys” because we often asked too many questions or pointed out too many calculation mistakes made by the lecturers on the blackboard. Later as a university student in Italy we were mandated to ask questions because in the West a questioning mind signified urge for knowledge and intellectual growth. What a culture shock I had to overcome! In Bhutan our system of learning is answer-oriented where “questions” remain the prerogative of teachers and lecturers.

When preaching got boring, Namgay, who was a gifted artist, would sketch the lecturer - instead of taking notes. Dorji and I would blow up test tubes and create explosions in the chemistry lab to the point that one lab assistant was specifically deputed to keep an eye on us. But weren’t we told to “experiment” or to try out new things? And Deepak would always copy my notes that after a while I used to make two: one for him and one for me.

While the good guys followed every norm, we questioned, gave suggestions and deviated from all conventional wisdoms. In fact when we made to the senior class we made sure to mingle with our juniors and to party together. We often skipped classes to go swimming and fishing by the river. We visited all the houses and temples in the college vicinity, trekked to far off villages and even hitchhiked all the way to Shillong. We ventured into new territories and we made new friends (but not babies). Such experiences as students made us less cynical of other people as we grew older. Human management and public relations became our second nature. Our mental horizon was always open to accommodate more options, seek more opportunities and explore all possibilities. Finally when we got employed, we opted for jobs and careers that best suited our aptitudes and our strengths rather than yield to peer pressures. We were always ready to experiments but without causing explosions this time.

Life, I guess, is like a video game. As years roll on, you move to the next level. As students we had our time. Then we moved on to the next phase of our lives. Those “good students” remained what they were – good students, while we became managers and leaders. Two decades and half later, most of those “good” students haven’t made anything much with their careers. Those “naughty” boys instead have faired much better. That may be because we were ready to “experiment” and focus our energy on what we were good at. The naughty boys even became happily married men and proud fathers.
Dorji Namgay went on to become one of Bhutan’s first hydropower engineers - leading and successfully building the Basochu Project phase II in a record time. He is now the managing director of STCB and has turned around a company that was given for dead. Namgay went on to do masters in architecture in Australia and after completing his obligation with the government he has now become a “tip top” filmmaker, animator and consultant architect. He has received four national film awards including two times for the best director. Tshering is the district engineer in Monggar and Phuntsho a divisional manager in the BPC. Sonam made a name for himself by building Thimphu’s only sewage line. And Dawa Penjore became a successful businessman in Trongsa after a short stint in the government. We lost Deepak but I am sure wherever he is he would humming some Cliff Richard number. The most important is that the naughty boys are happy and content.

As for me, I am the one who made more experiments with my career - from engineering to documentaries to films to journalism and finally landing up in the direct service of His Majesty the King. Doing what I love doing and loving every bit of what I do.
If I could rewind my life, would I do everything all over again? You bet!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Distant memories of Assam

We are driving through Assam – precisely from Nganglam to Samdrup Jongkhar. As I zoom along the Highway 31, rice fields and cows, towns and rickshaws and overloaded lorries and bullock carts move away from me like a video in a fast-forward mode. As I gaze lazily towards the horizon and leave the world behind me, memories spanning over thirty years slowly play on my mind like an old film.

My earliest recollection is of me and my late mother travelling on the back of a Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) truck to join my father who had found a job in Phuntsholing. The year was 1972 and I was six. And because we didn’t have the money to pay the fare, we were nearly off-loaded in the middle of Assam.

On another occasion and on a more positive note, I was with my father who was driving one of those black trucks and we got stuck in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly the whole village turned up and offered to repair, push and pull and jump-start our truck so that we could resume our journey again.

Several trips (on BGTS buses) and experiences and lunch stops later I found myself as a student in Deothang Polytechnic in the early eighties. Assam became the regular destination for our youthful adventures. I have lots of fond memories of those times. Many a times my friends and I would board the bus heading for Phuntshoing, get off at Rangia, hitch hike to Guwahati on lorries heading for the North-East and then after a day in Guwahati, we would head for Shillong where we would be the unwanted guests of Bhutanese students studying there. Once we even hopped on a train from Hashimara and had a long ride to Rangia. We felt we were the only permanent passengers. Others - men and animals, chickens and goats and loads of every types and sizes came in and dropped off every few kilometers. We had got on to a local train but the experience was memorable.

On an official note, often our college football team would go and play a game or two with local teams in Tamulpur or Kumarikata. No matter who won we always celebrated together. Being students and by default broke, I always cherished those times where we got free ladoos and jilebis and chae.

Then in my final year, I was elected as the mess captain and every Sunday I would accompany the hostel warden for vegetable shopping to Kumarikata. It used to be hot but it was fun. From the meagre stipend, I would permit myself a regular treat of few glasses of lassi from the same stall. Over time the lassi-maker got fond of me and if I passed by without having one because I had no money, he would even extend credit services.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Farewell Kheng Gongdu

Finally I am updating my blog. Friends and acquaintances often enquired why I had kept it frozen. Some speculated that I was not allowed in my current position. Others simply thought I had fallen into the consistent Bhutanese trap of being “inconsistent”. Actually the reason was simple – The past year has been crazy for me as far as writing was concerned and so the last thing I wanted to do was to “write” my blog. Unless, of course, I had a good reason. And I must say I have found one - here in the inner Kheng.

I am in Gongdu – an extraordinary place in every respect. For those of you who may not know where Gongdu is, it is the southern-most gewog under Monggar Dzongkhag. It is three days to Nganglam, three days to Pema Gatsel and three days to Monggar – basically in the middle of nowhere. Gongdu pampers you with breathtaking views, temperate climate and abundance of natural beauty. The people are exceedingly warm and speak a strange language that you are actually lost thinking if you were still in Bhutan – except that they wear gho and kira and enjoy listening to the jokes of Phurba Thinley and Gyem Dorji (who are with us on this trip).

But Gongdu is one of the poorest gewogs in Bhutan. People live in houses that, to me, either look like temporary dwellings or badly in need of some major repairs. Banana leaves are still used as roofing materials and bamboo extracts as walls and mats. Old people are weak and feeble and children are visibly malnourished. Although farm products are varied and every tropical fruits can grow here, the access to market is a major problem. Oranges that would fetch anything between 3 to 5 ngultrums a piece in Thimphu are left to rot on the trees. The people therefore live in poverty and hardship.

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. The Gyalposhing – Nganglam highway, which is under construction, passes near the major settlements and the Kuri-Gongri hydropower project will be located on the edge of the gewog. These major development programs, if harnessed well, could bring unprecedented change and alleviate them from the vicious circle of poverty.

Still, these are projects that would take time. Hence the most immediate thing we could do is to support the local government officials and civil servants who are posted here and who are doing what they can to help our lesser compatriots. We could provide them free access to the Internet so that they can get more information, keep themselves connected with friends, family and colleagues at the headquarters and thereby carry out their assignments here with pride and without feeling left out. The fact that I could post this piece and update my FaceBook pictures with my B-Mobile data card means it is possible.

The journey through Monggar Kheng is tough and dangerous and passes through some of the most hostile environments. A sense of achievement grips my heart every time we reach the top of several mountain-passes after battling a baking Sun and a steep climb. But the journey to Kheng is more than reaching safely, enjoying the hospitality or pitying their conditions. It is a far greater journey – a journey within yourself and the realisation that we all have our humane side buried deep inside. It is a journey that makes you appreciate who you are, where you are and what you have and brings out the best part of all Bhutanese - compassion.

Farewell Kheng Gongdu!