Friday, May 28, 2010

Beating Jumja and Sorchen

With the monsoon at the doorstep, roadblocks and landslides have again become part of our daily realities and dinner topics. The other week I was in Phuntsholing to reach a colleague in his new job there. On the way obviously I passed through the chronic landslide areas of Jumja, Takti and Sorchen. The Jumja and the Takti rock face now stand almost vertical right over our head and in the most menacing posture. It is clear that we can’t beat Mother Nature and her powerful force of destruction. The dreadful Sorchen is even etched in my memory because as a student in Kharbandi in the late seventies we would even help travellers tranship their goods over the landslide.

The ongoing highway-widening project will even open fresh wounds where there could be more “shooting boulders” and landslides. As an engineer in my previous life, I thought, “Could it possible that there is absolutely no solution?” Some random thoughts followed including a suggestion a chillip engineer made to a friend of mine who then made it to me over some coffee – half tunnel!

Studying the area for few minutes and imagining a half-tunnel through, I found it does make sense. Half-tunnels are like ordinary tunnels but with wall on the hill side and no wall on the slope side. If the earth cover over the tunnel is thick, columns are built on the empty side to avoid the roof from collapsing. I have seen such tunnels in the Italian Alps where avalanche are common problem.

Half-tunnels have several advantages. They involve less cost and time to build than the normal full-tunnels. And unlike the full-tunnel that requires stringent safety considerations against fire and tunnel accidents, the half-tunnel having one side open does not present such serious safety issues. Hence, even the tunnel option from Geduchu to Gonglakha, which someone suggested, needs to be to be looked into from this safety perspective.

Once built the half tunnels could present a long-term solution. Any slides or boulders falling off will shoot straight for the valley without falling on the road (see above diagram). It could finally provide the solution to the monsoon nightmare. Therefore some serious studies could be initiated to see the feasibility. True there could be huge short-term construction cost. But these should weighed against the long-term benefits and how much this country is losing, as a whole, in terms of time, resources and manpower every year. With all the talks about climatic change, the need for a long-term solution is even greater.

The beauty of all these is that is that, let alone Dantak guys, I know at least few of our own Bhutanese engineers who worked in Tala Project, who can lead this project.

(picture below is a half-tunnel from somewhere)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Undead Poet Society

One observation made during the Literary Festival was that Bhutan was leapfrogging from an oral society to audiovisual media - bypassing everything in between. True this may not augur well for a country bent on preserving age-old culture and traditions. Folk tales and stories have been the vehicles that transported the very culture and tradition we are trying to preserve. And efforts have to be made to preserve them.

However, the audio-visual media is not the Terminator of the oral tradition. Rather the new digital technology can help in the conservation efforts. These days recording equipment come at throwaway prices. For those of us who started with Nagra machines and U-matic gears costing thousands of dollars, digital audio recorders and video cameras are almost godsend. They just cost one-tenth compared to analogue equipment and are ten times better. Even mobile phones have the audio and video recording features that could be put into some good use. So rather than cry wolf, one could take advantage of the availability of these cheap equipment and go out there and do something. I feel much of the oral tradition is still there. The real enemy is our own mindset.

People have the habit of nagging about something that is going wrong rather than appreciating what's going right. The Bhutanese radios are doing an excellent job by including the oral traditions like lozay and tsangmo in their daily programming. If someone in Merak Sakten can understand the national language it is thanks to BBS Radio. Local films have also contributed a lot to oral traditions and Dzongkha. The nation-wide appeal of Phurba Thinley is a proof of this. Even the much-debated Druk Star brought out the best of zhungdra and boedra. And all these are made possible because of cheap availability of new audio-visual technology and the good use of the much-hated television. So blanket statements don't help in any way other than to attract donor sympathy (and possible funding). We have good writers, many aspiring poets, a fledging film industry and a good radio listenership. Why not intervene where it works rather than decry what’s not working?

Another comment made was that “these days children don’t read.” This may be true to certain extent. But then, whose fault is it anyway? How many of us read or read to children? Children ape their parents. If parents don’t read, it is very unlikely that children would take up reading habits. What is more worrying is that we assume children don’t read. And so we neither create better libraries nor do we buy books for our children and we are okay with fifty or hundred bars for every bookshop in the city. And yet children as far as in Kheng Gongdu have asked for better reading materials.

The literary festival brought in some of the best contemporary Indian and Bhutanese writers. Sadly everyone was very “busy” to even attend. But there were some students who sat through every session and thoroughly enjoyed the katsoms of Sonam Kinga, Dasho Kinley’s story from Laya and, of course, the timeless poems by Gulzar in person.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

FaceBooked and Blogged

Keeping in touch with friends sure has changed over the years. In school, writing letters with pen was the norm. Then typing them out on WordStar became the trend. Emails followed soon after and now we have the Facebook. Every literate person I know is there. These days besides, “Do you have an email?” you are also asked, “Are you on Facebook?”

So, to be trendy and to escape from people bugging me to join them, I found myself signed up in all these social networks – Facebook, Myspace, Hi5 and Kuzoo. In the beginning I did not find much use. For me socializing means meeting face-to-face. Besides, on Facebook most of the people I have as "friends" are either people I see or meet in my daily life or people I don't have anything to say to or any reason to call up out of the blue. Neither did it make any sense in casually commenting on people or their profiles.

Then a miracle happened. I started getting “friend requests” from people who were really my friends back in Italy - my soul mates throughout my time there and thanks to my carelessness I had lost touch. I missed my friends. I was determined not to lose them again and so I started dropping them a line, they commented on new hairstyle, I told them I missed some real pasta. Many trivialities later we were back together – at least in the cyber space.

The habit has caught on and now being on the Facebook is being connected not only to friends but also to friends of friends - and friends of friends of friends. We learn to know each other better. Even people who are not so close. Understanding and appreciation grow and hopefully there will be more peace and friendship. Above all, my workaholic habit fits well with this virtual social networking where I just post about my whereabouts and what’s going through my mind. I post some picture I take in course of my job. Now my real friends and I don’t feel drifted apart.

Social media is here to stay and has become a part of our popular culture. It is a powerful means to reach out. Obama used it effectively in his bid for the White House. Multinationals like Apple have developed a social media policy to reach out to its clients. In Bangkok Post, the editor-in-chief told me, it is almost a requirement for people to have accounts and interact with the readers and fans.

So it is with a total disdain that I learn of employers trying to ban these sites and even don’t sanction Internet access at work place. The irony is that we are talking about making Bhutan a knowledge-based society or global IT hub. We are talking about e-governance and e-commerce. Agreed that they could be “misused”. But won’t a little awareness and some education be more practical than banning? Won’t it better that over time, after “misusing” for months, the employees themselves learn to use the facilities meaningfully? It may sound little condescending. But I am talking from my own experience. When I landed in Italy as a student, I was so mesmerized by the TV that I was hooked for entire weekends. But soon it dawned on me that I was only wasting my time. Now I would rather read a book or write a note on my blog than watch TV. Ban never worked on anything anywhere.

History sure repeats itself. When telephone was invented, companies in the US banned it from the work place because of fears of people doing what it was invented for - talking. And that was more than 130 years ago.

Remains of the Day

I enjoyed the SAARC week. Besides being proud as a Bhutanese I achieved my dream of walking around Thimphu without all those vehicles, noise or pollutions. Sadly my dream was short lived. The big party over and the guests having left, we are back to the same nightmare – traffic congestions, litters reappearing everywhere and cars rushing as if the world was ending.

In the months preceding the Summit, when people asked me if I thought whether we could host the summit successfully, my answer was “Yes. We will not fail. But we will never learn.” Meaning, we are excellent last-minute organisers but we never learn from our earlier mistakes of rushing at the eleventh hour. That holds true not only in organising celebrations as large as the Coronation or meetings as big as the SAARC Summit, but also in paying our bills, filing our taxes or buying shares in companies.

Bhutanese are at their best when there is a crisis. When things are normal again we get back to gossiping our life away. We came together as a nation to celebrate the Coronation. We rallied behind our Monarch when our sovereignty was at risk and we grieved together when disasters struck the East. So during the Summit, to no one’s surprise, we saw many people volunteering, working towards a collective success and showing the best of Bhutan. It means intrinsically we are all good citizens who love our country.

So my question is, can we elongate these brief wonderful moments? Ideally, why can’t we have the best in us all the time? If that's not possible, at least, how about leaving some social and cultural legacies from these events besides those physical ones? The Centenary celebrations created the Centenary Park with a beautiful open-air theatre. A youth performing art festival could be instituted to commemorate that celebration. The massive earthquake mobilised many groups and individuals – some as far a New York. Can these groups stick together, formalise, organise and keep doing some social works?

The Summit week was free from uncivilized motorists because the even-odd rule made only the essential ones plying the narrow streets of Thimphu. The biggest impact, however, was not on the congestion or the pollution but on the social aspect. People started calling up each other to share rides and go out for lunch together. Office colleagues pooled their cars depending on whose was allowed on that day. How nice! With rising living standards we are seeing people becoming too independent - almost bordering on selfishness and self-importance. If this even-odd rule is retained, perhaps on weekends, may be this togetherness can continue. May be we will learn to share things again. And to the World, we would not only be making the Thimphu Statement but Thimphu would be meaning real business.

Or – we could go all back to our cars and let unruly Landcruisers, car-smashing buses, wayward taxis and litterbugs regain the streets. We have a choice.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Shhh… Galuya Malab

I went for the premiere of a new movie – Shh.. Galuya Malab. It is another movie by my friend Tshering Wangyel but with Tsokye Tshomo Karchung in the lead and also executive producing it. Knowing both Wangyel and Tsokye, I had a huge expectation from the film. Especially because of Tsokye’s sensitivity to social issues we face in this country.

The film tells the story of Deki (played by Tsokye) - a successful career woman but who contracts the deadly virus. Tshering Phuntsho plays her arranged fiancée who accidentally infects her. Her career and her life come to a halt only to be rescued by her jobless and happy-go-lucky childhood friend (played by Karma Chechung).

I must say, all in all, I was not disappointed. There was, of course, the “necessary” dose of commercialism in the first half, with disjointed sub-plots and dance numbers, that does not take the story forward. But I know, and Wangyel tells me, without these the film won't sell. And there is no use making a film that won't sell. The wonderful tweaks by Phurba Thinley and Gyem Dorji keep you going though.

But once the film moves beyond the turning point, every scene, every plot and even the song sequence is powerful enough to move the hall. Tsokye is brilliant in her role and so is Karma. Tsokye, Karma and Tshering Phuntsho together with other younger likes of Chencho Dorji and Tandin Bidha are whom I call the “young guns of the Bhutanese cinema.” Hopefully they would take our cinema to the next level. They are young, they are energetic and they are in the industry because they are passionate about films.

Shhh... Galuya Malab is a must-see. For one reason. It is brutally honest in depicting a major flaw in our character – the hypocritical behaviour of our society that is quick to act on ignorance rather than on sound reasoning or logic or on jampa dang ngingzhi (compassion and altruism) that we proclaim to have as Buddhists. Film is a powerful mass medium that is also supposed to make you think, contemplate and discuss. This film did make me think.

If I have to coin a one-liner for the film – It is a movie with a meaning.

If you have never seen a Bhutanese film, start with this one!