Thursday, December 23, 2010

The longest Paro-Thimphu drive

Even the intense winter sun fails to warm our hearts. Instead the unprecedented chill only makes it worse. The aircraft carrying the coffins of the victims of the Nepal air crash makes the touchdown. Finally the long wait is over. Most of us (HMS staff) had neither slept well nor fed ourselves well since the tragedy – coordinating the relief works and providing information to a stunned nation.

The cargo door swings open and the conveyor belt starts rolling. We take our turns to receive them, according to the names of the victims we were assigned to. I wait for mine, joined by the only surviving family member - a monk. He lost his mother. The royal command was for us to be with the family throughout the cremation process and look into all their needs.

We drive out of Paro. And as luck would have it, I am penultimate in the convoy and the sight of sixteen bodies ahead of me makes my heart bleed. Unable to hold back my tears, I look out of the window aimlessly far into the horizon. But I am not alone. The entire Bondey town is out. The stern look on their faces says everything. Some women are sobbing away. Some men pray for the departed souls.

Although I try not to think of it, my mind is pulled back to imagine the face of the woman I had never met. The Paro-Thimphu drive seems unusually long. As the convoy snakes along the long and winding road, I enter into a serious contemplation. Is life really worth living? Especially the way we were living. Our dreams and our ambitions, our greed and our intrigues. Is everything worth vying for?

When we make our entry in to Thimphu we are greeted by the same horrified faces. Thousands of relatives and friends are waiting to receive the bodies at the duthroe. The next day, as the mass cremation moves on, everyone is asking, why so many tragedies? I only wish we had the answers. By late afternoon as the fires turn the bodies into ashes, I check with my family if there was anything they required. "What can I expect more?" The monk tells me. "Our King has taken care of all these and the Je Khenpo did the rest. I don't know whether to be happy or sad, but I am relieved. I am just a monk living in the mountains and my only worry was how I would be able to cremate my mother". I hug him and I promise to visit him in future - wherever he would be.

I hit the road for Paro again. I had fixed a coffee meeting with a visiting journalist at Aman. As my colleague negotiates the long and winding road, the picture of convoy of bodies plays vividly on my face. But this time the drive is much shorter. And as for life, I guess, we can only move on. And be good human beings while we are still alive.

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Calcutta

My memories of Kolkata go as far as 1977 when my father, who was a truck driver, took me along in one of his trips. Calcutta, as it was known then, was big and frightening. The traffic was bad, the noise was deafening and streams of people were rushing in every direction. But soon I got used to. Manoj Kumar’s Dus Numberi was still playing houseful and I even made my dad buy a tee shirt with No. 10 in case anybody back home had any doubts that I had seen the film. We slept in the truck, or under the truck, parked in the lawns of Bhutan House. And except for the mosquitoes that bothered me every now and then, I felt like in a wonderland. We ate in the dhabas and roadside restaurants. But my favorites were the chaiwalas whose ability to stretch the tea from one jug to another just amazed me and I would ask them to do it again and again for me.

So it was with some nostalgic anticipation that I looked forward to this last visit to Kolkata. But things obviously have changed in my life. From a poor boy whose father couldn’t afford a room, I was putting up in Hotel Taj Bengal. The 36-hour drive is replaced by less-than-an-hour flight on Druk Air. Chauffer driven cars with police escorts drove us all over the city. Fresh salmons, salames and sashimi came in place of coal-burnt chapattis and chicken curry.

Many official engagements and receptions later, including a dinner at the Raj Bhavan where I was seated next to the beautiful actress Debashree Roy (my childhood hero Mithun Chakraborty was also there), I felt I was still missing something - my Calcutta I had known as a child. So the moment I had a chance (I got to slip out for a meeting at the Telegraph) I grabbed the opportunity. Suddenly I realized the traffic has gone worse, noise level has gone up and many dhabas have disappeared and in their places lots of fancy malls have come up. Some things are same, of course. Streams of people were still rushing in every direction.

When I was done at the Telegraph, my host was rather embarrassed, “Sorry our canteen is closed.” “Take me to a chaiwala in the street,” I suggested instantly. “Are you sure?” He got back, scanning my Italian suit and a matching tie, to imply that the chaiwala place was not proper for someone of my stature.

In front of the Telegraph headquarters and among the typical chaos and commotions of Kolkata, there was a chaiwala still pulling a tea from one jug to another. As I seeped a masala tea from an earthen cup and watched him do that with a nostalgic delight, I also felt the familiar smell of coal, heat, dust and the damp all around us. For all the changes that we go through in life, there are things that you cherish forever. For me it is these chaiwalas. For a moment I am who I was and so was my Calcutta.