Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Bhutan:Somewhere over the rainbow...
Happy Birthday Maddy!! Rohan Sippy and Madhavan were just such cool guys to conduct a session with - knowledgeable,charming, sure of their craft. And mainly, no Bollywood airs or sho-sha. Just regular guys who know what the hell they are doing - and do it well. I didn't particularly like 'Dum Maro Dum' and said so in print. But did Rohan sulk and take idiotic personal pot shots? Naaah! He's educated, you see! Ditto for Maddy, who behaved like just another delegate.
I have several Bhutan images - Mt. Everest included!! All I need is some rah rah encouragement from you.... and I shall promptly oblige. Remember - you were warned!
Oh.... the link is the Sunil Sethi interview for NDTV's long-running show - Just Books.
The Yellow Brick Road leading from the airport at Paro to Thimphu, in Bhutan witnessed a strange sight last week, as the local Wizard ( Indian Ambassador Pavan Varma) played host to Tin Men, Scarecrows and several Dorothys who descended on the comparatively tiny( 38,394 square kilometers) kingdom hoping to pass off as heavy-duty writers, thinkers and intellectuals at the third edition of a Lit Fest, appropriately titled ‘Mountain Echoes’. Well, there were fascinating Bhutan-India Echoes at the three day jamboree that was inaugurated by Bhutan’s beauteous Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. At 57, she is astonishingly youthful, energetic and charming, besides being an author of two well received books that reflect her concerns for the kingdom that is slowly but surely getting seduced by a world that has so far seen Bhutan only as an exoticised Shangri La. Or more accurately, some vague La-La land of chanting monks and medieval practices. The gorgeous Queen Mum decided to do something about these misconceptions . The only way to find out for herself how her people really felt… how they lived… what their dreams were… was to set off on a padayatra before penning “ Treasures of the Thunder Dragon’. Her Majesty traveled on foot to different parts of Bhutan often trekking seventeen days at a stretch through thick jungles ( over 72% of Bhutan is under forest cover) and crossing mountain passes above 5000 metres ( 20% of the country remains under perpetual snow). She said with a disarming smile when I met her, “I wanted to do this while I was physically fit enough . I would have liked to travel incognito, but that wasn’t always possible. I took detailed notes along the way. I wanted to narrate the story of 21st century Bhutan and tell the world we do not live in a time- warp.” This book comes ten years after her first one… and a lot has changed in the kingdom during that decade.
The sharp, erudite and articulate Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchen Jigme Thinkey admitted as much, albeit circuitously during a lively interaction with Lit Fest delegates. Never mind that some of our self-styled gyaanwallahs were crass enough tell the P.M. on how better to do his job. To his credit, he handled most of this unsolicited advice with a smile, an amusing anecdote and enormous grace. His concerns reflect those of most Bhutanese, who realize their idyllic, isolated life stands threatened by the advent of so-called modernity..Television was introduced in 1999. Information technology as we know it, has altered the cloistered lives of over 10,000 monks, who ensure the teachings of the Buddha ( Bhutan adheres to the Mahayana School ) are preserved and communicated to the people. The Queen Mum writes that Bhutanese monks today adeptly use computers to prepare scrolls of 100,000 prayers to place inside prayer wheels.But so sure is she of the deeply spiritual culture of her people, she states confidently that the Bhutanese have an extraordinary capacity to “appreciate, absorb and adapt.” Her optimistic vision is not entirely shared by locals who point out that though foreign-educated students choose to come back home to Bhutan after acquiring fancy international degrees, the rather charming ( if naïve) concept of GNH ( Gross National Happiness) in place of the more boring, predictable and conventional GDP(Gross Domestic Product) followed by the rest of the developed world, doesn’t quite cut it with the youth. The ever-smiling Prime Minister shares the Queen Mum’s dream when he says Bhutan is proposing a world debate on the true meaning of wealth. “How does anybody define wealth? Is it only about what you have? Or also about what you are?” he asks. Officially, the Bhutanese are meant to take a holistic approach to measure their own Happiness Quotient. This includes chasing prosperity at their own pace and terms but not at the cost of their traditions and customs. On paper it’s a splendid idea. But how practical is it? Bhutan built its first ( and only) airport as late as in 1983. Just 14,000 tourists visited Bhutan in 2005.The number has not gone up dramatically since then. Bhutan is not for backpackers, officials say. Thank God for that! But with the recent introduction of charters from India, Bhutan must brace itself for the onslaught of Unruly Indians ruining the pristine hills and vales of the orderly Kingdom. The trading of tobacco is banned ( no ciggies, if you are a citizen). But alcoholism and an addiction to paan remain rampant. There are no multiplexes, no shopping malls ( the first one is still under construction), no casinos and no coffee shops or bars outside the five star hotels.So how do the Bhutanese keep themselves amused? Shrugged a beautiful socialite who had married and divorced four husbands, “ What else is there to do? I was so bored!” Quite so.
Well, there is the Royal Wedding in October to look forward to… a devastatingly handsome 31-year-old, Oxford-educated King (Jigme Keshar Namgyel Wangchuk) is all set to marry the delicate 20-year-old Jetsun Pema (who did her schooling in India at Sanawar). And is it going to be an extravaganza designed to overshadow the Kate-William nuptials? “Oh, no!” insisted the P.M. when I asked, adding ,“Our King is keeping it small and simple. He is not planning to invite international media, nor heads of state to the wedding. Not even kings and queens from across the world. He is a very unassuming, reserved man.” In that case, I must have clicked a really rare photograph of the couple on the day of their engagement when they casually strolled into our Ambassador’s home which is located on a sylvan 70-acre property (the site was selected by Indira Gandhi). King Wangchuk placed a protective arm around his fiancee’s shoulder and smiled for the camera. Perhaps a fairytale wedding is being ruled out at this point. But don’t bet on it not happening.As for me, I got my fairytale moment with the couple, and I’m not complaining!