When a rock art saved me

It was late October 2002. I was with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service then.

With my cameraman, Sonam Loday, and soundman, Tshering Norbu, we were on the last day of our trek to Singye Dzong. After our lunch break we thought we had got closer to our destination and so we sent our guide ahead. We have been filming along the way, since we left our camp in Thangkarmo,  and we continued to do that day too – which actually slowed our progress.

_MG_8117

Journey starts through sub-tropical green area of Khoma

Then the Sun was almost at the horizon when we realized that we were nowhere near our destination. We packed our gear and zoomed off. I started worrying but managed to hide it from my two younger colleagues. The trail was never ending. Did we miss our path? We were told that at the intersection of Doksum, we should take the valley to the left, which we did. The one to the right would have taken us to another valley – Rongmateng.

Late afternoon turned into evening, which also gave way to the darkness. And still no sign of inhabitation or religious sites whatsoever. Usually they are marked with prayer flags or chortens. Nothing except dense jungle and total darkness made creepier by a furious sound of the river gushing below us. We kept going. My two colleagues followed me. They thought I knew the way. But I was already panicking. We were warned from Khoma not to undertake the journey for it was late autumn and the yak herders would have already left for lower valleys. In fact it was our second day that we had not met any soul. Did I push too far? Did I put the lives of others at risk? My heart started pounding even faster because of such thoughts. I was breathing faster and because of pantings and hyperventilation I was getting dizzy. My vision was getting blurry. We slowed down and I said to myself, “If we don’t get to our destination in another 10 minute I am as good as dead.”

Then as we turned around a corner I thought I head some prayer flags fluttering in the darkness. Was I hallucinating? I stopped and I pointed my flashlights. There besides a string of worn-out prayer a flag was a small rock carving of Guru Padma Sambhava and a marker, ‘Way to Singye Dzong’. “Yes!” I thought. “We are on the right track. Thanks, Man. You save my life” I silently told Guru. We stopped, dropped our loads and I took out my small towel from my bag and covered my face. Out of sheer joy and relief, I cried silently. It was dark and so we couldn’t see each other’s faces. We could only hear gasping for air from the brisk walk and from the very high altitude we were already at. With my energy recharged, literally, an hour later, at close to midnight, we reached our campsite.

During our week-long stay in that area we saw nothing but rocks and caves. There is actually no dzong in Singye Dzong. Dzong is a metaphor. Every ancient Dzongkha word, I was told, has three meanings – the outer, which we are all familiar with, the inner and the secret. It is called chi nang, saang. The nang meaning of dzong is “a peaceful place” – a sanctuary. In fact the place is so peaceful and exudes an energy that you can feel right to the core of your heart.

SingyeDzong

Singye Dzong valley. (Photo courtesy: Thuenlam.bt)

I am sharing this story in light of a recent news report that rock carvings of religious figures would be banned in Bhutan. I hope that people who make such decision will also read my story. Had it not been for that small rudimentary work of rock art, which are now being termed as religious desecration, I wouldn’t be alive or I would be telling a different story.

The presence of the sacred and the spiritual energy is found both outside and inside the temples. While others may not have such a dramatic story like mine, I have had friends who visited Bhutan and felt powerful the energy everywhere. The presence of a chorten here, a rock carving there, water-driven prayer wheels in a distance and prayer flags everywhere, exude energy like nowhere else. Hence, I am not sure how these things are sacrilegious. Do we really need to regulate them? Shouldn’t we be actually encouraging such religious pursuits?

Just asking.

DSC_0045

Never ending mountains before the abode

 

Joy in simple things

My Facebook timeline is flooded with pictures of the snowfall in Thimphu.

It is heartening to see people getting joy out of simple things like a snowfall. I have never understood this pleasant collective euphoria – and the disappointments in the past years when it didn’t snow.

It is heartening because if GNH means anything, it is the ability to find joy in those small things in life that give you togetherness and make you feel, share, forget and live your moment. It is finding happiness and contentment in what modern capitalism has long melted them away as things trivial.

I have taken the liberty to copy-paste some pictures out of the pages (mostly of my friends so that no one sues me for copyright. Need to be careful these days) and have given my own narrative and captions. Enjoy till it lasts. And, of course, to paraphrase an Indian teacher in remote Bhutan, Let them snow!

~~~

17103277_10155206787198623_8799484714561897711_n

It’s freezing to play dad. Still, duty calls….

 

17103593_10155037333931704_437298814972738500_n

Some people (like Dr. Dorji Penjore) had their flights cancelled. But didn’t mind..

 

17155330_1109321642547344_412959451278713505_n

Aku Pema (aka Tshering Dorji) is either sleep-cycling or is trying Swedish sauna.

 

17159023_985228341609385_5402000277904757846_o

Meanwhile Aku Pema’s partner has just started the engine..

 

17190543_10155215421058846_2021924256766227681_n

Some moms (Sonam Pem) are more excited than their children.

 

17190733_1276017009185877_3372133196762301944_n

Frezzing Buddha

 

17190964_1399404456765789_8260666253453264904_n

Bhutan Airline is snowstruck in Paro

 

17191330_1291387807576284_2161331246030434998_n

What remains from the Everest expedition (Karma Jimba)

 

17191375_1262471857140841_1417805294965173625_n

Some got spiritual even on a cold day

 

17191472_748321025326484_5656323675604059418_n

Snow Buddha (to add to Walking Buddha and Sitting Buddha)

 

17191736_1222058187892368_876620656499386279_o

Even policemen just wanna have fun

 

17201145_1248521628534899_444358756084837718_n

And some people waited for the snow for the annual alumni gathering

 

17201318_1262471817140845_3856049277891671322_n

What else you expect from Zorig Chusum students

 

17203010_1378941435482909_5527976960234960981_n

The Fattest of the year

 

17211899_10154452298287218_8526771766946293081_o

Spot the Trump

 

17212088_10202943965116737_2574507993329392585_o

His toilet chose this day to malfunction, I think

 

17240693_10158422615890327_7175106872322828689_o

Some (Kezang Wangchuk) waited for the snow for family photo

 

17264298_10155080448821703_2278999024365117023_n

Alas, not everyone was happy with the snow. The trade fair was ruined.

 

17201333_10154546792381849_8077167611215179859_n

But our desuups (Choki, Ugyen and Karma) were there.

 

17264547_10154578731985547_1801813758126565465_n

Small dogs leave big marks (Karma Choden’s Nuchu)

 

17159063_10155048451678905_4918068759415793311_o

Only in Bhutan

 

17264168_1276360185818226_645059710259011145_n

For some, life is still upside down

 

17201435_10154561706282869_3113750126853119632_n

Life is too short. Smile as often as you can. Better if you do always. And easier with a lager beer. Cheers to life

 

The Strength of the Rising Sun

March 11, 2011 – I was at a lunch in Akasaka (downtown Tokyo) with two of my friends, Sakitsu san from the NHK World and Ogawa san of Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS). I was on an official visit to prepare for the State Visit of our King, which was to happen two months later.

As we were eating, chatting and sharing the old times, the building started shaking.  Mildly at first.  “It’s normal,” one of them reassured me.  But the quake only intensified and things started falling down around us.  Some people started screaming outside.  Sakitsu took out his phone and was rather shocked by what he saw on the mini-screen, “It is a big one. It hit off the coast of Fukushima. Tsunami alert along the Pacific Coast.” The emergency siren rang.  Immediately he excused himself and rushed off. Ogawa, seeing me little dazed, asked me to follow him to his office – the TBS building, which is probably one of the safest buildings in Tokyo. I followed him. In the streets people were running all over the place. Another shake. I felt like I was trying to walk down the aisle of an airplane midair under severe turbulence. A big earthquake had just hit Japan.

The 9.2 magnitude earthquake has released an energy that was equivalent to 30,000 times the power of the atomic bomb that was dropped over Hiroshima during the World War II.  But more than the earthquake (because Japan was prepared for it) it was the tsunami it triggered that devastated the north-eastern coast.Scenes of cities beings washed away, like in the movie Day After Tomorrow, were flashed on TV news over and over again. At the time of posting this article, over 3,000 people have been confirmed dead, as many were still missing and over quarter of a million have been left homeless or directly affected.

The response to the disaster was quick.  Over 1.2 million people were evacuated within minutes after the tsunami alarm went off along the Pacific Coast – from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu islands in the South.  Relief and recovery teams went into action even before the first wave of Tsunami hit the Iwate prefecture (which was closest to the epicenter). Trains, airports and subways were suspended and elevators in every building in Japan were disabled with clockwork precision. The Self Defence Force (Japan’s army) was put into action and the Parliament suspended the debate and the session to allow the government to deal with the crisis.

But what really amazed me was not the Japanese efficiency at work.  Rather the courage and the dignity with which the people, even those who were directly affected, dealt with the tragedy. It is often said that the worst of times brings the best and the worst in us.  In the case of Japan, it brought only the best. Although left with nothing for themselves and for their family, people lined up in the usual orderly manner – to get some food, buy some supplies or to make telephone calls from public fixed lines. The sense of community was simply moving. For all their technological advancements the core value of Japanese society, the social harmony, was still strong. Usually emotions would run high and looting and riots would take place where desperation sets in. This has happened in recent tragedies and turmoils all over the World.  But not in the Land of Rising Sun.  I couldn’t help but admire my in-laws (my wife is a Japanese) more than ever before for their great courage and the highest sense of civility.

My journalistic instinct was to go to the affected area but back home everyone was worried for me. I was instructed to leave the country with the first flight that I could catch. It was an order I couldn’t refuse. However, the country had almost come to a halt. I spent the time glued to the TV, rescued by my sister in-law and in her house, getting every bit of information that was coming out from Narita Airport. The transport authorities had shut down everything to assess the damages and the safety -and there were no flights in and out of Tokyo. The radiation leak from Fukushima nuclear plant presented another bigger concern.

Finally on 13th March I made it to Narita and boarded a flight bound for Seoul. Life in Tokyo had almost come to normal after two days although the after-shocks and the threat from the Fukushima nuclear plant kept coming. I called up Ogawa, Sakitsu and my sister-in-law, Junko, for taking care of me aFujind sending me home safely.  As the flight took off from Narita airport, I bid goodbye, for this time, to this country that had given me so much but that was going through, what Prime Minister Kan described as, the worst crisis since the WW II.

As we climbed higher I looked out of the window and saw the earth moving away and clouds slowly covering my second homeland.  A deep sadness engulfed my heart. If there was one positive thing for me out of this incident, I realized how much my friends here and my in-laws cared for me and how much I have become closer to this country. I also realised how unpredictable life could be – even for a nation.

And as the aircraft veered right on its final trajectory towards Seoul, a bright light appeared in the horizon. It was Mount Fuji, beaming with the winter snow still covering its summit. Standing above a blanket of dark cloud that was now covering everything below us. I smiled tearfully at the sight and offered a little prayer. “Yes, Mount Fuji,” I thought, “You are the spirit of this Nation. Rising above all adversities.”

Whatever destruction or despair Mother Nature may have thrown on this Land, suddenly I felt confident that like Fuji san (as the Japanese refer to their favorite mountain) the people here would stand tall, rise above the situation to rebuild their nation and move on.  They have done that in the past.They will do it again.

That is the strength of the Land of the Rising Sun.

(The original version was posted on March 16, 2011 from Bangkok in http://www.dorjiwangchuk.blogspot.com

 

To meat or not to eat

Let me digress from my life history and write on an issue that came to my mind – to eat or not to eat meat.

cartoon_you_are_what_you_eat

I turned vegetarian a little over two years back. It was purely a personal decision – with no religion or health issues involved. Of course, there were encouragements from different quarters including a rimpoche-friend who advocates against eating meat. But let me share one good reason, perhaps, that made me take the final step.

While attending a Buddhist conference in Kathmandu, a panellist asked the audience, “Do you know what you are eating? Do you know where your food come from?” She was in the panel discussing about why Buddhists eat meat and why they shouldn’t. Now her question reminded me of some horrendous things I saw in slaughterhouses across the border – many years back. And really, back then it didn’t strike me anything. Maybe I was too naïve or too insensitive. But in recent years I have also heard more terrible stories of animal feeds being used in these farms. Now I am not saying that these are true stories. However, as the nutritionist said, do you really know what you are eating? Now, I wasn’t 100 percent sure about what the animal, I was eating, was fed with. Seriously. The food safety standard in our region is not that great.

Then there was also the fact that I was homing in to 50 and I felt that my body didn’t require meat anymore. I guess I have enough storage of essential vitamins like B12 that come from red meat. It does not leave our body like potassium or magnesium. We don’t run the risk of B12 deficiency easily. So I thought if I don’t need it why have some animals slaughtered, which brings me to the question of what Buddhism says about it.

70cc764795cd7e85874d38f606824211

From the few readings that I made, the confusion seems to have started off with the monks in Gautama Buddha’s sangha itself. They depended on the generosity of lay supporters as they went on their morning rounds for food alms. Obviously, they couldn’t dictate what people offered. In a predominantly Hindu India, people only refrained from eating beef but not other types of meat or fish. So the monks would face a simple choice – eat meat or starve. This dilemma became worse in the Tibetan highlands where no grass grows and where green vegetable is in short supply. Furthermore, Mahayana and Vajarayana Buddhism are less dogmatic than Theravada and leave this critical decision to personal choices that you can make based on your sampa (true intention). So if the intention is to survive, it is OK. But if the kill is for greed, anger or jealousy, it is not ok anymore.

Going back to Buddha, what do the scriptures say? A line from Dhammapada V 130 reads,

“All tremble at the rod. All hold their life dear. Drawing the parallel to yourself, Neither kill nor get others to kill.”

Since Buddhism encourages interpretations here are some. First, we should refrain from intentional acts of killing, but it not necessarily from the consumption of animals that are already dead. Secondly, we should not intentionally ask someone to kill for us as in, for example, make a bjob to kill a yak for us. But we cannot prevent anyone from killing either because that may be his or her traditional lifestyle or the main economic activity to feed the family or send children to school – or both. We need to be realistic too and not just religious or idealistic.

In conclusion, what should we do (as Buddhist, if I may say)? Well, just as people adopted to eating meat for practical reasons to stay alive, if one could that by staying away from meat, then just do it. And do some readings, talk to doctors, get your vitamin level tested. If you are not a toddler and you are in pretty good shape, chances are that you don’t require meat at all. And take small steps. I stopped eating pork and then after a month I stopped beef and few months later, chicken. Don’t be over ambitious.

By the way, I am the only one in my family who stopped eating meat. I still eat fish and eggs. As said, I have not been coerced by anyone to stop meat nor would I force anyone to do that either. The choice should be personal and should come from within – from our sampa. Only then it sustains.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

MeatIsMurderAnimals

My life in 50 pictures – Part I

50 years is a great target for my generation. When we were growing up in the 70s we were given the country’s fact-sheet where our life expectancy was a miserable 35 years. So I remember praying to Buddha for a life way past that age.

So my generation has already lived 15 years more than what we “expected”. I achieved that on February 14, 2017 – on the so-called Valentines Day. In addition to the milestone of outliving the official life expectancy, I present here, in a five-part series, my life’s ups and downs in 50 pictures.

Part I : Early years and schooling

1967. Tongling. Radhi (Trashigang)

1900761_10155100167155153_1074666432679121199_o

I was born in a hut above this village. My family was driven out from our ancestral home in Tongling. This place is called Drung Gonpa. Drung as in Drungpa (sub-district governor) and gonpa means temple. There is a temple there, which was founded by my maternal great-great-grandfather, the Tongling drungpa, in the early 20th century. People called it Drungpa Gonpa because it belonged to him. I grew up with my grandfather, Khandola, who was a hereditary lay-lama, my great-grandmother, whom we addressed as Ashi, my mother and my elder sister. My father was away in a distant place and I rarely saw him. I later learnt that he was drafted into the army following the border clashes between India and China of 1962. So my grandfather took charge of me and I grew up as a young novice – learning how to make ritual cakes – hoping to one day succeed him as a lama. I grew up drinking goat milk and walking with grandpa to the villages of Chaling, Radhi, Khardung, Tshenkar, Jonla where he was invited to conduct rituals and religious sermons. He rarely accepted the gaybcha (offering to monks for the service). I don’t remember his reasoning.

………………………………

1972. Phuntsholing. Earliest photographic record.

1930524_85421170152_1507_n

When I was 5, my grandfather passed away. So my hereditary duty to become a lama also died with him. My father, who was working in Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) as a driver, came to back to the village and took me to Phuntsholing.

There, he enrolled me in Phuntsholing Primary School in class Infant ‘C’. I aced the class that year. I and an Indian boy, whose father sold Murphy radios in Phuntsholing, were given double promotion. We were directly moved up to Infant ‘A’. In those days it was normal for good students to skip grades. The government was in a hurry to get students out of school and fill the newly established civil service. We were  basically fast forwarded to the job market. (How times have changed….)

……………………………………..

1974. Loyal Studio, Phuntsholing. (Photo. To my right is my father. To my left my uncle)

don-bosco-boys-ii-001Two years later I moved to Don Bosco Technical School in Kharbandi. My father rarely was home (he went on driving duty) and my mother had to be in Tongling to nurse my great-grandma. So I was packed off to a boarding school. I was only 7 and I remember Father Philip, the Selesian principal, refused to take me in. So my father, who had earlier worked as a royal chauffeur, got a kasho (royal edict) from HRH Ashi Dechen Wangmo Wangchuck (a real angel for many Bhutanese of my generation). The trip to Thimphu also coincided with the Coronation of the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. At the celebration ground in Changlingmithang, I received my largest sum of money until then, Nu. 5, which lasted for good 3 months. On my return journey from Thimphu all I can remember is taking a detour to Dawakha over a scary Baily bridge over Chuzom – and vomiting all the way to Phuntsholing in his white BGTS International truck that had the map of Australia on the door (I would later learn that those American International trucks were a gift under the Colombo Plan. They were such powerful beasts).

………………………….

1980. Kharbandi, Phuntsholing (Siting, L-R – Thinley Dorji (CEO of Dagachu/Kurichu Power, Ugyen, me (always smiling), Ugyen Tashi. Standing L-R: Late Kesang Ragu (engineer, BBS), Brother Joy, Tenzin, Sonam Phuntsho (engineer, Bhutan Telecom), Brother Areng)
don-bosco-boysiv-version-2

Don Bosco Technical School was renamed as Kharbandi Technical School. Go Go hairstyle was the fashion and Levis blue jeans was our dream but we were all barefoot (see picture). I was 13. I was a good student but I was naughty and I rarely studied. I would be all over the place. Still, I loved science, history and geography and was a champ in general knowledge (GK). On the vocational side, I did carpentry, welding, plumbing and was majoring as an electrical technician (I still do all the carpentry and electrical works at home). I loved sports too but was fat and unfit to be really good at anything. More than that it was perhaps because I had a hobby – almost an addiction – movies. Dharmendra and Clint Eastwood were my favorite stars. I never missed any movie in Norgay Cinema and so I found myself slipping out of the dorm regularly at night – braving darkness, snakes, scorpions and very vigilant dorm councillors. When I got caught I was reprimanded with toilet cleaning jobs and watering the trees (my early contribution to green Bhutan). I was also beaten very badly, at times. The Selesians were not angels. Corporal punishments were a norm. My father even encouraged them. (So much for all the controversies on the issues these days.)

………………………………

1982 – Bhutan Photo Studio, Phuntsholing. (Photo: Front row: L-R. Kencho Tseten (Executive Engineer, His Majesty’s Secretariat), Nagphey Dukpa (Executive Engineer, Thimphu Thromde), Chencho Tshering (Joint Managing Director, Mangdechu). Standing: L-R. Thinley Wangchuk (Principal, Institute of Zorig Chusum, Tashi Yangtse), Kado Rinzin (Businessman, Gelephu), Yours Truly (in white pants, white shirt inspired by Bollywood star, Jitendra ☺)

don-bosco-boysiv

Although the school and the government provided everything we needed in school, we were always broke with no pocket money to buy other stuff. I had one set of cloth that I could dress up to go to town. We went around in Bata slippers and played football barefoot – all the time. So my friends and I were so excited to receive our second pair of canvas shoe on the eve of the annual sports day that we decided to take a photo. By the way, taking photo in a studio was also very expensive. That year I was also about to finish my matriculation (that was a term for school leaving certificate exam), which was one of the highest qualifications someone received in those years. Can you imagine the excitement in my family? It was as if I was getting the Nobel Prize. When I matriculated few months later, my father also bought me something I was nagging for years – leather top boot and Levis jeans pant. He paid a hefty sum of Nu. 50 just for the shoe. His salary was Nu. 150. (Today I never refuse anything that he asks. He sacrificed a lot for us.)
……………………………….
1982 – Phuntsholing, Study tour to BGTS Workshop.
Don Bosco boysIV - Version 7
In December 1982 I completed my matriculation. But as we were about to set off for the 14-day study tour to India (those days we had such privileges too) a bolt from the blue struck me. My paternal uncle, who was an engineer and whose education my father sponsored, and who was planning to reciprocate by sending me for pre-university (PU) studies to Shillong, was killed in an accident. I saw my life and dreams blown away in an instant. We were planning that I studied medicines and become a doctor. And there was no way that my father with his salary of a truck driver could afford to send me to Shillong. We were not accepted in Sherubtse because our school followed the Megalaya Board of Exams. During the entire 14-day trip to India where we visited Calcutta, Jamshedpur and Ranchi I cried almost every night. It was double blow. I lost my dearest uncle and I also saw my dreams fade away. Not being able to do PU also meant that I would never go to a university. I felt lost – completely thrown off from my path. I was just 15. Yes, life dealt me with a devastating blow at a very young age.
…………………………….
12193667_550518945095422_2768784153254341958_n

Dewathang gate. Photo: Gupta Studio, SJ

1983. Dewathang, Samdrup Jongkhar
After our India trip, we went to Thimphu where we had to report to the Manpower Directorate (that had just been renamed as the Royal Civil Service Commission) to take up jobs in the government. I was barely 16 and I wanted to continue my studies. Since Sherubtse was not possible the next best option was to head for Dewathang to study at the Royal Bhutan Polytechnic and become an engineer.
Life will often present you with a wall. If you cannot climb over it, don’t keep banging your head. Take a detour.
But at the Directorate of Manpower, a long stand-off with the employment officer (very cruel guy) began. I persisted and endured one week of Thimphu’s cold and hunger till a divine hand intervened. I was allowed to go to Dewathang. After borrowing Nu. 50 from a cousin I headed to the East. From that on, I never looked back.

My thoughts during Gyalsay’s birthday

This is another day when we can come together as a nation. For, he is the Manifestation of our collective moelam.

~~~~~

My father was one of Bhutan’s first drivers. In fact he had the License No. 4. He was a royal chauffeur for few years before he was sent to the newly established Bhutan Government Transport Service (BGTS) in 1966. In the seventies I spent my childhood school holidays taking free rides with him.

autowp-ru_mercedesbenz_lkw_l3500_1-1

Since his black-coloured BGTS truck was one of the very few vehicles plying on the “highway” (sometimes the only vehicle on the road that day), my father would stop for everyone seeking a ride. After a while the truck would be brimming beyond its capacity that some passengers would protest, “There is no space, driver sahib. Don’t stop!” My father would pull his head out of the driver’s cabin and shout back, “Let them on board, as we move ahead you will all fit in.”

No one dare challenge him. BGTS drivers were very powerful guys those days. As the new entrants climbed on board and before they could settle in properly my father would mischievously zoom off. People would tumble on each other. There would be laughter. There would be laments. There were screams. Someone has his legs trapped while another has lost his slippers. There would also be some discussions over some extra spaces someone is occupying. Everyone would cooperate and slowly things would settle down. The journey would continue.

The rides were long and hazardous. The roads were narrow and slippery. Sometimes landslides and boulders would have blocked the way. Men would jump out and start clearing them with bare hands. While they worked, women would pull out the lunch packs and ara and zow. An ad hoc picnic would be spread on the road itself. Everyone shared or would be invited to eat and drink. The journey would resume. The progress was always slow. Night fell midway into the journey. It was scary. My father would be more focused. To his aid, someone would start chanting a prayer. Everyone would join in. We always got to the end of the journey. Safe and sound, as a cliché goes.

chukkha

Chukha valley. The view from the air gave me a nostalgic memory of the countless free rides with my father

On 5th February we celebrated the first anniversary of the birth of HRH Gyalsay. I did onboard Bhutan Airlines bound for Bangkok. There was the inflight announcement wishing him “Happy Birthday”. Cakes were served. But for me such days, and birthdays in general, are also a time for serious reflection.

Our country has embarked on a journey – the journey of democracy. Notwithstanding the challenges, the ride has been relatively smooth so far. Other countries have gone through much rougher times.

Still, living abroad these days (I am doing my doctoral studies), I do catch up with my friends when I am back to Thimphu. Between some bar talks here and some whispers there, I am often confronted with laments and lauds, hopes and fear, screams and applauses.

The first defamation suit against a journalist has been withdrawn. A puzzling sigh of relief can be felt in the industry. Its impact will be there for long – or forever. A feature film has been denied certification. Those affected are screaming against invasion into their creativity and against curtailment to the freedom of expression. Some people claim that their feet have been stamped while others feel that their legs are trapped. Reactions are, far too often, knee-jerk.

For me, we are all going through a process – and a steep learning curve. As the truck of our democracy safely negotiate the muddy bends and shake a bit, everyone will ultimately find a space. However, we should never stop dreaming or working towards a better future or system – or prevent or scorn at someone who is doing that. No system is perfect and no laws are cast on stones. We should accept that they are created by imperfect human beings. There will always be room for improvement.

The mass is getting more vocal. New technological platforms are providing unlimited access to information and news to everyone. The so-called digital divide is now a passé. Even my illiterate sister is heavily on WeChat. Information is not a monopoly of the few. New political parties are in the offing. The overall progress is slow – but we are progressing nevertheless. The old power centres, such as the bureaucracy, are figuring out where they stand in the new era. Others who are too old to climb on to the truck will be left behind.

Where we really need to stop is to claim that the grass is green only on the other side. We can take inspirations and best practices from others. I don’t argue with that. But scrolling through facebook pictures of our compatriots standing in front of high-rise buildings and exotic shopping malls in foreign lands, many of us seem to fantasize that everything is messy in Bhutan while it is perfect ‘out there’. We give up too easily. Or we resign to any issue with a popular phrase, pha lay pha (meaning ‘out there in a foreign land’). We say (and some even claim without having been anywhere) that pha lay pha ghi people are better and brighter; and that, out there, the system is just and perfect and that societies are fair and equal. Maybe, in terms of public infrastructure, things are more convenient in some developed countries. But as a saying goes, the world is a just place and life is not fair anywhere. Out there, there are more countries with bad services and systems than there are with good ones. There are challenges everywhere. But, most importantly, in terms of people and sense of humanity, I feel, it is still a blessing to be a Bhutanese. I say, “still”, because we are also changing.

bhutan-airlines-2

Thanks to HRH Gyalsay’s birthday we are served with cakes onboard. A day when Bhutanese people come together

Democracy comes with more freedom and choices but also with more challenges and responsibilities. It is slippery, at times. In the confusions and confrontations brought about by the changing times, what we, as Bhutanese from all walks of life, must always remember is that We. Are. In. This. Together.

We are in the same truck – part of the same process. There is no ‘us’ or ‘they’. And no one should feel indispensable, indestructible or immortal. Personal interests or egos should not override our sacred duties or official positions.

If there are boulders blocking our system, we remove them. If there are disagreements we discuss and solve them. If we have extra resources we share. If there are criticisms we accept. If people are screaming we listen. We should never forget that on either side of the so-called rules, policies, systems and fancy designations, we have real human beings with faces and families. That’s why GNH is a human-centric development and governance approach.

And whatever happens, remember we have the good fortune of our Golden Throne that has steered us safely along the bumpy and winding road from the not-so-easy historical past. It is an institution that continues to work selflessly for the people. Where in the world do people have such luxury?

Therefore, as we come together to celebrate the first birth anniversary of our Gyalsay, who is a manifestation of our collective moelam, we can make the occasion more meaningful by inner introspection rather than outer displays of posters and advertisements. We can remind ourselves of who we are as people, reflect on how we are doing as a nation and work together towards our common destination as a country. This way our Gyalsay, and our children, will inherit a stronger Bhutan.

This is more than a celebration. It is our sacred duty as citizens.

~~~

bhutan-baby

My belief in collective moelam grew after the birth of our Gyalsay

gyalsay2

Our Future.

~~~~~

(I have written an article, titled ‘2008 and Beyond’ in Bhutan Times in 2007, using the same metaphor)

Hema Hema – a Bhutanese Narrative

I am glad that Hema Hema – the latest film by Dzongsar Khyentse, is not banned or barred, as it was reported in the social media but that the film is under review. Having watched it several times, I would like to share my analysis of the film here. I may add that I am not associated with the production of the film in any way. My sole intent is to offer a deeper reading into the film as a communication scholar while also providing a holistic view of the key messages.

Hema Hema is a film that deals with our mundane struggle with something called identity. While identity is socially constructed and determines one’s place in a society, it is also because of that same identity that one feels constricted in life. The film, thus, is an antithesis: how about a two-week getaway where your identity is concealed and where you could exult in the freedom of being unknown.

hemahemasingmeasongwhileiwait_01

A man known as ‘Expressionless’ (Tshering Dorji) makes it to such an event – convened once every 12 years by a god-like patriarch called Agay (Thinley Dorji). Expressionless is last to arrive at the secret venue where he joins few hundreds of other participants. Except for Agay, everyone wears a mask to hide his or her identity. They are also strictly prohibited from revealing themselves or trying to find out the identity of others. Punishments are severe and even inhuman.

As the festival rolls on, primal instincts and desires take over. Expressionless falls for ‘Red Wrathful’ (Sadon Lhamo) and thereafter things get out of control. He is thrown back into the worst of human confusions: fear, which leads him to commit a murder.

Hema Hema offers complex and coded meanings and messages that it is hard to decipher them all. Nonetheless, one key message is the rendering of bardo – a state where one is completely stripped of any identity. If having an identity is suffocating, losing it, or not having one, could be scary.

The film is also loaded with metaphors – and follows the dictum: show but don’t tell. Technological invasions into our lives and degradation of traditions are subtly portrayed. The film, however, does not take the high moral ground. Rather there is a silent scream of questions. As Expressionless goes back to the festival for the second time – twenty-four years later, he is betrayed by his cellphone. At the festival the mild and meditative sound is replaced with pungent techno music. The boedra dances have made way for hip-hop moves. The convener of the festival is a young and anonymous leader who speaks from behind a red curtain. Agay is old and frail. These are strong metaphors for what is going on around us these days.

The film, as Dzongsar Khyentse told in an interview, was inspired by our behaviors in the social media where we get a false sense of anonymity – and freedom. However, one can never be free from one’s conscience, which is the Ultimate Jury. In the final moments, Expressionless removes his masks and explodes in remorse for the crime he had committed and the deep regrets that he has been living with ever since. The resolution is simply beautiful: one has the choice to hide behind a mask, provided by the online world or by the real life, but one cannot hide anything from one’s conscience. It will always follow you and bug you.

In terms of production, Hema Hema is a celebration of Bhutanese ingenuity. While the writer-director had prior experience, all other key personnel were Bhutanese youth who have not been part of major projects before. And yet, Jigme Tenzing’s cinematography is mind blowing. Having sat as jury in international film festivals I can say that it is world-class. The performances by the lead actors, Tshering Dorji and Sadon Lhamo, are as good as they can get. One can feel the emotions, fear, desire, lust and even sadness. This was not an easy task with their real faces wrapped behind passive masks.

Everything in Hema Hema – the festival, dances and rituals, is fictional. Hence, to bring the audience to the present-day reality, the film starts and ends in a nightclub in Thimphu where a cocktail waitress (played by Zhao Xun) contemplates on her life. Symbols and semiotics are maximized. Every object, character, costume, music or landscape is masterfully chosen to blend with the overall message.

khyentse

Hema Hema is by far the best from Khyentse Norbu’s repertoire. It is a courageous film. Critics have often cited The Cup as the best. I would disagree. The Cup was, no doubt, an honest piece but it was more a film and less an art. It had a straightforward storyline and a number of obvious subplots. Hema Hema, on the other hand, is more an art and less a film – in that different viewers can deduce different meanings, as they uncover layers upon layers that are intricately woven like eastern Bhutanese textile.

My own experience of reading the film (I have watched it over ten times, as I am writing an academic paper) is that Hema Hema almost hypnotizes you. It is hauntingly beautiful. There is no hero or villain. The journey is undertaken from, and into, within – and for and against oneself. It grabs your soul and shakes it – with heart screeching lines and poignant background score. You don’t watch Hema Hema, you become part of it. This is what distinguishes this film.

This work, therefore, is a major breakthrough in, what I would term as, Bhutanese Narrative, which could be Bhutan’s contribution to the world cinema. Western and Euro-centric storytelling based on Hero’s Journey has long dominated the cine screen that any new or original style has been seen as a welcome respite – even in Hollywood. This happened with the New Iranian Cinema and later with the likes of Wang Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou. With adequate support and more engagements with film scholars and with other Bhutanese filmmakers emerging and perfecting the new narrative style there is an opportunity for Bhutan to spearhead another cinematic revolution that the world is eagerly yearning for.

This blog entry is the same version that was published in Kuensel, December 31, 2016

 

UPDATE. January 15, 2017

BICMA denied the certification of the film based on “inappropriate” use of the religious mask. The full report on Kuensel.