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)


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.


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 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 ☺)


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.
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.

3 thoughts on “My life in 50 pictures – Part I

  1. Hello Ap Dorji! This is great stuff. If I may say so, not only are you showing – with trademark humour and compassion – the stages of growth as a sentient being, but also showing the (often dramatically) changing physical landscape and society. Look forward keenly to the further unfolding.


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