My (scholarly) life goes on

August 28, 2020, Thimphu

As the global pandemic keeps me happily locked back in my home country since the New Year holidays, my academic career has taken another leap forward. 

Happy to share with my friends here that a paper I co-authored has been accepted by the prestigious academic journal, Language & Communication, published by Elsevier. 

The paper looks at the chronotopic affordances of technology in a remote community in Lhuentse in Bhutan. This is my 7th peer-reviewed paper in international journals/conferences and 10th academic publication.

Special thanks to Kuenga Lhendup for opening up his village to me, and for making me a part of the community WeChat group, and for all the translation works from Kurtoepkha.

Thank you all for your wishes and blessings
(This is also the title of the paper)

Going spiritual


August 25, 2020.

Day 15 started with 108 prostrations to the Lama, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (chabdro as suggested by one of my lamas). 

Since Day #1 of the lockdown, inspired by Dzongsar Khyentse Rimpoche through his post, I have undertaken this lifelong dream (read as challenge) to do 108 prostrations daily. It is not easy, especially for me, with my chronic back pain. My poor back was also what kept me away from committing to this till now. 

So I started off slow – with 27+27+27+27 spread over the day. We are in lockdown anyway. Then after few days I increased to 36+36+36 and then to 54+54. Meaning I gradually increased the prostrations I could do at one go. I had to be strategic. 

Then I further increased to 72+36 from Day 10. And then finally to 108 – either in the morning or in the evening. I don’t know if it is me getting fitter or is it the blessings (jinlab) of the prostrations, but I feel I can fly now. 😎😎😎

This is my journey of this simple (superb in my case) accomplishment, and hopefully remains as a legacy, from this first lockdown of 2020. Maybe if it were not for this lockdown, I would have never made it. Some things come in life as a blessing

Turn on the engines 🚗 🚘 🚙

August 23, 2020

It is Day 13 of the lockdown in Bhutan and most cars have been idle all this while. It is good for environment but bad for battery and the engine. In other words, you need to start your engines and keep it ON for 15-30 minutes to keep the battery alive. Depending on the car and the battery, the life of a battery is anywhere between 14 – 30 days. The reason is that car stereos, clocks, central lockings and car alarms consume batteries. Faulty electrical wirings or minor current leakages are also common. So if you don’t want to find a dead battery, turn on the engine today or tomorrow – so that you recharge the battery and lubricate the engine. Another thing, don’t raise the engine.

For those who are quite hands-on, after turning off, open the hood cover and disconnect the negative terminal of the battery.

Cheers everyone. Stay inside

Have we failed?

August 19, 2020

One of my former students, who works in Immigration in Phuntsholing, and a front liner, dropped a tearful voice message the day before. He sounded devastated and resigned that the virus has entered Bhutan despite the best efforts. He said that he even risked his life on many occasions patrolling the jungles at night – forget about the heat, dust, hunger and other inconveniences. And now this!

As his former guru (actually a guru is always a guru), I am proud that he shouldered his duty with a great sense of responsibility – and is also ready to take the blame for the collective “failure”. Like him, I am sure there are thousands at the front line who are getting this uneasy feeling of having failed. So, let me share to them what I shared with him. Hopefully it makes you feel better. 

The short answer: You have not failed. No one has failed.

And for the long answer. Yes, the virus has entered the country. Meaning the much-dreaded local transmission has happened – putting everyone to a standstill. Yes, this is unfortunate because it puts a load on everything from governance to public health to education to economy to social relations. However, as much as we all did everything, we also knew all along that it was just a matter of “when” and never a question of “if”. While the mission was to keep out the virus, it was a mission impossible, from all angles.

I don’t know about others but I feel that your have not failed. We have not failed. Instead our leaders and our front liners have managed to keep out the virus (meaning local transmission) for a good seven months. This is a World record. And time, any epidemiologist will tell you, is the most precious commodity in a pandemic. Even the “greatest” nations on Earth have tried and they failed even before us. The US even blundered with the lead time it had, while we have made the best possible use. And for this, each and every person out there should be proud. Seven months! 

No country can prevent a global pandemic. But every country can prepare if we get time. In this seven month we got this precious time, where we managed to stock up our food, medicines, fuels and essential goods, which should now carry us through for some time. We also grew vegetable more than we ever did in recent memory. And thousands of Desuups were trained and are now providing a priceless service to the nation. Most importantly, our health system had time to prepare. Over a billion worth of medical supplies have come in. We also have one of the highest testing rates in the world. A sign of success and not a sign of failure. 

When this thing is all over, I can bet that the way our medical system dealt with this menace, the manner in which how our King and government placed greater priority on life rather than money, would become a text book manual for countries to deal with pandemics in future. In fact, today as we go through the lockdown, our tantrums are mainly directed at food supplies and logistics, which I am sure will improve. Although, to quote a line from the film, Seven Samurai: Why to worry about the bread, when your head is about to fall? Unquote. Still.

As we move into the second week of the lockdown, my one concern is that people living in crammed apartments (some with their pet dogs) may go into depression, domestic violence or painful divorces. I also hope that our people at the frontline don’t get burnt-out or lose their focus, energy or enthusiasm. Working in a high-stress environment over an extended period can take its toll. Those of us sitting in our cosy homes, and those who can, should do everything to support our front liners in every possible way. 

We may have lost the battle to keep the virus out, but we will win the war to eliminate it – or at least break the chain of infection. We will win because, first, genuine care, concerns and compassion have enveloped us all. People who have lost their jobs are getting a stipend. Families who can’t afford are given free vegetable. Voluntary donations and contributions to the State have hit historic record. Even stray dogs are fed and are not left behind. 

Second, there is rock-solid unity and teamwork like never before – in former ministers working as Desuup volunteers, in royal prince and princesses in Orange uniform helping to patrol the streets, in government secretaries and directors distributing the supplies; and above all, our Prime Minister who is ready to listen and adopt the traditional Bhutanese what-we-don’t-have-we-borrow and what-I-don’t-know-I-will-ask approach. Of course, not to mention our King who is the epitome of service before self – and care for all Sentient Beings. 

And third, we will win because we have social capital. Studies from other countries have suggested that in places where there is strong social capital, the country does well (Example – Italy, New Zealand and South Korea). Where there are divisions and individualism, there are deaths (Brazil, US). 

So, no! We have not failed. The fight is not over. And we are just warming up. 😎😎😎

My last text message to my student was: “You have done your best. Thank you. Now we are all front liners.” 

In this war there are no front liners or back-benchers.

We are poorer by a scholar

August 18, 2020

Drowned by the noise of the pandemic, impermanence has quietly taken away a gem of Bhutanese scholarship, Dasho Sangay Dorji, popularly known as Drungchen Sangay Dorji. 

While offering my condolence to his family, I take the honour to join many fellow scholars and students in paying a humble tribute to this humblest of men. I will spare all the accolades and his achievements. They are all in public domain. Let me just narrate my first of the few encounters, scholarly speaking, which I had with him.

I was researching on a particular aspect of Bhutanese culture and was hunting high and low for its roots in our spiritual traditions or religious texts. Being trained in western social science and engineering, these are not my playground. For weeks I was casting my net everywhere enquiring with just everyone I knew or was listed in in my phone contacts. And everyone told me, “May be you should approach Drungchen Sangay Dorji.” Finally, I managed to reach out to him and ask for help. 

As soon as I uttered my question, he instantly replied, ཀུན་བཟང་བླ་མའི་ཞལ་ལུང་, (Words of my Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rimpoche). He went on to tell me the page number where it appears and also gave me the full context and explanations. I was like, “Wow! No wonder many producers in BBS, where I previously worked, depended on him for any doubts or queries on Bhutanese history or religious studies.”

He was one scholar I truly admired. His book on Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was my field manual when I made the documentary on the same subject, in 2016. And in the few subsequent interactions I had, he was always gentle, kind, humble and restrained – a sign of true greatness. Never did he show off or imply his multiple State decorations nor his immense repertoire of knowledge.

Our country is poorer by a scholar from today. I guess, the divinities wanted him too, and not just us.

We are all front liners, now

August 17, 2020

Thought of keeping this low-key, but in view of the sad and worrying news coming out of Paro and Phuntsholing, I thought we needed a dose of optimism.

My wife, who runs Café Luna, has been baking free cakes and non-stop for the front-liners since the lockdown. Since our workers are not in, our two daughters are helping. We have reached out to our Desuungs posted in Taba-Dechencholing, Hospital, HMS, RIM, MyMart, FCB store and at the Memorial Chorten. We have also served the waste collectors of Greener Way, our Heath Ministry officials and doctors, our veterinary hospital staff, our two media houses – BBS and Kuensel, the Education Ministry officials and teachers, and, of course, our Prime Minister’s Office.

We did it as a small gesture of appreciation to the great service that they are rendering to our nation, and to say that we are all behind them – and together in this. We didn’t want to sit passively while our own fellows perspired, went hungry or risked their lives for us.

Besides the much-needed sugar boost, I hope all our front liners are fine and that their enthusiasm, strength and focus will outlast the pandemic.

As this situation prolongs, and gets more heated up now, our front liners may run out of steam and lose their morale or motivatation. They are humans like us, after all – and not robots. Therefore, those of us who are at home, forget about complaining, my hope is that you will do your bit to send your support and solidarity, to say the least – or help in whatever form you can.

With confirmed cases of local transmission for Covid19, the virus is at our doorstep, we are all front liners in this fight, now 🤺🤺

King for all sentient beings

I teared up seeing these pictures – especially the first meme. Not only because I love animals but because I truly believe in a shared, compassionate and a humane world. 

As each one of us fear or fight for our own survival, we often forget that there are also other sentient beings – some less able than us – some who are very helpless. It took our King to notice that and to remind us. Following this, Bhutanese all over, individuals and institutions, have sprung into action to feed the estimated 45,000 stray dogs in the country. With the current lockdown, the strays could be going hungry. I even fed a stray cat. 😎😎😎

The RSPCA, the NGO working on animal welfare, has started receiving lots of support. Please keep them coming. I know them well – in person. The money will go where it should. The Royal Bhutan Army and the Police have been mobilised too. 

A society is only as good as how it treats its weakest members. As Bhutanese, now we can all be proud, happy and reassured. Now, we can all “feel held” and feel supported.

May these acts of compassion help us win our fight against the coronavirus 🙏🙏🙏

And the lockdown happened

August 11, 2020, Thimphu.

So the inevitable has happened. Nobody wished this but deep down we all knew it was inevitable. 

We are now in a complete lockdown – nationwide. 

It is so quiet in Kawajangsa. Except for the laughter of my neighbor’s daughter, Thimphu is as silent as a cemetery. Even the wind has stopped blowing and the birds living on the trees of the Folk Heritage Museum have decided to quieten too. We are all holed up.

The million dollar question: What next?

The late American journalist-professor, Norman Cousins, once famously said, optimism doesn’t wait on facts. So while the government collects the facts, which will take some time, and since anxiety has gripped the nation, let me run through some optimism exercise. We start by asking a hard question: What was the worst case scenario? 

When the news of the lockdown appeared on my phone, my immediate thought was, “Hope it is not someone in Gelephu who contracted the virus from across the border and was wandering around unaware and has spread all over”. This would have been devastating. We would have what they call a Super-spreader. Instead what we have is a case of someone who was in quarantine and tested negative continuously, tested positive once and then tested negative and then released. And then tested positive again during a review check-up.

The next worst-case scenario is the possibility that she was reinfected – a pattern seen in many countries. Meaning she was infected outside the country, recovered on her own in Bhutan and reinfected after she left the quarantine. However, according to local medical practitioners I talked to, the reinfection theory can be ruled out too, if the studies from other countries are to go by. They pointed out that, awaiting test results of the contacts groups, this case could indicate towards dead viruses that are getting removed by the body, a process called virus-shedding, which sometimes shows up in subsequent tests.

Hence, it is not all gloom and doom. We could be potentially looking at case of dead viruses that showed up during the review test. In any case, we have someone whose medical records and whose travel history is known. I am not a health expert but I am optimistic that she (not she but the virus she was carrying) didn’t infect others. It is not case of a superspreader, for sure.

Coming to the woman, she has all my sympathy and compassion. It is not her fault. She didn’t jump the quarantine. And she visited the flu clinic as told. Maybe she could have been more serious with DrukTrace but this is another issue altogether. (Neither the developers of the DrukTrace nor the users have been serious about it.) Where we need to draw our attention to is not lose our sense of humanity – even when we are going through the a crisis.

Most importantly, as we wait for the health workers to do their job, let’s not lose our optimism. Let’s remind ourselves and feel (really feel) the hard works of our King and our leaders and the blessings of our divinities to keep us safe. Let’s not take these for granted. And whatever happens, we know we were in the safest of hands. 

Maybe I am wrong but it doesn’t help to panic or be pessimistic. Or maybe, on the flipside, we really needed this lockdown to get a valuable lesson – or to avoid something worse. We never know

Balancing the growth

I don’t know the context, or as they say the wisdom, on the decision by Bumthang Dzongkhag Yargye Tshogde to suspend the issue of permits to set up businesses in the district. But some wishful thinking occured on my mind as this news flashed on my timeline. 

A totally another idea.

Of late, I have been thinking why Dzongkhags and Gewogs in Bhutan do not do anything to attract good people and investments into their area so that wealth and jobs are created, more taxes raised and there is some form of balanced growth in the country. Instead, if we go by some recent posts from the districts, there seem to be additional walls built by dzongkhags, gewogs, and parks with the so-called ‘clearances’ for businesses in their areas. 

Elsewhere, even in India, states roll out red carpets to the likes of Tata, Gates or Bezos to build factories in their states. Indian PM Modi, when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, once received USD 200B of foreign direct investments.

Back home, we have often lamented that everything is happening in Thimphu. Everyone in investing in Thimphu. Or that most chhilip tourists visit only Paro and Thimphu. I am sure that if local governments roll up their sleeves in this direction, such capital-centric trends can be reversed. Maybe some could even lobby for tax and other in-kind incentives to attract investments.

Maybe the promotions or reelections of the local government leaders should be tied to taxes paid by their people within their territory.

Excuse this wishful thinking