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Poo-foria: Life’s secret sauce

poop“When you get to my age you’ll realise that the most important thing in life is not money, fame or power. It is having good bowel movement.”

When a friend’s grandfather made that comment more than a decade ago, I knew I was in the presence of a seer. This man had emerged wiser through life and its struggles, with the ability to understand the root of our miseries (not shit, or the lack thereof). He was speaking not only about what a healthy body can do to our joie de vivre. He was speaking also, if you can see beyond the crap, about perspective.

What his comment really seemed to say was, life is simple girl. It appears deceptively like the toughest episode on Crystal Maze (remember that?). Instead it is as straight laced as Peter Capaldi’s abuse-spewing tongue in Thick of it. The machinations at play are only those we invent, to help make sense of all the mess. Instead, what we should be doing is eating our greens (and whole grains), having protected sex and making enough money to buy a traveling trailer.

Wait, wasn’t that what the hippies said (with some drug cocktails thrown in)?

Well, they were onto something.

An entrepreneur, who set up a successful media company more than a decade ago, mentioned encountering some young working professionals (the millennials if you will) who said a job is what they do to ‘pass time’. For someone who has built a business from scratch that is a dreadful statement to encounter. This passing time is likely to catch the young lot unawares when they turn 30 and have the universal what-am-I-doing-with-my-life crisis. For hamsters so caught up in running the wheel, it is often difficult to recognise that they’re not getting anywhere.

Instead blessed are those that have found their passion when young and understood that life is not the road to anything. It is rather the bittersweet ride where best laid plans can come to naught and victories often fly by quicker than bumps. The laughter is not in some grand culmination of events but in the smiles at silly turns.

This Poo-foria philosophy, as I have deemed fit to term it, is the recognition that beyond all our disparate dreams for love, work, family and the world, true joy lies in the simple life – in a warm embrace, a shared meal, in combining forces for good, in a stranger’s (non-creepy) smile and with regularity, in the unhindered (and mindful) release of bodily waste.

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Tuning in to you

'The problem is I can't tell the difference between a deeply wise, intuitive nudge from the Universe and one of my own bone-headed ideas!'Sherlock would tell you that trusting your instincts is an elementary skill. I will tell you that he is right. How do I know (other than usually siding with wizards from London)? Because in the brief history of being me, there have been countless instances where impending dazzle or doom was predicted by that indescribable feeling near-about my gut (it is where information travels to after your brain has given up trying to make you listen). I have hence begun to trust and follow this clairvoyant traveler. But it isn’t always an easy trail.

For one, she (a politically correct instinct) can be awfully vague, especially if you don’t trust her. Last June, heading to the airport for a short trip prior to an eventual cross-country move, I experienced palpitations of the nature reserved for football managers staring at a scorecard zero at half time. The fluttering presented numerous grisly possibilities –  passports left at home (checked), visas not appropriate (checked & yet, God have mercy), cocaine inserted in our luggage by an insidious man stepping off from a formulaic film reel (may his airport coffee be poisoned by piss, more than it is for everyone). Failing to find any reason for fear, I entered the departure area after pulling out two heavy suitcases and loading them on the trolley. The instinct, much to her chagrin, had been shoved aside. Following the customary check-in line crawl, it was only when our turn came at the counter that she (that smug villain inside my head) had a hearty laugh. One of the suitcases, instead of being full of necessary items for our new home in the desert city, was instead a suitcase packed to the hilt with winter clothes. It had fortuitously been set in the same room as the traveling suitcases before it was meant to sleep in the store room until further weather notice. In all the rush and frenzied flutter, I had not bothered to glance at the suitcases being loaded onto the car. During the journey to the airport when we could have turned around, lady instinct had failed to point me in the direction of the suitcases, as she is often want to do, telling me simply that something was wrong or about to be, but wanting me to trust and follow her to the answer. (In case you’re wondering about my sweaty life in a sweater, you can exhale easy knowing that it all turned out okay thanks to crazy co-ordination and possibly reckless driving that brought us the right suitcase in time). Phew!

In addition to being imprecise, the first instinct also has a taste for the macabre. While she might go into an overdrive when you tap in to check if that boy giving you the eyes is any good, she can also (and has done for me on more than one occasion) drop hints on accidents waiting to happen or already occurring. These are the kind we most like to ignore, for their violent content, overriding them with admonitions on feeling ‘so negative’. Of course she will once again not tell you enough to necessarily save you from it, but will have the last word with an “I told you so.”

However, there is one consistent element to her behavior – she sends the right signals when you’ve cleared the snow from the driveway., i.e., when you have miraculously (or Buddhistically, yes, that’s a word starting now & I call trademark on it) built connections with your inner whatever-you-want-to-call-it (mine is Mary Anne, because frankly, I don’t know her yet). In reality, she is always standing outside the house, waiting to be called in for some tea (which apparently lays open the doors to intuition through the pineal gland or what Descartes considered to be ‘the seat of the soul’).

Trouble with all of this is the same as with everything else in life – it is at the end all up to you, putting everyone, rather unfortunately for you, outside the circle of blame (you can invite people over to the circle of influence though). Once we understand the relevance of cultivating intuitiveness, it can be quite akin to gardening, with all the time required to tend to it, time spent away from a gardening app on your smartphone. This is among the greatest services we can do for ourselves, quieting down enough every day to listen to our voice (not voices – that should be reserved for the therapist sessions). Every so often it will then show up interesting bits that make us who we are and answer some, if not all, of life’s questions that come with multiple choice conundrums – Yes, No, Who’s to Say?

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There is no pill for this annoying thing

There is an ad on radio where a woman is asking another how she ‘gets so much done’ in just 24 hours. The super mommy who wakes early, makes food, presentations and evening park visits, credits it all to a pill (not THE PILL meant to keep aforementioned tiny park visit companions at bay).

Since she’s on radio it’s no secret that she’s lying, about three things mainly. First, no pill (or coffee) can make you fill your day with perfectly timed tasks done easy. Second, there is no such thing as perfectly timed tasks. Third, it is never easy.

All that the average lot of us manage to achieve on most days is avoiding a car crash while looking like a car crash. But there are some ‘highly efficient’ individuals, who spoil it for everyone really, because they have one (awfully boring) habit that unfortunately seems to work. It is called (don’t hold your breath) a To-Do list, named so that when it’s over you can end the day with the Ta-Da jig. In recent months I have had the undesirable pleasure of putting it to practice. Now I’m one of those people who either will not enter the rink at all or will go all Karate Kid on it (with many a bludgeoned face to show for it). So in my third decade on earth when I finally seemed to have a handle on what I wanted to do in life (write for peanuts & vino), I decided to begin ‘managing’ my time down to the minute.

Caution: it does not look pretty. It’s more kangaroo on acid on a trampoline (because she forgets she doesn’t need a trampoline). Here’s what the homo sapiens version looks like – you open a shared excel sheet (because it’s easy, accessible on multiple devices anywhere, does not waste paper), list down every darn thing that you need to do every day, decorate it with deadlines (I would curve the life out of them if they weren’t dead already), say ‘done’ on the side when you’ve got it over with and just to make it a party out there (if you’re the kangaroo like me) plugin the start and end time on the dreary bits so you’re racing to get out of there quick.

No one is going to put me on the radio to sell this pill but honey it works for this mama (so far) and it could work for you too. You don’t have to complicate your life exactly as much as I have with this attempt at becoming the boss of me. To your aid have come the good folks who make apps to glue us to our phones even more than we already are. They’ve created a few apps for the list lusters, so why not have a go at Carrot (lists turned into games) or Wunderlist (it’s pretty and allows you to share things like grocery lists with your partner, because c’mon, supermarket scuffles ARE the sex in cohabitation).

What lists allow us to do is break down tasks into surmountable bits that aren’t half as scary when they’re written down and ticked off one by one instead of floating incessantly in our minds. It allows us to do what writer Anne Lamott mentions in her brilliant book ‘Bird by Bird’, “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

The biggest upside of the piecemeal approach to a day (other than the high of writing ‘done’ beside all tasks) is the patterns that appear over time, showing how you may be spending the majority of it in things that add little or nothing to your life (yes Facebook, I’m talking about you). More significantly, tracking your day can be the acknowledgement of one of life’s greatest truths – the only egalitarian treasure all humankind is born with and one we can enjoy until the end, is time (that is, when we can learn to hold down this Road Runner). Beep Beep.

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Dear TV, I’m just not that into you (and I’m not sorry)

I don’t own a TV. Well, there is a flat screen television that came with our apartment but we have never bothered to switch it on. Along its edges hangs bunting with our little girl’s name on it, something children were being encouraged to make at one of her classmate’s birthday parties. This was before we moved, when Delhi wasn’t sure if it wanted to rain on a Toy Story themed party in a school-that-rents-out-space-for-birthdays. That was in August, barely weeks before the flight to a new life, or at least that’s what the postcard in my head said.

In 2011, while our girl was growing from the pea sized spec on the monitor in the ultra sound clinic to the thing with hands and feet I went everywhere with, I was glued to what had become urban India’s prime time fetish – Masterchef Australia. I don’t know what everyone else’s excuse was, but I was then a bloated vegetarian cow who wanted to eat a horse and the frenzy of the competitive kitchen coupled with all the food flying around was enough to satisfy all visual cravings. When the calf arrived and began moving her head around, I banned television in the house. People had to choose what they wanted more, baby gurgles or insipid television laughter, which was the enemy of my child’s brain and eyes according to an article that suggested no screen time of any sort (phone, television, tablets), till two years. I had liked television, sure, but I liked sleep more and after heading back to work in six months, anytime I had left was happily spent away from the box. This meant of course that I didn’t know Mad Men from The Good Wife and was none the worse for it. I caught up with and completed the former in entirety last December, in two weeks really. It brought back memories of student life – late night binge watching and days filled with remorse over approaching deadlines. Then I sulked for two days because it was all over. There was nothing to treat myself with when I’d been a good girl at work and all else.

I have little memory of television growing up. I know we had one, because there is a picture of me dancing in front of it with the late Shammi Kapoor’s face plastered on the screen. I’m wearing ghungroos, highly inappropriate for the sort of music I guess must have been playing. Then came boarding school for four years where I kept busy reading library books inside texts during study hours and spent the remainder bouncing ‘crazy’ balls off the boundary wall and into a stream that purportedly led to the lake below. My real television moment, that I have a recollection of, was as a teenager when we had moved to Delhi. It was with Blossom, the quirky teenager growing up in a house full of men – her divorced father and two older brothers. I couldn’t exactly relate to her but she made me smile, sometimes laugh, and that has been my checklist for a lot of programs and films thereon. Then came Friends, again not in tandem with how it was playing on Indian screens. I watched it much later in entirety with borrowed DVDs, followed by others like Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy, and more recently True Detective (Season 1 only please) and Narcos.

As fate would have it, my first job right out of college was in television production. Any starry-eyed ideas I may have held about the screen, which I didn’t to begin with, were lost in that time seeing the clockwork up close. It was days of hard labor, little rest and lots of sparks, the sort of thing that will outlive any human being’s enthusiasm for an adrenaline rush. I appreciated people who could make their lives in the field, but knew that it wasn’t for me, just as the act of putting my feet up and watching the telly for hours wasn’t for me when I had my mojo on. That perhaps made it easier to let it fade into the background, even more so with things like You Tube and now oh-how-I-love-you Netflix, which I would like to believe was built for mothers with little time and even less patience. Get-to-the-point is all that we wish for and get.

My parents speak of the early days when only one person in the neighborhood would have a television, and everyone would gather around to watch news or cricket or a sitcom. When cable television hit our shores it was often banned for children stuck with dreaded board exams in Grade 10 and 12. Looking back it feels like much ado about nothing. All the advertisements and shows with stories that didn’t go anywhere were better missed. But there were some gems, like detective Vyomkesh Bakshi, which thanks to You Tube we can enjoy today too. While stories still rule and make even people like me turn into nefarious gluttons once in a while, the television set itself is now discarded furniture. It’s there because no one will take it and because we think someday we might use it, which is never going to happen because we’ve lost that loving feelin’ and it’s not coming back.

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Lessons on Freelancing: What I learned in the first 6 months

I had dreamed about this day, not today in particular, but one day, a day, in which I would be sitting at a desk in an empty house, writing for hours. It would also involve getting up to do a little jig when the words came out all perfect, as well as moments of dread, sweaty palms and a racing heart for all the wrong reasons. In the last six months, I have seen these and more. As friends (and family) continued to jump off the corporate hamster wheel over the years, I yearned to have the guts to become my own boss. But I liked the cushion of an assured monthly paycheck, the imposed timetable of the day that involved waking up every morning no matter what, knowing well enough that left to myself I would lack the discipline to see a lone venture through.

I was wrong, as we often are, mostly about ourselves. The only thing stopping me from using all the skills I had practiced for building other people’s dreams, could just as well be used to build mine. It has now been six months since I began calling myself boss and learned to measure life’s worth in minutes. Money follows, even if it doesn’t flow, in the beginning. I learned a lot of things, about work, time and myself that I will share in the hope that it might answer questions for someone sitting on the fence. This is not all you need to read to get there, but it is one of the many conversations we will have across the table as we discuss life and all else.

Timing is Everything

Timing is everythingI became a freelance writer after eight years of working full-time in different roles. I sometimes feel I should have begun right out of grad school. I certainly could have. In terms of timing I probably got it wrong, with a move to a different country, a four year old kid and increased expenses at the time of taking the plunge. But what all this time spent elsewhere meant is that I had some savings to fall back on till things took off, plus experience from different industries, which I’m now able to write about. If you had to pick a time, it should ideally be one without liabilities (like when you can bunk with parents), therefore younger is possibly better. Or else, do it after you’ve amassed enough savings to allow for few months of slow pickings before regular income starts flowing in. Timing could save you from quitting a freelance tryout too soon just because you weren’t well prepared. It also helps to gain an understanding of what it will take before you actually give up a full time role. Moonlight on the side while working full time if you can so you can judge if you’re any good and can make a living out of a skill if you could do it all day.

Spreadsheets are Now Your Best Friends

SpreadsheetsIt doesn’t matter if you never worked on or liked spreadsheets (even going so far as to take a dig at friends who spent their work life staring at them). As a freelancer they are your new best friends. Understanding your target market (for instance list of publications in case of writers), monthly account statement, daily tasks, all appear manageable when they’re in neat boxes. Build them early to save yourself from headaches and hypertension later.

Yes You Have to Play all the Roles

all roles

The hardest part about working for yourself (other than getting out of bed) is that you cannot simply execute tasks and move on. You have to constantly be awake to ideas, stories, new business opportunities. You have to build a database of people you can potentially work for, update it regularly. You have to manage finances, market your skills, be each department in a business, at least in the beginning. Read and research as much as you can about entrepreneurship in your sector, from websites that give advice, best practices, etc. Building a pipeline of work is the only way to stabilize your income so keep researching, pitching, breaking your head over the next big idea.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

don't sell yourself short

How does one even begin to set a rate to freelance work? While it would differ from one craft to another, there are certain rules. For instance, in writing it tends to be payment per word for journalism, project-based rates for other forms of content. Unless you’ve researched the market you will not know what you’re worth and how much you should charge. So when you’re building the market spreadsheet, get a sense of payment terms for each potential client. These are rarely heard from the horse’s mouth so check other freelance websites to see if they mention rates. You had heard time was money, and as a freelancer it is a daily lived truth. So no point wasting your precious time on going after low paying gigs that don’t even look good on your profile. Desperation will not get you far. Hence the thing about getting your timing right. If you begin by aiming low “just for now” that cycle will never end. So take time to take the plunge if you have to, but once you’re in measure your skills and aim high.

Build a Portfolio Website

Build a Portfolio Website

There has to be one place for all potential clients to see what you’re about – your past experience, skills, testimonials from previous work, et al. The earlier you build this the better. While it becomes your online resume, it even helps you keep track of things once work starts flowing in and you have to selectively present some projects for a new pitch. Plus it looks more professional than a dangling one page paper. A simple site (on wordpress for instance) takes less than four hours to put together. Then plug this in all social media links, email signature, etc. Unashamedly send it to family and friends too. They’ll know what you’re up to plus a future project could come from anywhere.

Grow a Thick Skin

Thick skin

This one is the most vital survival instincts for a freelancer. Your pitches will get rejected. Some potential clients will be great people who give you constructive feedback on why something doesn’t work. Others will be mean. Most will not reply. Sometimes it makes you want to cry or kill them, but it’s not worth it. What is worth your time is understanding how you could have presented the same idea differently or going back to the drawing board to see what really works for them. Patience and perseverance will see some of the above rejections turning to a resounding yes in due course. That thick skin you’re growing is also reserved for all the people who feel sorry for you (and many will). They will not get that you’re freelancing because that is what you want to do. To them you’re simple waiting it out till a good (full-time) opportunity comes your way. It is how you’re “keeping busy” for the time being. Again, explanations don’t matter. Why sell the prospect of being able to manage time as per your will, the joy of working on an eclectic mix of projects one never can in a full-time job, or simply being able to get to work within 2 minutes of brushing your teeth. They won’t get it and you needn’t sell it. As long as you know why you’re doing it, it’s all good.

It’s work so it’s not free

no free lunch

The most important question every freelancer battles – Should I work for free? The default answer to this should ideally be NEVER. Yes, writing (or photography/design) can be esoteric pursuits but this is not that. When you’ve decided you must earn a living through the pursuit of what is essentially your hobby and passion, then the realistic answer is, offer that service for free ONLY in two cases: 1) While you’re still working full-time and the pro-bono project gets you new experience on your profile. 2) Or you’re so passionate about the project that you want to make the time to do it even for free, but not at the cost of other assignments. Once you’ve begun your freelance career, politely decline ‘free’ contributions. It’s unprofessional to do a shoddy job on any assignment and since all of them (even free ones) will take up time to turn out good, it’s better to spend it in something that is or could become monetarily productive. The lure of free work is huge when no paid assignments are coming your way, but if you have a certain amount of experience in the chosen field, save your time for researching and working on something that will help you build a viable career. Many magazines and websites are built around unpaid contributions, offering ‘visibility’ in return. These are okay if your day job pays the bills and you write for a lark. But if you’re looking to make money as a writer, you can’t offer free anything. And usually, the ones that are worth their visibility also pay contributors.

Being Master is Good and Tough

master

As a freelancer no one will tell you what time you should be at your desk, or how long lunch break can be. You will not be stuck in traffic everyday. You will begin to appreciate the hours in a day because how productive you make them will depend only on you. Because your efforts are not tied to other people (who love long meetings that get little done, or do not understand the concept of brevity), you will suddenly free up more time in the day than you ever thought possible. That, in essence, is what will determine your success or failure, as it does of most people, though they do not often realize it. Character, they say, is what a person does when no one is watching. As a freelancer, while the final product is up for review, the process is in your hands. No one is checking in to see how or what you’re doing. It can be both liberating and scary at the same time. Some days you can sleep in till late but it can’t go on forever and you will begin to slowly love the part of you that sticks to the schedule you made. What makes it good is that it is all coming together for you and what you want to do with your life.

It isn’t perfect so look before you leap

perfect

You will still be slaving at a desk, spending some sleepless nights and hounding people for payment. This life is far from perfect. It isn’t freedom from horrible bosses or nirvana. It is simply a different way of shaping your life. So how bad you want it is a test you should take early on. There will be very good days, when your work gets appreciated, accepted by a prestigious client or a project comes to you on it’s own. There will be normal days when you chug along, doing your bit. There will be bad days, when weeks go by before money comes in. The joy in all of it is still knowing that it’s in your control, for the most part. If you choose the right people to work with, build relationships that last (and give you continuous work), then the pains are minimized. Taking the time to understand what you’re getting into is half the battle won. Like everything else in life, being a freelancer doesn’t come easy and is actually tougher than being answerable to other people. You are your boss, critic and judge.

Be open and flexible about the future

Be Open and Flexible about the future

Planning is important but even as a business manager you can go wrong deciding for a time too far ahead. Should freelancers continue looking for full-time work? I have found that if you keep thinking you can go back to a full-time job anytime then you’re not pushing hard enough to make freelancing work for you. So stop actively searching for a job and give yourself time to build something of your own. Set a date to evaluate yourself. It could be six months to a year or more. Your circumstances in life could determine it. But in that time really, truly, push hard and do your best (no one else but you will know if you did). Then if something full-time comes along, you will not settle out of desperation. You will know what your skills are worth, what drives you and whether the new role is challenging (and engaging) enough for you. This exercise would have taught you more about yourself than a retreat in the mountains will, though do head out for those once in a while.

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The Reading Room of Satabdi Mishra (Co-Owner, Walking BookFairs), Bhubaneswar, India

This is a special picture from a trip Satabdi and her team made to Mayurbhanj district in Odisha where they started the first Walking BookFairs Library in Bisoi Government School for children who were working as child labourers. These 116 children have been rescued and rehabilitated by the district administration. They now go to school and all of them love stories. Walking BookFairs helped start a small library for them with a box full of story books and picture books (some of them cannot read yet).

Satabdi Mishra is a mother of a four and half year old. She co-owns and runs independent book shack Walking BookFairs in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, which mainly involves driving a van-full of books – the Walking BookFairs traveling bookshop – through villages and small towns of Odisha. She wants to spread the joy of reading all around and strongly believes that books are for everyone, including the poorest farmer in the remotest village.
This bibliophile loves good books, good cinema and good tea.

I invited myself into her Reading Room to hear all about the pages she loves, abhors, goes back to over and over again.

You’re currently reading

An Evening in Calcutta – Stories by KA Abbas (Harper Collins India)

Baluta by Daya Pawar, translated by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger Books)

Last book you bought

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

I have to confess that it’s been some time since I have bought a book, one of the perks of running a bookshop!

A Book you left unfinished (why, when)

Oh! I do that a lot. Only to re-visit them later.

A Book you’ve wanted to read for years, but haven’t yet

The Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali.

Three books everyone should read

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

The Outsider by Albert Camus.

1984 by George Orwell.

We live in strange times. Anybody who has access to books, should absolutely read these three books!

An author you wouldn’t be caught dead reading

I am someone who would read anything in print. But even with all my love for adventures I am yet to read Chetan Bhagat.

A Book that sums up childhood reading years

Oh! Those glorious years! Alistair McLean, O.Henry, PG Wodehouse and some Sidney Sheldon too!

Book(s) you’ve read more than once & would love to read again

‘100 years of Solitude’ is a book I keep reading again and again.

‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago.

‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ by Pablo Neruda.

Favorite author(s)

Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Manto, Nagarjun, Pablo Neruda, Haruki Murakami

A fictional character from a book that you most identify with and why

One of the most brilliant characters in a book is Meursault from The Outsider.

When Meursault finally realizes that people’s lives have no grand meaning or importance, and that their actions, their comings and goings, have no effect on the world. This realization is the culmination of all the events of the novel.

The most prized book in your library

A copy of ‘Siddhartha’ from a very special person in my life. This book and the person who gifted me this book have been my anchor.

Your favorite reading spot

The garden at Walking BookFairs. I spend most of my days reading by the lily pond with butterflies, spiders, squirrels and sparrows for company. But I will read anywhere.

If you’d like to participate in this or other Q&A series, holler on Twitter or leave a message below and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!

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Of Childhood Dreams and Book Lovin’ in Bhutan

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express

The slanting rays of the sun peer through the matchbox-stacked buildings that converge onto the square. Traffic slows down at a signal, not from bright changing lights but from dance-like movements of white-gloved hands of the traffic policeman at the junction.

Thimpu is an unabashedly quiet capital city, happily distanced from the only airport serving the country at Paro, 50 km to the west. Among a populace of less than one lakh, there are many who leave for neighbouring nations like India, usually for education and better employment. But some return to their pristine homeland, like Kunzang Choki (or ‘Mui’ to loved ones), who finished school at Darjeeling followed by university at Pune in India. All this time Choki nursed a childhood dream of opening a bookstore, and it was only when she was faced with the unavailability of titles she wanted to read that she decided to open one in Thimpu.

Nestled along a winding road close to the traffic junction on Hogdzin Lam leading to the Clocktower Square, Junction Bookstore is a quaint gem drawing locals and tourists. All visitors are greeted by Toto, a black mountain dog adopted by Choki when the shop opened in 2010. At different times of the day, he may or may not be accompanied by Suzy, the other adopted pet of the bookstore family or any of the seven strays who eat their meals with them every day.

Inside, rows of children’s stories, classics, autobiographies and a special section on writings from and about Bhutan line the shelves. The store owner’s namesake Kunzang Choden’s Folktales of Bhutan is a popular fictionalised insight into the country’s culture. The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho has also been well received by local readers. At the counter, there are glass jars filled with soil friends and customers have brought back from faraway lands. Visitors are encouraged to pick up a book and read, with tea or coffee. There is a tip box to donate for the beverages; this helps buy food supplies for the dogs or refuel the beverage stock.

A Reading Group of six to seven members meets on Thursdays to debate books. Another group, a short story club—or the Junior Bookclub—meets every Sunday to read stories. The bookstore hosted an exhibition last year titled ‘Deliberately Framed: Scenes from a Poetic Stew’ where Choki and her videographer friend Solly collected poems from 16 poets and presented them (unnamed) to photographers who were give three weeks to take a picture best representing their understanding of the chosen poem. The photographers and poets met and saw the outcome only on the day of the exhibition.

“How do you survive, in a country of illiterates?” Choki was once asked by a customer.

The National Library of Bhutan, a few kilometres from the store, was built in 1967 to help preserve religious books and manuscripts. This imposing traditional structure resembles a central temple tower of a Dzong and houses archives and images of revered figures, thus becoming a place of worship, often circumambulated by devotees.

Bhutan is commemorating the 60th birth anniversary of their fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, this year by hosting several events, including observance of 2015 as National Reading Year. While efforts to establish e-libraries across the country are underway, some existing brick and mortar stores, like Junction, have recently made a plea to Prime Minister Tsehring Tobgay to allow importing books from India without 20 per cent custom duty.

Owning and running a bookstore in Bhutan is a labour of love more than a capitalist enterprise, given the modest market size. People prefer to self-publish, which helps maintain a certain natural flavour but also loses the sharpness of editing. In this milieu, love for the written word led a passionate poet and bibliophile like Choki to turn a childhood dream into a reality. Even as her country balances local traditions with restricted tourism and taxed imports, the joys derived from turning the pages of a tome continue to light up the faces of those who step in to her book-laden world.

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Framed by Wanderlust with Neeraj Narayanan (Founder, This Guy’s On His Own Trip), Delhi, India

Neeraj Narayanan aka Captain Nero quit his job in 2013 to chase his dreams of living a life full of adventures. Since then he has been to 25 countries, run with the bulls in Spain, deep sea soloed in the South China sea, lived with gypsies in a cave, climbed an active volcano and been chased by a bear in Croatia. In Delhi, he spends most of his time sleeping or taking people on heritage walks. Join this guy on a trip, sometime. Until then, read about them here and see what secrets he’s sharing with me today.

Last place you visited
In the last seventy five days, I have been on the road for 67 days. Since June, I spent 50 odd days travelling through Turkey, Greece and then the heart of the Balkans ­ Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, Serbia and Romania. Then after coming back to India and spending a week at home, I spent the next sixteen days in the mountains of Kashmir and Ladakh. I might be needing a holiday from a holiday now!

Three places on your travel wish list
South America, New Zealand and Antarctica. That is a lot of Tropic of Capricorn!

An unforgettable experience from a journey
Being lost in a forest in Thailand for three days and spending those days with five wild elephants. Initially, it started with me gingerly walking upto them and hoping they would not crush me. By the end of three days, I had learnt to mount them, climb up the trunk and sit on top, and bathe and feed them. One of the most beautiful experiences of my life.

Five things you always carry on holiday
I would love to believe I do not need many necessary things on a holiday. I want to stop carrying any phone soon enough. A camera and a set of clothes seem to be the only important things, besides a positive and open attitude and a desire to keep being overwhelmed.

Would you rather head to the beach, the mountains or city streets
I have always been a nature lover, so the first two attract me more. I do love smaller cities and towns too, though.

A place you’d like to visit again and again
Kotor (in Montenegro) looks like a picture postcard, arguably one of the prettiest places I have seen. But Bhutan is very close to my heart. I have lead four group trips there and they have all been very special.

A place you wish you hadn’t visited
That hasn’t happened to me yet. I want to go everywhere, and I think I will love them all.

A person (real/fictional) you’d like to go on holiday with, and where
Bear Grylls would always be a first choice. I love and look up to seemingly reckless adventurers, guys who are fearless and love nature and the outdoors. I would love to go on a trip with men like Bear or Will Gadd or Alex Hannold, to anywhere ­ a mountain, an uninhabited island, a treacherous landscape, an intimidating jungle ­ and live with them, and learn survival skills from them. That would be fantastic.

Your holidays are incomplete without
They are incomplete without me changing at least one plan last minute, incomplete without me having lived with at least one stranger, incomplete without me trying out at least one risky sport or adventure activity.

A stranger you met during a journey who you’re still in touch with
Well, I take people on group trips for a living. I am in touch with quite a few of them. From my solo trips, there are a couple of boys from America I met on an island in the South China Sea with whom I still talk online. And a couple of Spanish girls I met two years back.

If you’d like to participate in this or other Q&A series, holler on Twitter or leave a message below and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!