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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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One Love, Two (and more) Questions Asked

Peppa and George from Peppa PigPeppa Pig, my daughter’s many-a-dinner-time cartoon friend has a little brother George who’s answer to “What do you want?” is always “A Dinosaur”. He has a green toy dinosaur that accompanies him everywhere. This among other things, is the usual playground conversation between the little brother and sister.

After having seen several episodes of their harmlessly sweet adventures for months, my little girl turned to me a few days ago and asked, “Mamma, Peppa and George are two babies. But you have only one baby. Why is that?”

She’s three and I’m not stupid, so I knew this question was going to come soon. I smiled and told her that people could choose the number of babies they wanted, this could range from zero to four (it’s 2015, lets get real) and I had chosen to have one special little her.

Nothing happened for a few days. Then, there it was again, yesterday, hiding beside the conversation of a party invitation from a friend with twin girls.

“Mamma, A_ & A_ are two babies and you have only one baby. When you were getting me, couldn’t you ask for one more?”

“Honey, I didn’t exactly buy you at the supermarket.”

“Yes I know. But when I was a shiny star and you chose me, you could have picked one more.”

That children are curious and ask countless questions is common knowledge. That you must be prepared with ingenious retorts is a given. That you can lie through your teeth is just parenting privilege.

So why didn’t I pick two stars? (“we”? There is the husband and his wishes & whatnot to be acknowledged, not necessarily considered).

Well, we’re just about getting used to being adults, with jobs and school fees and drastically reduced frequency of sex in our lives. And then there’s this little person who joins all our couple (+1) hugs, berates the arguing party in couple-only heated conversations and makes us laugh silly…at her antics, at the wild, white skirt moves that made her, at our neat little party of three. And it ‘feels’ complete, in defiance of the sibling childhoods we come from and the “but two are perfect” noise around us. If there is a second child ‘star’ somewhere, the hubby and I aren’t looking for it right now. Perhaps we never will. Making her a playmate or a true blood companion after we croak, aren’t good enough reasons to have a second one.

In our own little, possibly flawed way, we try and teach her what ‘sharing’ means when she’s around friends, cousins or even little things like giving away balloons to stranger babies coming after her. The night activities are incomplete without wild jostling and pushing her down on padded bedding. Uncontrollable peals of laughter accompany the hubby’s “She doesn’t have a sibling, someone needs to push her around” in explanation to wild throw-offs.

Most children in my daughter’s class are already part of a pair and as the years go by, she will continue to question us on this point. Many of our friends are single children and are glowing examples of all that’s ‘normal’ and ‘well-adjusted’, the epitome of accepted adult behavior (for the most part). There will never be a right answer or the perfect number, but the ‘not-somethings’ will have to explain their choice that strays from the ‘norm’, established though it is by people whose lives have no bearing on that of others.The zeros and ones will come under the scanner and their lives will be used as examples for or against the motion.

Like all ‘good’ parents, we probably will not admit to our girl just yet that we don’t have all the answers. We will continue to believe, and tell her that we’re capable of crafting a well-functioning adult without a sibling partner (there’s no harm trying). And we won’t let her in to the big parenting secret (until it’s time to spill it): we learn as we go, build our own rules, stumble and rise. Somewhere along the way we will have built our version of an (im)perfect everything.

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5 Things you will NEVER forget if you EVER went to a Convent school

Before you start reading, if you were born in the 80s and went to a convent, raise your hands and say “Hell Yeah”, or more appropriately “Hail Mary.” If you didn’t, no need to feel left out. You were tortured by other adults who were not being stern (out of and) in a habit.

Even though I left a home away from home in the hill convent school more than a decade ago, here are some things that follow me around.

1. Lift Your Feet and Walk

When I see or more likely hear people shuffling about, it makes me want to stop them in their track and correct them. But I don’t, for my own good.

2. Cry for Christ

This one was left unsaid, but after reading enough pamphlets on Christ’s life and bawling at the crucifixion scene in a movie at the school theater, you’re always in readiness to cry some more.

3. Graveyard Gossip

As you must be aware, all Convents are built on a graveyard. No, seriously. A silent windy night, a back-lit statue of the Virgin Mary visible from the dormitory corridor and the glistening graveyard white is sure to make you feel like an extra on ‘Blair Witch Project’ (there weren’t any. and there was no ghost. or else, you’re it.)

4. The Forever Two Minute Meal

When you’ve got a nun parading behind you while you eat the daal-with-no-grains you learn to go faster. My personal best was going from a two hour lunch routine, which involved sitting alone at the table and looking on at nothing in particular in 1990s PC (Pre-Convent) to now eating before you can say “What’s that on your plate?”. Its fun, do try it at home.

5. Cursive is King

At and after a convent school you might begin to think that people who cannot form a word by joining letters together should be shipped to another planet. It might not be so bad. They’ll take your husband away (him with the left slant and floating letters that only martians can possibly perfect). Plus the written world will look pretty and who minds that.

Life within the walls of a Convent bears little resemblance to the world outside.

In your first years ‘on the other side’, you think everyone else needs to be “disciplined”. It’s only later that it dawns on you that the ‘cloistered’ convent taught you a language of life that is stuck in 1885. But you learn to roll with it, keeping your Nun avatar in check, but not without saying a shortened version of Our Father in Heaven for the souls of errant beings.

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In Memoriam

Twelve years ago, my brother and I walked out into the sun with a shoe box for company. We were on a mission, to fulfill my brother’s wish, which he had etched in blue pen on the wall in our room.

“I want doggy with big ears.”

I had never quite understood his fascination with canines. He had had his flesh torn out twice over but his desire for a furry pet was relentless.

We had kept pet dogs ever since I can remember.  First there was Salma, the Indian breed lady with whom we played ring-a-ring-a-roses. She wasn’t exactly our pet, but since we fed her she hung around in our garden in that remote place in Himachal. She had pups, among whom I can only recall the black brute who answered to the everyman dog-name Tommy. And the only thing I remember about him was how he licked my feet all through a fancy dress rehearsal in the kitchen. When we left town Salma followed the truck for a long time after. I don’t remember that part. It is from the parent-to-child folklore about the times you were too young to remember.

The new town was where my brother’s adventure streak really found wings. He was the ring-leader and roamed the streets with his humble followers in tow. This bunch of five year olds had an exciting life building thatched structures in the jungle and parading dead crows about town. Huckleberry Finn would have been proud.

In keeping with his interest areas at the time, my brother brought home a raggedy, stinky dog that looked every bit the part of his potential sidekick. This canine ragamuffin was christened Jacky, for no fault of his. He stayed with us for a few months, just enough time to find himself in festival pictures and be forever named among the beloved four-legged family members. You could say it was in his eyes the day he was brought in, but I guess we (everyone except my brother) knew this dog was no house pet. So Jacky left his two-legged companion one day without notice and continued on in search of possibly adventurous pursuits.

My brother was hurt, as all five year olds whose dogs run away, will be. My parents decided to fill that void by searching high and low for the perfect pet for my brother. We found him hiding under a chair in Gwalior. Blacky (for that was his mane and his name) was a beautiful hybrid with uncertain genealogy but a wild streak that only masked my brother’s ever so slightly. They were perfect for each other. If you came by the house you could catch them lying arm in arm on the porch. Blacky also saved my mother twice from deadly snakes. On both occasions it was a dark rainy night and as my mother bent forward in the porch to place the food bowl before him, Blacky barked away and forced her back in. In a little while my mother knew why, as she saw a snake wriggle past near the bowl. When we found ourselves back to packing and moving, it was time to decide whether taking Blacky along to what was going to be a small apartment in the city was a good idea. Finally he came along, the fox-sized giant in the car with his little companion.

Soon enough it became clear that keeping him locked up in a small space was a bad idea so he was sent to live on a farm, which in this case was not a euphemism for ‘he passed away’. He did go to a farm and lived happily (I presume) till it was time to say goodbye, several years later.

You would think this was it, but you’re oh so wrong. What followed next was the opposite of Blacky, in colour and size. My father went back to where we had moved from and came back with a little white ball inside his coat pocket. This was Rusty. Why a pearly white dog was called Rusty is beyond me. But that was his name when my father got him and we didn’t bother to make him unlearn it. Rusty was a spitz with remarkable self-confidence. This dog would stand in front of a bull, measuring just about the size of the bull’s face, and the bark like there was no tomorrow. Perhaps he was a reincarnation of Napolean.

I distinctly remember this one night when he swallowed a chicken leg piece whole. We weren’t sure if his stomach was that big and my parents said he might die because he couldn’t possibly digest that big a thing. My brother and I cried and cried all night and when morning came Rusty just pranced around the house wondering what all the fuss was about.

I can’t remember why that happened, but after a few years it was decided that Rusty must be taken back to where he came from. I think it was because we had all become tied up in a lot of things and couldn’t care too well for him. Or perhaps it was the usual scenario where kids demand pets saying they’ll do all the related work and when the pet comes he’ll all toy and no work for them, while mummy darling has an additional family member to care for. Once again our four-legged friend left us just as we were getting used to him. This time my brother went with dad, probably to check whether these farms in parent folklore were indeed that. My father told us later that brother darling was crying on his way back. Little boys and their dreams.

For a few years nothing happened. But soon enough the writing was on the wall. Literally.

That is how we found ourselves standing before a golden retriever mother who probably knew we were going to take one of her kids away. We brought Mischief home on the day before my brother was leaving for boarding school. It was probably not the best timing, especially since he was technically being brought home for my brother. I love dogs too but I’m not the sibling who wrote that on the wall.

On the first night we placed newspapers all over our room for him to pee on. When the lights were off we could hear him trying to find his way around. The next day my brother said goodbye with a heavy heart and Mischief had found his caretaker in mommy. During that time whenever we went to meet my brother, we took Mischief with us. All our dogs till then had been wild ones so we considered getting Mischief trained. For about a month Mischief spent time with a trainer and he learnt to sit, stand and roll over. It was all very cute but soon he lost interest and we let him be.

All our pets before Mischief had been more one person’s pet than everyone’s. But that changed with Mischief. All of us cleaned the poo, took him for walks, tick-picked and fed him. He became the true family pet.

As with any pet, the funny moments abound, whether it was the time he sat in the middle of the road in front of the vet’s clinic, as my brother and I struggled to pull him to the side. Or the time he ate one kilogram freshly prepared gajar-ka-halwa right out of the kadai. Coming home meant preparing to be thrown back by the force that was Mischief in his heyday. There were rules to be followed around the house – keep your slippers out of reach, keep fancy food at high places, close your bedroom door if you don’t want it to resemble a tornado hit space.

These rules have become second nature to all of us and it was extremely difficult to imagine that this fiery furry one could ever be sober. But your body plays these tricks on you. Four years ago he contracted tick fever, which was followed by a significant drop in platelet count. This was followed by a bout of nose bleeding that refused to end and signalled the end. I was miles away at the time and the description of his troubles set me crying for what might happen. The vet took one look at him and said, “this dog is not going anywhere. His body language shows he’s too high on life to give up just yet.” He was right. Circumstances that would have spelt the end for many left Mischief weak in limb but fiery in spirit as always.

Since then several close encounters followed and a couple of times the vet stated “you might lose him”. Mischief’s resolve was far too strong for all that was going wrong inside his system. His special food for kidneys and blood continued alongside several doses of medicines. Frequent visits to the vet, more nose bleeding episodes and countless other problems alternated with glimpses of the erstwhile naughty behaviour. But everything had slowed down.

Till September 2012, we were keeping the bedroom doors closed as per the usual rule. Soon it became unnecessary. Mischief had to be carried to the vet in hand and would lie for hours at the exact spot we left him, getting up only for water and food. Then came the first weekend in October. The vet pronounced his judgement. The kidneys had failed and the end was near. He suggested we put Mischief to sleep. We debated and decided to let nature take its course.

Today, two years ago, when I got back from work, I could hear Mischief moaning. His breathing was hurried and he was visibly discomfited. My mother said he was probably going to be with us for two days or so. He had stopped eating for a few days and the only water he had was whatever little we were able to put in through a dropper. In humans this sort of condition usually marks the beginning of the end. Watching him troubled, my mother said we should all pray for his smooth passing. She had been sitting beside him for the most part of the day for almost a week and she decided to sit beside him and pray.

At 9:45pm on 9th October 2012, Mischief the Magnificent passed away right after my mother had sounded the bell three times and begun to pray. She continued her prayers and informed the rest of us when those were over.

As my brother and I drove to the burial ground two years ago, I travelled back to the day we had walked home with Mischief in our arms. The three of us were travelling together again and just like that day twelve years ago, I will never forget this one.

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A Class Apart

If you must run into someone from your past it better not be your Physics teacher. At least it better not be my Physics teacher. She and I only agreed to disagree. Of course if you’re standing in the Men’s section of a clothing store giving your opinion on something that in all likelihood is going home in the backseat of the car with you and your man, then there is no one better to run into than your middle school English teacher.

Ah those glorious days when all English teachers loved me and there was no one else I’d rather meet at a PTA. Now after all these years I recognized my past perfect teacher in a glance but stepped in front and politely put her name in with that all important question mark in the end. She smiled that smile from years ago and there was all the catching up to do. Not that I’ve invented anything since I last met her but there was the obvious recap. To my “And you’re still at school?” she replied “Once a teacher always a teacher”. (I decided not to break the moment up with examples of teachers-turned-something-else). So after I had said all I could given the lost time of the past years she wished me the best (while I swallowed the “Ma’am are you on Facebook?” question) and I got back to the good trouser-bad trouser game.

Over the years there have been so many types of teachers in my life that I could make a not so subtle version of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly about my relationship with them. And when I look back there’s no doubt about who I’d rather run into. There’s my first class teacher in boarding school or any of the English teachers over the years or perhaps the man whom I gifted a copy of To Sir with Love (with a special note), not knowing a better way to say thank you.

What’s common among the teachers I miss is that in some way they shaped who I am. Amidst all the confusion of growing up and learning new (and often) un-exciting things, there were those who stirred my mind with ideas that went beyond classrooms and textbooks.

Lectures were always of two types: the ones I ran away from (given half the chance) and those I ran to. The former were presided over by those to whom I’d dedicate Another Brick in the Wall. The latter were given by people I’d be more than glad to run into years later, especially when I’m trying hard to steer clear of dark sarcasm and thought control in the Men’s section of a clothing store.

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In Search of Lost Time

Some stories are supposed to be funny, even if they don’t start out that way.

An early childhood image that often plays in my mind is my mother taking a whole bunch of kids on a picnic by the stream. This was in Himachal. I can’t be certain whether I’ve recreated this image after looking through pictures or it always existed within the dusty folds of my memory box. A permanent fixture in all play-time pictures (and memories) from that time is – let’s call him – Nikhil. He was short, (-er than me), fair, chubby, the sort of kid whose cheeks would tempt you. And he was my best friend.

picnicWhen we weren’t playing by the river, he could be found pulling my fake long hair as we played a couple at a fancy dress in traditional Indian dress, or pretend to be a photographer at my theme party when I wore roses in my hair.

And like all best friends we had our secret. Sometimes when we were alone, I would lie down near the bed (his place or mine), lift my shirt (only a little) and he would make patterns on it using the colorful pieces that actually belonged on top of a black board. Even as curious five year olds, we seemed to be aware of this being something we weren’t supposed to do. It thrilled us to bits.

Then the inevitable happened. Our parents decided to uproot us ‘in search of a better life’. I don’t remember whether his family left before ours. Neither do I recall any tearful goodbyes. We moved to a new place and new friendships were established.

I would soon be packed up for boarding school but some time in the interim, we went to visit Nikhil’s family in Delhi. He now had a baby brother. The only image from that visit is Nikhil and I sneaking under the bed, on which his little brother lay wailing, trying to recreate the thrills from our earlier game. Amidst countless giggles we found a way to enjoy lost time.

Fast-forward to thirteen. I was every bit the teenager with one discarded crush and a new one on the horizon. Life was looking up on the excitement quotient when I was informed that we would soon be visiting Nikhil’s family, who now lived in a nearby region of the national capital. This upcoming visit held countless possibilities. My childhood friend and I were now teenagers. Guilty secrets and games of the past could now be taken to a whole new level. And what a story it would be, albeit clichéd to death on screen.

My heart was pounding as we stepped out of the car and made our way up in the elevator. I tried to calm myself. For all I knew, he may not even be at home. My parents hadn’t exactly specified anything so it was possible.

My father pressed the bell and I stood beside him staring at the dark brown door. I had been smiling in my head all this time.

Finally the door opened, after what seemed like forever. And there he was. The male lead in what would be the amazing story we would tell everyone before they went all ‘awww’ on us. I hadn’t gone on to imagine telling it to our children, but they were probably out playing in the garden in my head.

He was (still) short, chubby and possibly fair. I wasn’t sure about the latter because his face was lost among a jungle of dark hair.

I was heartbroken, in the foolish way that good girls with bad dreams often are. I should have known better. How different could he have been from his childhood frame? And yet I wanted him to be something else, something that could bring on the butterflies, something I could have kissed behind a curtain, but mostly something that would make a good story.

We sat across from each other in the living room without saying a word. We had nothing we wanted to say to each other, not even trite statements about school or the weather. Perhaps this was the worst of all. Not growing up to be lovers was one thing, but being so distant was just sad.

We drove back and after relating the incident to my then best friend from school, I forgot all about Nikhil.

Until last November.

My once-best-friend-turned-stranger was getting married.

Ordinarily, I would pass up such non-events. But there were some reasons this could be done:

·         It was a reception the day after the wedding, so things would move faster

·         The venue was at a fairly decent place that was close to home

·         It was on a Sunday

·         And maybe I wanted to see how bad the years had been to Nikhil

So I went, with my parents and my fifteen month daughter in arm. As we made our way to the stage to congratulate the couple and the family, I caught a glimpse of Nikhil, beaming beside his bride. It was flashback ’89. He looked exactly like he did in our pictures from so long ago. Without knowing why, I began to laugh. I just looked at him and laughed, for the innocence of our childhood, the stupidity of my teenage self and the (possible) wisdom of youth.

As my father stepped in front of Nikhil, he looked confused, as all grooms do after greeting a countless array of faces with no end in sight. His father jumped in and in his inimitable style (he was the host of many a tambola night years before) said,

“Arrey, yeh S—– ke papa” (Hey, that’s S—- father).

The bride looked confused (and possibly murderous under her makeup) as to who this girl was. Like many a dutiful parent who embarrass their children to the best of their ability, her father-in-law explained, “There are countless pictures of S—- and Nikhil playing together as kids.”

Perhaps Nikhil’s wife was relieved to see my daughter. She made a polite “adorable” comment before we stepped off the stage.

I was still smiling as I ate junk without guilt and followed my daughter’s footsteps around the wedding venue. I was smiling for Nikhil and Upasana, for my carefree childhood, for my teen prejudices, for being old enough to have a daughter and for the stories that stay locked in, till their time comes.