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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.