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Land of the thunder dragon

Visiting Thimphu, Bhutan for the sixth edition of the Mountain Echoes literature fest, Vineet Gill discovers the contrasts that define the city, the push-pull dynamic between modernity and tradition, materialism and spirituality, between GDP and happiness.

Vineet Gill  29th Aug 2015


nly the brave can fly into the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as Bhutan is sometimes mystically referred to by its denizens. The flight from Delhi to Paro International Airport begins its descent with the muzak playing a folk Bhutanese melody — a flute solo that's played at such an eerie and halting pace that the notes seem to hang, like smoke, in the pressurised air of the cabin. Outside, there's a thick fog of clouds that, once we're low enough, dissolves in an instant to reveal the landscape below with utmost clarity.

The green hills of the Himalayas, its valleys and ravines, are gaining both in scale and definition. Just when it seems like we're low enough, and that it's smooth sailing from here straight to the landing strip, the aircraft banks towards its side for an acute right turn. And I, sitting on the window seat — fully aware that here below is one of the trickiest airstrips to land on, with, as aviation legend has it, only eight trained pilots being able to successfully pull it off — try not to look out.

On the next but one seat is the Oxford mathematician and author Marcus du Sautoy, his barely-read copy of Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat placed shut on his lap. He, unlike me, is trying to look out, appearing slightly alarmed at the sight of the aircraft's shuddering wing getting within a spitting distance of the hillsides. I recall the old joke that involves a mathematician, an airplane and a bomb; I consider sharing it with Du Sautoy, but then think better of it. The moment is too sensitive, too precariously poised, for humour.

Then suddenly, we lose our sense of balance and a ceramic-grey patch of the sky fills up the window — the plane, now much nearer to the ground, has made another sharp turn, this time towards the left. The flute music is barely audible against the drag of the wheels on the tarmac and the full-throttle rush of the air. We have now come to a complete halt. We have now landed in Bhutan. One piece.

"That was smooth," someone says, and I scan her face for hints of sarcasm. She is being serious, she tells me. "Never noticed anything amiss. I was busy reading." Well, then oblivion is bliss. A while later, I take this up with Du Sautoy — my companion and friend during the knife-edge landing. Did he feel at all worried? "Yes!" he says. "You know, I have these horrible dreams. The plane descending into a valley, hills on both sides. I looked out the window, and thought, this is actually happening. This is my dream actually happening."

I lighten the moment by finally telling him my mathematician joke. "So a mathematician is paranoid that someone will carry a bomb on the flights he'll board in the future," I tell him. "What does he do to sort this out?" Du Sautoy cuts me short and responds with, "He starts carrying a bomb on board himself." Spoiled it. Note to self: never try math jokes on math wizards. "But it's good," he continues sounding grateful, "that you didn't share it with me on the flight."

We're bound for Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital situated a few hours' drive from the airport, which is playing host to Mountain Echoes, the annual literary festival, now in its sixth edition. A perfect venue, Thimphu, for such reposeful and cerebral enterprise as a Lit Fest. The air, we're told, is cleaner; the environs are... what's that terrible word?... scenic; there are also no ATMs in the city (we are all carrying way too much cash to be entirely at ease); a newspaper article somewhere says that there are no traffic lights in Thimphu because there are hardly any cars.

GNH expands to Gross National Happiness and the emphasis on it — on augmenting it by annual percentage points — is central to the philosophy of governance in Bhutan. So the dilemma here consists of riding the wave of development and global money, or else holding on to the country’s roots, traditions and heritage: the dilemma is whether to choose spiritual happiness over material happiness or the o

But just as we are about to enter the gates of this car-less, tree-lined paradise, as we envision it, someone in the bus points out, somewhat aghast, "Hey, I just saw an ATM."

And we see cars. Really big ones — four-by-four SUVs by Toyota and Hyundai mostly. Diesel-powered trucks and lorries are all over the place, and taxis, with photographs of the king and queen — Bhutan's much-revered royalty — always pasted on the windscreen.

A city's character is first revealed through its architecture. The Bhutanese style is an amalgam of tradition and utility: single-storey houses with sloping roofs and double arches on the windows that are almost but not-quite Gothic in appearance. Now, however, there are multi-storey buildings with concrete and glass frontages, emblems of an architectural style that can be called middle-class urban. Only the pitched roofs are still constructed in the same way as has been traditionally practiced in Bhutan, which could be for practical reasons (the country receives intense annual rainfall), or it could be a half-hearted attempt on the part of the traditionalists to impose some order on this city.

Most buildings here are still unfinished structures encaged in scaffoldings. A sign outside one of the construction sites, with immigrant labourers busy at work, shows the dreaded skull-and-bones symbol, and reads like a precautionary warning meant for the old guard: "Danger. Beware Construction Site. Keep Out."

Thimphu, like the rest of Bhutan, has a predominantly young population. One of the venues for Mountain Echoes is the Royal University of Bhutan, and it is encouragingly packed with the millennial demographics. Students from local schools and colleges have gathered here, and they plan to attend each event lined up for the long eight-hour day. They're dressed in the country's national garb — boys in a maroon knee-length wrap-around called "gho" and girls in its ankle-length equivalent called "kira". They all seem galvanised by a spirit of enquiry and intellectualism; they ask questions at the end of every session. "This question is for Sudhir sir," a kid says, addressing the writer Sudhir Kakar. "Do you see yourself as an inspiration for young kids?" And Kakar replies with something along the lines of, "Oh, God no, I don't."

The monastic calm of the auditorium hall is intermittently broken — not by birdsong or the drumming of rainfall as one would expect, but by an excavator that's grinding away, breaking stones, in the backyard. Maybe the noise has scared all the birds away. One of the Bhutanese artists featured in Mountain Echoes is the country's best known photographer and veteran birder Yeshey Dorji. His work has been featured in publications across the world and he is now counted among that very select group of bird photographers globally who have managed to capture one of the rarest avian species of our times.

If you google the white-bellied heron, of which only 28 individuals remain in this region and fewer still elsewhere, the first photograph to pop up in the search results is the one that was clicked by Dorji. And this isn't the only factor that makes his story interesting. He was also the first person in Bhutan to have started a computer business a few years ago — if you wanted anything to do with a computer, you went to Dorji. But later, circumstances and his love for photography forced him to sell everything off — his business, his house — after which, equipped with a professional-grade camera, he headed for the countryside.Image 2nd

"I have never taken a photograph of the city. You'll never see any modernity at all in my photos," he says to me as we sit on the lawns of the Taj Tashi hotel in Thimphu, with the hills, covered in cypresses and pines, looming on one side, and a light rain, like something out of a mist fan, falling over us. Dorji tells me that the scenery changes entirely after a mere 10-mile drive out of Thimphu, that the city has become a country within a country for those who live around it — a GDP-driven enclave in the land of the GNH.

GNH expands to Gross National Happiness and the emphasis on it — on augmenting it by annual percentage points — is central to the philosophy of governance in Bhutan. So the dilemma here consists of riding the wave of development and global money, or else holding on to the country's roots, traditions and heritage: the dilemma is whether to choose spiritual happiness over material happiness or the other way around. And Thimphu has become the theatre where such conflicts are now playing out.

"There's no GNH without GDP," Dorji says, untangling the web of progress and traditions somewhat. But even he remains nostalgic for the Bhutanese pastoral, which explains his art, and its subject — nature — to a great extent. While he is, in his own words, "trying to accept change", he is trying at the same time to look the other way, and in a sense, to resist change. This is a game of dialectics, you tip this way then that, and this is what provides you and your life with a sense of equilibrium, helping you to cherish the past while tolerating the present.

Thimphu's future might follow a familiar script that applies to urban spaces the world over. More money, more buildings, more migrants, more pollution, more power, more cars, more ATMs, more happiness, more sadness. Just more of everything.

When the festival concludes for the day, we all head out for the predictable touristy destinations — the Golden statue of the Buddha, a few kilometres away up on the hills, but so huge it is visible from the town centre; or the handicraft market next to the Taj, which wears a deserted look, and where a woman with a little child on her back tells me at the close of day that I am her first customer. I walk downhill towards the main boulevard of Thimphu, called Norzin Lam. On both sides of the wide road are stores selling dairy products, electronics, rip-off designer clothes, Bhutanese souvenirs and, yes, phallic symbols.

The phallus, before its Freudian resurgence, had the pride of place in Bhutanese mythology. It is considered a symbol of potency, and a symbol that can ward off evil. People paint phalluses — quite a graphic representation, not at all desexualised — on their houses for good luck. Which means that a delinquent with a spray can, say, from Europe, will have nothing much to do in Bhutan.

At the festival's venue, a couple of boys with dragon masks on (the dragon is the other dominant signifier of the local mythos) are intent on blessing everyone by tipping them on the head with the divine phallus. The humour is not lost even on the locals, who share a good laugh about the whole thing, considered also to be an ice-breaker of sorts at social gatherings. This brings down the Lit-Fest seriousness by some margin and is therefore refreshing, liberating.

We later find there's dinner at the Royal Palace. The Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck herself will be playing the hostess. Dress code is formal, and we rummage through our suitcases for something not entirely off-putting, plebeian and vulgar. There's a long drive up to the palace — dark streets and military checkpoints. Finally, the gates, the lamps, the golden lights. A walk up the stairs and across a moat takes you to the royal gardens, where a white marquee has been set up for the welcome of the guests.

The Queen Mother is greeting the arrivals herself. When my turn comes, I don't know what an appropriate salutation for a royal would be. So I shake hands and say, "Nice to meet you." To which, she laughs, slightly amused, and responds, "Nice to meet you, too". But then I overhear the man behind me do it properly: "Your Majesty, it's such an honour to finally see you in person..."

The next day at Mountain Echoes it's announced that the main feature is to be India's biggest writing celebrity, Chetan Bhagat. At the appointed hour, the auditorium is filled to capacity within moments. There's barely enough room to stand. I am sitting on a ledge near the floor, trying to get the Wi-Fi to work on my phone before the Celebrity Writer saunters up the stage. "I don't ever say I am the best writer," he declares, and I find myself fervently nodding in agreement. "I am the best-selling writer." There are laughs and hoots and a sea of applause. I look at my watch and then at the jammed exit door of the auditorium.

There's music by the Clock Tower, someone says. The Raghu Dixit Project is playing live on the final day of Mountain Echoes. The venue for the gig is somewhat like an amphitheatre and we sit on the stairs facing the stage next to hundreds of local youths — boys and girls in baseball hats and leather jackets — clapping along and trying to sing along. Dixit sings like a pro — his voice has that arresting quality that doesn't let you move. Pitch perfect. And there's an excellent flautist accompanying the band on the stage. This is like Jethro Tull all over again. After a few songs, the crowd demands some Bollywood covers. "Bollywood?" Dixit asks. "I don't do Bollywood." He then resumes the original playlist. And you hear his voice booming across the damp streets of Thimphu.

After three days of being here, in the GNH capital of the world, I ask myself whether I am happier than before. But the only image I completely remember on the night before my departure — that dreaded flight out — is that of the 22-year-old boy, whom I had met at the Nazhoen Pelri Drop In Centre For Drug and Alcohol Dependence a day earlier.

The boy (I'll withhold his name) told me that he has worked as a volunteer at the centre for over six years. He is part of their outreach programme, which takes them to the rural hinterlands of Bhutan where alcohol and drug abuse are serious but overlooked concerns. I sat with him for a long time as he prepared for the 5-o'-clock Alcoholic Anonymous meeting for that day. And it was only towards the end of our meeting that I asked him the obvious and distressing question: "Have you ever been an addict yourself?" He said, yes, he has, with a downcast look, and added, "I have relapsed seven times. But I am clean now. I am clean today."

It was at the age of 15 that he started drinking and using drugs, he told me: "It's a big problem. For young people." Some would see such problems as part of the change that Bhutan has been undergoing, and blame it, wrongly so, on growth or progress or modernity.

To my minds, the French saying — plus ça change, plus c›est la même chose (the more things change the more they stay the same) — rings particularly true in the case of Bhutan. Progress and the country's upward climb on the GDP scale at least is inevitable. And so a lot indeed has changed here — Thimphu is now a cosmopolitan town that offers all the luxuries money can afford, and an international experience not unlike an east European city. But a lot, too, has remained the same, including ordinary human misery and ordinary human happiness.

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