Every time a beautiful girl in kira (their traditional dress) passes by, Chang stops the car and asks for direction.
“Abu danna,” he says once or twice, and bows politely when they reply something quick in Dzonga – perhaps, a ‘poda patti’ or ‘get lost, you asshole’ in their language. But I don’t understand why the girls chuckle as they retort (see the typical pic).
All morning we spend our time idling under a sprawling tree in a Buddhist temple.
The crowd keeps an incessant chant as they take the ceremonial circle around the temple. Invalid women are fed in one corner. A child plays peek-a-boo with her mother, an old man laughs aloud at the folly of his friend, a family spreads themselves on the green meadow in a circle and share apples among themselves.
How seamlessly they fuse their world with that of the gods above!
Vertical flags dare the cloudy sky, prayer bells ring relentlessly and monks clad in burgundy robes walk half in meditation against the backdrop of luxuriant foliage. Soon my senses get satiated with all those unfamiliar sounds and colours. We gather ourselves up to our feet.
A short walk to the Red Panda microbrewery nearby quenches our thirst.
Afternoon. We lie on the green meadows in an apple orchard, merrily drunk, gazing through the cracks in the foliage at the nebulous clouds that form and unform in the blue sky. Come autumn, these trees would be laden with golden apples. The very thought of apples raises fresh thirst in us; we tread to a nearby restaurant to down a couple of pegs – apple liqueur.
Bhutan is not an experience to be rushed at, but it must be savoured slowly, sip by sip, cloud by cloud, apple by apple. Girl by girl, Chang would add. LOL.
You talk to a native about the meaninglessness of life or relations, politics or philosophy, logic or science, he will only blink at you. Talk to him about the animals he breed or the quirky nature that plays games with his farmland, the mountain gods or Lord Buddha he worships, the women he is presently chasing, the favourite love song that quivers on his lips or the food and drinks he loves to have, he would smile, put his hand on your shoulder and nod crazily.
You have not only touched his nerve, you have also connected with the soul of a country.
Relationships crumble on the moment they want them to crumble. No threats of social ignominy can force a woman brush the skeletons of a married life under the rug and continue with their incorrigible husbands, cursing under their breath. They don’t fake climaxes to please their partners.
They belong to where their heart is. They listen to what their body says. Like the wind that blows across the land, like the sunlight that plays truant and breaks into the valleys, like the chus(rivers) that crisscross the land, they merrily abandon themselves to their very nature. Bhutan, the land of Gross National Happiness.
Evening comes with a new challenge.
“You must come to the karokeke.”
“No Chang, I am not well.”
“Karokeke is unmissable, why?”
“Karokeke is Bumthang. Bum… Bum… BUMTHANG!”
“I know Chang, but …” Suddenly I notice that only Chang has a girlfriend, ready. Even though there are other girls also with us, I have already made sure that no one else among them is coming with us to karokeke.
“Chang, I am not coming because I don’t have a pair to dance with.” They all laugh at it. Well, that worked, I am relieved. From evening onwards I have a queasy sensation in my stomach. So I desperately want to sit this experience out.
At the end of the dinner, Chang wants us to come out of the restaurant. Could be for a quick smoke. There in the darkness, in the numbing cold outside we see the outlines of a few girls. They are giggling. “This is Chimi’s sister. She will dance with you. And this girl will be your pair. And she will dance with Utpal.” Chang divides the girls among us as if he is sharing candies among schoolboys.
“Chang!!!” We cry. “No way!”
We are thrown off guard at the sudden developments. My mobile rings.
“Hi, I’m ok. Fine. Yeah, had food. No. No. Er…I mean, yes. Ok. I’ll be late. Bye. I’ll call you in the morning,” with that I disconnect the phone. “Chang, you send the women back. Please.”
“Chang will not send the women back, why?”
“Why?” Jijo asks weakly.
“Because, these are respectable ladies. Why are you afraid to dance? Even a baby dances in Bumthang.” The girls chuckle seeing our pathetic faces in the dim light straining out from the restaurant.
We are in for a big surprise when Chang gets on to the stage. He begins softly, but after half an hour we see the devil virtually setting the floor on fire with his numbers. The devil is a popular star. He sings. He dances. He acts. He croons. The girls almost swoon with love. Then he stops suddenly and invites us, one by one. After the initial apprehension, I realize that I’d lose nothing in getting on to the floor. Next thing I know is I am on the floor with Chang dancing to a fast number. Jijo too joins. Drinks begin to flow. “You are superb,” a young Bhutanese screams over the blaring music. It is a lie I know, but tonight I’ll believe anything they tell me. “You must take a drink for me,” he pleads.
A girl comes requesting me to dance with her. I take her hand. The crowd pleads for an encore. My dance has never been good, I know. But they say, it is brilliant. I laugh aloud. I dance again. More friends wanting me to take their drinks.
I sip my way more and more into an unforgettable night. Elsewhere I see Jijo and Utpal being treated with equal verve.
“We love India,” one screams to my ears. “I love Bhutan.” “Do you? He asks pushing me at his arm’s length to look into my eyes incredulously. I hug him. “We love your Kerala. Chennai! Beautiful place!” I hug that man too. I don’t want to correct petty mistakes in geography on a wonderful night like this.
Oh, I don’t want the night to end!
One pulls me aside in the milieu and whispers loudly: “Beware of Chang. He is a psycho. He is going to kill you,” and bursts out laughing. I join him. We squat on the floor, laughing. Uncontrollable laughter, more drinks, hugs, red lights dancing around us.
Then through the miasma of drunkenness I see a few police officers wading in through the crowd. I gather myself up. Music stops. “It is closing time,” they announce, turn towards me and flash a smile.
I too smile, raising my glass, trying to steady myself on the ground that shifts.
With the dance hall closed behind us, we leap into the alto for the next spot down the road. “The night is young, JEDDAAAA!” cries Chang. “BUM! BUM! BUMTHAAAAAAANGG….” We sing aloud down through the streets.
Somewhere I remember, we sang a Malayalam song, and they all laughed and cheered us on to continue. Then we came back to our hotel and hit the sack in the wee hours. When I woke up an hour back Bumthang was still there, pressing her bright green face on the windowpanes behind me patiently waiting my eyes to open.
I slip out of my hotel again, down the stairs, across the drawing room, out into the portico, blow a ring of thick white fog into the grey sky and begin to walk. Past the green alleys, past the dewy meadows, past the trotting horses, past the mooing cows, past the silent streams, past the sleeping town, past the men who greet me reminding nostalgically about the way I danced for them.
I don’t know how many hours I have been walking.
I stop only when an alto car screeches into a halt behind me. “Jedda!,” Chang screams. This time I don’t scream back. I watch my Bumthang through happy tears. I must go now.
Chang too doesn’t talk at first when it is time for us to part, two days after. He hugs each one of us looking away, suddenly blabbering about the inefficient way banks work in Bhutan.
I remember how we met him three days back.
We were at the foot of Chimi Lhakhang, that mountain temple of the mad saint Drupa Kunley who revolutionized Bhutanese culture with his jovial and lewd lifestyle. Drupa wandered through the country, drinking liquor and seducing women but without ever harbouring any hang-ups about his ‘crazy’ ways. He used sex and alcohol to upset the orthodox beliefs in his religion. He used them as catalysts for spiritual enlightenment.
They say, a country is read from the graffiti on its walls. The depictions of phalluses throughout the walls of Bhutan – a country which is smaller than our Kerala in size – form serious literature and philosophy in themselves. Someday we will learn the way they must be read.
We want to say goodbye to Chang. To Bhutan. But who is listening! Chang keeps on cursing the way banks run. “They don’t know how to run a bank, why?” “Why?” We repeat his question for the last time, our voices broken. “Jedda!” we say together and laugh aloud.
Back home after two days, I told my wife: “Abu danna.”
I burst into laughter.