“Why should I marry!”
I don’t have an answer to that. “Well, er…you know, people marry…”
“To make love?” he laughs again. “Ha ha ha…Chang f***18 girls a month, you know? Tell me, why should Chang marry, Jedda?” I swallow hard. But…
“Eighteen women! You exaggerate a lot, Chang. May be, they are all pros,” Jijo asks to get some relief. Yeah Jijo, that was exactly what I was going to ask.
“Jedda! There are no pros in Bhutan, why?”
“WHY?” we scream out from the back seat, before Chang gets a chance to leave the steering and the road and turn towards us.
Chang shifts the gear, turns the steering sharply and drives the car into the compound of a single-storied restaurant. A profusion of violet flowers wet with fresh drizzle welcome us at the entrance. One by one we tumble out of the car to straighten our stiff limbs.
Ah, the cool air! I unfurl my crumpled lungs and take a deep breath of the misted valleys around me.
Soon a choir of angels, Bhutanese women breeze out one by one from the restaurant; their smiles fixed at the driving seat. Chang gets off, locks the door, hardly acknowledging the presence of his ardent fans. His careless manners, his scruffy, disheveled appearance are all making definite dents on their hearts. I notice the buttons on his shirts wrongly paired, with the one at the lower end pining for a hole that is no more there on the other bank. We with all primness in appearance feel like some yucky dishes nobody has ordered in a party.
“BUM!” he says, tipping us a wink. We laugh looking at the girls.
Our tiredness vanishes the moment the nostrils catch matters brewing at the kitchen. In the main hall of the restaurant the first thing that leaps to our eyes is the shelf against the wall arrayed with Bhutanese bliss, bottled for sale. One peg of Rock bee brandy would cost a meager 15 bucks. If you want to go whisky, Special Courier and Highland Mountain are the options for 40/- a peg. The best among the lot is K5 which can beat a scotch hands down.
“I won’t drink until I get to Bumthang. That is my policy,” I announce and saunter towards a dim-lit chamber inside where there are more chairs and tables. On the exact center a bukhari, a traditional room heater is placed.
Soon every one among us gravitate towards the heat. On the wooden floor quite near the bukhari a cat blissfully sleeps in the warmth. It declares it would not budge even an inch with all that prodding and kicking we blissfully give it from time to time.
Leaving me with Chang and a tall, good looking Bhutanese woman, gathered around the bukhari, my friends pace for the main hall for a few shots of whisky. I smile to the lady. What the devil! Suddenly to my shock, Chang throws one hand over her shoulder and pulls her towards him for a kiss. She struggles, pushes him away with a naughty giggle pointing at me. With my mouth agape I look at them like a fool for a second. Quickly I gather myself together, refocus my eyes into infinity, then with the aid of my ears I pretend to pick some inaudible summons seeking me away from the damned spot. I hurry towards the balcony as if to answer the call.
A cold air blasts in, the moment I slide open the door to the balcony. Ah! what a green! I hold my breath for a sec. My eyes have not feasted on such lush greenery for quite some time.
On the shade of a distant tree I see a couple of horses grazing on. Another cold blast, I shiver like a reed in the wind. Even if I die here catching pneumonia, I decide not to go in and get embarrassed at any cost. Finally when I hear the voices of my friends returning, I get in and announce: “I will take two shots of whiskey.” Chang laughs aloud.
They set the meals on the table with a flourish. Red creamy `rice must be washed down with ema daschi, Bhutan’s national dish prepared with cheese, Bhutanese chilly and tomato. Hot and creamy on the palate! Chicken curry is also spicy. Pork paa! I have never tasted meat so crunchy, juicy and creamy, all at the same time. Half cooked masala omlettes are too hot and juicy inside my mouth that I have to toss the steaming shreds from side to side in order to keep them off from scalding my flesh. I chug down Druk 1100 beer to wash the heat down.
“You must thank the women then they serve you things,” Chang whispers to me.
“How can I thank them?” I ask regretfully.
“Say ‘abu danna’.”
“Yes. But not to me. You must tell her when she comes. It means ‘thank you’. Abu danna.”
“Abu danna,” I repeat the word. Chang nods.
Soon the woman brings dal to the table. When she places it on the table near me I bow slightly and say: “Abu danna”.
Her narrow eyes widen to their maximum; she breaks into a giggle, throws a quick sidelong glance at Chang and says without looking into my eyes: “Chang is teaching you dirty things.” I hear Chang bursts into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Realizing that he has just pulled a hard one on me I fume inside for a second and then burst out laughing along with my friends, Jijo and Utpal. “Tell us Chang, what does it mean,” Jijo asks, when the woman retires to the kitchen.
Finally Chang stops laughing and detonates the bomb:“’Abu danna’ means, ‘I am going to do it to you right now’.”
Devil! It is not even a request, but a declaration before a rape! They all laugh hysterically seeing my predicament. One thing I notice: even the women in Bhutan feast themselves on practical jokes like this. I read somewhere that they are a fine match for their men in making conversations laced with sex and humour.You cannot hurt the pride of a Bhutanese woman easily.
“Where is Chang?” Utpal asks as we get ready for the next stretch of journey. It is then that we notice the absence of Chang. Another 15 minutes, Chang emerges, followed by the tall lady. Both smiling naughtily.
Mad Chang driving. Throating soulful Bhutanese numbers. More lorries emerging from the concrete mist. We pitch and roll on the back seat. The smell of doma…
“Chang, where have you vanished with that woman?”
“BUM!” he replies and we laugh once again.
“BUM! BUM! BUM! Bumthang…!” We sing in rhyme along with Chang. Windows judder. We feel once again like school children out on a magical picnic.
Chang stops whenever a restaurant comes by, vanishes into inner chambers with Bhutanese women who all look awesome, charming and willing, leaving us by our tea or snacks, comes back half an hour, part apologetically, part wickedly and forms his lips to say, ‘BUM!’ just to our eyes. We laugh sipping our tea.
Night falls finally at 8pm after many fits and starts. We are still moving. Glowing red heads of cigarette butts volley back and forth inside the car, illuminating the darkness.
I stopped smoking 10 years back.
But tonight I smoke for two reasons. One, to ward away the intense cold. Two, because, cigarettes cost an arm in Bhutan where they are banned. Just fancy! One packet of Wills costs 250/- So how can you afford to let a cigar fly past you without getting your lips and lungs to it for a few puffs, with the alarming thought that at the end of the day the cost of cigarettes also figures under the common expenditure which has to be split among the three of us?
I draw hard on the cigar thinking about it.
“Are we nearing Bumthang?” Jijo asks, breaking the silence. “Four more hours,” Chang lies. In another twenty minutes we reach the outskirts of the town, defined by the presence of a home, something we haven’t seen for the last three hours. He pulls up the car near it. “Come, let’s have tea.”
A child sleeps in one corner wrapped in woolen blanket, with his face away from us. The drawing room is a mess with cloth materials of different colours sparkling under the burning light. An old woman who sits on a rickety chair doesn’t bother to raise her head to see who the guests are. Another one, an attractive young woman who is busy with weaving, raises her head, smiles at us and gets back to her business with her slender fingers.
A young man walks in from a room, smiles and introduces himself as Chang’s friend. Do you want ara? He asks.
Ara is the traditional spirit of Bhutan, distilled from rice, like the Japanese sake. I shake my head and turn to see my friends nodding their heads in excitement. Soon fiery red ara comes in a bottle. It tastes almost like rice soup mixed with alcohol. I know instantly that it will take quite a bit of time for my taste buds to grow a liking for the drink.
That night when we check into the hotel, Bumthang is sleeping under a thick dark blanket. “You will wake up into a paradise. Don’t tell me you didn’t ask for it,” warns Chang as he barges into our bedroom in his shorts at midnight.
“BUM!” he shouts.
“BUM!” We yell back.
And a roar of laughter echoes in the dark corridor of an almost deserted hotel in paradise.
Wait for the next Episode: Divine Comedy: Paradiso