This is the third and last part of the Divine Comedy series on the writer’s journey through Bhutan. To read the first part click Divine Comedy: Inferno. For the second part, click Divine Comedy Purgatario. Enjoy reading.
I wake up under the woolen quilt – inside three t-shirts, a jacket, blue jeans, and a pair of woolen socks – with a hunch that someone is sitting near me, patiently waiting for my eyes to blink open.
I pull my quilt down, slowly. Light floods my closed eyelids.
Shuffling off the last vestiges of slumber from my limbs I stretch out, yawn, sit right up on the bed and turn my head towards the window, opening my eyes. I didn’t see Bumthang last night, when I checked into this hotel. It was too dark. And now as the dawn slowly raises its black cloak over paradise, I must.
Do the green meadows roll on infinitely? Did my eyes pick the blue contours of rolling mountains far away where the meadows hesitate and merge with the mountain haze? Were they horses trotting across the luxuriant foliage outside my window?
How do you know with closed eyes?
I hesitate for a few moments in fear that the celestial beauty I relished a moment ago were the remnants of an early morning dream I had.
Then I lift my eyelids again to look at her. Like a newly wed slowly raising the veil of his beloved with trepidation. Ah, this is a single moment wrapped up in heavenly bliss! A window might never have peered out into such lush greenery, elsewhere. So many things jostle for my attention.
I shuffle out of my bed, hardly taking my eyes off the magical vision – as if it might slip through that little gap and vanish forever – and let my toes wrapped in woolen socks search the floor for my slippers.
Bumthang is awake only for me, and I must reach her before my friends, I nod to myself. It is only 4am.
I shrug into one more t-shirt and close the door behind me. Silently. The stairs down to the ground floor of the deserted hotel is poorly lit; they creak under my feet as I get down; my hand slide along a wall painted in deep red. It seems almost like treason.
No one is yet awake. No one notices a shadow padding across the drawing room like a sly cat and emerging into the portico.
Outside, the chill air engulfs me as if it has been long waiting. My spine rattles inside my vertebra with the cold. I close my eyes, spread both hands, tip the head back and take a deep breath, feeling each cell inside my lungs slosh with dewy air. And then I blow my first ring of thick white fog towards the sky.
Ahhhh…I’ve reached paradise without a dying.
I hobble down the leafy alley, skirting the hotel, inside half-a-dozen t-shirts and jackets – like an astronaut in full gear – towards the meadow which beckoned me through the window.The dew lies thin over the grass. The distant mountains I saw through the window keep shifting in form as if there is a thin gossamer filament separating us, its tiny threads sagging and quivering with every gentle breeze. On the green pasture, herds of cows and a dozen horses graze with abandon. A few thatched houses huddle together in the cold in one corner.
Near the houses I see them. A few men gather around in a circle.
I get down on the meadow and walk towards the men, with a smile. My feet fall, squishing, squetching, scrunching; they pummel the green earth sodden with dew. The smell of freshly trampled grass, cow dung and other strange aromas I cannot distinguish, follow me quietly.
“Hi!” I greet them. They greet back with a smile. “Archery competition?”“No. Just practicing,” one of them, wielding an imported bow that could cost around 60,000/- replies. Archery is their favourite pastime. Villages across the country compete for ever-rolling trophies every year.
Whole days, people spend taking aim at targets which are so far away that you won’t believe even rumours of somebody hitting them.
From where I stand I cannot see the target clearly, that tombstone-like thing, planted far away. I smile when arrows after arrows miss the stone by wide margins. “See this! I am going to hit it,” a young man tells me as he pulls the string taut. I smile at his joke. He releases the string, the arrow whooshes past, and I hear a muffled thud from the distance. It has hit right at the bull’s eye. “But how!”
“Meet the present national champion of Bhutan,” he extends his hand to me.
In Bhutan it doesn’t take all lifetime to meet a celebrity. There is every chance you come across His Highness, the fourth King of the country, pedaling along (the royal pastime) the main streets of the Thimphu on his bicycle.
I get back to the deserted road hugging the meadows tightly on one side, passing under my feet and running breathlessly into the town where it disappears among a scatter of houses. Smoke billows out from a few of them. I need my tea. Whistling a soft number I let myself carry by the winnowing wind towards the sleepy town.
Will I get my tea there?
I wait wherever there is traffic: A horse trots across to get down to the meadow, another has to climb to the road, a cow freezes in the middle of the road, parts her hind legs, and blissfully tucks her teats into the thirsty mouth of her calf.
The town seems deserted. Where are its people? Why is it silent?
“What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate can e’er return.”
The deserted village in Keat’s ‘Grecian Urn,’ takes shape within me evoking a vague fear. Am I still on my bed dreaming?
Then I spot a few shops down the road which seem to be open.
Behind her, on a chair I see an old man sipping some green liquid. “What’s that?” “Somfi. It is a local brew,” she answers. In Bhutan, most of the restaurants are run by women, and they double as bars too. Drinks flow from morning to evening, and the sky will not fall down on you even if you hurry in at the middle of the day for a quick drink from one of the bars (They are yet to hear the term, moral police).
I thank her with a bow politely refusing the drink.
And get back on the road walking once again obsessively through the streets . The unique style of single-storied buildings with sloping roofs has an otherwordly charm about it. “Jeddaaaa!!!” an alto car screeches to a halt just behind me, almost knocking me over.
I jump and turn. And scream back in the next instant: “JEDDAAAA….”
We burst into laughter. Chang and my friends! I leap into the rear seat of the car near Jijo.
“Where were you Chang, last night?” I ask. “Humping two girls,” he snaps back and guffaws.
The hunt begins. For Chang it is for new girls he has never tried and tested. This is his ultimate world, “Bum! Bum! Bumthang!” For us, the pursuit is on for good food, wonderful drinks, and exotic spots where we would laze around, or lie down for hours watching these men happily chase their happier women.
“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
Tell me. What else is a paradise for?