To all my moralist friends who spread juicy stories about their colleague. They are absolutely right. I flew abroad and drank an ocean. But they must note one more thing in their diary: their friend had left India with little hope.
1) Alcohol sale is strictly controlled in the mountain kingdom. A dry day is observed every week. And you won’t get a drop before the clock strikes 1pm.
2) Once in every year, Bhutan observes a month of absolute vegetarianism. The whole country is cleansed of all meat dishes. Defaulters pay through their nose if proven guilty.
3) It was ‘fun’ to realize that the ten days I would spend in Bhutan fell deep within that month of vegetarianism. I waited all my life for my first foreign trip to fall flat on this shit!
4) I must pretend I was happy!
Smarting under the multiple blows, I tried to maintain my composure.
Jijo, my student-colleague who proposed the idea of Bhutan months back was sympathetic. He sounded sad over the phone. He could not give his teacher the best of the journey under the given circumstances:
“Without pork dishes, you are going to miss the best of Culinary Bhutan,” he said.
I dismissed it with a sneer:
“Good, Jijo. I needed exactly that. Even otherwise, I was planning to abstain. I desperately need to diet as you know I have been putting on weight recently. Happy that I won’t be tempted by meaty Bhutan.”
“Good bye, chicken. Au revoir mutton, salaam brandy. Perhaps this is the last we are seeing each other. Bhutan will change me radically. The one who returns to his country will be an ascetic, a sage who hates meat and drinks.”
While gorging I did not realize only I was prepared to be a vegan and a teetotaler.
Bhutan was not.
With its gods, traditions, etiquettes, contemporary life, society and relations deeply soaked in liquid fire and meat, Bhutan cannot simply switch off its habit one morning with a flimsy reason like a ban. This is it. The moment you banish meat and spirits from this country through law and show the cheek to enforce it, this country will pack its bag and meekly follow the banished.
If you are one like me who likes to enjoy life to the lees you get everything your senses crave for. Here. It is the second paradise. It is the Divine Comedy.
Without knowing I fought against my hunger on our way to Thimphu, the capital city. Bland vegetarian dishes could be waiting for us everywhere in Bhutan, I imagined. Finally we checked into a small restaurant just to see what their idea for a lunch was.
Pork paa, chicken masala and omlettes soon adorned the table. Druk 11000 beer and Bhutan Highland whiskey were served to work up an appetite.
We were amused and pleasantly shocked.
Brandy, whisky, rum, gin, wine, beer, tequila, schnapps, mescatel… You name it. Even the tiniest restaurant in Bhutan boldly flaunts its bar in its cupboards. Right through the holy season.
A woman, who seemed to come straight out of Singapore Airlines minus her uniform, ladled drinks into my glass. Almost all of those women I saw behind counters are proprietors of restaurants, not salaried staff paid to smile. So the warmth came from their hearts when they greeted us (I hadn’t seen a single man at a counter during my stay in the country).
“Yeah, from Kerala.”
Everybody in Bhutan seemed to know Kerala.
“Most of the teachers in Bhutan came from Kerala, long back” my friend Suraj reminded me from behind.
“You told me that before. But why are you rolling your eyes now, Suraj?”
“Don’t drink it, sir,” Suraj whispered, pointing to the fluorescent green stuff in my hand.
I looked at my glass, half-filled with the ‘radioactive’ drink. The locals call it Sonfy; it is local brew; a peg costs you a meager 12 bucks.
Quality-wise it can be anything.
But how can I let it go! RRR cannot let a new drink pass by without getting its lips wet with it. Moreover this is the drink, rural Bhutan takes, after a day’s toil in the field. I sipped the green. “Mmm…not bad.” I chased it with the rest of the stuff in a single gulp. I had to stifle a violent retch. Then I forced a smile.
“It is really good. You want one?” He shook his head, skeptically.
In the beginning there was Sonfy. From Sonfy I skipped to ara, the local brew. From ara to the rest of the drinks. Made from red rice, ara held the taste of the grain even after many days of sitting in the bottle. “It is rice water,” I cried.
“What do you have?” I asked a woman at another counter.
“We have Druk 11000 beer, Black Mountain, Bhutan Highland , Special Courier whiskeys, Rockbee brandy, Gin and lime, Sonfy…What do you like to have, sir?”
“Anything you suggest.” (Does that sound like a pickup line? Sheer accident).
We never binged when we were in Bhutan.
But we never let the standard level of spirits in our cardiovascular system dip below a particular point during our stay. Weaving in and out of restaurants, we tried new drinks and meat dishes. We had to keep the embers smoldering inside. We had to keep the chill in the air outside.
Bhutan has only a single road that passes across its heart. If you want to catch her raw, you must shed your inhibitions and go her way. Tell your conscience to take a holiday and buzz out. You have got a stopover at paradise; make the best out of it.
Whenever they meet and depart, the Bhutanese share drinks. Even with the bride or a bridegroom missing, the wedding may go on, but not without the traditional drinks. And you will cut a poor figure if you visit a family bereaving the loss of a man without enough bottles to aid them sustain the somber mood at those sad homes.
Mark the variety of drinks the Bhutanese have for different occasions.
Tor chang is a drink furnished while they make cakes. Jinsek chang to ward off evil spirits (there are plenty, they claim). Tshe chang for long life rituals. Khando chang is related to individual astrology. Duen chang will be offered to you when they welcome you to their abodes.
The highpoint of my visit came at Bumthang. The brewery which makes the limited edition of Red Panda weiss beer(German style) was about to close. So we got a hurried bottle of beer for each, which was still warm in our hands. Before they pulled down the shutter they slipped into our hands sheets of labels.
Man, I never got a beer so raw! I had to paste the Red Panda label on my bottle before I drank it. It was next to brewing your own beer and drinking it.
More than two months have passed since I came back from Bhutan. Whenever I close my eyes I see myself telling Pramod, my friend in great alarm that the spirit in my blood is dipping again dangerously. We must quickly check into the nearest restaurant.
Here we lie on the shaded green meadow in the apple orchard in Bumthang.
Sozzled. Dreaming at patches. Opening eyes only to watch once again the fluffy clouds grouping and ungrouping to reveal a blue sky.
A slow gathering up from the soft turf. An amble back to the Swiss café to have yet another peg of apple brandy. To amble back again and settle down on the meadow to catch the dream and the clouds from where we had left them.
Ah, to have nothing else to do in life but to sip the blue skies straining through the clouds and the low branches of apple trees.
Bhutan. Through a pair of drunken eyes!