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The Novice

At six o’clock in the morning, I seated myself at the back of the ramshackle bus in the Indian border town of Darranga near Samdrup Jongkhar, Bhutan. I was travelling to Phuentsholing. The morning was pleasant with plenty of sunshine. Summer was on and the mango trees were laden with lush fruits.  A thin young man with a freckled face and a shaven head sat beside me. He had blade-cuts all over the irregular bumps of his head. He wore a dull red shirt and a faded jean that was tied with an olive green cloth-belt, its flap hanging loose on one end. The peasant boy was probably four or five years younger than me, somewhere not far from twenty five. 

Next to us sat an elderly Gomchen, a lay Buddhist monk who wore a grubby, ankle-length garb, which was half-robe and half-gho that is typical of a dress worn by a village priest in eastern Bhutan. The man murmured a prayer distractedly. His gaze was fixed on my seatmate who was turning and twisting in his seat, his eyes restlessly staring about in the luggage rack. Something was bothering him. He looked uneasy as if suffering from a morning anxiety syndrome. I saw something in the direction he was staring at.

“Excuse me, isn’t that cheese above our head?” I asked my seatmate, seeing a green lump wrapped in banana leaves placed right above our head inside the steel rack.

 “No, sir,” the boy said. “It’s butter.”

“Are you sure you want to keep it there?” I said, picturing slimy drops of butter falling on our heads in the heat of the plains of India. The boy remained silent for a while and said “Move aside. I will take it out.”

Crazy people, I thought, and squeezed myself towards the window to allow him to take out his bag, behind which lay the butter. The dimwit struggled hard to pull out his bag, which was stuck in the metal frame.

The bus driver started the engine and pressed the horn; calling the passengers to board the old metal contraption. It would transport us across the Indian border to Bhutan on a journey of more than two hundred miles. The Indian Army would escort us up to a place called Rangia, 50 kilometers away from Samdrup Jongkhar (the escort service was introduced after terrorist groups in Assam carried out gun attacks on several Bhutanese vehicles and killed many innocent Bhutanese in the year 2000).

My seatmate was still struggling to pull his bag out. I tried to push open a fractured cardboard piece that was fixed in place of a broken window pane. It wouldn’t budge either, so I gave up. Finally the boy gave up too. He stood indecisely for a moment, then bent over me and said in a low voice, “Sir, could please help me take out the bag? I do not have a hand.” He rolled up his sleeve and showed me an amputated arm.  I immediately stood up out of a reflex action and helped the boy pull out his bag. I took out a plastic bag from the side of my bag, tied the butter in it and pushed it back into the rack.

Meanwhile the bus pulled over, gliding sideways through potholes and ditches. It dawdled past cows, auto rickshaws, pigs and ox carts and continued through the teak forested road. Staid faced Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers in their camouflaged uniform and rifles stood on either side of the road.

The bus sped past straw-thatched huts with bamboo groves, beetle nut trees and fishery ponds around them. These were the homes of the Bodo tribes of Assam.  A slogan with a spade and a sickle drawn on the brick wall of an abandoned school building said: We Want Bodoland.

My seatmate was in a deep thought. He looked sad and lonely. I could see that from his sour face. Something was bothering him. I thought about his hand and felt sorry for him.

“What is your name?” I asked him.

“Chompai,” the boy said, without looking at me.

“Are you going up to Phuentsholing only?”

“No,” he said, “I am going to Sikkim, to enroll as a monk. I am taking that butter as a gift for my Lama.”

The mention of Sikkim aroused a deep interest in me. I had always wanted to visit Sikkim one day to pay my respect to the great Buddhist master, His Holiness Dodrupchen Rinpoche.

“Where in Sikkim are you going?” I asked Chompai. “Which Monastery?”

“I don’t know,” Chompai said, now slowly turning his long face toward me and fishing out a piece of paper from his shirt pocket.

“Are you travelling there for the first time?” I asked him.

“No, I’ve been there once,” Chompai said. “But that was years ago.”

Chompai showed me the address written in a slouchy handwritten Dzongkha letter which said, Guru Lhakhang, Gangtok.        

“You’re a lucky man,” I said. “I wish I could get an opportunity like you, to practice the Buddha Dharma.”

I was interested in Buddhism and was looking for a master who could guide me to practice the Dharma seriously. But my attempt to find a master and establish a direct guru-disciple relationship had failed repeatedly.

The bus zoomed past jute fields and lush meadows of the great plains of India. Cattle with crows sitting on their back, wagged their tails and grazed peacefully. Far away, a cargo train was crossing an aluminum painted bridge built over a large river.

“Will the monastery accept me?” Chompai said. 

“Of course they will,” I said. “Why not?”

“My hand,” Chompai said, pointing at his amputated arm.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I said. “There are monks with greater disabilities than this. But how did you lose your hand?” 

“It was an accident,” Chompai said, “I was in the Army before.”

“Where?” I asked, quite unable to believe him.

“At the Royal Palace in Punakha,” he said. “My job was to grind maize corn for the palace. I had an uncle in the Army, a Captain. He found me a job there, but one day my hand got stuck in the mill and the machine crushed it. The next thing I knew, I found myself in a hospital bed in Calcutta. After that I retired from the service.”  

The Gomchen sitting next to me had been eavesdropping our conversation all these while. He turned in our direction and asked Chompai if he received any compensation from the government.

“Yes” Chompai said, “I get one thousand five hundred Ngultrum every month. The Soelra comes from the King.”

“Which King?” the Gomchen asked. “Fourth or the Fifth King?”

“Fourth King,” Chompai said. “The incident took place some years ago.”

My chest welled up with a profound sense of respect for our great Kings.

“Aie…that’s okay then,” the Gomchen said. “You can use the money for your Dharma practice.”

The bus moved on and the morning sun poured its rays on my face.

“I live alone in a small hermitage in the mountains,” the Gomchen said. “You can come and stay with me if you like, or you can follow me to the place I am going now, to Rangapara. There is a good monastery over there. I am sure the monastery will accept you.”

Chompai thought deeply over the offer and scratched his head indecisively.

I had read about the monastery on its website and seen the picture of the old Tibetan Buddhist master, the great treasure revealer Kunzang Dechen Lingpa who founded the monastery had lived there until he passed away in 2006 amidst many auspicious signs of lightning, drizzles and rainbows.

“Is there any special event happening in the monastery?” I asked the Gomchen.

“No,” he said, “I have a son there. He is a painter. I am going there to meet him.”

The Gomchen looked at Chompai and said, “Would you like to come with me to Rangapara? My son knows the head abbot well.”

Chompai bit his nails and thought for a while. Then he said, “Okay. I will go with you.” Then he asked me, “What do you say, sir?”

“I don’t know,” I said, almost laughing. “It’s up to you. You decide.”

Then he turned towards the Gomchen.

“Are you sure the monastery will accept me?” he said.

“Yes, they will,” the Gomchen said. “My son knows the head abbot very well.”

Chompai’s confidence was restored, but the joy on his face did not last long. It soon changed into a mournful expression. Something was bothering him again, something serious which he kept to himself.

Meanwhile the road sign showed that we were 20 kilometers away from Rangia.

The bus rattled on.

“I want to kill her,” Chompai said abruptly.

“What? Kill who?” I was finding this guy very funny now.

“My wife,” Chompai said. “My ex-wife. She is entirely responsible for my leaving home.”

“Why? What happened?”

“After I lost my hand, I worked as a night guard in a construction company,” Chompai said. “One day a young woman came into my life.  She had a child with her, a baby girl who was just about fifteen days old. The woman told me that she came from a dysfunctional family, that she was divorced by her husband and asked me if she could live with me. She was beautiful. I couldn’t tell her to go away. I also needed someone to help me, so I agreed and we stayed together. I gave her all my love and care but, in return, she ran away with my entire life’s saving – forty seven thousand Ngultrum.” Chompai became tearful and his voice strained. “I had saved that money, every single Ngultrum of it, working with one hand, thinking that I would open a small shop one day and settle down.”

I felt sorry for the poor lad. Meanwhile, we were approaching Rangia. The destination sign by the roadside said:  Rangia 10 Km.

“I wish I had never met her,” Chompai said, “I still can’t believe what she has done to me. I want to forget her, but her face keeps on coming to my mind.”

The Gomchen shook his head empathetically and said, “Aiii…Wai….Didn’t you find her then?”  

“Yes, I did,” Chompai said. “The police caught her in Thimphu, but it was too late.  She had squandered all my money. She wouldn’t agree to come home also. I discovered later that she had been divorced twice or thrice before.”

Chompai fought to hold back his tears. He was sad and angry at the same time.

“Don’t be sad,” I said, “Look at what has happened to you in another way. You are a lucky man. You have obtained this wonderful opportunity to become a monk after meeting her. Few people have this good fortune. For example, look at me. Although I aspire to practice Dharma, I am bound by countless worldly preoccupations. It has become impossible for me to break away from these chains of Samsara. Do you see that?”

Chompai nodded and remained silent.

“She will suffer for her sin, won’t she?” Chompai said in a childish tone.

“Of course, she will,” I said, “No one escapes the law of karma.”

“My brothers have filed a case against her in the court,” Chompai said. “Both of them are policemen. They advised me to go to Sikkim to become a monk. They bought me a monk’s dress also. It’s in there,” he said, pointing to his bag. Then he surveyed the people around him, lifted his shirt, and revealed a white piece of cloth wrapped around his waist.

“Here,” he said, pointing at the bundle tied to his belly, “My brothers have given me enough money. Eight thousand Ngultrum. I hope the robbers won’t rob me on the way.”

“No, they won’t,” I said, almost laughing, “Unless you go on showing your money to everyone.”

“Do you think the Indian Sadhus can kill people with their black magic?” he asked, staring sharply at me.

“I don’t know.” I said, quite taken aback.

I remembered meeting a terrifying Sadhu a few months ago in Jaigaon. The heretic was half-naked, his skin bathed in ashes and his long hair rolled up in thick locks. He wore a red loincloth around his waist and had a garland of skulls and bones hanging from his neck. I asked him some questions like who his Guru was and so on when suddenly he felt ridiculed. His face turned red, he rolled his eyes and warned me that he could strike me dead with a lightning bolt, then and there if I made a mock of him again. The world around me turned gray, I froze, and I quickly scampered out of his sight towards the Bhutan Gate.  

 Meanwhile, the bus crossed a railway crossing gate.

“Hmm…we are approaching Rongya,” the Gomchen said.

Minutes later, the bus slowed down and stopped near a roadside restaurant where a thin old man, as thin as the chapatti he was clapping between his frail fingers, was burning the bread inside a big mud oven. At the counter sat a dark burly man with a grim face. He was watching a cricket match on the black and white television that was mounted in a corner. He looked like one of those mob gangsters we see in Hindi movies.

The handy boy banged the bus door with his hand and shouted “Breakfast! Breakfast!” and the passengers began to clamber off the bus.

“I go to Rangapara from here,” the Gomchen said, looking at Chompai. “Are you coming with me or not?”

“No,” Chompai said. “My brothers will kill me if they come to know about it. I will go to Sikkim.”

“Alright boy, I wish you good luck,” the Gomchen said and walked away. The other passengers, who were mostly peasants, ambled into the restaurant and occupied the suntanned plastic chairs and tables.

After the breakfast, the bus pulled onto the main highway. It now moved with menacing speed sending the – I am going too fast to stop, so unless you slow down, we will both die – message with long blasts of its horn.

Chompai went into a deep sleep, but he occasionally woke up with a fitful jerk at intervals. The journey continued with Chompai’s head occasionally colliding against mine, and the bus pacing at an unbelievable speed; clearing dogs, rickshaws, cows, trucks, buses, cars, oxcarts, and pedestrians from the road. The bus sped past several districts and roadside towns of Assam – Nalbari,  Kokrajhal, Barpeta, Howli, Bongaigaon, Samtabari, Barobisa. I imagined terrorists hiding behind the bushes, ready to open fire. What if they carry out an ambush like they did before? I wished that we had a safer route connecting the eastern and southern districts of our country.

Towards the evening, our vehicle entered the dark shades of the forested road of West Bengal. We drove through the Old and New Hashimara towns and continued past the Toorsa tea gardens. A truck had toppled over at a sharp bend. Half an hour later, the bus entered the bustling streets of Jaigaon, and we finally reached the Indo-Bhutan Gate.

Passengers got up from their seats and stepped out of the bus. By this time, I was completely exhausted and my bottom was sore. I rose from my seat, took out my bag, and followed behind Chompai.

Once outside, I told Chompai to wait for me for a minute. I rushed to a nearby bookshop, bought an envelope and slid in two hundred Ngultrum notes into it. Then I wrote down the address, placed the envelope on my forehead and told Chompai to give it to HH Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s monastery. Chompai nodded impassively and made his way through the crowd. I saw him pass the makeshift taxi counters, cross the road to the opposite side and bend down to talk to the terrifying Sadhu I had met before.

This story appeared in the Indian Review in 2017

Grief

Photo by Lukas Rychvalsky on Pexels.com

In summer 2008, I had taken a brief time off from work and had gone to do a short retreat in the hidden valley of Beyul Langdra, the sacred site of Guru Rinpoche, the great saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
My friend, seventy-five year old Meme Tashi from Bumthang had just finished the third session of his retreat practice. He came to my room and sat beside me, wiping the sweat off his receding hair line.The old man looked satisfied with his practice for the session, like a farmer who’d just returned from his field after an exhausting day.
“Meme, will you tell me a story?” I asked the old man, handing him a glass of orange juice.
“Hmm… a story?,” Meme said, accepting the glass. “What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“Tell me something about your life,” I said. “About something unforgettable that has happened to you.”
“I don’t remember any such moment,” the old man said, and took a sip from the glass.
I quickly rephrased the question.
“Ok, then, tell me about a sad moment in your life.”
“Hmm…a sad moment? Well, I’ve had many sad moments in my life.”
“Tell me about your saddest moment,” I prodded.
The old man rubbed his chin and thought deeply.
“Ok,” he said, his rumpled face brightened up. “I will tell you this one.”
​“I was a cow herder since I was eight,” he began. “I started doing business when I was fifteen. It was the time when the dzong (fortress) in Thimphu was being renovated, the time when there was this Chief carpenter called Zorig Chichab Papey Yoezer. He was a famous man.
I used to do all kind of business at that time. I would buy cows from the East and sell them to people in Thimphu and Wangdiphodrang in the West. My peak business season used to be during the summer months. After selling the cows to my customers in Thimphu, I would travel back to the East to fetch Palang (traditional wine containers), Bangchung (bamboo containers) and butter. During those days, I could get a kilogram of butter for just one rupee. It would fetch me ten rupees in the West. Our country did not have paper money of our own during that time, so we used to use the Indian currency and coins.
I would also go to Durjeygang to buy pigs. During those days, we used to get these giant pigs from Drujeygang – monster pigs that couldn’t be lifted even by four men. And it used to cost only two hundred rupees. Nowadays, it is difficult to get a pig even for twenty thousand rupees. Also during those days, you could get a bottle of Ara (local wine) for just one rupee. I would buy Ara also and would sell them for four rupees in the western part of the country.
Then, there were these magnificent cows that I used to buy from a place called Banabali in Dagana. The best quality ones would cost three hundred rupees, and the second best were priced at two hundred rupees. I used to sell these cows for double the original price in places like Gaselo in Wangdiphodrang.
This way I made a lot of money.

One day, I took all my money with me and went to Kaliphu (Kalimpong) on a business trip with two friends – both of them are dead now. When we reached there, my friends and I bought almost everything that we could set our eyes on. We would sell them to our people during the spring Tshechu festival. Zaii!!! At that time, the best Tsangthra gho made from wool, and the Hothra Thikthra clothes that came from Tibet would cost just about thirty rupees. Those were the best clothes during our time.
So, after buying everything we could from Kaliphu, my friends and I returned home. When we reached the junction between Thimphu and Wangdiphodrang, I sent all my goods on horseback and told my friends to wait for me in Wangdiphopdrang until I returned from Thimphu. I had to stay back to collect the money which some of my customers owed me.
But the next morning, one of my friends who was supposed to go Wangdiphopdrang came back to see me. I was putting up in a small tent in the Changlimithang ground.
“Why have you come back?” I asked my friend, surprised.
“Yes I have come,” he said with a low voice and downcast eyes. I could sense that something was wrong.
“Of course, you have come, but I am asking you why you have come back?” I said.
“Yes, I have come,” he said again.
“Shudd wai Tosa… Say it directly!” I shouted at him. I was losing my patience.
“Has the horses been attacked by animals or what?” I asked.
“No,” he said, without looking at me.
“Is our friend sick or what?”
“No,” he said.
“Then what’s the problem?” I said. “You two were supposed to go to Wangdiphodrang. Why have you come back?”
“We have lost our things,” he said.
“W-what? Lost our things?”
My heart sank and I felt like a thousand arrows piercing through it.
“D-did you say that you’ve lost all our things?”
My friend nodded and said, “Yes, some thieves have stolen everything last night.”

My goodness! My friends had lost all my life savings! I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. After that moment, even the water that I drank felt like it wounded my heart. The money that I’d invested on those goods wasn’t a small amount. If it was today, it would amount to more than two hundred thousand Ngultrum. Everything was gone now!
How can I show my face to my parents? I thought. I had left home around October and was returning home only after seven months.
At that moment I decided that I would better run away from home and never show my face again. But then I thought: What will become of my horses if I run away? Who will reach them back to my house? Wait, wait, I told myself. I have something more important than the horses. I have a son at home. How can I leave him behind and run away?
Then I made up my mind to return home. Had it not been for him, my eldest son, who was just a toddler then, I would have never gone back to my village. I muscled up my courage and went home empty handed.

When I reached my village, I became weak and frail. I lost my appetite, my hands became numb and senseless, and my body felt weightless like a piece of paper. When I walked, my legs felt like it had no nerves left in it at all. The suffering was so great that I felt like committing a suicide.

I am seventy-five now. It was the worst kind of suffering that I experienced in my life. I like to think that this particular incident took care of all my future sufferings because after that incident, I never faced any other suffering that was more intolerable than that.”

Meme Tashi then picked up his glass and emptied the juice in one, long swallow.
“What happened after that?” I asked him. “Did you get your things back?”
“No way,” the old man said. “Where’d I get them from?”
“How did your parents react when they learned about your misadventure?” I asked him.
“My father was furious when I told him that I almost decided to run away from home or thought about committing a suicide. My father said, “Wai Tashi! What did you say? Commit suicide? Run away from home? Did you say that? Listen, son, this is not the end of the world. You have a life ahead of you. Feel lucky that you are still alive. Who’d have taken care of your things and money if you were killed by those robbers? You see, people can make money, but money cannot make people. Remember this, and don’t you ever speak of such things to me again.”
“My old man advised me this way,” Meme said, “He was worried for my life. But how could I not get sad? It was a lot of money. If I had a poison with me during those days, I would’ve surely taken it, because I nearly went insane. There is our Bhutanese proverb which says that the spells of black magic cannot kill a man, neither can a (menda) gun. What can really defeat a man, what can really kill him, is his grief. I found this to be very true.

When a man is striken hard with grief, there is no need of a knife or a club to kill him. His suffering alone is enough to destroy his life. Grief can easily end a person’s life, but my father was a wise man. He did not let it overpower me, and gave me hope in times of need. I am who I am today, living right up to this ripe age, all because of my father’s kindness. My father taught me to move forward in life with a smile even in the face of adversity. He taught me that suicide is no solution to grief.”

“He was a wise man, my father,” the old man said, and smiled, reminiscing the good old memories of his father.

“Thank you, Meme,” I said. “That was a wonderful story, and your father was truly a wise man.”

The Prostrating Man

Photo credit: http://www.carolyntravels.com

I had come to attend a workshop at the College of Science and Technology in Phuentsholing. After a busy day’s work, I was relaxing in my room at the guest house when Dechen suddenly barged in.
“Oye, Pema. Quick, quick! My guest has arrived!” she said.
Dechen was a lovely young woman who was one of the workshop participants and a lecturer at the College. She’d told me earlier that she was expecting a guest in the evening.

I got up from my bed and followed her towards the main gate of the College. There we saw a man in his late thirties, dressed in rags and covered with dust, prostrating and approaching the College gate. The man dropped his body forward on the road, stretched it full length on the ground, stretched his arms in front and folded his hands together, which produced a tapping sound of the wooden pair of gloves in his hands. As he got up and took another step, he dragged a trolley behind him that was tied with a rope to his waist.
“Is that your guest?” I asked Dechen, a little perplexed.
“Yes,” Dechen said. She looked excited and full of devotion towards the man. “I know him through my sister. He is doing prostration from Phuentsholing to Paro.” (Paro is more than 140 kilometres away from Phuentsholing).

“This is his first day and he’ll hold the night here today,” Dechen said. “Can you please engage him in a conversation while I go out and do a quick shopping? I won’t take long.”
I said okay.

The man stopped his prostration when he reached near us beside the gate. He greeted us with a broad smile and began to untie the rope from his waist that was tied to his trolley behind him. There was a prominent knob on his forehead and both his knees were strapped with yak hide to protect them from bruises and injuries.

Soon a group of children gathered around us. They stared curiously at the stranger with full of enthusiasm. Dechen shooed them away with an angry grimace on her face.
The man smiled at Dechen and said, “C’mon Dechen, don’t do that. They are just kids, poor children!”
I was surprised to see the shabby man speak English in a clear and loud – in an almost American-like – accent.

Dechen instructed the security guard at the gate to look after her guest’s trolley and led us towards a white building, which was located below the road. The man followed us carrying a tattered brown bag on his back.

Dechen opened the door of her apartment on the ground floor of the building and invited us in. Once inside, she brought us tea and biscuit. After that, she left for shopping, leaving me and the prostrating man in her house. The man opened his bag, took out some clothes and went to the bathroom. Soon he returned freshened up and sat on the sofa opposite me. He had changed his dress to a red shirt and a woolen trouser.
“It’s nice meeting you,” I said. “I really appreciate what you are doing.”
“Oh, thank you” he said, smiling and taking out a yellow piece of string from his bag.
“Here, please take it,” he said, handing me the protection cord. “I brought it from Bodh Gaya.”
“Thank you Lama,” I said, accepting the cord.
“C’mon man, don’t call me a Lama!” he said and laughed. “I am not a Lama. You can call me a friend or just call me Karma. That’s my name.”
“Okay,” I said, smiling back. “Tell me, how long have you been practicing Buddhism?”
“Five years,” he said.
“What did you do before that? And how did you learn to speak English so well?”
“Oh, I worked as a tourist guide before,” Karma said. “It was I, who acted as Richard Gere’s guide when he visited Bhutan.”
“Oh, wow!” I said, pleased with the discovery of my friend’s prowess.
“Who is your master?”
“Rabjam Rinpoche,” he said.
“Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche?”
“Yes. He is my root Guru. Rinpoche treats me like his own son. He affectionately calls me “my only piece Shechen Gomchen.”
Karma laughed when he said this.
“Is this your first time doing prostration along the roads?” I asked.
“No. I have done a couple of times before,” he said. “In fact, this is my fourth time. The last time I prostrated was from Lumbini to Bodh Gaya in India. My destination this time is from Phuentsholing to Paro Kyichu lhakhang (temple).”
“Where do you plan to go after that?” I asked him.
“I don’t know. I don’t keep any plan,” he said. “I will think about it after I complete my present task.”
“Did you start your prostration from Phuentsholing this morning?”
“Yes,” Karma said. “Actually my original plan was to start from Bodh Gaya but I had to dismiss the idea because of the dangerous traffic on the roads in India.”
“How do people react when they see you?” I asked him. I found him frank and friendly.
Karma laughed at this and said, “Well, sometimes people make fun of me. Some people think that I am mad. This morning a group of girls sent out a pitiful cry when they saw me, as if I was being subjected to some kind of torture or eternal damnation.
“C’mon, I am not a beggar,” he said. ” The real pitiful people are those who do not remember death and impermanence and fail to practise the dharma while they can.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“Don’t you face financial problem?” I asked him. “Where do you get the money from?”
“Well, things just clicks on,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Pray to the Buddha and everything will be fine.”
“Do people offer you money when they see you on the way?”
“Oh yes, they do,” Karma said. “Some of them wish me good luck and some offer me donations out of respect. This afternoon, a lady in a Land Cruiser bearing a BHT number stopped by me and offered me some cash. She was a member of the royal family.”
Karma felt his hand in his bag and took out a bundle of cash from it.
“She gave me this money,” he said.
“How much is there?” I asked him curiously, and feeling stupid at the same time.
“I didn’t bother to count it,” Karma said, and passed me the cash to count it for him. I counted the notes. There was one thousand Ngultrum.

“You’ll come across many people on the way. I am sure that you’ll grab the media attention soon,” I said. “What would you tell the media people if they ask you why you are undertaking this challenging task?”
“I believe that the best time to practice dharma is now, when we are young and when we have the energy to do it,” he said. “It is wrong to think that practicing dharma is only for the elderly people. This would be my answer.”
Just then Dechen arrived carrying two large plastic bags of fruits and vegetables.

Karma took out a sewing needle from the side of his worn-out bag and began to stitch a torn portion of it. I felt sorry to see him do this. So I walked back to my room in the guest house, emptied the things from my bag on the bed, and rushed back to Dechen’s house to give it to the prostrating man.
“I know you can afford to buy a new bag,” I told Karma. “If you don’t mind, it will be an honor for me if you accept this bag from my side. This bag has traveled with me everywhere – from Thimphu to Delhi to London, and many other places. I would be very happy to see it reach with you to Kyichu lhakhang.”
The prostrating man thanked me and accepted it with a kind smile. I was delighted that my bag would reach the holy temple in Paro with this incredible man.
“Do please pray for me that I may also meet with a great teacher and be able to develop a mind like yours.” I told my friend.
“Sure, man, I will,” he said. “I will make these aspirations and prayers for you.”
Soon Dechen laid the dinner for us. She had cooked a variety of dishes.

After dinner, I asked Karma for his mobile number and saved it in my phone. Then we departed for the night.

A few days later, I saw his picture featured in the national newspaper.
The last time I read about him, he had travelled for more than five hundred kilometres and reached the snowy mountain pass of Thrumshingla in eastern Bhutan.

Thrumshingla, Bhutan. Elevation: 3,780 m (12,402 ft)

A Trip to Bodh Gaya

Photo credit: thebuddhistcentre.com

It was a cold winter afternoon in Gedu. I was browsing the internet in my office when a thought suddenly struck me. I wanted to go to Bodh Gaya.

I am a highly unpredictable man. I decided then and there that I’d go on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya the next day. I applied for the leave to my boss, locked my office, and exchanged a crispy bundle of ten thousand rupees from the Bank of Bhutan, which was located just next to my office.

This would be my first trip to the holy place where Buddha attained enlightenment more than two thousand and five hundred years ago. I also wanted to attend the annual World Peace Prayer Ceremony led by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, who was the supreme head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Besides, I had a deep longing to see His Holiness in person and to receive his blessing.
Early next morning, I walked down the long flight of stairs from the staff quarters, towards the road to catch a taxi to Phuentsholing. I met Sakten Sangay, an old friend.
“Where are you going?”
“Bodh Gaya,” I said.
“Bodh Gaya? Like this?”
“Yes, of course. Why? What’s wrong?” I said, pretending not to understand him. But I knew what he meant. He was hinting at my casual outfit – old jacket, faded jeans and a pair of old slippers.
“Dhah wai… this man” Sangay said, breaking into a condescending smile.
I ignored his remark and quickly paced down to hail a taxi for Phuentsholing, forty-five kilometres away from Gedu. When I reached the town, I crossed the India-Bhutan border gate, entered the bustling town of Jaigaon and strode towards the makeshift ticket-counters which displayed the ticketing signboards for Sikkim, Kalimpong, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar.
“Where do I get a ticket for Bodh Gaya?” I asked a Nepali man who was sitting at the Sikkim counter.
“On the second floor,” the man said, pointing to the steps of a building behind me. I walked up the stairs and entered the ticketing office. A Bengali boy was scolding someone over the phone.
“Excuse me, friend, do you have tickets to Bodh Gaya?” I asked him.
The young man nodded, shouted into the phone that he was busy, disconnected the call and turned towards me.
“For today or tomorrow, sir?” he asked, forcing out a smile.
“For today,” I said.
“Oho!” he said. “One vehicle left just a while ago. It shouldn’t be too far from here. Shall I call it back for you?”
“Yes, yes. Please do so,” I said, delighted. “What vehicle is it?”
“It’s an Innova,” he said, “Very comfortable, sir. It’s travelling almost empty from here because we have an advanced booking to collect some passengers from there. The vehicle left with only two passengers.”
The young man dialled the driver’s number and asked him to return. I bought a bottle of mineral water from a nearby paan shop and waited for the car to arrive.
The silver-coloured Innova arrived in ten minutes. The driver was a tall man with short beard and wearing a white cap. He looked half-Bengali and half-Nepali.
There were two passengers inside, one of them a short Bhutanese man and the other, a lean and tall Tibetan guy sitting behind him on the passenger seat. I handed him seven hundred rupees to the young man at the counter and got inside the car.
The time was half past three in the afternoon.
“What time will we get there?” I asked the driver.
“By noon tomorrow, if there is no dense fog on the way,” the driver said.
The driver started the engine, scanned the area quickly, and got the vehicle across to the main road struggling in the relentless rush with Maruti vans, cars, motorbikes and auto-rickshaws fighting for space.
“Where are you from?” the Bhutanese man asked me in Dzongkha.
“Pema Gatshel,” I said. “How about you?”
“I am from Kurtoe” he said, now speaking in fluent Sharchopkha, my mother tongue.
Our vehicle sped past the Toorsa Tea Estate, leaving behind the Nepali-dominated roadside settlement of Manglabari and Dalshingpara. The driver fired up the stereo system and the vehicle was filled with a shrill number from a recent Bollywood film.
My seatmate, the tall Tibetan who was dressed in a white kurta-shirt over blue jeans smiled at me and said something in his language.
“La?” I asked him respectfully, not understanding what he was saying.
“Where do you stay?” he repeated in Hindi.
“Gedu,” I said. “Aap… What about you?”
“Jaigaon,” he said.
“Achcha…” I said. “What do you do?”
“I sell rosaries. Mala business.”
“Are you on a business trip?”
“Yes,” he said.
The Bhutanese man in the front turned around with a sudden interest in his eyes.
“I am also on a business trip” he said proudly.
“What sort of business do you do la?” the Tibetan asked him.
“I supply Bura clothes,” the Bhutanese said, “I am just back after selling some in Sikkim.”
What a sinful job, I thought, boiling silkworms alive to obtain silk, and shuddered over the thought.
The two gentlemen got into a long conversation in Tibetan, ending every sentence with the exchange of ‘rey’ and ‘marey’ (yes and no).
“You speak fluent Tibetan,” I told my Bhutanese friend.
“Yes, I do,” he said, flattered. “I can speak five other languages.”
The Innova cruised through the dark shades of broad-leaved forests, towards Siliguri. I imagined terrorists hiding behind the bushes, ready to open fire. What if they ambush us? This thought haunted me whenever I travelled between Phuentsholing and Samdrup Jongkhar via the Assam and Bengal plains in India.
When it grew dark, the driver stopped his car near a roadside restaurant which had a variety of fruits and vegetables – apples, oranges, mangoes, and tomatoes – stacked up in beautiful rows in front of the kitchen. The walls were painted ivory cream and the tables neatly arranged with glasses, spoons, forks and napkins on it. Beyond the kitchen, the hotel extended to a beautiful park with marble-studded canopies and flower gardens. The driver and the Bhutanese man went there and sat under one of them. They began to smoke and drink beer, while my Tibetan friend and I ate chapatti inside the hotel.
After the dinner, we continued our journey. Huge trucks in lines zoomed past us as we sped through the dark Indian highway.
As we travelled further, the weather turned colder and foggy. My friends fell into a deep slumber. I too felt numb and sleepy. The driver played different Hindi songs, occasionally increasing the volume. I woke up abruptly upon hearing the driver say, “It is too foggy. We will rest here for a while.” He stopped the vehicle near two huge tankers that were parked beside a tree. Just then, two men, wrapped in shawl, emerged from the dark, with suspicious and hostile looks on their faces.
“There is a hotel nearby. Go there,” one of them said. They were the tanker drivers, obviously suspicious and afraid of us.
This was India. Everyone suspected everyone, especially on the roads at night. Our driver drove us about a mile away and we reached an old restaurant, where a group of labourers wrapped in blankets stood in an open area outside the restaurant gazing intently at a small TV screen mounted inside a pan shop near the restaurant. A local video song blasted from the speakers and the labourers were clapping in appreciation. I checked my watch and it was 2 am.
The pan shopkeeper, a thin young man, was dozing off occasionally, totally oblivious to the loud song coming from the television mounted near him. A jagged labourer wrapped in a shawl approached him and tapped the lid of the glass window with a coin and asked for something. The shopkeeper woke up, handed him something, put the coin in his cash box and dozed off again. Poor man! I thought. He is suffering to earn every coin to make a living, perhaps in the hope of becoming a rich man one day.
“The fog is still heavy,” the driver said again, yawning and folding back his seat, “I can’t see properly. The fog will be worse in Dalkhola. Let’s sleep here for a while.”
The driver lay upon his seat, buried his face with his cap and dozed off. I looked at my companions. Both of them were sleeping.
I opened the window on my side to let in some fresh air but it was piercingly cold. I shut the window, and after a while, fell asleep.
When I woke up and checked the time, it was four in the morning. The TV in the paan shop was still on, but the volume low. The paanwalla was sleeping peacefully, curled up in a blanket.
The restaurant next to the paan shop had opened for the day. A grim-faced man with a muffler around his neck was preparing tea – scooping the content of the pot into the air, pouring it from a height, scooping and pouring it again – a typical Indian style of preparing their heavily sweetened tea.
I didn’t imagine India to be so cold during the winter. I got out of the car and walked towards the restaurant, which smelt of burnt coal from the oven.
“Chai milega?” I asked the man. “Can I get a cup of tea?”
The man nodded, and without saying a word, he poured the tea, half the level of a tiny glass, which I finished in three sips. Then I asked for another cup, paid him and went back to the vehicle, feeling the warmth curl pleasantly inside my stomach.
My friends woke up when they heard me open the door. The driver straightened his seat upright and switched on the wiper to clear the frost on the glass. Then he wiped the glass from the inside with a piece of cloth.
“We have overslept,” he said, starting the engine. He lit an incense stick, placed his hands on the steering wheel and touched his forehead with it thrice in quick succession, evidently praying to overcome any mishaps on the way. Our journey continued into the cold and misty morning. I began to worry that I might miss the last day of the great prayer ceremony.
“Have you been to Bodh Gaya before?” my Bhutanese friend asked me.
“No,” I said. “This is my first time. Will you help me find a hotel room?”
“Sure, I will,” he said. “First we’ll wash our face at the hot spring in Rajgir.”
I thanked him and the vehicle moved on.
“We are nearing Rajgir,” the Tibetan said after what seemed like years since he last spoke to me.
“That is Jagoe phungboi ri (vulture peak). Do you see it there?” he said, pointing to a distant mountain top that resembled the beak of a vulture.
I folded my hands in deep veneration and prayed. At last I was seeing the famous vulture peak whose mention I had come across many times when I recited the Prajnaparamita Sutra. It was here that the Buddha spoke these famous lines on emptiness:
Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form
Form is no other than emptiness; Emptiness is no other than form.
It was midday when we passed a huge rocky hill that was dominated by Hindu temples and numerous advertisements and other billboards painted on the surface of the rocks. We stopped in front of a hotel in the small town of Rajgir.
My friends and the driver escorted me to the other side of the road, to the hot spring temple. The busy and vapoury temple was crowded with devotees walking in and out of it.
At the courtyard of the temple, people bathed under the warm spring water that gushed out of the concrete water conduits shaped like the head of crocodiles and lions and various statues of Hindu gods. We took off our shoes and walked barefoot, balancing our feet carefully on the warm slippery floor. Jingling of bells and chanting by the sadhus filled the air. There was a rush of devotees into the basement of the noisy and crowded temple. A half-naked sadhu suddenly caught me by my arm and led me to a corner where water from an array of stone conduits flowed freely.
I looked around for my friends but they had disappeared into the crowd.
“SOAK YOUR HEAD FIRST AND SAY OM NAMAH SHIVAYA THREE TIMES!” shouted the man, holding my arm with a tight grip. I knew at once that the man was taking me for a ride.
“I am not a Hindu!” I protested nervously.
“OKAY THEN, SAY THIS” he said, “BUDDHAM SHARANAM GACCHAMI!”
This was a Buddhist mantra. So I said, “Buddham Sharanam Gachami”.
“DHARMAM SHARANAM GACCHAMI!”
“Dharmam Sharanam Gacchami”
“SANGAM SHARANAM GACCHAMI!”
“Sangam Sharanam Gacha mi”
“OKAY NOW. TAKE OUT THREE HUNDRED RUPEES!” he demanded, “QUICK!”
I handed him two hundred rupees.
“THAT’S NOT ENOUGH!” the man protested.
I reluctantly took out another hundred rupee note and gave it to him.
The next moment, another Sadhu pushed me from behind and quickly forced me to walk downstairs where a dozen devotees were bathing in stone basins which looked like small ponds.
“HERE, DRINK THE WATER FIRST!” the man shouted, pouring water from a brass bowl onto my palm. I shrank away from his foul breath, which was the kind that toothpaste can’t cure. I drank the water nervously until I realised that it was the same water from the pond, which was saturated with dirt from people bathing in it.
“ACK!!!” I said and spat it out. My throat itched and I felt like vomiting.
“HOW MUCH MONEY WILL YOU GIVE A POOR MAN?” the man demanded, “FIVE HUNDRED? SIX HUNDRED?”
I wanted to give him a big punch on his face. But I had to get out immediately or else there would be more trouble awaiting me. So I quickly handed him two hundred rupees and just as I was about to flee the place, two old men suddenly sprang up from the pond and blocked my way.
“Please give us something too,” they pleaded, spreading their sticky arms.
I had to take out another 100 rupee note. “Here, share between the two of you,” I said and ran up the stairs quickly to escape.
Once outside, I looked out for my friends but they were gone. I quickly put on my shoes and ran down the stairs. Three more charlatans followed me like mad men. They clang around me making innocent gestures and begged me for money. I flung a hundred rupee note in the air and without looking back, ran towards where the car was parked. While the two charlatans stopped chasing me, one of them still followed me up to the vehicle where my friends and the driver were waiting for me.
I closed myself inside the vehicle and sat there, feeling a little relieved. The last sadhu stood by the window and kept on pestering me to give him some money.
I ignored him but he wouldn’t leave. I was furious with my Bhutanese friend.
“Charo! Friend,” I told him. “You could have told me about these things happening here. The sadhus have robbed me of all my money! I have lost more than one thousand rupees.”
“I am sorry,” my friend said. “I had forgotten to tell you about that.”
I shook my head in disbelief and said nothing.
I must have owed these robbers some karmic debt, I thought. I have finally repaid the debt. They must have waited a very long for this moment. Perhaps this was destined to happen. Should I not feel happy now? This question helped calm me down. The last charlatan was still waiting for his share. I opened the window and stared irately at him.
“Here! Take it,” I said and handed him a 100 ngultrum note. He gave me a big smile and backed off, curiously studying the back and front of the foreign currency note in his hand.
The driver started the engine of the car and we continued our journey. As we moved closer and closer towards Bodh Gaya, the pale afternoon sun light and the sight of the white rocks, the shrubs, stretches of red soil, and the distant hills all induced an ecstatic feeling within me and made me imagine how, centuries ago, the Buddha and his disciples must have set foot on these places and practised dharma in peace and silence.
After crossing the Gaya town, our vehicle finally arrived at Bodh Gaya. I bade my friends good bye and entered the street that was lined with numerous shops and stalls with Tibetan, Bhutanese and Nepali names on the signboards. I stepped into a Bhutanese restaurant and approached a young man who was sitting behind the counter.
“Sir, is the prayer ceremony still on?” I asked him.
“It must be over by now,” the man said.
“Could you tell me the way to the main temple?”
The man gave me the direction. I sauntered through the dusty streets that sold clothes, fake gemstones, Buddhist ritual objects and myriad other things, and reached a big gate from where I could see swarms of beggars on the other side of the road. The banner on the gate said: ‘Welcome to the 25th Nyingma Moenlam Chenmo. World Peace Prayer Ceremony.”
As I feasted my eyes upon the great Mahabodhi temple looming in front of me, my whole being felt like it was bursting with an unusual sense of joy and devotion.
Inside the gate, the scene opened into a crowded little market place which sold a variety of food and drinks, books, red and golden yellow cloth pieces and flowers of different types and colours – marigold, roses, lotus and lily – posters of Buddhist masters and rosaries, and varieties of fruits. A loud musical song called ‘Namo Namo’ dedicated to His Holiness the Dalai Lama came blasting from the loudspeaker of a hawker who was selling CDs and DVDs of Buddhist chants, movies and documentaries. Bodh Gaya was evidently the melting pot for Buddhists of all nationalities.
Hundreds of devotees were circumambulating the outer circle of the great temple. I bought a bowl of rice and some fruits and flowers and entered the inner circle of the great Mahabodhi temple.
At the large stone-paved courtyard below, Buddhist monks in red robes prostrated diligently on wooden planks; some of them were reading scriptures and some offering mandala – pouring saffron rice with exquisite gemstones and coins onto a plate with the right hand, wiping it off with the wrist and repeating the process again. The Theravadin monks in saffron robes walked slowly around the temple serenely, meditating; some Japanese monks were meditating in deep silence, and a group of Thai or Taiwanese devotees were chanting prayers in their language and being escorted by one of their tour leaders or masters. A Tibetan woman, who was carrying her baby on her back, said her prayers aloud and smiled at me as she went round the great Mahabodhi stupa, her forehead gleaming with a scrap of golden paint stuck over her forehead from hitting it on a Tara statue engraved on the temple. A huge man of American or European origin in a white robe, his long hair tied in a knot like a typical Tibetan Yogi, was sitting peacefully in front of the Bodhi Tree, his eyes neither open nor closed, like the eyes of a statue in a fresco, gazing straight towards the Bodhi Tree. Beside me, a Tibetan man dressed in dust-covered robes tapped his wooden hand shields and prostrated along the stone pavement, murmuring prayers as he lay flat on the floor, rose up again and repeated the process.
I bought the fruit and flower and entered the temple. The shrine room was packed with devotees, some making offerings and some sitting in corners and reciting prayers in front of a beautiful golden statue of the Buddha with a glittering diamond on its forehead. I made three prostrations, placed the offerings before it and sat there for a moment.
In spite of the hustle and bustle, the atmosphere inside was so peaceful that I felt like I had fallen into a deep trance. It was the most powerful and blissful moment of my life. I closed my eyes, joined my palms together and thanked the Buddha. Emotionally spent, I rose up and left the shrine room to circumambulate the great Mahabodhi temple.

This story appeared in the September 2016 issue of Himal Southasian

A Strange Reason

Photo by Rafael Guajardo on Pexels.com

We have a small portion of land that has been left fallow for centuries in the heart of our village called Khangma, the Broken Land. No one touches this land, which the locals believe, belongs to a powerful demon residing nearby in a rocky precipice called Gudorong Brak.
One evening, two peasants, father and daughter walked home after a hard day’s work in their field, which shared the border with the dreaded land belonging to the demon. When the father and daughter reached home, the daughter suddenly fell on the doorstep and died on the spot.
Soon the local priest and the relatives were summoned. While the priest recited prayers and performed the ritual for the dead, his face changed all of a sudden. Something dark possessed the priest and he cackled and made terrifying noises and grimaces and finally said: I am the one called the Gudorong demon! I survive on drinking seven ladles of blood a day. Anyone who encroaches into my territory will meet the same fate as this dead woman.”
The father felt a pang of guilt because he had tilled the field a little further into the demon’s land.
“But you could have taken my life. Why my daughter?” he blurted out.
“I could have finished you easily as well,” the demon said. “I spared you only because you were smoking.”

This is a true story and the dreaded land in Khangma remains untouched to this day.

A Preview of the Hereafter

I know this sounds absurd if not insane, but I died five years ago. Should you, my good readers, believe a dying man (I am seventy now), by your grace, I will tell you my story—

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

That dreadful night, the last of all those bedridden ones, I lay wide awake at midnight. The moon had laminated everything with a subatomic layer of silver— bathing the looming dark trees, speckling the forest floor, and rippling the great river, whose dancing waves softly glittered, as it flowed by silently.
A terrific spasm of agony and fright unlike any nights before surged through me. Suddenly the dome of my vision manifested as a horrific face which cackled a ghastly laugh at me. Horror-struck, I tried to turn my eyes away but my head, unresponsive to my will, lay like a stone upon the pillow. I tried to call my son, who’s a doctor, but my lungs only sent an unuttered cry which caught in my throat.
The ghastly apparition vanished after a while. The moon had disappeared too behind billowing dark clouds. The darkness grew darker. It was my doom’s call to a dark world, that most feared place where billions of sentient beings, who’d lived, suffered and reproduced, have gone forever. All the past events of my life reeled before my eyes—childhood, laughter, falls, triumphs, people, and places.
To cut a long story short, every past moment and incident passed quickly before me, everything but everything, down to a humble ladle. Oh! How thoughtless I’d been with my time? Now as death drew near, I rued. My life was finished like the flipped pages of a book! Death wouldn’t spare me a single day to spend in prayer. There was no remission now. I floundered like a fish, breathless on dry sand.
The next moment, I was enveloped in a thick fog of smoke, out of which a fierce black bull leapt upon me and jabbed my belly with its deadly horns. Next, my heart sank deep within me as the heavens fell and engulfed me. The earth stood upside down to it! Then I found myself absolutely alone, singing a hellish song amidst the galaxy in an eternal abyss—(Oh! it was horrible. Sob!) —Then I do not remember anything until I shrieked with terror upon seeing a couple of approaching dark figures (they turned out to be the doctors).
I have forgotten to tell you that I’d worked all my life as a clerk in a small town near my village. I used to be a smoker, and the bull, that very same bull— I had it slaughtered some forty years back. My son tells me that I bellowed like a bull for almost an hour that night. I tell you I’m a dead man. I only wait to die a second death – this time for real.

This short story was published by Kuensel in 2004

Flying To Aberdeen

I am both excited and nervous. In a few hours, I will fly from Bhutan to Aberdeen in Scotland. The itinerary on my air ticket shows that I will fly from Paro to Delhi to London, and from London to Aberdeen. It is hard to believe that I am flying to Europe!

Photo by Pixabay

I lay in my bed. My eyes are on fire after a sleepless night. My whole being is bursting with a strange, incomprehensible feeling. How might it feel to ride the airplane for the first time? I ask myself. I imagine the sky turning upside down when the plane takes off and my stomach chills. I cannot think of anything beyond this conjecture and I wait for the dawn to break.

It is only three o’ clock in the morning. The dark Thimphu sky is looking in my windows and winking at me with its stars. I pull the blanket over my head and force myself to sleep. But the charming anticipation of strange lands and adventures won’t let me fall asleep. How many young men, I ask myself, are lucky enough to get a scholarship to study in the UK? An infinite supply of money, return home a rich man, buy a building, buy a car, and marry a beautiful woman. What more could one ask for in life? I fancy myself walking among white people under the towers and skyscrapers. After the flames of imagination have done its stuff, I finally close my eyes and fall asleep.
I wake up to a muted sound of pots and pans clanking in the kitchen. My sister is up and she is preparing breakfast. I remember staying awake through the night and look out the window. The sky is gray and it is now turning into a pale blue.
The taxi would arrive any moment. I get off my bed and dresses up. Then I walk to the bathroom and wash my face. The gums of my teeth feel salty. I have been doing excessive brushing since the day I obtained the scholarship a few months ago. I had used everything hard and bristly that came my way – toothpastes, salt, charcoal, steel wool. I laugh at myself, feeling both foolish and excited.


My sister calls me for breakfast and I eat my last homemade meal. When the taxi arrives my sister and her three children follows me outside.
“Do telephone us when you reach there,” my sister says. She has become tearful.
“I will,” I say, fighting back the strain in my voice.
I get inside the taxi. The driver starts the engine and pulls the van through Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s main street. Soon the valley drops behind and Thimphu is out of sight.
We reach the confluence at Chuzom, cross the high bridge and heads toward Paro. Thirty minutes later, we enter the vicinity of Paro International Airport.
The morning is cold and misty and passengers are waiting outside for the gate to open. I pull out a trolley and load my bag on it.
When the entrance-way opens, the passengers enter the bright hall. I am nervous. I push my trolley carefully so that it doesn’t drag me sideways. I follow behind the other passengers, go through the security check and enter the departure lounge. A small coffee shop on the corner has postcards, cloth bookmarks and Bhutanese books for sale. I walk to the phone area and make a last call to my family.
Soon the boarding announcement comes. I join the line; show my ticket and passes the gate to the open tarmac outside. Druk Air, white and resplendent with the national flag painted on its tail, stands against the backdrop of traditional houses at the far end of the airfield.
As I climb up the metal stairs of the plane, I thank the Buddha and make this wish: May my opportunities to board the Druk Air continue in the future.
Two heavily perfumed air hostesses in light gray uniform smiles and welcomes me. I smile back and steps in. The inside of the plane is warm, clean, and comfortable with a 2 by 2 configuration seating. My seat is right across the left wing of the plane. There are some flight magazines, safety manuals and Indian newspapers inside the seat pocket.
A bell dings softly– an electronic ping – and the No Smoking and seatbelt signs go off. A female voice welcomes us on board Airbus 319 to New Delhi. She asks us to take out the safety information card from the seat pocket and follow along as the air hostesses perform the safety demonstration.
I study the metal fitting of the seat belt and snap the buckles shut around my waist. The stewardesses move their hands elegantly, instructing the passengers how to strap down the oxygen mask in case of an emergency and so on.
Another ding and the engine of the plane begin to whine, a low moan at first, then rising in pitch. The flaps on the wings slide down and the plane rolls forward. My chest goes cold and my heart pounds faster. I pray in my mind and bite my lips. I can feel my face and ears getting hot and red. The plane accelerates and speeds-up, the engine growling into an ear-splitting roar. Before I know anything, the plane takes off. Mountains rise one above another. And patches of houses and fields appear and disappear in flashes of a second. I scream in my mind, close my eyes and grab my seat belt tight. I feel like my heart is going to explode.
When the flight gains stability, I open my eyes and look around at the other passengers. Except for the drone of the engine, everything is silent. Everybody looks calm and casual.
Relieved, I look out the window. White clouds hang in the space below me like huge masses of fleece.
The airplane hums and moves on.
A few minutes later, the flight attendants come pushing a trolley table laden with soft drinks, tea and mineral water bottles on it. I fold open the tray in front of me.
“Excuse me, sir. What’d you like to have?” one of them asks.
“Orange juice please,” I say, trying to sound like a professional traveler. But anybody can make out that I am a first time traveling wreck. The stewardess nods and places the drink on my tray. I sip the cold, pulpy sweetened juice and looks down at the fleecy masses of clouds below me.
After travelling a while, the stewardess appears again, this time with food. The smell spreads inside the airplane as the stewardess serves the meal to the passengers. When my turn comes, I ask for a non-veg food.
The stewardess places a tray containing a warm packet wrapped in aluminum foil. She also gives me tea kits, a sandwich, pickle and strawberry jam, and a small white packet of peanut with the Druk Air label on it. The egg fried rice tastes sweet – not the taste for my tongue.
The plane drones on with an occasional rise and drop in the air. Twenty minutes or so later, the captain tells the passengers to enjoy the view of Mt. Everest and Mt. Kanchenjunga. I steal a glance over to my right through the space between a couple and gets a glimpse of the snow blazed Mountains.
A few minutes later, the captain announces our landing at Kathmandu for a short transit. My chest goes cold as the plane descends lower and lower with an occasional shake and crashing sound.
Soon the landscape below comes into view. The plane tilts sideways and dangles down the air to make its landing. I grab my seat belt tight and hold my breath. A cold sensation crawls through my stomach like a thousand butterflies frolicking inside it. After what seems like ages, the wheels hit the runway with a loud thwack. The plane speeds along the runway and finally comes to a halt.
The air becomes warmer and some passengers move in and out of the plane. My ears are clogged. I press my nose with my fingers and blow it. My ears pop, giving me some relief, but cold blood tickles down my lips. One of the stewardesses sees me and she at once rushes forward with some cotton and helps me wipe the blood. Then she pushes a dab of cotton into my nostril and advises me to lay my head on the headrest to reverse the blood flow. I sit still with my head upturned on the headrest and looks outside, across to the tarmac, with the corner of my eyes. Two Nepali policemen with guns slung over their shoulders patrols the airport terminal. Nepal was in a great political turmoil. I think about how unsafe it would be for people to live in a dangerous situation like this.
After the transit is over, the plane takes off.
Thirty minutes later, the captain announces our descent to New Delhi. My stomach goes cold once again. As the plane descends the clouds separate and I see a river gleaming with light and snaking through the land. Cars trundle along the streets, flashing up winks of the afternoon sunlight. The plane swoops above a cluster of old buildings, hits the runway and finally comes to a stop. I look out the window. A huge signboard on the roof line of the airport building says: WELCOME TO THE INDIRA GANDHI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, NEW DELHI.
I take my bag from the overhead luggage bin and follow behind the passengers. We walk through an aerobridge and come out to a bright air-conditioned hall. I join the long line of passengers walking towards the immigration counter. The area is cordoned off with blue rope belts.
When my turn comes, I show my passport to the immigration officer. I expect him to be happy to know that I am from Bhutan. “Where is your visa?” the man says. His voice is cold.
“I came to collect it from our Embassy sir,” I tell him.
“What Embassy?” he says, fuming.
“Bhutan Embassy, sir,” I say. “Here in New Delhi.”
“Why didn’t you get it from your own country?”
“We-we get it from here, sir.” I say, not understanding why.
The man looks stressed out, perhaps from his tiring job. This is my first clue that things aren’t going to happen the way I imagined it. The angry man stamps my passport and finally let me pass. I collect my bag from the conveyor belt and make my way out.
Hundred of faces holding placard with names on it peer at me. Some are suspicious, some full of questions and some are amused. I walk through the maze like someone in a dream and come out of the airport terminal. Swarms of people are interacting in a blaze of colors. The air is sweltering. The road is filled with incessant honking with cars, rickshaws, buses and taxi-drivers jostling for my attention. I imagine pickpockets eyeing at me from every corner, ready to rob me at the first chance. So I avoid looking directly at anyone.
I book a prepaid taxi for a round trip and tell the driver to take me to the Bhutan Embassy. The ambassador taxi car pulls past murky streets that smell of garbage and urine. As we move deeper into the city, the traffic chokes up intermittently. I brace myself against the oncoming traffic that rage towards me like an angry flood of tsunami. Cars, buses and auto rickshaws weave all over the road, pushing and honking from all sides. My heart pounds hard and loud at every brake and stops. The ride through Delhi is definitely not for a faint heart like me. Accidents could happen anytime. I am frightened as a cat on hot coals and thinks that even hell would not be as scary as this. The taxi-driver takes me deeper into the city, into bigger crowds and thicker traffic.
Luckily the traffic thins as we approach the part of the city where the Bhutan Embassy is located. I am delighted to see a colorful Bhutanese building with well-maintained gardens. There are other international embassies around.
The taxi drops me near the gate and waits for me. I enter the Visa Section of the office and meet an elderly Bhutanese man. He stamps the visa seal on my passport. I thank him and returns to the airport, this time through a different route where the traffic is low.
When I reach the airport, I enter the terminal building. People are milling about the bright hall. I walk into a low-ceilinged hall filled with people and advances in to the passenger holding area. Dark skinned female flight attendants in smocks and high heels walk about the hallway with walkie-talkie sets in their hands.
The flight schedule on the Arrival-Departure information screen says: Flight 747 to London ¾ Depart Gate 17, 10:00 P.M.
I have more than three hours of layover time. I walk to a shop and treat myself with a coffee and a chicken burger.
The boarding announcement comes a few minutes later. I go through the security screening, pass the gate and emerge onto the steps of the massive British Airways. Two slim stewardesses who look like twin sisters welcome me and direct me to my seat.
The atmosphere inside is dim and diffused with passengers engaged in light conversations. A muffled thud and crash sounds of luggage being placed on-board comes from underneath the seat. To my left the kids of an Indian couple giggle and play with their parents. The seats are large and comfortable with a 3 by 3 configuration. There is a small flat LCD TV screen in front of the seat, with the remote control on the armrest. One of the stewardesses hands me a shawl, a pair of socks and a headset.
A bell dings and the stewardesses perform the safety demonstration. Soon the plane takes off into the dark night sky above the brilliantly lit city of Delhi.
When it becomes pitch dark with nothing to see outside, I close the window shutter. Then I put on the headset and switches on the remote control. The TV screen flashes with some English and Hindi movies. When I switch off the TV mode, the screen displays a route map showing Asia and Europe. A tiny wire-frame image of the plane that takes on the appearance of an actual plane in flight flies over Islamabad and edge towards Kabul. I gaze at the satellite images of the seas and countries: Caspian Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, North Sea; Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, England and Scotland to the far north.
Soon it becomes piercing cold. I pull the shawl over my body, cover my icy feet with it and continue gazing at the route map. I am neither asleep nor awake, but somewhere between. I wake up occasionally out of a satisfying drowse to see the route map on the TV screen again. The small white indicator plane moves slowly from Oslo to Helsinki to St Petersburg. I try hard not to fall asleep, but weariness grows upon me; numbness, an occasional stupor; until sleep at last supervenes and I doze off.
When I wake up to a voice, the stewardesses are serving us food. One of them asks me what I want. I say non-veg and she gives me a large sausage with other food items. The sausage tastes salty and appetizing and I ask for one more. The heavy meal soon lulls me into a deep sleep.


Dingg…
I open my eyes and realize that I have fallen asleep for hours after the meal.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to land Heathrow International Airport,” a female voice say. “Please fasten your seat belts in preparation for the landing. The time at our destination is 6.45 am. Thank you.”
Uh…Heathrow?
A mix of anxiety and excitement runs through my mind. I open the window shutter and look out. There is nothing but a white blanket of fog all around.
WhRRRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…
The plane sways rhythmically from side to side. It lowers the flaps, cut across the clouds and descends lower and lower. The TV screen flashes with instructions about how to navigate the terminal. I don’t understand it. The plane rattles and descend lower and lower. Soon a cluster of red buildings comes into my line of vision. Seconds later, the plane hits the runway, rumbles along it and comes to a stop with a low whining sound.
I am in London!
As the passengers deplane, a flight attendant hands us each a £2 breakfast token. Not knowing which way to proceed, I follow behind the other passengers. The metal floor of the hallway thunders with hundreds of beats under our feet. We stride through the long corridor and finally reach the immigration counter. A man with early morning red-rimmed eyes stamps our passports. He directs us to a pink bus that is waiting outside; its engine burping, ready to ferry us to the departure terminal.
The bus is half filled with people with serious looks on their faces. I have never seen so many white people together before so near at hand. I expect them to stare at me, but no one seems bothered by my presence. They all remain stolidly silent, submerged in their own thoughts. A mark of a civilized society, I tell myself, and feel happy that I am also considered to be like one of them.
The bus drives us past huge walls and steel crossbeams and drops us at Gate B of the airport terminal. I enter the pristine terminal building. There are many restaurants, banking services and shops with names like Starbucks, McDonalds, Mulberry and Harrods. I follow behind the passengers and steps inside one of the packed restaurants. People are sitting around small round tables and eating breakfast. A thin Indian-faced waiter with gelled, spiky hair hurries here and there with a tray of food and drinks in his hands shouting Chicken Panini! Cappuccino! Americano! in a loud British accent. I join the line to the counter and exchange my breakfast token for a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. The sandwich is cold and the extra dark coffee tastes bitter with no milk or sugar in it.
After the breakfast, I cross over to the passenger lounge. People are sitting on sofas. Some are watching the BBC news on a plasma TV, some are reading newspapers and some are busy on their laptops.
About an hour later, I walk into the boarding lounge. I ask a fat security guard for the direction to board my connecting flight to Aberdeen. The man shows me the way and I wait for the boarding announcement.
The gate agent takes my pass and runs it across the scanner. Error:BEEP! He examines the boarding pass and scans it again. Error: BEEP! He carefully looks at the boarding pass for a second time, looks at me, and we simultaneously shrug our shoulders to signify that neither of us knows why this is happening. He sends me on my way down the aerobridge. I put my bag and take my seat.
A few minutes later, the plane takes off. I am fatigued and disoriented by the jet lag, everything seems dreamlike and soon I fall asleep.
When I wake up, the plane is already landing. When it lands, I get out of it and follow behind the passengers. I am happy that I have finally reached my destination. I follow behind the passengers and reach the baggage collection area. I don’t see my bag anywhere on the conveyor belt. Then I approach the official at the immigration counter and produce my travel documents to him. The official looks at my air ticket. He looks surprised and says, “I am afraid you have boarded a wrong plane, sir.”
My mouth drops open.
“That’s impossible, sir!” I say. “Is there a place called Aberdeen here?”
“Yes, sir,” the man says. “It’s 38 miles from here.”
“Then I’ve come to the right place.” I say, relieved. “Scotland.”
“No, sir,” the man says, shaking his head. “You are in Maryland, USA”.
I remember the fat security guard, the gate agent and the BEEP sound at Heathrow airport and everything becomes clear to me.