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Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Sikkim Bhutan Series : The Bookstore in Thimpu

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Disclaimer: Back from a solo trip in Europe, the author is eager to continue experimentative travel. This time around, he wants to travel alone with someone he does not know at all. Enter Snigdha Sehgal, whom he's met only once before. Together, they spend fifteen days gallivanting through the hills and rivers of Sikkim and Bhutan.

The story of Thimpu was supposed to be brief, a short description of the things to do in the city. Instead, it is about a bookstore.

0600 am, 1st October: Still sleepy, Snigdha and I board the bus from Phuentsholing, the Bhutanese border town, and reach Thimpu in the afternoon. We spend the evening walking about the market, wondering why there is such less activity outside. We don't know yet that Tuesdays are dry days in Thimpu.

Did you know that Bhutan is the only country in the world with no traffic lights?

Early next morning, we hike up to Buddha Point. Once we reach there, we stare at the tall golden edifice of the holy soul. Some monks are taking photographs of each other with an iPad. A European party enters and wants to take photographs with the monks. Everybody poses happily. The Buddha continues to smile beatifically in the background. He is used to tourists doing the same every day.

After spending an hour up there, we return to the main city.

The plan is set. We will now go to the School for Crafts, the Zoo and Tashichho Monastery. I guess we are tourists after all. We are at a junction now, opposite to which stands a bookshop.

"Do you want to go into that bookstore for ten minutes?” Snigdha asks. 
"Will you buy anything?"

We cross the junction, and enter the shop. It is called the Junction Bookstore. 

There is something about the place. As I enter, to my left are shelves and shelves of books. The payment counter is on my right. Straight ahead, a flight of steps lead to a Reading room upstairs. At the extreme end, there is another room with children's books. Witty quotes scribbled on pieces of paper have been stuck everywhere. I see a Tagore book and flip through its pages. 'Three Women’ - I want to buy it.

I go up the steps, into the Reading Room. There is a small kitchen space in one corner. People can make their own tea or coffee here. There is a second hand books cupboard too. The whole ceiling here is covered with yellowed book pages. I love this place. A month earlier I remember seeing a viral post on Facebook about the world's coolest bookstores.  I might have found mine.

This place smells like a bookstore should. I must ask them if they will let me work here. A ‘Mumford and Sons’ song is playing in the background.

I look through the glass, below, at the girl behind the counter. Her hair’s falling on her face. I amble down and walk to the counter. I can see her better now, and a familiar feeling engulfs me. I need to think of an opening line fast.

"Err so what do you think we should do in Thimpu", I ask, arching my eyebrows as if I was explaining Einstein's theory of relativity to her. As history would confess, coming up with suave opening lines to impress women is not my forte. The girl draws up a list of things that we could do. She also gives us directions to a couple of art galleries. I have now begun to crack jokes, and even the books groan at my miserable attempts.

We proceed to Terton Art Gallery - that has a good collection of Bhutanese art, and has been founded by Kelly Dorji. A girl explains us the work behind all the paintings.

We visit the Motithang Preserve next, to see the Takin, Bhutan's National animal. It is a bizarre looking beast, and looks like a cross between a goat and a bull. 

Next, we head to Tashichho Monastery. I like Buddhist monks. I like their robes. I like that they make me feel at peace. Suddenly, one of the monks races past me singing "Kiss me kiss me kiss me.." , a song from the Bollywood movie Race. 


Inside, the paintings have so much depicted on them. I wish I could understand the stories they say.

Later, Snigdha wants to go back to the bookstore. The weather is lovely, so we walk the distance.

When we reach, we go to the reading room and make some tea. There are two other European men in the shop and they are discussing the book publishing scene in Bhutan, with Kunzang – the bookstore girl. Publishing industry conversations fascinate me. I don’t have the slightest idea why my own book has been lying in my laptop for almost two years, and why I don't approach publishers. I think I know the answer - I am lazy.

Snigdha and I leave our books and join in the conversation, with the Hungarian, the German and Kunzang. Within minutes, we are pulling each other’s leg. Later, I decide to buy "Reading Lolita in Tehran". Book in hand, I walk to the counter. It is time. Be cool. Siberian tiger cool. Just a girl, after all. You on the other hand are Bond, Sparrow, Cumberbatch all rolled into one.

I drop the book. No problem, pick it up with the grace of a feline. Somehow, I don't feel too much like Bond now. Anyway, Snigdha and she are talking, so I listen to them. Wait, I think I am nodding my head. Nod nod. Right, I can figure out that the two girls are talking animatedly but why can I not stop nodding my head. Head, stop nodding. 

Somewhere through the nodding, I am talking too. And laughing. Kunzang’s warmth surprises me. She is the sort of person who makes friends at the drop of a hat. Wait, I used to be that person before entering the store. I check my arms to see if I have dropped the book again. I haven't. Anymore and they will rename it 'Dropping Lolita in Tehran'. Kunzang asks us to call her by the name everyone does - Muy. I ask her what it means.

"Little sister"

Right, let’s stick to Kunzang.

When we bid her farewell, she hands me a Book on Buddhism as a gift. We thank her and head down to Cafe Klein for dinner.

Dinner is a wonderful affair. The Hungarian goulash is almost as good as the company.
Next morning we leave for Paro, the last leg of our fifteen day journey. It is in Paro where I become most introspective. I learn to fall in love with Bhutan here.

Two days later, we have to take the bus to Phuentsholing - a four hour journey. We miss the bus, so we go to the taxi stand. We get fleeced by the guy who drives us to the stand. I am annoyed. After half an hour at the stand, finally, a driver offers us to drop us at a point from where, he insists, we will get a bus. I message Kunzang saying that some day if I return to Bhutan, we shall meet again. 

An hour later, we reach the place where the cab driver said we’d get a bus. We see only mountains on all sides. No sign of any life, not even a bird. He says that the bus stop is a little ahead, and we continue driving. After ten minutes, we still are. A board says ‘Thimpu - 18 kms’. I ask him how far the bus stop is. He says 18 kms. Thimpu is in the opposite direction to Phuentsholing. Not only does it take us 2 hours to go from Paro to Thimpu, it would take us a further six to go to Phuentsholing. We won’t reach our destination before night. I am furious, knowing that someone would lie so much and cheat us.

When we reach Thimpu, we buy two bus tickets. It is almost 3 pm. Our bus is at 330. I am still irritated at being cheated, but a part of me is happy to have fifteen minutes more in this city.

We walk to the bookshop. We have till 315 after which we must return to the bus stop.

It has a lock on its door. 

There are some people standing outside. I take out my phone to message Kunzang. Suddenly, one head turns from the group. It is her, and she waves at us. We drag our suitcases to where everybody is standing. Kunzang introduces us to her cousin, his wife, and their baby. Then she disappears inside and we chatter away with the duo. They are as friendly as Kunzang. I am surprised when her sister-in-law tells us that Kunzang spoke about us.

I look at the watch. 3:05. Kunzang comes back, and I can’t help but notice that she looks dressed up. And is that blush on her cheek. There is perfume in the air.

The couple leaves, and we are left with Kunzang. Snigdha wants to buy a book. It is 3:10. We have totally lost it. Everybody's talking at the same time. I am telling Snigdha that we should go to a cafe and pick some lunch, Kunzang's telling us to eat and come back, and Snigdha is looking at books and asking us what to buy. "Anything by Phamuk", I yell.

315 pm. Kunzang has rushed to the reading room to get some other book for Snigdha. Snigdha, meanwhile has picked up the Tagore book that I was looking at yesterday. And one by Orhan Phamuk. I am sure we are going to miss our bus. Then, Kunzang refuses to accept any payment for the books. We protest, but she will have none of it. Snigdha gives her a five hundred rupee note, which Kunzang pushes towards me. I move away, and she reaches for Snigdha's jacket. We are all laughing and yelling. There are two other customers in the store, and they look absolutely bemused.

Kunzang has brought down two other books and she gives it to us as a gift. I have no idea how that girl ever makes any money if she keeps giving books away for free. We keep refusing, but she doesn't listen. 

We hug her and leave, sure that we will miss our bus. Her cousin and his wife's mothers are standing outside the shop and the two ladies offer to drive us to the bus stand. I have no idea what is happening. While half an hour ago I was so angry at being cheated, within moments we have been treated with so much generosity and kindness that it seems surreal. The ladies drop us, and we are off. Throughout the bus journey, I can't stop thinking about this mad, happy family. I want to invite them to stay with me in Kerala.

The story of Thimpu was supposed to be brief, a short description of the things to do in the city. But it became about a bookstore.

And that is what is what traveling is meant to do - it makes you meet new people. It brings you these wonderful experiences that you cherish for long after, and it makes you believe in humanity more often than not. It makes you trust and believe. It makes you independent and stronger. It makes you richer, well not monetarily. It makes you more evolved. It makes you connect with yourself, and explore your own individuality. Somewhere it strips you down from who you were, and adds layers to you that could never be worn if you did not choose to step out into the world.

It makes you know that it is really not worth spending thirty years working in an office. The world is out here. It makes you write real stories.

The story of Thimpu is not about its tourist attractions - not about the Buddha Point, and not about the Textiles Museum. It is about a bookstore. At a junction. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Sikkim and Bhutan Series: A prologue

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I look out of the door and the faint outline of the platform draws near. We have finally reached Delhi. I turn to look at her. I have wanted Delhi to arrive for thirty six hours, but now I wish that the city, the platform give me a little more time.

1130 pm, 1st October: I have been sitting in this train since 1130 am the previous day. The schedule says it is a thirty hour journey but the Mahananda Express is never on time. I am amazed when the attendant tells me “Sir, it is a good train. It is always 4-5 hours late, but you will reach Delhi for sure.” I wonder if I am headed for war zone.

Actually, I don’t want to reach Delhi at all. I find myself more at peace in places far away from Delhi and its brethren. I like being far away in the fields and hills and rivers of West Bengal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Kerala.

I remember being shocked a few months back, when my father booked two Dehi - Kerala rail tickets for mom and himself. “You must be mad”, I exclaim, “to sit in a train for two days.”

“I have all the time in the world”, says the retired man. I shake my head at him.

Yesterday, when we are driving down from Phuentsholing (town on Bhutan border) to my boarding station in Jalpaiguri, Snigdha asks me again why I am taking a thirty hour train to Delhi. Her voice has the same incredulity as mine did that day with my father.

“I have all the time in the world”, I reply. It has been three months since I left my job and started traveling.

It has not been put down in any journal, but one of the greatest assets a man can have with him is that extra second of time, that allows him his actions, that takes him a level higher. Look at Irrfan Khan, look at Sachin Tendulkar.

We must all envy a man in no haste.

Once seated in the train, I pick up the book that Kunzang gave me in Thimpu. Written by Kinley Dorji, the Secretary of Communications Ministry, the book has a series of short stories that subtly tell the story of Bhutan, its deep rooted traditions, the need to attain happiness. Not development. Happiness. I love it. I am intrigued by the country, their king, and the theory of Gross National Happiness. Can Bhutan really get something right that the world has not? I have fallen for the the mystique of this country and I need to know more. I must ask Kunzang to put me in touch with Dorji.

I don't want to finish the book fast, so I pause and delve into my thoughts after completing each chapter. An every day desk job does not make a lot of sense. Dedicating thirty years to a closed space? Mankind definitely got it all wrong. So did Mica. So did my friends. Most of them don't even like their jobs. I am amazed people stick to things they don't like.

My thoughts run to Kunzang often. 'Happy' is how I would define her. She owns a bookstore. How cool is that. I want to see her and her lovely family again. I decide that I shall invite all of them to Kerala and show them around.

I look out of the window and it is raining everywhere the train goes. West Bengal, Bihar. There is a message on my phone. "Boy, it's pouring cats and dogs in Kerala. Made banana cake today. Wish you were at home", says mum.

There are two foreigners in the next compartment, a man and a woman. The man keeps walking up and down the aisle of our bogey. We get into a conversation near the door. He is Russian, his name is Sergei. He says he has been to India thrice, and all three times he has only been in the Himalayas, trekking. It is enviable. Not many men and women go to an international country twice. Leave alone the same region. Most people like ticking off a new country each time they travel. I like his love, and therefore I like him.

Despite having a nice conversation, we don't speak on the train again. Each time he passes my compartment, we smile at each other.

As I lie on my berth, the events of the trip finally started sinking in. Bhutan, Sikkim, Lake Gurudongmar, that night in Thangu at 14,000 feet in a storeroom. And of course, Snigdha. I wonder how we really decided to go on a trip together - two strangers who had only met each other once before. How we went around India's north east, together every moment for fifteen days. How did we not end up tearing each other's hair off, how we were both silent whenever nature overwhelmed us.  

By the evening of the next day, I am irritated. The train chooses to stop whenever in the middle of nowhere. It becomes dusk. And then night. Finally, we are fifteen minutes away from Delhi.

I stand by the door, letting the wind hit my face. A few men pass by. The attendants are folding the blankets in the a/c compartments.

The Russian girl comes out and we smile at each other out of politeness. I ask her if her trip was nice and she closes her eyes in happiness. It makes me smile some more. 

"It was my first trekking trip", she says. She is older than me, in her late thirties I assume.

They trekked from Kargil to Ladakh. Then, they decided to go to Stok Kangri on their own without any guides. But after a few days, Sergei realizes they won't make it by themselves, so they return. After a few weeks, they head to Sikkim to trek some more.

I ask her if she liked India. As expected she says she loved it, but I am taken aback when she says she finds it similar to Russia, that she did not feel as if she was in a foreign country.

My interest is piqued. I ask her more about her country, and she tells me she is a tailor there. I wonder if any Indian tailor could go to Russia on a trekking holiday. I ask her more about Moscow. 

"I am not from Russia actually. I come from a very small country called Belarus... you would not have heard of it", she says softly.

"Of course I have".  She nods her head disbelievingly.

I do what I always do. "Minsk is it's capital?"  She stares back, surprised that I know. Heh, knowing capitals has always helped me.

She tells me that every single day in India has been exciting, that today with only two days left in her trip she is feeling sad for the first time. Her eyes have looked that way throughout the conversation. She has been smiling but there are deeper things inside. I ask her her problems in life. It is an odd question. I am sure there will be an answer.

"There is nothing to go back to in Russia", she says calmly. "My husband and  I can't be together any more. There were problems before but now we have to divorce." It has been five minutes since we started talking. I don't even know her name.

"I have a daughter. But he's rich, he won't let me have her".

I look out of the door and the faint outline of the platform draws near. We have reached Delhi. I turn to look at her. I have wanted Delhi to arrive for thirty six hours, but now I wish that the city, the platform give me a little more time.

"Well, we have reached. We should return to our seats", she says. I nod, and we go back. I can't stop feeling desperate to say or do something to make her feel better. I have no idea what to.

Five minutes later, Sergei and she are following me down the platform. The station is bustling with people, it is hot, sticky and we don't talk. They have to go to a hotel in New Bazaar, so I take them to an auto and bargain on their behalf. After we put their bags inside, I shake Sergei's hand and tell him that I would like to take them out for drinks on their last day in India. He agrees, but I know he won't come.

Turning to her, I hug her close. "I hope you find happiness" is all I can say. 

I still don't know her name. We never see each other again. I still remember those eyes.

Somewhere in Bhutan, in the mountains of Paro a monk sits peacefully. So does Kunzang in her bookstore in Thimpu. I hope Bhutan can get it right with Gross National Happiness, for we have a lot to learn.