Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Letter to my son on his birthday

Dear Buku,

Happy Birthday! First of all, I want you to know that your mom, brother and I love you very much. Indeed, all of us are very proud of you. 

I know we are not perfect parents, but we have done our best to help you make your way through these difficult growing-up years and prepare you for the future. I also want you to know the intense joy your mom and I felt when you came into this world. I thank god for sending you to us complete with a beautiful dimple on your cheek.

As you set out on your teenage, I would like to share a few lessons I want you to think about and hopefully remember for the rest of your life:

Education: Education doesn’t mean just getting good grades in school. Education is about having the right knowledge and skills so that you become a useful member of the society. Never allow a bad teacher or a bad day in school come between you and your pursuit for good education. As a young man facing a highly competitive 21st century, you must have a good combination of knowledge, skills and motivation. Without the other two, none of these three attributes are meaningful. 

Values: Your mom and I have always tried to teach you the difference between right and wrong. Whether it is your whistling inside the house or sitting (im) properly in a gathering, we have tried to show you what is proper and what is not. Never lose touch with your values for they define who you are. For example, I believe in punctuality and I never keep someone waiting once I agree on an appointment or engagement. A set of good values will enable you to stand out from the crowd. 

Drugs and substance abuse: You know that your dad engages in occasional social drinking. Given the gregarious culture that you have been nurtured in, I can only wish that you will grow up to be a teetotaler. But then that is wishful thinking and I am practical enough not to imagine that you will never drink. Lets make a deal - the day you return home a successful young man (say, eight years later), if I am still alive, we will raise a toast together!

Never get into drugs and substance abuse. These are terrible things; they will destroy you and take away your manhood and dignity. Only the weak and feeble engage in bad things like drugs and I believe that you are too good to do that. Use your curiosity to be creative and useful, never to use drugs and harmful substances.

Hard work: As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch in life. There is always someone who pays for what you might consider as free. Work hard and you will be rewarded. No matter what you hear later in life, I promise you there is no easy path to riches and there is no substitute for hard work.

Responsibility: You have heard your mom and I say this a million times: “You need to be responsible!” If you are involved in an activity or a project, act responsibly and be a doer, if not a leader. If you make a mess, clean it up. If you say you will do something, do it. Procrastination is the thief of time and never allow your attitude to steal your success. 

Friendship:  Be true to yourself and your friends. Hang out with people who share your values. If your friends get into wrong habits or go down a wrong path, stand your ground and do not follow. They say that if a friendship lasts seven years, it will last a lifetime. I suggest you to count your friends and not the years!

Religion: Do not criticize any religion and be tolerant of people’s faiths. Believe in kismet, destiny and karma. If lighting a butter lamp or visiting a temple gives you peace of mind, do so.

Love: You will meet lots and lots of girls in your life. Treat them all with dignity and respect. When it comes to selecting a girl to be your life partner, care more about her inner beauty than her outward appearance. With your dimpled good looks, I think you deserve the best – both inwardly and outwardly.

I will stop with these eight lessons. Your mom and I want one more important thing for you. We want you to be happy. Really, truly happy! You know what? You can’t be truly happy unless you have joy. Do you know where joy comes from? Joy will come if you practice the above-mentioned lessons in your life.

Keep this letter with you, always – so that long after I am gone, it will remind you that you had parents who loved you much.

With all our love,

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Frying Eggs on the Floor

When you can cook an egg on the floor
It is not about magic or wow!
It is about the searing heat
That is sweeping across
India now!

If you see an Arabian escorted off a flight
It is not about a VIP
It is rather about Islamophobia
That has gripped America and
The white world so deep!

When you see a motorcar
At the edge of a quake cliff
It is not about Japanese driving skills
It is about the deadly scars
Left by frequent shakes and shifts.

If you meet Churchill wearing a surgical mask
It is not that he’s back and kidding
It is, but, about Greenpeace
Driving home their point
That London is polluted and not breathing!

When politicians like Trump
Talk of increasing the divide
And the world media says
More terrorist attacks are 
A matter of when, not, if!

Humanity is aggrieved!

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Sharecropper's Toilet

‘How much land does a man need?’ asked Leo Tolstoy in the famous 1886 short story by that name.  As a parallel, may I ask, ‘how much money does a man need to build a toilet?  Or, how much must a man earn before he loses his greed?'

Sir, I cannot accept the ten thousand ngultrum,’ the sharecropper refused the money given by the landlord. ‘The toilet will cost much more than that’, he tried his best to convince the landlord.

The landlord was unsettled. He felt cheated and taken advantage of by the sharecropper.  

Keep it. This will at least fetch you cement or CGI sheets for the roof’, it was his turn trying to convince the farmer.

However, the sharecropper was adamant. He didn’t want the money.

Once upon a time, there was man - a landlord, an absentee landlord to be precise. He lived and worked in Thimphu, the capital village of Bhutan. Every year or so, he visited his land and relatives in faraway Kalikhola, Bhutan. He had inherited a lot of land from his parents, who had left for their heavenly abodes decades ago.  

He inherited the property when he was barely ten years old and didn’t understand or appreciate the value of holding more than ten acres of land until much later. His maternal uncle took care of the land for fifteen years, while he and the rest of his siblings grew up, attended schools or got married and dispersed in various directions. His eldest sister, who lived in the same village as the uncle, witnessed day-after-day with blood in her eyes and tears in her throat – how the uncle and his young second wife made merry on the returns from her brother’s land.

The boy’s father had been the village headman for many years and had land and other property spread across Kalikhola and Dagana. During the heydays of the British Empire, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Ever since the boy’s parents died, the uncle had enjoyed long sunny days everyday of his life. He rode on a horse, with his young wife riding another horse behind him, while his children slogged and sweated in the sub-tropical weather. He would eat the choicest village food – rice, curd, milk with thick cream and pigeon meat curry, while his children ate nothing but porridge made from corn husk – not flour. The children fared no better than the orphans in Charles Dickens ‘Oliver Twist’. Like young Twist, they dared not ask for more and remained hungry.

‘Mom, can I have some rice?’ they would ask and the step mom would kick them on their butts.

Years later the boy became a man – a landlord by default, among other things. Thanks to his academic achievements, he had travelled beyond the borders and received a Bachelor Degree in Engineering from one of the best colleges in India. Every year, whenever he met his sister, she reminded him of the uncle’s atrocities and chided him to take back the property.

I will handle it. What is the big deal?’ she would say. The boy would listen and close his eyes in agreement.

The time had come. The young man gathered all the courage he didn’t have and decided to confront the uncle. His elder brother provided him with support – moral support. A few village elders were invited, while the elder sister came as if she didn’t know what was happening.

The boy-man opened up the issue.

Uncle, now we want you to hand over our property to didi’, said he, looking at the village elders.

The uncle was devastated. He was cornered and forced to surrender the control of his nephew’s inherited property.  The sister became the new manager. There were glints in her eyes as she secured control of her brother’s land that she had long wanted.

Fortune, however, was not fortunate! A socio-political turmoil broke out in the village. Army and police, who were initially sent to quell the dissent and chase away the ringleaders, soon outnumbered the villagers.   There was fear and tension everywhere. Many people left the village. Lands and rice paddies were left fallow. The sister found it difficult to find people to work on her brother’s land. There was hardly anyone interested in sharecropping the land, something that the uncle had enjoyed for so long.

The sister eventually settled on a cousin of her husband. He agreed to cultivate the land, on the condition that he would keep three-fourth and give her only one-fourth of the rice produced. As a saying in Nepali goes, ‘on the plate of an unlucky person is a shit-beetle’ (Abhaghi ko thaalma guye kira). The beetle flew directly from a pile of shit into the sister’s plate. She was left staring into the distance, ruing missed opportunities.

After two decades of managing her brother’s land, the sister called him one day and offered to handover everything to him.

It is your land. I am getting older by the day. I can’t keep up to the task of taking care of the details needed to manage your land. I suggest that you manage your land yourself’, she sounded genuine.

At the other end of the BMobile spectrum, the brother listened in apt attention, but did not say a word. When the sister finished her long surrender speech, he merely said, ‘ok didi. Thank you for everything you have done so far’.

Although the sister surrendered the management of her brother’s land, the sharecropper agreed to continue. ‘25 moori (moori is a measure of quantity equivalent to about 80kg) of rice; half masino (superior quality rice) and the other half any other type’, the sharecropper and the landlord agreed.   

Soon December came, the landlord’s son and daughter finished their annual examinations and it was time for their winter vacation and for the family to travel to Kalikhola.

At Kalikhola, the sharecropper was waiting, well planned, to sell his idea of building a house.  

Sir, if you build a house for me. I will never leave your land.’ The landlord listened, as he had no other option.

Look at me sir, where can I go?’ the farmer continued to convince.

Discussions took place and it was agreed that the landlord would refund the cost of materials needed to build a simple village house for the sharecropper. On the other hand, the farmer agreed to provide labour. At that moment, the landlord reflected, ‘well, my sister had a damn good reason to hand over my land’.

Next winter, another visit – the house was there. Physical verification was made. It had a stone foundation, walls of bamboo splints matted artistically and plastered with cement and a CGI roof.  The farmer submitted a handwritten invoice. He had betrayed - the bill included not only the cost of materials, but also a neat amount towards labour charges.

It took the landlord three years to fully refund the expenses incurred by the sharecropper.

Last winter, as the landlord headed to Kalikhola yet another time, he had quite a few ideas in his head.

We should plant teak saplings on the slope above the canal’, he discussed with his wife.

We must replenish our arecanut orchard with new trees’, his wife suggested. ‘And, if possible find someone who can fence it for us’.

On the third day of their arrival, the landlord and his wife drove down to their land to meet the sharecropper. After a round of basic greetings, some fresh homemade curd and sugarcane juice extracted orally, the sharecropper submitted his proposal for the year.

Sir, where shall I go to shit. Everyone is shitting in nice toilets, but I have only a pit latrine.

Sir, if I use this kind of latrine, your dignity will go. What do I tell people who say “your landlord is a big officer in Thimphu, but you don’t have a proper toilet here”.

Sir, I need help to build a toilet.

The landlord was dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to say. In a flash, he recollected all the plans he had to develop his land. He had wanted to discuss and finalise them with the tenant before returning to Thimphu for another 12 months. He felt cheated.

However, he stayed calm and told the tenant that he would get back to him. ‘I will let you know tomorrow’, he responded rather dryly and left the tenant’s place.

The next day, the landlord checked with a few people in the village on the tenability of the sharecropper’s demand. He also checked with his brother and cousin, similar absentee landlords, based in Thimphu and currently on vacation in Kalikhola.

Ya, my tenant was also making a proposal. But I shot him down’, shared his elder brother. ‘I told him, if you want to shit, you have to build the toilet yourself.  I suggest you don’t give your tenant anything’.

The cousin was a bit more generous. He had agreed to sponsor the estimated bags of cement required for the toilet.

I contributed about three thousand ngultrum’, he confided.

The landlord discussed the issue with his wife and based on local references and benchmarks, decided to contribute ten thousand ngultrum to build a toilet. He knew he had been generous.   

In the Tolstoy story, it was assessed that six feet (as was his height) was all that the man needed when he died. One wonders how much land a toilet requires! The landlord has given the required land to build a toilet. It is up to the tenant where to shit. On the other hand, how much more must the landlord earn, before he is willing to build a toilet for his sharecropping tenant?  

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Cow to Coconut - A few Unrelated Tales

“…The villager tied the cow to a coconut tree. By the way, cow is a four footed domestic animal”.  So the story goes! An Indian English teacher of mine told me this story years ago.

There was a student in a certain school in India, who was always ill prepared for his examinations. He was an indolent boy. When it came to writing essays for his English language examinations, he always wrote about ‘a cow’. Whatever might have been the topic of the essay, he found ways to write about his cow. As the story goes, during one examination students were asked to write about coconut trees. The cow student was befuddled for a while. However, before long he connived and started his essay.

“Once upon a time, there was a man in a village in Kerala. He had a field of coconuts. He also had a cow. One day, the villager took his cow and tied it to one coconut tree…”

“By the way, cow is a domestic animal…”

In this blog, I am going to imitate the Indian boy and tell you a few ‘cow to coconut’ stories. Doesn’t matter if the stories are connected or not, I assure you that you will enjoy reading them!

Snarling taxi drivers and a blue book
Every year in the month of January I go to the Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA), a government of Bhutan department that is responsible for regulating and administrating road transportation in Bhutan, including the testing and licensing of drivers, registering motor vehicles and administering rules and policies on surface transport.

Every January I need to remember that the renewal of my annual vehicle tax falls on the 20th of the New Year month. As I was going on my annual leave to faraway Bhangtar towards the third week of January, there was an additional reason to ensure that I updated my vehicle ‘bluebook’ on time. For when I drive to Neoly, it is an international journey traversing the plains of West Bengal and Assam States of India. The police and the army personnel in these parts of India are some of the crudest in the world. They can give you a pain in the rear even when you have all the documents legal and current.

11th of January 2016 was a normal day. Like the past several days, the winter sun shone brightly through the windows of my office. Together with the duplicate Chinese made radiator heater, the sun rendered my office warm and workable. Yet I was restless! There was a short battle between my head and heart.

‘I must renew my vehicle documents within this week’, advised my little inner self. ‘I will go and find out if RSTA is busy these days; and go for the actual work, may be tomorrow’, I thought silently. ‘No, it is better to be prepared with all the documents and monies. What if you don’t find a long queue at the RSTA and you haven’t carried your documents?’, shot back the little one inside me.

I got up from my swivel chair and checked my wallet. I didn’t have enough money. Ngultrum 2,060 is what costs annually to renew documents for a vehicle of up to 1500 cc. I put my Bank of Bhutan ATM card in my sack of a pocket – touted as the largest pocket in the world. I looked around my office and picked up one DHI diary, produced by DHI’s Media and PR Unit. In Bhutan calendars, year planners, diaries, tea coasters and numerous other items are produced by the corporate world and distributed among stakeholders and the general public as New Year souvenirs.

I stepped out of my office, got into my car and drove towards RSTA, about five kilometers southeast on the other side of Thimpchhu (river). On the way I stopped by a BoB ATM and withdrew Nu. three thousand.  As I drove, I was doubtful that I would be able to have my work done. Doubts lingered as I parked my red i20 by the roadside, as the official car park was full.

At the RSTA, I thrust the DHI diary in the hands of Dhan Bahadur, a RSTA employee, who has risen through the ranks to occupy a chair at the back of the service room. Dhan was visibly happy and said, ‘thank you, sir’. For a fleeting second he probably thought that I had gone to see him solely to present the New Year gift. However, before he could detangle his hand from mine from the extended handshake we were engaged in, I blurted out,  ‘bhai, you need to help me. I have got to renew my blue book’.

There was a long queue of mostly taxi drivers waiting to avail of various motor vehicles related services. Through the service counter, they could see that I was trying to cut corners. I didn’t have the courage to look at the crowd; from the corner of my eyes I could see several faces smirking at me.

The diary and my long association with Dhan worked wonders. I was able to pay my annual vehicle tax on time and update my car documents.  How I wish there was an online system of doing all these!

Efficient pizza and lazy ambulance
Pizza is becoming popular by the day in Thimphu. Ever since Seasons Pizzeria was established two decades ago, many pizza themed restaurants have come up in Thimphu. Druk Pizza is today one of the most popular, especially for its free home delivery with a free 250 ml coke.   While Seasons has stuck with its high end and expatriate clientele, Druk is popular among the middle class Bhutanese. They not only provide free home delivery, but also give you a coupon for every purchase. You collect ten of them and get a pizza of your choice FREE! I am always amazed by the sense of purpose and responsibility with which my younger son collects the coupons. If he puts the same level of diligence in his studies, I can tell you that he will go very far in life.

The other day I ordered a large size pizza - cheese with ham - from Druk Pizza. Pronto! The pizza was delivered in less than half an hour to the delight of my dimpled cheeked son. This got me thinking and philosophizing a bit.  

These are times when you get a Pizza delivered at your place in thirty minutes, but it takes three hours for an ambulance to arrive. Perhaps, it is time for the pizza parlour and hospital ambulance service to swap their leadership. If public services were delivered with the efficiency and expediency of a pizza, this world would be a much safer and better world. People can actually wait for an hour or more for their pizza, they can plan for the pizza, but not three hours to evacuate a patient to hospital. In any case, those who order their pizza are not exactly poor and hungry – they have plenty of alternative food at home. On the contrary, people who no have access to other means of transportation need ambulance services.  What an irony!

Two street boys and a dose of philanthropy
About a week ago, when I was returning home from work I came across two young boys walking on the pavement. As I was passing them, the younger one bent down a bit and showed me his tiny thumb. I understood! They were hitchhiking - looking for a ride home. I stopped my car and let them in. As we drove from the NPPF colony to the Druk School junction, I asked the boy ‘how did you learn to show that thumb?’ ‘From the TV sir’, he responded quickly. He was delighted that his thumb had worked.

From the conversation we had during the short drive, I came to know that the older boy was twelve and going to class eight next year, whereas the younger one was nine and going to class four. They were cousins and lived in the NPPF quarters in Kalabazaar. As I stopped my car at the Druk School junction, I fished out a fifty ngultrum note and handed it over to the younger one. ‘This is for the two of you to buy some sweets’, I said and dropped them there.

As I drove home to complete the remaining 800 meters to DSB building in Changzamtog, I felt very happy. I thought of my own two boys.

So, you see! Like the canny Indian boy I wrote a few cow to coconut stories to amuse you. I hope you enjoyed reading them.