Thursday, April 1, 2010

Return of the Prodigal Son

Having been a bit of a rebel against hide-bound traditions, I found myself as far away from Bhutan as possible in my 20s. I joined the ranks of a small handful of Bhutanese who made their lives in the West— Amsterdam, in my case. Why did I leave my place of my birth? Who truly knows? Perhaps, it was the allure of individualism and perceived opportunity, as many of my friends thought. To my mother it was fate. I myself would have to go with the fact that I have this love-hate relationship with the simultaneously nurturing and oppressive social fabric that makes Bhutan both reassuring and unbearable for persons of a certain ilk.

In any event, having emerged on the other side of the globe, I briefly found the freedom from the cultural Bhutanese “soup of things” heady and refreshing. But lately this excitement was turning, as it eventually does for most Bhutanese living overseas, into something that might literally be termed the “Unbearable Lightness of Being”, the initial euphoria of freedom replaced by a sneaking sense of dislocation. For truly, the pull of home is strong for any Bhutanese born on native ground, and the familiar scents and sounds, the food, and the ties that bind, as I eventually learned, are not that easy to disengage.

And thus here was my peace offering to my family.

I was bringing home my beautiful four-year old son, Mipham, to learn some Bhutanese ways that I hoped would ground him amid the vicissitudes of a multicultural life that lay ahead of him.

As we sat in our apartment in Amsterdam, preparing for the 11-hour flight to Bangkok that would precede the five more hours to Bhutan, I couldn’t help thinking of how his grandmother Angay Deki, in particular, saw this as Mipham’s initiation into the Bhutanese way of life.
I couldn’t agree more. Irrespective of the outcome, I had the feeling that memories such as the ones he was likely to have from this trip would serve him well as he got older and more inquisitive about his mixed heritage.

The flight was a long and tiring affair but an overnight in Bangkok somewhat eased the jetlag and jangled nerves. The next morning back in the cool comfort of the airport Mipham is increasingly excited as I complete the formalities to board our flight.

The flight to Paro via Kolkota is pleasant, as always. Funny thing about flying on the only airline of a small country is that you know everyone as soon as you board the flight— the pilots, the stewards and stewardesses and even your co-passengers. It’s like arriving home before your plane has even landed!

Excitement now hangs thick in the air as the plane descends within sight of the beautiful snow capped peaks and hills of Bhutan. Emerging from the plane, we inhale the fresh mountain air, soaking in the peace and the serenity.

The lone road winds its way through the fertile paddy fields of rice and apple orchards, past the Pa Chhu (river). Then it cuts through the two-street town reminiscent of a Hollywood western with its opposite line of facing shops and stores selling everything from liquor, betel nuts, dried hard cheese cubes and Lays Frito Chips. We pass the imposing ramparts of Rinpung Dzong, the administrative and monastic heart of the region. There’s the colorful little cantilever bridge I have crossed far too many times to mention. It’s a lovely sensation seeing all the unchanged landmarks of my childhood in the space the short drive to my mother’s home.

Home is a typical Bhutanese farmhouse, very decorative and surprisingly large. Ours looks big on the outside but is rather spare inside, at least compared to the electronic and commercial knickknacks that fill up western apartments. The cattle shed that used to be on the ground floor of the two-storey house has recently been moved away from the main building as part of the government’s drive to improve rural hygiene. The very top rafters— the open space between the roof and the ceiling— is used to dry hay, long strips of beef, sides of pork cut like bacon strips (only thicker), and dried red chilli peppers. But the middle section of the house is where all the action happens.

Our first real Bhutanese meal in far too long a time arrives with the huge requisite mound of rice heaped on traditional wooden bowls called Daapaas, and accompanied by a delicious and spicy stew of beef and pork. To wash it down we have Suja or salted butter tea and yoghurt.

Then we make the customary trip to the family shrine.

Mipham and I bow before the series of statues and images representing the Buddhas, enlightened teachers and gods and goddesses representing the various aspects of wisdom, compassion and all things good and wonderful. We offer thanks for a safe trip back home, continued good health and good fortune.

As in all Bhutanese homes the kitchen in my family is the focal point of all activity. And activity we have aplenty, given our somewhat celebrated arrival. Word has gone around and pretty soon the friends and neighbors begin to pour in. The kitchen is frenetic, watched over my mother who orchestrates everything with the finesse of a conductor performing before the philharmonic. At one corner, hearty flatbread chapattis are being rolled out by the dozens and baked. Children come and go, adding to the melee. Grown ups do the talking. Conversations cover just about everything under the sun.

“How are things in your life?”

“What is life like there compared to here?”

“What’s been going on in the world?”

“Who’s been promoted in the civil service?”

“Who’s getting married?”

“Any births?”

“Who’s dead?”

“And who’s not?”

Paying Respects
Today is Mipham’s first morning after. Angay Deki has made arrangements for Mipham to experience as much of the culture as possible during his stay. She firmly believes he should not be denied the Buddhist way of life. First stop is nearby Kyichu Monastery, one of the most revered temples in the kingdom, and the oldest (circa 7th century AD). The day is an auspicious one. Monks are inside the main altar chanting prayers and mantras. Locals and visitors mingle to pay homage, garner good karma, and offer butter lamps, prostrations and circumambulations.

The colorful prayers wheels along the temple’s walls are spun for good karma, providing a good excuse for walking meditation. At the temple’s entrance an elderly Gomchhen, or Buddhist mendicant, greets us. There are other devotees too, spinning hand-held prayer wheels and chanting the sacred prayers. Young and old alike circumambulate the temple, spinning built-in prayer wheels with good wishes on their lips and warmth in their eyes, walking clockwise, in the traditional Buddhist custom.

Next stop is the base of Rinpung Dzong where, according to legend, a wandering yogi some centuries ago took up residence, eventually becoming the valley’s spiritual protector. As children of this locality, we are required to pay our respects to the Ney, or “Holy Ground.”

Back at home another hot meal awaits us. Everyone sits cross-legged in a sort of semi-circle around the matriarch— Angay Deki– who is literally the “Provider-in-Chief”.

Time Pass
It’s the weekend and after a nice midday meal there’s nothing better than a hand of “Marriage”, an intricate game of cards that has my captivated my family and the nation alike. Everyone’s playing it. The family plays for small change and for fun— a relaxing way to idle away the afternoon hours. Doma, the traditional Bhutanese chew, is duly passed around. Mildly intoxicating and seriously habit forming, it stains our teeth and lips a scarlet hue. According to traditional belief, the leaf is supposed to represent human skin, the betel nut a shrunken human skull, and the lime the gray matter of the brain. Chewing the doma and spewing out the “blood”, which results from the catalysis of nut, leaf and lime, is believed to be better than cannibalism.

One day Angay Deki takes Mipham, his cousins Kitso and Tobden, who are of a similar age, to the residence of Trulku Kinga, a reincarnate Tibetan Lama. Trulku Kinga shows us around his monastery and speaks of his journey from Tibet to India and Bhutan. He recounts without resentment memories of leaving Tibet, as if that was that and this is this.

Dusk sets in, announced by the buzzing of insects, birds chirping to their nests and the loud, if invisible, cicadas. The night sky is a sprinkling of stars. The skies seem closer, somehow, and smaller than in Holland. Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re deep in the mountains.

Now children are gathering in front of the television set. The 1998 world cup finals in France demanded that satellite television be introduced. Four years later with the 2002 World Cup Finals in Japan and Korea and Bhutan had joined the satellite fraternity. Local cable operators in partnership with Indian companies now beam around 40 channels ranging from HBO to CNN, BBC to ESPN and dozens more. The debate over whether this is a good or bad thing is pretty hot in these highlands.

True Return
Each morning Mipham and I watch Angay Deki rise, wash up and fill the seven water bowls, an offering to the Buddhas. She milks the cows and brings the first cup home to the shrine.

She keeps count of the hundreds of thousands of prostrations she has completed with her prayer beads and the use of special stones. Every day she concludes her devotions with a retreat to this sacred room.

Mipham tries his hand at prayer wheels. All Bhutanese children learn this the simple way, by play. They imitate what they see and hear around them, until they begin to get the deeper significance of such things.

One day Angay Deki has just completed her evening prayers. She’s sitting down facing the altar, reading from the scriptures. Now the kids want to re-enact the scene. They just imitate what they see. Cousin Tobden, especially, seems fond of Angay’s rituals. He also imitates Buddhist mask dances and speaks of becoming a monk. It seems apropos that he’s in the altar room pretending he’s a lama seated in the lotus position. Soon Mipham follows suit. I think of how these innocent acts of repetition are reinforcing experiences the children will carry into their adulthood. I think of all the years that I likely did the very same things.

Watching the children at play with a quiet contentment creeping up on me, I realize that although I have wandered far and distant along the way, I have finally returned home to my Bhutanese roots.

Mipham smiles at me as if in agreement.
By Jurmi Chhowing

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