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A kingdom in the skies

In Bhutan, silence speaks in a thousand tongues, all amiable and joyful. But how long can one take such determined happiness? Lalita Panicker writes.

world Updated: Dec 13, 2009 00:13 IST
Lalita Panicker

‘What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’ William Henry Davies’ lament might never have been written had he visited Bhutan. As the Druk Air flight negotiates the perilous passage between mountains, its wings almost touching the mossy surfaces, your initial terror gives way to a curious sense of having left the world behind.

Indeed, that is what you do when you set foot in the land of the thunder dragon. The first thing you notice in Paro airport is that everything moves at a leisurely pace; no one’s tense, or in a hurry to get anywhere.

As I wound up the steep road to my resort hotel, which, I was assured, had views of verdant meadows and mountains, I felt myself slowly sinking into the ground. Was this part of the mystical Bhutan experience, I wondered, only to realise that my car had gently careened into a gigantic pothole. The driver did not bat an eyelid as he laboured to haul us out.

Once out, we trundled along at about 5 kmph and sank into yet another pothole. No problem, the driver told me as we rattled along till we finally arrived at the hotel. A drive that should have taken 15 minutes took all of an hour. My nerves were shot to bits, but the driver seemed positively joyous.

Dashing off to my room, I leapt into the bath, only to be greeted by an icy jet of water. Encasing my substantial form in an all-too-small bathrobe, I informed the hotel reception of my plight. Within seconds, three people arrived, inspected the shower intensely and finally told my shivering personage that the hot water system was not working. ‘I know that, you nincompoop; why do you think I called you?’ died on my lips when they bowed and offered to get me a bucket of hot water. They did so pronto — and knocked it over in the bath. Tearing my hair out, I went to sleep.

Why could I not bring myself to shout at these people, I wondered. The next day, the answer struck me: They are so non-aggressive, so amiable, so full of the gross national happiness quotient that has been sprinkled upon them by the former king and perpetuated by the new one. Yes, everyone in this magical land is happy.

I desperately sought signs of unhappiness at the appalling roads in Paro, the desperate poverty in many pockets, the hardships in getting children to school, the lack of economic opportunities. But no sirree, there was only a glow of happiness all around. Apple-cheeked babies trundled along fearsome roads with their parents, all in a seeming state of delirious happiness.

The penny then dropped. They had been conditioned into believing that gross national happiness was more important than mere trifles like GDP and career advancement. They were happy with the simple things of life— the tumbleweed clouds, the crouching mountains, the azure skies, the fertile land and a benign monarch. Munching their popular local dish, ‘ema datschi’, an incendiary concoction of cheese and chillies (you eat everything with industrial doses of chillies here) people will tell you that they have no time for democracy; they do not want choice, they long for a strong monarchy. But the monarch has decided that democracy is an idea whose time has come for Bhutan.

If you go to Bhutan expecting to trip the light fantastic at night, stay at home. Everything shuts down in cities like Paro and Thimpu by about 9 pm. If you like babbling brooks, passive people and landscapes that Monet might have painted, then you’re in the right place. If you are looking for a cheap holiday with Kathmandu-like attractions, forget it. Here it’s only King and country. And no backpackers, yippee.

Foreigners (but not Indians) have to shell out $200 a day for the pleasure of staying in Bhutan, in addition to the crippling charges in the grossly over-priced hotels where a glass of wine will cost you the same as at a five-star hotel in Delhi.

But you can trek along the winding mountain paths to heights where you can almost touch the face of God. You can sit by rivers of melted jade creeping lugubriously over eggshell-white pebbles. You can take in the crimson splashes of chillies on rooftops and meditate near the infinite hum of the pagodas. Thimpu is so small, you can walk around it in an hour or two.

But to visit Bhutan is not to visit its nondescript cities. It is to get your head in the clouds, literally. Where silence speaks in a thousand tongues, where money seems a vulgar necessity, where you see John Lennon’s brotherhood of man in action. As for me, all this gross happiness quotient was beginning to make my jaws ache. So back to the real world — crabby, nasty, brutish, snarling and tense.