Saturday, September 19, 2009
When the Kings play ball
It’s the centenary year and we are all paying tribute to our precious monarchs. So we should. A hundred years of glorious reign has showered on us and so much has changed; from the way we dress and eat to the way we walk and talk. From Morse code to computers and the Internet Bhutan today communicates in a manner quite audacious from the way things were.
We had wireless operators and a department of wireless. Of cause, everything was weird, but that’s how it was known- the meaning of words might change with newer tools but not the purpose.
Men crossed the rugged terrains of our country with wireless sets and other gear on their backs, moving from one remote dzongkhag to next, conveying message for family members living in different parts of the country. Keeping them connected. In my mind, there is strange connection between the department of wireless and our divine Forth King. Communication comes in many guises, besides technology.
I was born in 1972, two years before He took the Golden Throne; a tender age, even for a king.
Not only did He led the kingdom through two and half a decades of unprecedented peace and development, but He did it through communicating whit His subjects, moving from dzongkhag to another, from one village to another. The man who operated the Morse codes traveled before His Majesty and set up communication camps (my late father was one of them). My first memories of our kings are of the iconic posters with the Forth Kings that hung in every home, shop and office- seeing, communicating to us a sense of identity and belonging that was unique and distinct; something that gave the Bhutanese people hope and assurance.
My first memory of seeing our Forth King in person was on the National Day, /December 17.
I was maybe five or seven. The memories are a bit fuzzy but I remember the seating was Samtse and I remember seeing Him. He was my King; I knew that much and it was more than enough. Sometime in the early 80’s, my father was transferred from Phuentsholing to Thimphu. The capital was a sleepy town of two lanes, almost.
When I was sent to high school in Punakha, things were changing. There were more schools, hospitals and roads than there’d ever been. I didn’t understand any of it. Now I do. The country was on a road of development that would transform the way we lived and saw our country and ourselves and the way the outside world saw us. Bhutan was embracing change, on its own terms. But back in school, we were a bunch of a teenager boy, too full of youthful hormones to notice or comprehend the changes taking place around us and all over the Kingdom.
The King’s occasional trips to Punakha were what we all look forward to. We’d be out on a cool evening walk. Suddenly a siren would pierce the quiet air. It’s His Majesty! It’s His Majesty! The pilot would zip by with a stern look from the guards and His Range Rover would come closer. With our heart in our mouths, we’d bow trying to sneak and peek. One time He stopped and asked us how we were doing. He had a cigar, a big one. We grabbed the cigar and seeking out a quit tavern, smoked the cigar down to the butt. We probably coughed more than we smoked. There were more Cuban butts to come but the thrill of that one was priceless. We’d just smoked the Kings cigar!
He’d make sudden visits to the schools and He came to ours in 1986.He walked into our classroom and we were all paralyzed. I think it was the sheer presence and glory He embodied. He asked us about our studies, the food and told us we were the future of the nation and that we must strive to excel in whatever we did. I was ecstatic! Then I saw Him play basketball in our court. It was a hot day. He played in His gho and He played smooth. I changed the way I played the sports. I became a basketball devotee that day.
When He left, we felt a bit empty. But He’d left us with enough wings to get us through the rest of the semester. When it ended, I vowed to see Him when I got back to Thimphu. It worked out. I was transferred to Paro High School the following semester and then later I became a drop- out, hanging out in the streets of Thimphu. It was time well spent. His Majesty would come down to the Changlimithang Basketball Court every evening at about three or four. I’d be there every day, earnestly and religiously awaiting hiss convoy.
The now familiar pilot-Jeep was a welcome sign and that familiar dark and green-lime-Range Rover would kick up dust as it drove to the ground adjacent to the court.
The games would go on and I’d be watching the way He looked, moved and shot the ball: Captivated by His presence, mesmerized by His plays.
I had a group of local friends. We called ourselves the ‘commandos’ for our love of army fatigues and played hoop from dusk sill sundown. Basketball became our passion. We have no coaches or trainers. We had a ball and His Majesty’s visit to the National stadium to look forward to everyday.
In time the old swimming pool Complex became His Majesty’s new shooting grounds. Three years had gone by and the face of the capital was beginning to change, along with the Kingdom. Political divisions were brewing in the south. WE were oblivious to it all. Playing hoop and watching our King play satisfied us.
One day as we were playing, He walked in! It was so sudden and startling none of us knew how to respond! He told us to carry on and that He’d play against us the next day. I was going to play against my hero, My King! It was hard trying to sleep that night and the day seemed to drag on. The hour finally came and I had my first real communication with the King, with the ball as the mediator. We were badly beaten! The game done, His majesty gave us the game ball as Soera, Which I later learnt was what He Always did. Then He fired us benignly, pumping us up to do better.
Afterward, we were given a treat at the Swiss Bakery. It was my first. I ate a lot hamburgers and moon rocks.
When I decided to go back to school I had about three deflated Michael Jordan balls. I went back to school on trumped-up certified and qualified for college.
I went to Kanglung and became a member of a basketball team. It was 1991. The country was in the grip of the southern dilemma. There were killings all over the border towns. People in the south were leaving the country, out of fear or suspension. On campus there was static vibes between the southern and northern students. We didn’t understand the cause. Why was this happening? We’d never had any problems with our southern brothers. By now, Telecom had replaced the old wireless set and the country was pretty much connected.
We heard, thought the grapevine, stories about the King making visits to the southern dzongkhags, pleading to his subjects to stay back, trying to convince them about the paramount need for a “One country, One people “reality; trying to make them understand. We didn’t grape them how dangerous the visits were to His life and how compassionate His actions.
He was trying to communicate where others were bent on destroying. He visited us in College twice. The first visit, He spoke to us about the problems in the south and how we must stand together. His advice was always revealing, perceptive and rousing with an added emphasis on the magnitude of our roles as future custodians of the country.
Somehow I never seemed to get that part. Maybe I was late bloomer.
He’d eat with us as He did when I was in school. With a few more words of encouragement, He’d be gone. When He came back on his second visit, ‘do anything but come to campus.’ I curse myself. His Majesty played a game of ball with the college team and I missed that too! The principal was later awarded the red scarf. I’ve a feeling that was the reason I was left out. The problems in the south were beginning to abate, though wounds would take time to heal.
I graduated from the college and traveled a lot in India. I lived overseas for about nine years. In all my travels, I was found myself trying to echo the words of my King and talking about His life as an example of enlightened leadership, his personal stand and charge against the ULFA camps, His resolution and announcement to abdicate in favor of His son, the Crown prince, His decision to user in democracy and the priceless gift of the constitution. Why was He doing all this? Now that the elections has been successfully conducted and our Fifth King’s coronation about to be celebrated; I still feel the way I felt when I was a schoolboy and He’d drop by and make everything seem all right. Our Monarchs have done more for us than what we have done for our Monarchs.
Today I’m 37 and still amazed at the farsightedness of His Majesty, The Forth King. He spoke to us, at for us and played for us. When I hear about our Fifth King and the present king-playing hoop, I smile and feel blessed and happy. That same iconic poster still smiles and greets us at every home, shop and office but with deference. A new era of optimistic change is adrift in the air. It is the radiating picture of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, “The People’s King.”
God bless our glorious Druk Gyalpos!