Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tribute To Benez: More Than a Watering Hole And The End Of An Era

"A water-holler recounts an evening of red panda draft beer, Confucius, and getting punched by a Frenchie." (A Tribute To Benez... As One of the Capital's most renowned, respected, and fun-filled barsfeer shut down its iconic doors last week. The piece below was penned down on its 20th anniversary... 2008. Anuj, Thank You For The Good Times... And The Memories... Wishing You And Family All The Best.)


Last night was a delight; I left the Bhutan Times offices and along with a comrade (who, I swear, will take Bhutanese television and the film industry by storm!), made our way home to change into ‘casual gears’. Getting out of the ‘joker costume’ does help the hips. When one is as bonny as we are, the kera sinks in, eats the skin and crushes the bones.

It is not a ballad of a thin man, it is the torture of a skinny guy belted in and blown about. Clad in casuals, we headed downtown to partake in the 20th anniversary celebrations of Benez; a restaurant that’s withstood the chameleon Thimphu landscape; a restaurant that’s become more than a restaurant, with a bar that offers more than its own brand of drinks. It is in many ways, the epitome of bar hospitality. Where strangers are welcomed and introduced, made comfortable and in time, become part of the mainstream patronage. For the patrons, it’s a place you go to slow down, relax and catch up on things official, un-official, businesslike, and personal to the downright idiotic.

I enjoy all of the above, though I’d have to confess the idiotic part gets me most animated, and thus have I noticed, it does the others too! For there’s nothing more than blatant naked idiocy adults’ love indulging in! It’s a paradoxical therapy of both the highest and the lowest denominations. The man who runs the establishment is the animator-in-chief! His every word is accompanied in equally measured gestures. Sometimes I enjoy his gestures more than his POW (point of wiew!) stories and jokes and sometimes the synchronization is complete. The movement of his hands and the expressions on his face complementing and orchestrating the verbosity, illustrating a fact there, emphasizing a point here.

Followed by rapturous laughter!

As with other premises in life; the entrance of the regulars announces their current moods. ‘Different strokes for different folks’ is the entrance theme. Some walk in joyfully, others tiptoe in apprehension, yet others in announce in their tensions of the day. And once the polite courtesies are done with, it’s down to brass tacks and bar knuckles. Pull a bar stool here, perch on a bar stool there, and join in the merriment to your own detriment! There are among the regular patrons, a stream of understanding that no matter what, we are here to chill-out and that’s what we will do.

The in house drinks consists of a repertoire of homemade stuff invoking children’s illustrated books that would sell well on giant billboards; Yeti’s Milk, the Divine Madman, Phallic Thirst, the Dragon’s Breath etc. the one among JRR Tolkin’s bar shelf that does good business is the house draft beer; rather curiously termed the ‘Namu Red Panda Draft Beer.’ Do not be surprised if you happen to see red pandas walking and driving about town tossing and shooting about epithets of ‘Confucius says’.

(A sample: Man who stay in bar, don’t go far,

Man who live in shack, soon pack,

Man who write too much, run out of words.)

The evening began auspiciously with a ‘cocktail punch’ a petite French girl had mixed up. The drinks were generously pouring along with the arrival of patrons’ young, mid-aged and old. Many of the faces reflected a puzzling somber yet upbeat mood, in keeping with the 20th anniversary celebrations. There were expatriates, businessmen, civil servants, representatives of the media, and gentlemen of leisure. As the evening matured, the somberness died and a cauldron of cheers brewed.

Nothing beats a karaoke bar like a spontaneous outburst of songs from yesteryear's albums. The tempo picks up and the lone crooner is backed up by anyone who remembers a line, a verse, a beat and the tone of the songs; vocalizing more in gusto and raw zest than anything else. There is a soundtrack of joy running through it all. In the end, it is not so much about the gravity of the occasion, rather the reverse might hold true; that the watering hole is still haunted by animals old, young and the new. That a restaurant and a bar can also be uncannily therapeutic. One does not have to become a drunkard or an alcoholic to adopt a place of drink and patronize a bar.

Bars can also serve as places where old social bonds are tightened, new friendships are forged and the issues of the day, debated. Sometimes without rhyme or reason, at others, with thought and aptitude. The important thing is that everybody talks, communicates and hence opens doors of perception that is unique to each water-holler.

We hung out early and broke the bread; twenty years is two decades long! New nations have come into existence, old ones have fragmented and disappeared, and right here at home; everything was pretty much different to what we see today. There were lesser buildings, houses, shops, services, automobiles, bars and restaurants. Running along that vein, Bhutan twenty years ago was in no small dose, a different kingdom to the one unraveling today.

Change is permanent and all we can deduce from the changes taking shape right in front of our noses is that some of it smells good, others bad.

The political odor in the air is by far the most pungent aroma in terms of change; how we are governed and how we view governance. People’s participation on a scale we are now witnessing is a revolution by Bhutanese standards. Invariably, changes such as these also demand investigation, accountability, transparency and everything a good governance entails.

Sitting in a bar stool might seem an inappropriate place, too low for discussing, brain and barnstorming transformations such as these; but neither are these topics too lofty to be spoken for or against; be it in a bar stool or a conference hall. If anything, the more it is scrutinized and debated, the better it bodes well for the man quenching more than his raw thirst in a watering hole. Gross National Happiness is now an ingrained Bhutanese expression, the manner in which we express it, is also as important and indicative of where we are going right, and where we are being left.

That, to pour it in a glass, is what two decades of Benez revamped has done to me.

****Meantime, a Proper Tribute Is In The Works! Cheers Anuj, For The Memories, For The Good Times... To Your Family... a Jolly Good Life!

PS: YourLustForLifeStartsRightNow!

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