Varanasi is one of those places that defies not just one’s principles and morals but the very ground one stands upon in more ways than one can possibly imagine. Perhaps it’s this magnetic pull, merged with its total mockery of time and space and our comfortable little niches of places in it that this ancient city on the banks of the sacred Ganga (one learns that it is ‘not a river’) keeps on pulling in travelers, pilgrims and those on the esoteric or other trails of life, as it has done for ages and as it continues to do so, sending them back just the same but with profound changes. Whether subtle or visible, one comes out of this entangled tango all the more enriched and perhaps, with a sense and a peep into what the ‘dance of life’ really means.
But I was not there. Not yet. I was far away from where I find myself now. At this particular junction shy of a month or two, I was home in the mountains and particularly in my working hang-out home in Thimphu. Sitting here I look back at the time gone by, not time gone astray, as another winter sets in ushering in yet another new year. I find myself in a café sitting down writing little vignettes that come to mind; that it was just another winter ago that I was down in the dumps up in an attic, closed off and hermit-like minus the altar of devotion or the discipline required of such hermits and hermitages.
I was anything but a hermit. I’d become a recluse. The causes were many as they tend to be- impassioned work ethics, confounding ethos and a state of mental being that bordered on apathy and neglect, of the mind and the body.
But time as they say is the best healer and dealer of ties that knot and bind and suffocate. I’d given up a job, gone sour on a loan, been lonely and depressed, and that jackpot of misery was further compounded as a cold winter sucked dry the life-juices out of me. I was drained. There was only one way out of this self-imposed isolated misery and that was a way out of the attic (from which I’d move out anyways on account of unscrupulous landlords) and onto the road. But first I’d been told to ‘vacate’ the attic that had become my refuge, my temple, my dungeon, my castle in the Thimphu jungle and my place of rest. I moved into another ‘flat’ (and how apt does that word sound!) and went flat trying to see out the chilly unforgiving winter blanketed and embedded to my bed.
Had it not been for fortuitous events I’d have been ushering in the new A.D still wrapped in that familiar blanket of warmth and security, of the temporal variety.
But what’s life if not a journey unto the unexpected and one’s willingness to surrender and go with timely karmic flows? The fruit was ripened enough to fall down and embrace gravity, either that or the unattractive proposition of rotting on the branch and having it devoured by worms, either clinging to the branch or down on the ground. One thing was certain, I was not going to get wormed, and to plant new seeds I had to take the bite, digest the seeds and see what would sprout up from the ground. Everything must begin from the earth, and with that bit of philosophical digression over a period of wintry springs in an over-slept mattress and blankets, I sprung up from the embedded bed and walked out of that attic.
The light outside from the sun was blinding. It was measure of some flattering self-amusement that I’d managed to spend such a length of time in one spot in a three-bedroom apartment (a waste of spacious space, really, that did not go unnoticed or regretted in the vein of a person who is, let us say, aware of rented space).
I was gonna go to Amsterdam. I had no money. I had no savings. I had no full-time job. I had a debt. The only thing I had of some positive note was that I had none of the above (except for the debt, I could bank on that) because that was the way I’d wanted it to be. I’m not one to suffer terrible colleagues at the workplace so I can collect a paycheck. Money is essential for the bare necessities of life and then some. I reckoned if I could have enough to eat, enough clothing to wrap myself in and a shelter against the elements, I was doing pretty fine. Now that I had those three bare essentials, what else did I need? I needed to go see my son in the Netherlands. How I was gonna do it was a matter that I hoped would materialize in the ways and means of the unknown hemisphere. So I lived suspended in that realm, knowing a shooting star would appear eventually if one keeps gazing unblinking at the midnight winter starlit skies. Sometimes having no option at all can be a real blessing in disguise; the silver lining being the good forces at work when one’s call to certain aspirations are, let’s say, pure without selfish hopes (or selflessly selfish).
The last time I paid a visit to my son was the winter of 2010. It was brief, short, sweet and frankly, not nearly long enough to develop that quality time which, as all things of quality will testament, takes time to nurture. Thus my intentions were as pure as they have ever been, and I’d hoped the invisible forces at play would connect the dots creating a line I could follow and walk on that would eventually lead me to my boy.
You see I’ve a son and he lives with his mother in the Netherlands, quite far away from where I happened to be living at the time.
The help came in the form of his mother and his aunt and his grandmother. They arranged a round-trip ticket for me. The required visa was helped with assistance from Bhutan+Partners; an organization that helps to foster ties between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Bhutan via cultural exchanges and sports.
I could even cover the enthronement of the Crown Prince William-Alexander to the Dutch Throne. It was perfect and I was fortunate. Whatever little monies I required were donated by good friends. One must count one’s blessings in such matters and I was counting a lot, rather happily. The fact that it was all unexpected makes it all the more magical, for such are the ways of the universe and man’s presence in it should one keep one’s heart (and wallets) open.
Arrangements were made. And in the faint spring of that winter I was beginning to stir out of bed. The apartment was a mess. The rug sack was somewhere in that mess. I packed the bare necessities. It was a light luggage, literally. Two mates dropped me in my old car to the border town of Phuentsholing from Thimphu. We left at dusk. The drive was intended thus so we could cover up for all the months we’d hardly spoken. Good friends seldom talk about subjects that ring a little hollow to the ears and shallow on the tongue. Between my friends and me the talk was always minimal; almost nominal in a normal circumstance.
The idea being if we are just going about our daily rut in life there really was no need to get all chatty about something or anything really, and worse yet to harp on them (which obviously produces a lot of cacophony). But on evenings like these the occasion almost demanded that we talk. So we did, and invariably, the talk would always center on subjects that touched as all. It was one defining quality about the friends I’d been fortunate to have. These were friends in need and deed indeed. We were never bogged down by the rat race or the catty bats, we were, more like lumbering elephants that trod along either in herds or went alone on the wolverine. We could not be bothered about the races, chases or the participants thereof.
We were far more animated with the passage of time, memories of friends we’d lost and what it all meant now that most of us were entering the club of the forties, with most of us being martially bonded, realistically divorced, fathering children and continuing the search for that fine balance between marital deference and the sense of freedom we craved so much if there exists such a thing, as demonstrated by the evening’s ride from the capital down to the gateway to Bhutan in Phuentsholing.
We’d done rides like these before and they’d always been meaningful rides in the sense that the time spent is spent spotting birds, animals, trees, flowers, and again the freedom such rides accord up till one reaches the destination. With a sense of some semblance of freedom in the air, the only way to do justice to the whole thing was to talk about where we were in life, and what it all meant. One thing was certain, all of us were painfully aware of the uncertain and transient nature and beauty of life, even with all of our personal and shared tragedies that probably bonded us all the more. Some bondages are good, and the ties that knot them ever so freeing, in one of those paradoxical bonds.
The drive, more of a leisurely ride, took us less than six hours, with no hurries and no worries (as cautioned in the road signposts) seemingly shorter than the time would suggest. The mountain roads are much safer to navigate in the darkness, another reason why we prefer nocturnal drives, as oncoming traffic can always be detected, not to mention the considerably lighter traffic compared to daylight rush hours and the danger of taking those endless curves for careless rides.
The fog at stretches along the road was so dense we were literally doing about 15Kmph, with strong gusts of showers slowing us ever more. As we left that notorious stretch known as Jumja, flickering lights from the plains signaled our close proximity to Phuentsholing. The descent is an exhilarating one, as the fresh thin mountain air thickens with heat and moisture from the tropical plains. In another hour and a half, we were nearing the border town, and the end of one part of my journey.
My mates had to return that very night, so as we reached the Gateway to Bhutan we stopped and made inquiries to pass over to the Indian side, where I’d had a reservation in a local hotel we’d often frequented. In the wee hours of that morning, I bid farewell to my two mates as they got ready for the return leg back to the capital. Such departures always rings in mind the farewell words of HH the Dalai Lama, who, upon the completion of the Kalachakra I’d participated in Bodhgaya a couple of years back, said this to the faithful congregation: we meet to depart and we depart to meet again. He said that in that familiar jovial tone, and ever since, I’d been struck and stuck upon that simple message at the end of an initiation I’d no clue of or any tangible spiritual memory whatsoever. Some things in life one best remembers are the little things, and this was one of them.
The next day I boarded the local train from Hashimara to New Jalpaiguri Train Station (better known as NJP), the hub of all arrivals and departures in that region of the state of West Bengal.
I could have flown straight to Delhi from Paro. But suffice it to say that I did not due to monetary, and other valuable reasons, such as making that drive down and taking the train; a mode of transportation I’ve been in love with since I first laid eyes on that rather romantic machine when I was about ten to twelve years old, living in that border town, and was in a way fulfilling that dream of a wanderlust’s seed long planted in my imagination in this very town.
Before boarding the local train, I went to the Bhutan Train Reservation Quota’s office where a helpful young man made my reservation and confirmation in minutes. A local Indian friend accompanied me till NJP. A night passed by in NJP with nothing of note save my excitement at being on a journey that would see me see my son in a matter of days.
The sleep was a dreamless rest, just what I needed.
The next day we were back in NJP, and my Brahmaputra Express to Delhi was right on time. With my reading material in tow, I got to my bunker and made myself at home. The train would do the rest. It was time to just unwind and enjoy the journey. I find trains one of the best modes of transport in which to read. One can focus easily as one begins to move in rhythm to the movement of the train. I put aside the serious book I was carrying and caught up on the local news through half-a-dozen Indian national dailies, something I’m prone to whenever I’m in India. Cheap, well written and presented, the Indian media is a reflection of the country itself, rich variety with a lot of spice. From serious content to the tabloid fodder, there is something on everything.
Almost seventeen hours, several chais and couple of coffees and snacks later, we trudge ever so patiently and diligently towards the New Delhi Railway Station, about a fifteen-minute walk from Connaught Place and right in front of Pahargunj, a street known for its touristic wares, cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels accommodating the tight budget traveler to luxury haunts.
It sometimes reminds me of Khao San Road in Bangkok in its early days, with friendly locals, shopkeepers and businessmen who keep a pace of life that one must surrender and adjust to. It has not yet become the commercial street that Khao San has become of late but sign of the times are in the offing. A subway sandwich outlet tells you that story. It always starts with one multinational outlet before the whole circus comes to town and basically ruins it for everyone. But I guess those are the tell-tell signs of the times we live in and really, commercialization is just waiting to happen no matter how local one would like to see the locales one has grown fond of.
But for now there was nothing more pressing for me than being on that flight to the Netherlands. I’ve lived in the Netherlands, and for no apparent reason, the name of this flat little country always amuses me; neither here nor there is what comes to mind. Quite apt considering it resonates with my own state of continuous limbo, neither here nor there indeed. I’m filled with nervous energy as I make my way to the exit gates. No matter what I do, a part of me is keeping an eye out for my son. The moment is fueled by so many emotions, but I try and keep them at bay, choosing one emotion amongst so many. I go for the moment and try and stay in it; partly to get a hold on myself and the other to avoid getting overly emotional. And there he is! I can’t believe how tall and grown up he looks and seems. Time spent away from each other does that, the first thing you grasp is the physical change, following which comes the inner mental transformations. We hug, and then we talk. It’s a real trip for me. Fortunately there are no falls.
Holland, as it is also known, is all orange. The enthronement ceremony is literally the day after I land in the Netherlands, another moniker for the flat wind-milled watered-country. The press has been allocated prime-time space right next to the Palace on the Dam, where the royalty traditionally appear on the balcony to do the acknowledgment and the royal wave. There is an air of festivity that pervades the air, and permeates the city’s nooks and crags, alleys and corridors, restaurants and bars, cafes and shops, windows and apartments. The show of solidarity in the passage of the crown from a beloved queen in Beatrix to her son the crown prince is touching, reminiscent of our own passage and the enthronement of His Majesty the King in 2008 in Punakha. The fact that the dominant color on display was orange adds further hue to what is already an impressive show. It reminds me of our own attachment to the orange half of the national flag.
I find my way to the press hall. There are news media from all over. I’m the only Bhutanese, as is my want, and find myself becoming a subject of some curiosity to the local Dutch media. Flattering as it is, I must get on with the business of going around interviewing people and their reflections on what it all means. The general feeling is one of positivity, followed in small parts by careful optimism, tied as it is to the stagnant economy and the fears thereabouts. The one universal echo is the high regard, love and respect measured to the long reigning queen. The new king to be is lauded for his casual down to earth approach to everything, and standing tall and beautiful beside him is his ever popular Argentine queen to be, Maxima. Her name is uttered with smiles.
The next day, April 30, 2013, in a traditional ceremony, Willem-Alexander became the first king of the Netherlands since 1890, after his mother, grandmother and great grandmother. I had my story, more or less, and had it urgently wired to The Raven in Bhutan. Now I was going to spend quality time with my son, and with that, I hoped for the best and prepped myself for the worst. As it often turns out, intuition can be a dangerous gut. I had seven months of beautiful moments and an accompanying parallel of seven months of self-introspection. When one lives abroad devoid of the safety net of the large extended family, the big circle of friends and colleagues and that massive diaspora one calls a community, one can no longer ignore the callings and the flailing of the heart and all that has been deposited there without proper care or retrospection. The floodgates open and one must be, surprisingly thankful, to such forces as one is propelled to look within and investigate causes and effects.
Living a life like that on a daily basis is not for the faint of heart, and I was an old bull at the mercy of the matador. But one swims best when one is flung in the roaring waters and the currents do the rest. You just hope it throws you clean in either bank, preferably alive and in one piece.
Then getting up on the shore, you pick up the pieces and find a place of peace within yourself. Using that as a base for sanity, you look within and then without. Time suddenly whizzes by, and one realizes the futility of such dwellings, and also the necessity of such turmoil. The fruits of such gardens are bittersweet, but fruits they are, nonetheless, fundamentally capable of shifting your insights, and giving you more room and ease with which to deal with the vicissitudes of life, and of that impending moment when we all must bid farewell to those we love, if goodbyes somehow sounds too final.
I said my goodbyes, with words from HH the Dalai Lama ever so playfully ringing in my inner ears tie and time again; that we meet to depart, and we depart to meet again.
It was the perfect antidote to my sinking emotions, and as I lay in the terminal awaiting our boarding to the plane, the destination I was heading to stirred me from a state of melancholia to one of daring dreams. Incredible India awaited me next, and I had plans, from the holy Ganges and the Buddhist trail, to the Southern warmth and general mayhem.
The madness was beautiful, and I’d be mad if I wrote about it now, for such madness is magical, demanding fresh new retrospectives and introspections, not to mention brand new stories, off the rejuvenating kind one hopes, and all one can really do is do properly whatever situation arises next, and scratch where it itches.
To hedonistically Amsterdamned
Back in the belly that repels and attracts
To Varanasi’s holy banks
Sarnath’s scintillating sermon
Bodh Gaya’s Buddhist footprints
Khaju Rao’s illustrious temples
And Sanchi’s sacred monuments
To a random stop-over called Chalisgaon- the Forty Villages
And discovering rejuvenation in Goan beaches
If I could borrow the dead poet’s living phrase
And alter it a little
Here’s what the epitaph would read-
“There’s miles to stop before I pop
There’s miles to stop before I pop”