If someone were to write a book on ‘How to win friends and influence people’, they should include a chapter on ‘give away free chocolates’. I don’t know about the rest of the world, but I do know in my team it is bound to make you popular.
Last week one of my colleagues from Singapore had come to India to make a presentation on some newly launched product. He was from some department in treasury – always considered the snootiest of people in most banks. Not to mention, he was from Singapore and hence perceived to be snootier still. And the presentation was at 9.30 in the morning when most of us are too sleepy to have acknowledged the fact that yet another workday has began. A combination of all this ensured that we sat and stared at him grouchily as he started his presentation. Within five minutes, he had figured out that the presentation would probably proceed on the lines of a funeral if he did not take some quick measures. With a flourish he announced an impromptu quiz on some really elementary topic and told the winners would get chocolates. Man, you should have seen the lot of us. We were miraculously transformed from impassive sulky employees into enthusiastic members of a great team.

What is about free chocolates that can make a bunch of people in their late 20s and early 30s react like good school children? It is not like we can’t afford to buy our own chocolates. For me, I think it is the unexpected binging trip. For someone else it is a throwback to those days as a kid when a classmate’s birthday meant a sudden rare chocolate to cheer up the daily grind.

Whatever the reason, when it is chocolate my entire team can sell its soul really cheap.


Bollywood musings

Today was a lovely ‘Thank God it is Friday’ day. Everyone lingered for well over an hour after lunch, discussing stuff and nonsense. Suddenly we were in the middle of the worst scenes/stories from Bollywood movies. Here are three of the picks:

Hello Brother – The main theme of the story is heart transplant. No, it is not a message about donating your organs. Salman Khan dies. His heart is transplanted into Arbaz Khan. Then Arbaz Khan falls in love with Salman Khan’s sweetheart, Rani Mukherjee. Why? Because Salman’s heart is now in Arbaz. In case you have not already collapsed under this weighty medical discovery, you can read further. After a series of funny scenes (and fairly good stuff at that), we reach the climax. Rani is talking to Salman Khan’s ghost and confesses that she would have probably not loved Arbaz had Salman’s heart not been in the former’s body. Salman Khan then goes to heaven, a happy and contented ghost. But boy, am not sure if Rani was thinking of how her family life is going to be with husband Arbaz always wondering what the deal with him is.

Raja Ki Aayegi Barat – This was apparently Rani Mukherjee’s first movie. It had the path breaking storyline of a rapist’s victim (Rani) taking the rapist to court and getting a judgment to marry him. Traumatised by this injustice, the rapist-husband tries to kill Rani. One of the many ways he tries is letting a snake into her room. Rani looks at the snake and swoons. The disappointed but enterprising snake goes and bites rapist-husband. Rani wakes up and realises he is dying (the rapist not the snake). So proceeds to suck the poison out of his body and spit it out. And she saves him. By this point, most people in the audience are thunderstruck and wondering how long the story will proceed on complete and utter denial of reality. Firstly, a judgment that can only exist in cuckoo land. Secondly, the billion dollar question of how do people procure snakes so easily and manage to handle them even more easily and expect it to find the correct target like one of those heat missiles. And finally, do snakes usually shy away from biting unconscious people?

Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – Ok, this is not absurd per se. But I really thought most people missed noticing this scene with great comic potential. Kajol is about to get married to Salman Khan. But she really loves Shah Rukh Khan. So when she is descending down the stairs into the wedding mantap, she starts weeping and looks pointedly at Shah Rukh Khan. All the guests fall silent realizing it is going to be the wedding story of their lives and wait with bated breath for action. Salman Khan is fast realizing that there is going to be no wedding or honeymoon for him. Amidst the silence comes a sole duty-bound voice ‘Kanya ko bulavo. Shubh muharat nikal raha hai’ (Ask the bride to come. The auspicious hour is getting over). It is the priest. Salman Khan gives him a withering look that says it all ‘Sense the mood buddy. You may want to give your money’s worth later on…if required’. The persistent priest tries once more before finally giving up under Salman’s continued withering stare. It is a shame few people appreciate a strong sense of duty, but perhaps in this scenario I can empathise with Salman Khan.


My Prince Charming?

One of the side effects of being 28 and single is that every once in a while, your parents foist someone on to you and then sit back and hope you will get married to the person. This happens to me at regular intervals (And I must say the advantage about growing older is that the intervals become less and less frequent). Anyway, after a fairly longish period of not going through any lectures on having to settle down, my parents seemed up to something. I can usually see the signals of such things coming up. Hushed whispers when I am not around hinting at due diligence being done. This particular time, since the prospective groom’s parents belonged to a different community, a little more than usual due diligence was done. All I can is that whether I meet my soul mate or not through this route, my dad’s acquaintance circle is certainly expanding.

So there it was. One fine evening I checked my inbox and saw a mail from my mom saying that XXX is interested in getting to know me better and I can mail him. We have a quaint system in our house. Dad actually does the due diligence etc, mom is in charge of passing on the message to me – always over mail. And I need to do the part of getting in touch with the guy. This is convenient to everyone since it prevents embarrassing discussions on how a 28 year old has to depend on her parents to be set up with someone.

XXX had a pretty ordinary profile that mentioned the usual things – “I like music, I like traveling and I like sports”. There are very few profiles I read where someone says I like reading and by that means something more than Sidney Sheldon. The picture that went with the profile showed a tall young man in a sleeveless t-shirt. Pictures of men in sleeveless T-Shirts always put me off for some reason. Nevertheless, with no strong reasons for objecting, we started mailing each other.

The first mail is usually easy. By now I know how to write a mail that is short enough to provide some interesting details without being garrulous, but not too short to show a lack of interest, a mail that gives some idea of myself without revealing too much in case the guy turns out to be a stalker and finally a mail that asks some questions to get the guy going. XXX sent a reply. I replied again.

I opened my inbox to check my mail, and there it was. A mail that went ‘I will write to you later. I am getting into a conference call’. Whoa. The deal on such mail communications with a perfect stranger is you don’t expect them to write every hour or even every day. They can write whenever they have the time and the inclination. Which means a mail every third day is also fine as long as it shows a tread of continuity. Not something that is completely unconnected with the topic of discussion, especially with a meaningless piece of info.

Since I could not comprehend a single sensible reason for this mail, I was not too keen on writing to this guy any more. But for some reason I persisted. Perhaps, at the back of my mind was this slight feeling of guilt that I had to spend at least as much time on this guy as my dad spent with his dad. So I wrote back a light funny mail asking him why he told me about the conference call. I did not get a funny and light reply but a rather embarrassed one liner mumbling some inane reason. Good enough. We kept at it.

However, after nearly a month of mailing, the only thing I knew about him were (a) he attended conference calls (b) he was excellent at writing one-line pointless mails that kept a contact alive (c) his parents had been to Bhutan. The last one because I had told him I was going to Bhutan.

Anyway, it was time to test the strength of our ‘relationship’ and see if it would withstand moving to the next level. I wrote a polite mail saying it has been fun writing to him but we were obviously not getting to know each other better and perhaps it would be a good idea to meet up.

Man. I have heard that men are afraid of commitment. Surely, that does not mean meeting someone. All I have heard so far is silence. All of those twice-a-day one-liners came to an abrupt halt. I am trying to see what I said that could have scared him away. He could have surely not expected me to spend the rest of my life conceiving light and funny replies to mails that went ‘I am on a conference call’.

This does however prove my theory that men who wear sleeveless shirts should be ignored.

One morning

This morning I got into an auto rickshaw. I cannot call it just an auto. Nay, Sir. It was a mammoth version of its species, meant to carry at least 6 people and about 3 feet above the ground. Most unlike normal autos that can carry only 3 people and is usually 1 foot about the ground. Since there was no other auto and I was already running late, I got into the vehicle and we were on our way. I was perched like a washer man on his donkey, but I tried to look elegant and comfortable. Just when I was actually beginning to enjoy the view from up there, I realised an annoying sound in the background like that of a buffalo grunting continuously. After a few seconds, I realised it was the background score of my majestic auto. Clearly, today I would be the center of attraction. That would not have been such a bad thing, had it not been for the fact the auto driver decided to take the Boat Club route.

The easiest route to my friend’s house involves going through the most posh area in the city. The Boat Club area houses the rich and famous in their modest Rs 5 cr homes. This is not to say they are flashy loud people. Infact, being old money, it is an unusually quiet neighbourhood with plenty of trees lining both sides of the road and blocking the views of most houses from the road. I have noticed that except for cars, no one else uses this short cut. Mere two wheelers and three wheelers are usually discouraged by all the quiet and solemnity. And of course none of the residents drive anything less than a four-wheeler.

So there we were, ready to enter boat club. What seemed like a buffalo grunting in peak traffic now sounded like a herd of buffalos stampeding in the quiet Boat Club area.

Have you ever tried to nonchalantly sip tea in an elegant hotel that you have entered by mistake? You are obviously not dressed for the occasion and can feel the polite indifference of various elegant people in their expensive clothes. The five minute ride felt like that. In the balmy sun, there I was. People on the road craned their necks ever so gently to see this wannabe rich woman who had commanded her auto driver to parade here around the neighbourhood. The people were of course largely servants who were basking in the richness of their employers and hence were prone to be even more judgmental.

Does this matter anyway, you may ask. The answer is no. But there are some moments in life when you find yourself in a vaguely hilarious position and this sure counted as one for me.


Bhutan - Epilogue

The train reached Cal by 9 and we managed to squeeze every bit of luggage into the tiny Tata Indica that had come to pick us up. Groaning under the weight, the car made it’s way to W’s friends house. After a quick wash and some breakfast, all of us went out to explore Cal. W decided to hang out with his friend. S, P and myself drove around staring at the beautiful British buildings on Dalhousie Square. We were too late to catch lunch at the Coffee House, a popular adda place close to the university. Adda as the Outlook magazine put it is ‘a discussion without agenda’. We managed to see why the place generated the amount of conversation it did on philosophy, arts and economics. I could not think of better settings, with high ceilings, fans hanging low, faded walls, cavernous room, tables packed close together with wired wooden chairs, for pontification. We wandered about seeing Presidency College, Cal University and the mostly closed bookshops on the platform. The ones that were open had some brilliant books.

After a while I left to visit the house in which I had stayed in sixteen years ago as a child. Nothing much had changed, including the flower shops on the platform as you stepped out of the building. Cal is the best place to wallow in nostalgia. Nothing changes.

After taking a lot of snaps to show my family, I took the underground metro. It had been unique sixteen years ago, and even today remains unique. I could not think of too many other places in India where such prime advertisement locations could be filled with paintings and quotes from Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali.

P and S had spent the afternoon drinking tea at a lovely tea parlour on Park Street. The parlour was simple and elegant, again with the typical Cal high ceilings. The best part were the enormous windows overlooking Park Street. One could watch the world go by while the sun poured in. I joined them and after just one quick cuppa, it was time for us to go to the airport.

We rushed in with our large pile of luggage and checked in. P luckily prevented any awkwardness in the last minute conversation by disappearing and leaving us all wondering if she was going to miss her flight. Finally, after we had charted out quite a few dramatic scenarios, she arrived and told us that she had gone in to check a penknife she had carried in her hand baggage by mistake. Incredulous and laughing, all of us waved good-bye and P and myself left to take the Chennai flight.


Bhutan - Day 8 - Paro to Phuentsholing

For once P and I were ready well before the guys. We had to make it to an 8.15 p.m. train and did not want to miss it. After some last minute snaps, we loaded the luggage and were on our way. It was quite depressing being on the last leg of the journey. The place we stopped for breakfast looked more like India than Bhutan. Till then everyone had been wearing the Bhutanese national dress – men in gho and women in kira. Now more and more people were wearing jeans and T Shirts.

It began to rain after a while. The road wound up and down mountains and we found ourselves driving through clouds every once in a while. P, sitting next to the window overlooking the valley began to shriek every time Rajesh drove too close to the edge. After a while she switched sides with S but the valley was on her side again after a couple of turns. She just began to look ahead and not worry too much about falling to a painful death. It was something all of us were beginning to worry about. The rain had started to pour by then and visibility was about ten feet. With careful scanning you could make out where the road turned. For fifteen minutes I sat trying to look nonchalant but with my fists clenched. The silence showed that everyone in the jeep was doing the same. Eventually the sky began to clear and the road became prettier.

The roads were built by Dantak, India’s border road organization. Dantak had put up various signs for the benefit of rash drivers, including ‘Drive, don’t fly’, ‘this is a highway, not a runway’ and the very chauvinistic ‘don’t gossip. You will distract him’. Given that P and I were the ones who actually drove regularly and W and S did not, this seemed a bit ironic.

In spite of the delay on account the rain, we managed to reach Phuentsholing, the border town, by lunchtime. It was time for the moment of reckoning. P and I had got our passports stamped when we entered Bhutan since we had come by air. W and S, on the other hand, just had to fill out a form. Indians are not required to carry a passport and can make do with any government issued photo i.d. Both of them were very clear that it was completely pointless going to an international destination if one did not manage to get one’s passport stamped. All of us lined up at the exit point and showed our papers. The official affixed a small ‘departed’ stamp on P’s and my passports. But he just took W’s form. W looked at him hopefully and asked if he could stamp their passports too. The official, using impeccable logic explained that if the passport had not been stamped on arrival, how could they expect a stamp upon exit.

Nothing could cheer up the two of them and in a dejected mood, we had lunch and did some more shopping – yeah yeah. When we got back in the jeep Rajesh asked if the passports had been stamped. W and S sulked that theirs had not been. Intrepid Rajesh then decided to take up the issue with the officials while the guys waited like school children about to receive gifts. The task was too much even for Rajesh though and we left with no official proof of W and S having made the trip.

We were now officially in India. Which sadly did not seem to be such a great thing since the dividing line between Bhutan and India was just an innocuous arch – see the photo - but both seemed to belong to different worlds. On the Indian side, the road was crowded and filth was piled everywhere. Luckily the view turned out to be temporary and after a while the road went through tea gardens.

We made it back to the train on time and were finally at the end of our excellent road trip.

Bhutan Day 7 - Punakha - Paro

The schedule for the day was to reach Paro. Punakha to Paro was a not a long drive. With no reason to hurry, P and I made perfect use of the excellent balcony, eating breakfast and reading three-day-old newspapers while occasionally staring at the spectacular view. I had not read a newspaper in days and was desperate for any kind of information in newsprint. W and S had gotten ready early as usual and went to the buffet in the restaurant. As expected the food was terribly expensive forcing both of them to consume well over their average limits in order to recover costs. Both had shown a lot of reticence till then, picking at their foods like dainty eighteenth century girls not wanting to scare away any potential suitors. I was eating normal portions. P was really living it up, finishing whatever the rest of us could not consume. This was a rather unexpected role reversal of the sexes and P bore it womanfully.

We were back on the road by ten thirty. The day was hot and after a brief photo stop at the Punakha Dzong we were on our way. After sometime we reached the Dochu La café around lunchtime. W and S were too stuffed to consume more food. Given their gastronomic history I figured out they would probably be able to eat their next meal only after a couple of days. P and self told the waitress to give us the yummy looking food the people at the next table were having. Unfortunately it turned out most of it was pork or beef and we stuck to our old favourite, chowmein.

We reached Paro fairly early and after a brief rest went to the main market. W wanted to buy ‘I Love Bhutan’ T-Shirts as gifts. Since P and I were Ok with any kind of shopping, we just tagged along to browse. Paro was fast turning out to be my favourite city. For one, unlike Bhumthang, it was not completely rural and unlike Thimphu was not too commercialized either. Additional perquisites like houses by the river just went to enhance the beauty of the place. After a quick round of shopping, W emerged with a large carpet, adding to the already unwieldy number of items of our collective luggage. Still it was too late to start worrying about logistics and the rest of us added other smaller items to the never-ending shopping list.

Finally, exhausted, we trooped back to the old favourite, Sonam Trophel restaurant. There was nice music and the place was not too crowded. By the time we emerged, full and happy, the market was beginning to look empty. We had decided to check out Club K, which the airport security officer Jimmy, had recommended eagerly on our first day. Walking down the road, we finally spotted a half constructed building with flashy lights. We had arrived. It was just 9 p.m. and the crowds would not be in before 10.30 p.m. We were wondering what to do when one of the guys at the reception started chatting with W. It turned out to be Jimmy. Jimmy was an airport security officer by day but at night turned into a cool DJ. Pretty impressed, we promised to come back. Eventually for various reasons all of us decided to just chill out in the room.

It was the last night and W, S and P had made up their minds to drink for as long as possible. Settling down comfortably we started chatting. I think every trip has to have that one moment that you can look back on. Ours came at 2.30 a.m. that night. The three were reasonably high and we had discussed all topics from Indira Gandhi to Singleton status. The conversation turned to the trip and before we knew it all of us were laughing hysterically at how our driver Rajesh had managed to treat us like school kids. I had mentioned before that Rajesh was a fairly popular chap and a bit independent. Actually he was pretty independent. While W, sitting next to him, was the official DJ during the road trip, it was Rajesh who decided which tape to play next. The one time I protested about the choice of music, not only did S and W overrule me but also enthusiastically applauded Rajesh’s choice. Even better were the entry points at various towns. Rajesh would unlock the dashboard, take out an envelope and presumably show the permit at each point. None of us dared to ask if everything was ok and just let him do his own thing. After graduating from top notch B Schools and working in various positions of responsibility, it was amusing to note that all of us meekly considered Rajesh as the leader of the pack in some situations.

We were still laughing when the phone rang. Curious, I picked up the phone to be ticked off by an irate Bengali gentleman in the next room trying to get some sleep. It was rather late and we called it a day.


Book Review - Love by Toni Morrison

I decided to read this book when it was voted as one the top books of the century by NY Times. I am not sure if you have come across books that have layers. I personally believe that in really good books you can read the most obvious layer and still find a lot of pleasure in having read the book. This book falls into that category and it is not too surprising that the book found mention in a top ten list.

The story centers around the women influenced by one man – Bill Cosey. A rich African American living at a time when the race was still being ill-treated in the U.S. and dignity was not an easy thing to come by. Cosey runs a successful hotel for the rich and famous and manages to straddle a slippery line between rich white friends and poor black employees. He loves his wife Julia and after her death stays a bachelor well into his seventies till he marries his granddaughter’s best friend. This one action begins to slowly crumble the life of his widowed daughter in law May, his jealous grand daughter Christine and his confused young wife Heed, till all of them become mean-spirited, wounded and tormented souls not having lead the life they could have and holding on to their grudges well past Bill Cosey’s life.

There is also Vida, the help who loyally blames the Cosey women for the hotel’s eventual downfall and Sandler, her husband, who alone can tell us what Cosey was like from a man’s point of view. The couple’s grandson Romen takes up with Julia, a juvenile delinquent influenced by the spirit of Bill Cosey and residing with a later day Christine and Heed. Finally there is L, the cook of the hotel during its hey days speaking in what could have been the voice of reason.

I really liked the story of Christine and Heed and your heart aches for them. I am not sure if I could make too much sense of how Vida and Julia were influenced by Bill Cosey but in a book like this, you just take it in your stride and move on. The book’s appeal I guess lies in its absolutely stunning portrayal of how life can be influenced by love, whatever form it takes.

I have a sneaking suspicion that as I grow older and see more of life, parts of this book will only ring truer. For now, as I said, I took the layer I could see and just enjoyed that.

Movie Review - Fanaa

I am on a week’s leave at home now and with time hanging heavy on my hands, doing all sorts of random things. The more productive activities have involved getting a dental check up done - good teeth, a medical check up done - alive and kicking - and writing my blog. The not so productive stuff included watching Fanaa yesterday.

If I were to draw up a list of things that make a Bollywood movie successful, I would include – produced by Yashraj films, starring two hot favourites, excellent costumes and sets, good locales, good photography, good technical quality and atleast one good song. Please note that this list does not include good screenplay, good story, good acting and other such meaningless stuff. Fanaa passes the successful Bollywood movie test quite easily.

The first half reminded me a lot of the 5th term projects in B-School. Cut and paste from the most obvious sources on the net till it was a complete kitsch of various clichéd stuff with not much originality thrown in. Heck, 5th term in B School is meant for sacking out and hence one is easily forgiven. But Fanaa.. Characters mouthing stuff like ‘Ma kehti hai ki kuch paane ke liye kuch kona hai’. Aarrgh. Also the shayaris that all characters quote back and forth become a bit tiresome after a while. You would think the characters couldn’t say ‘May I use the ladies’ without composing a nice shayari to say it. Infact when Kajol tells her mom that she is in love, her mom quotes shayaris and ignores fairly reasonable questions like 'how does he earn his living?'

The only ray of sunshine is Kajol. She acts the part of a blind girl with her usual verve and charm and makes you realise why she is the star she is. Rani waddling like a duck in Black, making blind people look imbecilic, can learn a lesson. Perhaps Kajol’s portrayal may not be the most realistic but atleast it makes you see her as a normal person. Aamir looks like a fat, smug and leery middle-aged man with his long hair.

Just before the second half begins, Aamir cuts his hair and gels it. I think the movie’s attractiveness factor went up by two notches just on account of this. The second half of the movie was like the B School projects from the 2nd term. Your grades still matter at this point and hence the quality of cut and paste is more professional. You have fished the net really well and have so many sources that the end product looks almost original and quite snazzy. And in the movie, Kiron Kher’s character has died, so you know the movie can only get better.

Coming back to the story, Kajol has been under the impression that Aamir is dead - har har. As though yash chopra would easily kill off a hero who costs INR 30 M. But fate brings them back together. A cutesy child is introduced and at regular intervals says cutesy things always referring to him self in third person. Tabu comes in as a part of our intelligence force. As my friend pointed out, she looks like a top notch McKinsey consultant mouthing some aggressive stuff like ‘Can’t you do something about the weather?’ Shiny Ahuja comes in a blink-and-you-will-miss-him role. Sundry characters join the fray looking for a Kashmiri terrorist who has stollen some key nuclear part and will shortly blow up India once he gets it to his team .

Oh by the way, the whole story is about the Kashmiris fight for their independence. If you actually hope to get an idea of why Kashmiris are frustrated enough to take up arms, then please skip this movie.

So finally we come to the end. Aamir Khan and Kajol are in a stand off facing each other with automatics. One, a hard core terrorist trained to kill and the other, soft and round from years of leading a cosy life at home. But when it is time to pull the trigger, the latter wins.

Bharat Mata ki jai.

Bhutan - Day 6 - Bhumthang - Punakha

As per routine we were all up, nice and chirpy. By 7.30 all of us were in the car and on the way to Punakha. At 8, P discovered that her mobile phone was missing. At 8.30, P and self were back in the hotel searching for the lost mobile phone. W and S had decided to get off and walk a bit while we searched. We finally caught up with the guys at 9.30 without finding the mobile. P was quite down and could not figure out where she had lost her mobile. Not to mention all that waking up early had turned out to be wasted effort.

W and S decided to stop at the handicrafts store where we had stopped on our way to Bhumthang and settle for some jute mats I had bought. They had accepted the fact that their bargain table runner would never be found and it was better to pick up something they liked instead of agonizing over the decision. After this we stopped for breakfast at Karthungama general stores in Chumey. It was too late for breakfast, but the friendly shopkeeper told us he could get us some samosas and momos. The samosas were good and the conversation with the shopkeeper even better. He clearly understood that India was very important in Bhutan’s scheme of things and said as much. We were quite used to being important around here but it never hurts to hear somemore good stuff :> We were quite enamoured of his bar by then and decided to pose in front of his little bar holding up bottles of colourful concoctions. For some reason one of the local liquors was green in colour and looked like hair oil. The others looked equally exotic. Though at Rs15 a glass, appearance was not a factor in consumption - as P had proved loyally in the previous days.

We were now retracing our steps. The LP guide had a much-thumbed look and was quietly ignored from this point on. At Wangdue we had one of our usual tea breaks and watched as a pretty rainbow began to form even as the sun shined. During the trip to Ura valley the previous day, W and S had given a lift to a monk who had told them how to test if someone had reached enlightenment. Apparently when an enlightened person died the sun shone even as it rained and the earth shook and there would be a rainbow in the sky. Guess all of us decided that we were halfway on the road to enlightenment with this display by nature. The monk had also given them further insights into the life at the monastery. Any family could send a son to become a monk. You needed to go through 9 years of education and 3 years of training and at any point you could drop out if the life did not suit you. Not too bad but still not a very easy life.

We reached Punakha and to our pleasant surprise the hotel had given us a lovely twin cottage with a balcony overlooking the town and the river. The room was full of windows, and you felt like you were in the middle of a garden - check out the photo . We ordered plenty of tea, food and beer and sat back to enjoy the view and have long discussions on life, work and everything.

At 10 p.m, P discovered that her mobile phone was in her handbag after all. Talk about anti climaxes.

Bhutan - Day 5 - Bhumthang

This was to be our first day of rest after all the travel in the last few days. P and self voted to hang around near the hotel and visit the nearby town/village. S and W were too geared up to do such soft stuff and left to visit Ura valley, a 4-hour trip. After a lazy breakfast, P and self started to explore the town. The first stop was naturally the ISD booth since both our mobile phones had refused to work after stepping into Bhutan. I started chatting with the shop girl who turned out to be a big fan of Ekta Kapoor’s serials. We quickly ran out of common topics to discuss. She did mention some interesting things. One heartening thing was that most children went to school in Bhutan and since the medium of instruction was English, most people could speak atleast a smattering of the language. The other thing was that pay scales in Bhutan were not as bad as I had thought they would be. A senior level teacher could earn about Rs. 15000 in a month.

P and self wandered about the place and managed to buy some souvenirs. It was becoming obvious by now that our limited resources of cash would be stretched. Most shops don’t accept credit cards and ATMs as a concept don’t exist. Still the temptation to shop was too high. So scrimping money by walking back on the return instead of using a cab, we ended up at the hotel hot and dusty. Bhumthang’s much promised cold weather was nowhere in sight. P, W and S had all brought thermal wear along and I could smugly congratulate myself for not investing money in a set.

In the afternoon, all of four us went to the Burning Lake in the Tang valley. The name sounded interesting and the story behind it even more interesting. What was not interesting was the actual place. To begin with the story – the lake got its name when one of the famous monks jumped into the lake with a lamp and swore that if he were indeed the miracle man the people supposed him to be, he would return with the lamp still burning. Sure enough after a while he appeared with the lamp burning. The actual lake was not a lake at all but a broad portion of the river. There was a rickety bridge built over this part. The water was an evil looking black. Worst of all was this swarm of insects that attacked us when we stepped into the area. They were the size of small black beads; recklessly hit us everywhere including our eyes, ears and nostrils. After a while the four of us were worried that we would slip into the lake inadvertently while trying to keep the locusts away. Which as per local mythology was not a bad thing since there was a temple in the depths of the lake. However, for the greater good of mankind, we made our way back.

The next stop was a more traditional one – the Jakar Lakhang. The monastery had some fantastic views again and we could see young monks scurrying around trying to complete their chores for the day. S and W came up with a completely new photography technique at this point to get perfect close ups. It involved holding the camera as close to the object as possible and clicking - my handiwork is the snap in this post. Clearly delighted by this discovery the duo spent the entire way down with the attitude of NASA scientists who had just discovered there was life on Mars.

We had sent Rajesh away to get some rest and decided to wander down the main market and then shop for more souvenirs at the Handicrafts emporium located beyond our hotel. The quality of the products was clearly superior to any of the others we had seen till then. As usual P and self found stuff to buy and P even managed to use her VISA card.

Dinner was at a local spot were we had had lunch and tea. The Bhumthang hotel served generous portions of rice, the girl at the bar had the prettiest of eyes and sweetest of smiles - as vouched by W and S - and it was too late to have too many options. W exchanged notes with a local informing him that he stayed in the same area as Salman Khan. The locals were usually Bollywood fans and such information was guaranteed to generate interest in a person. At the end of the conversation, the pretty girl, her pretty friends and sundry people in the bar were hanging on to every word that W uttered.

We drove back to the hotel and settled for yet another night of sound sleep with absolutely no noise of vehicles, people or civilization as such.

Bhutan - Day 4 - Punakha - Bhumthang

W had warned us that the drive to Bhumthang would take a long time and we had better leave early. Besides, Rajesh, our driver was not feeling too well and we wanted to be done with the drive as soon as possible. P had slowly begun to win the battle over going back into perennial snooze mode after the alarm rang. We left by 8 a.m.

Bhumthang was a six-hour drive from Punakha and went through some key towns like Wangdue Phodrang and Trongsa. Wangdue check point was the first. As usual, it was a picturesque point located close to a Chu or river, in this case the Punak Chuu and one could see the Wangdue Dzong from there. We had all understood and assessed each other’s photography skills by then. W was the clear leader. Armed with an excellent camera and dollops of cockiness, he took some great pictures. S was next. He had a good camera and a steadily improving eye and managed to get W’s approval once in a while. P’s camera would conk off everyday after taking about 10 snaps. She claimed that quality was what counted. I quickly became famous for my ‘Patel’ snaps. This term had been coined in honour of Gujarathis in the U.S. who never failed to take snaps posing next to the name board of any monument they were visiting. Relatives being shown the snap later would know for sure that you had actually visited the place. So true to form, I jumped out and quickly and got my photos taken in front of the Wangude Dzong - that is the picture of the dzong without me.

Around eleven all of us felt hungry and stopped at a small hotel on the outskirts of Wangdue. Hotel Trashi Delek was located conveniently on the main road and we could sit on the walls and watch the world pass by as we sipped our teas and ate the horrible Maggie noodles. Most of us could not finish the food and turned to our excellent supply of snacks for reinforcements.

The route to Trongsa went over rather high mountains and deep below you could see the river flowing parallel to the road. The town was also located at a fairly high altitude. There was a conclave being held by the Crown Prince and the town was filled with several important looking people. I took the mandatory patel snap in front of the Trongsa Dzong and we were on our way. At some point the road began to drop to the river’s height. The bridge over the river served as an entry point to the road to Bhumthang. The guard there persuaded us to give a lift to a local person. Somehow giving lifts to complete strangers in Bhutan does not seem a stupid thing. The locals are quite pleasant. Besides, Rajesh had this innate ability to make friends wherever we went and was a good judge of people. The only problem was our local person could be smelled from a mile away and a two feet distance was not the best to handle the stink. We got used to that in some time though. Besides the countryside had begun to turn even more beautiful if that was possible.

W decided that it was time to educate his brood about the flora and fauna of the Himalayas. Having traveled in Sikkim and Ladak, his superior knowledge was acknowledged by us all. We got a little suspicious though when he started classifying all flowers into five categories – Primola, Orchid, Magnolia, Rhododendron and Juniper. If anyone pointed out that the Primola from ten minutes ago had had fewer petals and was darker than the current one, W blamed it on altitude differences. W also classified trees into pines, oaks and deodars and did not even bother to explain the presence of other obviously different looking trees.

While ingesting all the botanical lessons, we also got to observe the local fauna. Yaks began to show up at regular intervals. After my Takin experience, I was too scared to take photos. Not to mention, they were a bit smaller than I had expected and did not look too impressive.

It was around three by now yet none of us were hungry. The road had stopped going through thick and colourful forests and had started entering lush meadows with mountains in the background. A handicrafts emporium announced the first sign of civilization. We promptly took a break and shopped there.

At around 4 we reached Mountain Lodge where we were to stay in Bhumthang. The rooms had electricity but no electric heaters and definitely no phones. We ordered tea in the room and settled down to watch the pretty view from the windows. Once we were done with the tea, it was time for dinner. We had the second worst meal of our trip then. Since we had had the first worst one in the morning, all of us did manage to eat something before settling down for the night.

Bhutan - Day 3 - Thimphu - Punakha

The plan was to go to Punakha and Bhumthang located in Central Bhutan from here. Special entry permits are needed for both these places and you need to go to the office of Immigration on Norzin Lam for this. It is located in a small building close to the National Art Museum. This leg could only be done once permits for Paro and Thimpu have been obtained and since both are granted on arrival, the earliest you can get the permits for Punakha and Bhumthang are the first working day after arrival. S and W had got theirs done on Friday. Having arrived on a Saturday morning, P and self now stood in a queue for our permits. The gentle lady looking after the desk informed us we could get ours at 4 p.m. After some heavy duty groveling she told she will get it done by 1 p.m. This still meant that we would not have the early start we wanted and would have to skip river rafting near Punakha in the afternoon. At any rate, river rafting in Bhutan is more expensive and less interesting than in Rishikesh, so it was no big loss.

We killed time by wandering about the National Art Museum where the curator gave us insights into the Bhutanese history and culture. Bhutanese men and women can get married any number of times as long as they can afford it. A case in point – the king has four wives. Most surprising was the information that Bhutanese too have a caste system and typically people don’t marry between castes. Also Bhutanese getting married to other nationals lose citizenship and consequently other benefits. This of course was a bit of a dampener on any plans we may have made to marry a local and settle down in Bhutan after looking at the awesome scenery and friendly people.

We continued to wander around Norzin Lam buying a few stuff. W and S split with us and later we learnt that they had an instructive discussion with the ALM head of the Royal Bank of Bhutan. State Bank of India holds a 20 % stake in this bank and the country has a deficit with India. The sheer amount of dependence on India by Bhutan was becoming more obvious by the minute – the Indian army defends Bhutan on its Northern border with China, most of its trade is with India, Food Corporation of India supplies food grains, the list goes on. Little wonder that the people were quite nice to Indians.

P and self managed to grab a quick lunch at the Plum’s café and caught a taxi back to the Immigration office to make it on time. The passes were ready and without further ado all of us got into the jeep for the drive to Punakha.

As you enter the mail road to Punakha, there is a small checkpost where you need to submit your permits. By this time, everyone was ready to answer nature’s call again. The cold weather makes for frequent stops. P and self discovered what people in villages actually use. A small wooden hut jutting out over a stream/river/any water body with a hole on the floor. Simple and effective.

After an hour’s drive, we reached one of the prettiest places in Bhutan, the Do Chu La Pass. At roughly 3150 mts this is the highest point on the road to Punakha and one of the most picturesque. A small mound of Chortens has been built at this point in a manner that enhances the beauty of the place rather than mar it. By some stroke of luck our jeep developed a puncture at this point, or else we would have never walked from the Chortens to the Do Chu La café.
There is one awesome part in the movie, American Beauty that goes “there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain”. All right, possibly I am being a bit dramatic. There is something though about seeing the Himalayas in all its splendour that really makes you want to grab as much as you can in a minute. The walk was something like that till all of us just settled into our own paces and let the green gorges, the distant snow peaks, the sunlight flickering on and off just flow through us.

Do Chu La Café brought us back to reality. S and W had been agonizing over the price of a table runner ever since they passed up a good deal in Thimpu and had started a routine of checking the prices of table runners and then moaning over how they missed a good bargain. Cafés at such pristine points usually have the most expensive souvenirs and the price of the table runner scared us thoroughly. We checked the prices of the food before ordering anything.
We were on our way again. It was evening by the time we pulled into a garage, which fixed the puncture for us. By twilight we were in the Zangto Pelri Hotel in Punakha. It was too late to go out and see the dzongs, so we decided to chill out and have another round of tea. The room had no phones and the only way to avail of the room service was to walk down and order tea. W made some attempts at attracting the attention of a hotel assistant by gesturing from the balcony of the room. Possibly he came out looking too coy but the embarrassed lady did not turn up at all. All of us went down for dinner and used the clever trick of ordering food a la carte.

Bhutan - Day 2 - Paro - Thimphu

After a leisurely breakfast at the Hotel, we started to settle our dues. The pretty receptionist presented us with a hefty bill and we figured out that the terrible tasting buffet the previous night had cost about rs 300 per head. Quick tip – avoid eating in the fancy hotels where you stay. The standalone restaurants have tastier and cheaper food. If you do have to eat at the hotel, avoid the buffet and order a la carte.

Wiser and poorer, we left for Thimphu. Another thing about road trips is you need to carry sufficient tapes or cds. W and S had been listening to songs from Aashiqui and Sadak for the last two days. While they were clearly Rajesh’s personal favourites and both had not protested much, they were quite glad when I took out the three tapes I had carried with me.

As usual all of us sat enthralled by the view. Rajesh pulled over at a rope bridge and let us take plenty of snaps. He had clearly made up his mind that this lot was yet to get over the initial feel of the place and would click away till the memory chip’s capacity constraints began to set in.

After a couple of hours, we were at the outskirts of Thimphu and stopped at Simtoka Dzong, an ancient structure, now in ruins and being restored. The central hall had colourful paintings of various monks and incarnations of Buddha. Since it was a Sunday, only a handful of trainee boy monks were in the place and there was something eerie about the jumble of bricks in the many rooms being lit by occasional patches of sunlight. After a few quick snaps with the monks, we left.

The next stop was a more living and breathing Chorten/monastery where devotees were busy turning gigantic prayer wheels. Prayer wheels are a wonderful concept that Buddhists have and apart from lining the walls of all Lakhangs , they also grace the chortens and sometimes shop fronts. Most people turn each prayer wheel lining the walls of the Lakhang, thus slowing their pace as they circle the structure. Same was the case at Changangkha Lakhang, our next stop. The sanctum sanctorum at this Lakhang was quite reminiscent of Hindu temples. The monk gave us some holy water and touched our heads with a piece of metal. Devotees prostrated in front the large statue of Buddha. Same wine, new bottles. Changangkha also has a great view of Thimphu, atleast better than the view from the telecom tower to which we were headed.

On the way was a stop at the Takin Reserve. Takins are Bhutan’s national animals. A colourful bit of local myth says that they were created when the locals pestered one of the more eccentric monks for a miracle. The good man asked for a cow and a goat and devoured the two <> and then created an animal with the cow’s body and the goat’s head. Thus emerged the Takin, with an IQ of roughly 25 since clearly the mutuation had been too much to handle for the animal. Befuddled modern day taxonomists classify this animal in its own class on account of various reasons other than appearance. Sometime in the past, when Bhutan decided to add a zoo to its list of tourist spots, the Takins were among the star attractions. However, it was later decided that zoos are a bit cruel on animals and the animals were let loose. The Takins apparently were at a loss on how to react and spent their time regularly being killed at traffic accidents and such, till finally the Bhutanese decided to create a wild life reserve to save the Takins from themselves. The reserve is about 8 acres and tourists can walk around a wire fence through which the Takins can be seen. All of us did exactly that, armed with our cameras. I have a nice Sony 4.1 mega pixel camera with much functionality. One of those functionalities is a switch that allows me to turn off the flash. Something I did not discover till later. So when one of the Takins finally came close enough for a decent shot, I let my shutterbug instincts lose. The stupid flash in my camera scared the Takin out of its wits. The bulky Takin sprang towards me with surprising agility. Then, I got scared out of my wits and inspite of knowing that a strong fence separated us, sprang back with even more surprising agility. At the end of this happy performance, a decent distance separated both Takin and self from each other and I decided not to take snaps of any more animals.

Shaken and stirred, I looked forward to the calmer environs of the telecom tower. This is one of those U.S. type attractions – completely insipid, created to keep the tourist happy that they have more one place to tick off on their checklist and with mediocre photo opportunities. All of us dutifully posed for a snap. W went one step beyond and helped a couple of young Bhutanese women struggling with the lyrics of a Bollywood song.

On the way back was our big Royalty moment. The king’s cavalcade, comprising his car with the license plate reading ‘Bhutan’ and a smart police vehicle led the way. The other cars on the road stopped. Like good tourists we gawked as the Queen’s entourage followed at a respectful distance. S’s theory was that since the royalty was another star attraction, possibly there are plenty of such cars whizzing up and down to give tourists a bang for their buck. My theory was that with a population of roughly 700000 people, everyone is bound to bump into everyone else over a 10-day period. All of us were thrilled though to see in flesh and blood, albeit through tainted glasses, the man whose picture we had seen in every single establishment in Bhutan.

The next stop was the Decchen Phodrang Monastery. This was again bereft of adult supervision being a Sunday. The boisterous bunch of child monks though made up with their enthusiasm and eagerness to get snapped. W obliged and clicked as many pictures as possible. The monastery itself was beautiful, perched on a hill, overlooking rice fields. You could just sit on one of the roofs and watch the countryside for hours.

Finally it was time to tackle LP’s number one spot – the Drashi Choe Dzong. This is the main admin office of the country, with the King and a couple of senior members of his cabinet having offices here. The Parliament is located just across, separated by a river. The Dzong is majestic to say the least. Unfortunately we could not enter the premises since we had to have permits and permits are given only to Bhutanese tour guides. The simplest solution would have been to tell the hotel to arrange for a tour guide for an hour, but we did not have that kind of time.

Our stay that night was at the Wangchuk Hotel, located close to Norzin and Chorten Lams, Thimphu’s main market area. Lam means ‘road’ but to the Bhutanese sullying places by categorizing them under proper names is probably a sin. Whenever you stop to ask people for directions to a place, they never tell you which roads to take, instead give you directions based on various landmarks. At any rate, Wangchuk Hotel was located conveniently close to the shopping center and we could just pop out and pick up bargains. Which is exactly what P and self did while the guys decided to catch up on their sleep.

Shopping in Thimphu involves a decent bit of bargaining. Unfortunately shops close by eight on Sundays and hence at 8.15 we found ourselves on practically deserted streets. The next step was to find a decent place for dinner that served momos. The hotel’s sulky waiter had sulked throughout tea and clearly informed us that we would not get momos. In the event, we ended up having dinner at the Zone 1 pub. They served pizzas instead of momos but the cheerful owner played an extremely funny video on Bushisms compiled by Slate magazine and another equally funny Robin Williams stand up comedy show. I sat transfixed watching TV after months of watching largely tamil and hindi music channels in Chennai. I went to sleep happy and contented.

Bhutan - Day 1 - Paro

Bhutan can be entered by air or road. The most common entry point by road is Phuentsholing, a town separated from India by an innocuous looking arch. Phuentsholing is a roughly three-hour drive from New Jalpaiguri where the railway station is located or Bagdodara where the airport is located. S and W had taken the train from Cal to NJP. From there Rajesh, the driver, picked them up in his Sumo and had taken them to Thimpu via Phuentsholing.

P and self were flying down to Paro, Bhutan’s only town with an airport, from Cal by Druk Air. Druk Air is the national carrier and no other airlines are allowed to operate. LP had promised us that the flight would be good, and it certainly was. The Himalayas loomed upon us as we began to land and the pilot assured everyone that if it looked like we were going to crash into the mountains, we were not to worry. Not a traditional announcement but reassuring in the circumstances.

The plan was for S and W to drive down from Thimpu to the Paro airport and pick us up. They had been under the assumption that we would land around 11 and our phone call informing them that we would be reach by 9 had hastened matters but not sufficiently. P and self got our first taste of Bhutanese friendliness right there in the airport where practically everybody asked us if they could help. One of the more helpful chaps was an airport security officer called Jimmy. When the guys finally arrived and we were to leave he informed us that there was a DJ from Delhi playing that night in Paro’s only disc and we should try and make it. P and self felt like minor celebrities.

The first stop was to be the Druk Air office to cancel tickets Pallab had overbooked by mistake . S and W had had sufficient time to get used to the pretty buildings but P and self were overwhelmed by the architecture that comprised ornate windows set in neat looking windows. There were also chortens all over the place. Out came the cameras and the first of a long series of snaps was clicked. The Druk Air office was bang opposite the Paro Dzong. Dzongs actually mean fortresses and were used such in ancient times. But with a rather obvious lack of need to defend various villages now, the buildings were converted into administrative offices. The Paro Dzong was especially beautiful since the Paro river flowed practically by its front door. Infact the main road in Paro is built along the river and your trips are accompanied by the sound of water over pebbles.

Our first meal in Bhutan. We landed at a place called ‘Sonam Trohpel’ on Paro’s main street. P had made up her mind that she would live on momos for the entire length of the trip. We ordered other local specialities – Kewa Datshi <> and Hindsey Datshi . Every dish seemed to be made with butter. Clearly not a diet recommended for anyone aspiring being a super model. And this did not even include the inexpensive beer.

Post lunch visit was to our first and last obviously tourist place in Bhutan - Paro museum. Bhutan has a fairly long history with relics from as long ago as 4500 years ago. However most of the information tends to be on Buddhism and unfortunately after a while you tend to get a bit lost in the various important figures in Buddhism. The most entertaining collection seemed to be that of stamps. For some reason, Bhutanese people have been completely fascinated by events outside of their world, especially the U.S. and U.K. So there were stamps commemorating the landing on the moon and Walt Disney characters. The final floors housed a collection of Bhutanese vessels in a low-ceilinged, narrow passage where Agatha Christie murders could have been set. The curator had also cleverly tucked away vast urns in every nook he could find. A post prandial walk is never the best setting to admire the beauty of a 100 similar looking urns and we finally got out of the maze and left.

With a little bit of light walking done, we were ready to tackle Paro’s best attraction – the Taktsang Monastery. Tradition has it that Guru Rinpoche had flown down to this rock on the back of a tiger. A casual observer can readily vouch that holding onto a flaming tiger is probably a less stressful way of reaching the place than the trek up. It was 3.45 p.m. by the time we set out. By the time we had walked 10 minutes I was definitely breathless. It was much later that I realised that your pace has to be changed for walks on altitudes at this level. P turned back around after half an hour and spent the rest of the time sleeping in the jeep and drinking tea. W, the fittest of the group bounded ahead. S soon disappeared into the upper slopes. I trudged on with the group’s supply of water and food and feeling too guilty to abandon the trip in case the guys came back for water. In the event it turned out to be a brilliant trek once I started to pace myself better. At around 5 when I figured that I would not make it to the top before sunset, I decided to quit. The walk back was even more brilliant. The skies were graying, a light drizzle began and the full beauty of the Himalayas hit me. After a brief while, S caught up with me and we reached down. All three of us ordered another round of hot chai and waited for W to arrive and announce his conquest. Sure enough, by 6.30 he was in the jeep bursting with stories about the view from the top. Sadly the monastery had shut at 5 and he could not get in.

By this time, the toll of waking up at 4 a.m. was beginning to tell on me and I was glad it was time to check into our hotel. That night’s stay was to be in Olathong. Fairly expensive by Bhutanese standards – 2000 rs a night whereas most other places are between 1250- 1500 rs a night for two people. The hotel was nice and comfortable though. The food at the buffet was terrible though. But all of us were on a high after the first day of the vacation and did not mind too much.