‘The guide showed me things I wasn’t quite prepared to see’

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Illustrations: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustrations: Vikram Nongmaithem

Distant lands call out to people in unexpected ways. Apparently, William Dalrymple discovered India in 1989, and subsequently made Jaipur its capital, only because the balti chicken in Cambridge lacked punch. A famous Indian filmmaker, so the story goes, decided Switzerland would be the default location for song picturisation when he accidentally sat on a Swiss army knife.

This summer, we, too, got our call from a magical, mystical land — Bhutan. And it came via Mr Selvamani, assistant engineer, TNEB, Kottivakkam, Chennai.

It was early May, and we had been enduring 10-hour power cuts for a fortnight. When I finally managed to corner him one night outside a government-certified liquor shop and explained my predicament, he said: “Sorry, sir, the cable that supplies power to your house has been re-routed to the minister’s house. He needs the extra power for the month-long coming-of-age celebrations of his daughter.”

“What, then, is our fate?” I said.

“Go to Bhutan. They have so much power, they sell it to us.”

When he said this, he had this god-like aura. I was not sure how much it had to do with the transformer behind him blowing up like an SUV in a Rohit Shetty film, and rim lighting his bald head with a shower of sparks. Then he passed out.

Soon, we were in Bhutan. We were on the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu, overlooking the magnificent Punakha Dzong, when our guide, Jigme Dorji, pointed out that we had been committing an offence punishable by hanging according to the by-laws of Facebook: not taking pictures for our status update. I’m an awkward poser. I don’t know how to hold in my stomach, smile photogenically and give my best three-quarter face with cheeks sucked in all at once without looking like a cross between Donatella Versace and how Bruce Lee would look were he exhumed.

That day I decided to throw caution to the Himalayan winds and said yes. And instead of the fugitive-casual look I usually sported, I found myself posing like a 16-year-old girl on steroids. Our guide, for his part, clicked away in angles Ram Gopal Varma had not yet invented. When my benevolent smile turned into a titter first and a full-fledged belly-laugh, my wife called me weird and put an end to the photo session.

That night, when she presented me with a prayer wheel and told me that that was my only hope, I had no choice but to confess the reason behind my earlier ‘bizarre’ behaviour.

Our guide, Jigme Dorji, like most Bhutanese men, had been dressed in the traditional goh. For the uninitiated, the goh is a cross between a Scottish kilt and a lungi worn the way Munuswami, our watchman, wears it — folded up and tucked in. And when Jigme had turned into a bending, crouching, squatting cameraman, he had inadvertently shown me parts of Bhutan that had slim chance of making it to the pages of Lonely Planet. Hence my inappropriate mirth.

Then, all of a sudden, something terribly profound came to me. It wasn’t Buddhism or the uninterrupted view of the Himalayas. Nor was it the tinkling rivers, or a king and queen who looked like they had stepped out of a fairytale that made Bhutan the land with the highest gross national happiness.

It was their male attire.

Come on, how can a country which officially requires its men to leave themselves free to be caressed by rhododendron- scented breezes the whole day not be deliriously happy? When I told her this, my wife gave me her special look.

“Well,” she said, “you’ve got one part of your theory right.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “Which part?”

“Gross.”

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