Tales in Colour from Bhutan

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We went to Bhutan six years ago- I was 22, fresh out of Business school. When I look back, Bhutan seems to have been very similar to how we ourselves were at the time- small, simple, uncluttered, and with a child-like charm. It was my first international trip, and I was impressed with the neatness, cleanliness and rule-abiding.

The Bhutanese seemed like simple, happy people- a memory that’s etched in my mind is of a very old lady, in the middle of nowhere, filling her basket with white flowers around a dilapidated ruin of a fort. Beautiful and serene like a dream. I tried speaking to her- but she did not make a single sound. Eventually I gave up, and gestured to ask if I could photograph her. The way she promptly posed with the most beautiful toothless smile!

Last month, I was wondering what to read, and I was reminded of Bhutan. So I picked up ‘Tales in Colour’ by Kunzang Choden, who is supposed to be the best contemporary Bhutanese writer. This book is a collection of short stories. And I realized what a great idea it is to read a compendium of short stories set in a place/ culture if one really wants to know its shape and form, rather than a novel or even cultural descriptions. The multitude of characters, settings and situations shine a light on different aspects of the society better than any treatise on culture could.

The stories are simple. Many of them could be written for children. Or anyone willing to engage with a child-like simplicity. The story that has remained with me is the one about the love-hate relationship of an old-lady and the resident mouse in her house. For someone from Indian culture, these stories have the reassuring familiarity of old-time, or rural India, while still offering freshness of a different culture.

Many of the stories subtly portray the old-time social evils and the favourable/ unfavourable shifts in society with urbanization, but never in a complaining tone. Many of the stories seem to be making no ‘point’, being more like photographs of people who live in a village. Or like whispers about somebody, one neighour may make to the other.

And so this thought struck me: These stories are not meant to be read. They are meant to be told and heard! I did something I have never done before- I asked my husband to read these stories to me. When my mother was here, I asked her the same. “Oh yes. That feels right,” I thought, as they would begin to read, and a smile would spread across my face. On most occasions, I eventually fell asleep.

If there is a common secret behind the Bhutanese Happiness Index, my guess is, it is this: Simplicity.

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