I come from a small village, located at the South Eastern part of the country. Back in the late 70s it used to be a small village of just 15 households, where everyone knew everyone. Except for two huts, all houses were made of stone and mud. All of them looked similar - dark and ancient, in an imposing way. The roofs were either wood shingles or slates. The attics were used as granary cum store room and the ground floor housed the cattle. The family lived in the first floor, which consisted of two rooms. The outer room served as the kitchen, dining room, drawing room and the inner one housed the altar. The whole family shared these two rooms.
Ours was a large family, perhaps the largest in the village. My grandfather used to pride about this very fact. Today we are 116 members, the progeny of our grandparents. Then, we were seventeen dining members, including us, seven grand children. One uncle used to be away most of the time, either for ‘woola’ (compulsory labour contribution) or ‘druk dom’ (labour contribution for a year by a person for every six able bodied men). Another used to tend the cattle and the supply of butter and cheese never seemed to exhaust. My mother and her sisters used to do the household chores and weave clothes for the entire family. Life used to be a simple one then.
The staple crop grown in the village was maize, which used to be cropped twice a year. The sowing season was the busiest one, where even the children used to contribute some form of labour. The men would plough the field with their oxen and another person, usually the children, would follow them and drop maize seed each, at certain intervals, in the furrows made by the plough. The next group of people equipped with spades, usually the women, would break the lump of soil, level the ground and cover the maize seeds with the soil.
Singing and laughter would fill the air. I contributed a lot of such works and it was quite an interesting job. I never remember being tired of the job. I used to amuse myself by counting the number of seeds I dropped into the ground. But I never got beyond twenty, because Sharchokp (language spoken in the eastern part of the country) has countings up to twenty only. After that I did not know how to add up and get the total. When we worked in our neighbour’s fields, we used to be paid an egg each for a day’s labour. When I started school this wage was raised to ngultrum one a day, which was a huge amount. It used to fetch six eggs!
We used to wake up to the sounds of chirping birds and mooing calves in the ground floor. The sweet smell of burning incense and juniper wafting from the altar used to bring us to our senses. The breakfast would be simple maize flour porridge, garnished with thin slices of radish. The ‘yithpa’ (in Sharchokp, meaning rotten) or ‘zaed dhey’ (boiled soya beans stored in airtight containers and fermented) provided taste to the porridge. Any leftover food from the previous day’s dinner would go with the porridge.
Breakfast in Sharchokp is ‘Changpo’, which literally translated means cold or leftover. May be the term ‘changpo’ came to be used due to the practice of consuming the previous day’s leftover for breakfast the next day. Menu for the breakfast would usually be the same for all the households in the village.
After breakfast the elders would go to the fields for work. The villagers would help each other to tend to their fields. Labour was always paid in labour, meaning, for a day’s work in your field by someone, you will have to do the same amount of labour in his. Perhaps that was the reason why a big family was considered an asset. Paying for labour was never heard of, except for few cases where they used to be paid in terms of grain.
Back then we had a radio set, a three band changer, the size of a briefcase. It was my father’s prized possession and the villagers’ envy, for it was the first and the only radio set in the village. (We still have that contraption at home. I am planning to get it and keep it for keeps.) The Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) then used to broadcast two or three times a week, each session lasting two to three hours. I am not very sure about the frequency of the broadcast or the duration of it. During the broadcast days young people of the village, especially the girls, would flock to our house to listen to the music being broadcasted. Works at our fields used to be scheduled on these broadcast days so that people can work and at the same time listen to the music. The discussions that ensued used to intrigue me to no end.
Every household had few orange trees and a banana grove, which would generally be located towards the direction of the wind. The orange trees provided fruits for consumption and some were exported, on horsebacks, to Assam, India. Those villagers who owned mules and horses would carry the oranges all the way to Assam, which we were told was a three days journey. The oranges were bartered either for paddy or salt. But the journey to Assam was only once or, at the most, twice a year. The rest of the oranges would be left on the trees for consumption and were used as cattle feeds. We, as children, used to go around the village, climb any orange trees that had big and fat oranges and eat them. No one would be bothered, except that we should not break any branches or we would get an earful. The banana groves provided protection to the houses from the strong winds during the winter. It also provided fruits, which were either consumed or bartered for vegetables, which were not grown in our village, with the people from the hills.
The village is bounded by three rivers on its three sides - east, west and south - forming an open square of sort. As the village slopes gently towards the south, the two tributaries on the east and west flow towards the south and join the main river on the south and finally flow toward the west. The summers were and are quite hot, which drew lots of people, both children and adults, towards the riverside. There was a favourite spot where everyone would crowd for a swim in the cool waters. This place had a solid flat rock face on one bank, where we used to remove our clothes and dive into the river. Stones piled to form a wall at the lower edge of this rock face dammed the water, forming an improvised swimming pool. The depth of the pool could be varied by varying the height of the stone wall. The water would flow over the stone wall. Naked children and half clad adult males would be seen jumping into the water and shouting gleefully at the top of their voices. Even the girls would join in the melee, but they would be dressed a bit differently for obvious reasons.
The harvesting season is worth a mention here. After the harvest, some of the maize stalks would be stored to be used as fodder for the cattle during the winter. The rest would be left standing in the fields, for grazing. The local cow herders would be invited along with their cattle, for grazing in the fields. In return they would have to camp in the field for a week or two. This way the field on which they grazed would be manured for the next crop. For this the cow herders would be treated to a grand dinner, with drinks and all, by the owner of the field on which they were camped.
Winter, as I remember, used to be the best time for all. At sunrise every household would burn ‘khempa’ (Artemisia plant) leaves. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche rode on the sun rays and as a mark of offering, ‘khempa’ leaves would be burnt. I still very vividly remember those beautiful sights of white fluffy smoke ascending heavenwards, looking like some peculiar white pillars supporting the sky. After a quick breakfast of porridge, we would be out in the fields playing archery or ‘dego’.
The fields used to be left fallow during winters. The whole area would look as if it has been covered with a brown carpet. Except for the patches of green banana groves, everything would look brown. The women folk used to be the busiest lot. In addition to the household chores, they would weave clothes for the entire family. Some would be busy spinning silk yarn, while others would dye them and weave them into ‘bura ghos’ and ‘kiras’. Since the fields were fallow, the cattle would be left free. There was not much to do for the adults too. Their daily routine would consist of collecting firewood, which were abundant in the nearby jungles, and fetching drinking water. Rest of the time would be spent playing archery and ‘dego’. The end of winter meant the end of merry-making and once again the cycle of cultivating and harvesting would begin.
Children were never sent to school before the age of nine or ten. The school was located above the village (thirteen km by motor able road now). At a tender age of six, you are either too young to walk the distance or fend for yourselves in school. I never went to school until I was nine and at nine years of age I was the youngest in the class. From the day one I started as a boarder. I still remember being hungry and being bullied by seniors and the older mates all the time. Studies became secondary and fighting for survival became one’s primary aim. Every Saturday afternoon I used to bunk school and go home. Back at the village we used to be called ‘bongkharang babu’. ‘Bongkharang’ in Sharchokp means bulgur. We used to be served bulgur food, supplied by the WFP, in school.
One thing I can still remember of those school days is a science teacher, who used to drink tea in a beaker from the science laboratory. He used to reside in a single room, adjacent to the science laboratory, in the academy block. I thought it must be the privilege of the science teacher to drink in a beaker. The nearest road head was some thirty six km away. Books and lab equipments had to be carried on backs, for which our parents had to contribute labour. The reason for using the beaker as a drinking glass must have been something to do with this very fact, I realize now. He must have found it difficult to bring it all the way, so he must have made do with the beaker.
Since then the village have undergone a great deal of change. Many of the people I loved are long gone, including my grandparents. At 92 years, my grandmother was the oldest person when she died in January 2010. Motor able roads have reached the village and made the once serene and beautiful village look ugly. The gypsum mines, located just above the village is a big eye sore to anyone entering the village. The numbers of houses have increased many folds and I don’t even know the exact number as it keeps on increasing every year. As you enter the village from the top, it appears like a field full of sun reflectors placed randomly. The wood shingles and slates have long been replaced by the CGI sheet, which is yet again another eye sore, literally.
The bellows of the monster looking trucks that give out dark smoke and the sound of blasting at the mines occupy the waking, and even sleeping hours. The sounds of the birds are gone. The dark and ancient looking houses are no more. In their places have come up newer ones, which do not look like those old ones from any angle, though they look much brighter and cleaner now. All most all the orange trees in the village have died of some peculiar disease. The few standing trees look like the trees in snow bound areas, snow laden. Only instead of snow it is the deposit of gypsum dust from the mines and the grinding factories, here. Dust is everywhere. Even the banana groves are not green anymore.
No children play archery anymore. Simply they don’t have time to. They go to school at a very early age, some as early as 5 years. A school has come up in the village. During the vacations they work in the gypsum mines to earn an extra buck or two. Children as young as 9 years of age are seen working there. No cows roam the barren land during winter because there are neither cows nor barren lands anymore.
Every household owns a television set and some even two. The sounds of the birds have long been replaced by the blaring sounds from these TV sets. So many ugly looking structures called ‘General Shops’ have lined the roads that themselves have marred the scenic beauty of the village. Instead of the locally brewed ‘ara’ its beer now, which people seemed to be consuming in gallons.
The site for the new Dzong construction is identified at my village. A grotesque looking structure that will house the district court has already come up. Next in line will be the Dzong, which will mean the exodus of people to the village - people of all kinds. I can’t even imagine how my once beautiful village will look like then. It has already been ravaged and scarred and it will not be long before it loses its original identity altogether. The name Denchi may not even remain. Some fanciful people in power may think of some fancy names, which is happening elsewhere, all the time these days.
A few years from now, I doubt if my children will ever believe me if I describe how the village once looked. The one thing that entices us, the prodigal children, is the simplicity and tranquility of the village life. The innocence of the people is what we look forward to. But they are no more now. In no time from now things would have changed completely and the village would have become like any other urban place in Bhutan. With a heavy heart, I confess here that, I doubt if I may go back to my roots. The things that beckoned me once are no more. The innocence is lost. I become one without roots. Uprooted by changing times!
22 May, 2012