Of kings and commoners

When my bureaucrat friend Pavan Varma, currently Director General Indian Council of Cultural Relations, mentioned that he is off to Bhutan as India’s ambassador, my mind went back to 1991. That was the year that Bhutan’s ruler King Jigme Singye Wangchuk had granted me an audience. My photographer and I were royal guests for ten eventful days.

Pavan Varma

Pavan Varma

Bhutan was then in a turmoil. There was an influx of Nepalis in the southern part of the country. The royal government of Bhutan had launched a census programme to check migration. It branded many ethnic Nepalis as illegal immigrants. There was a war like situation between the natural citizens of Bhutan’s and the migrants who then constituted a majority in south of Bhutan. Measures were adopted to enforce the citizenship law and stress on Bhutanese culture. This antagonized the ethnic Nepalese community. The Royal Government of Bhutan made it compulsory for the nationals to wear the national dress. If the Government levied a fine for those “detected roaming around without wearing the national dress”, Dago Tshering, then Bhutan’s deputy Home Minister ruled that any Bhutanese national leaving the country to help anti nationals will have to forfeit his citizenship.

It was under these circumstances that King Jigme Singye Wangchuk had first offered to abdicate the throne in the face of the failure to untangle the Bhutan imbroglio. Both the National Assembly and all the King’s men as it were, decried it as a “soft option” to a national problem. Worse still, the King granted amnesty to southern Bhutanese who were agitating to replace the existing monarchy with a multi party democracy.

It is under these circumstances that I interviewed the King. He was a good-looking soft-spoken man: very un-kinglike: actually warm and friendly. He was, to put it aptly, a cool, normal guy: sharply contrasting the edgy ushers. Except for their body language, there was nothing to suggest that we were commoners or Wangchuk a King.

I recall that there were only thirty minutes set aside for the “audience” with the King. And tape recorders? Out of question. I violated both: I spent over two hours and  met the King several times during my stay. I also insisted taking my tape recorder for the interview. Our escort was aghast at my guts. Recording His Majesty? Sacrilege…blasphemy…He did not use the words but implied that I was committing hara-kiri.  Worse still when I suggested that I would check with His Majesty his jaw dropped. In the Druk Kingdom, you were supposed to obey not ask. When I walked in with the tape recorder, he thought I would not come out alive. And when the King put his arm around me for a photo shoot, the  burly bodyguard nearly fainted.

It had been a long afternoon. The King was a worried man. Yet he spoke from his heart.  The weakness of any monarchy, he told me, was that a king was chosen by birth and not merit; and a country cannot depend on the hope that in future there will be a wise King; decentralization was important; it is the people who decide the political changes: “The future destiny of Bhutan lies with the Bhutanese people and not immigrants” the King had declared even as the revolt was at its peak.

One thing the King did not grant: an audience at his house: actually a one bedroom cottage where he lived with his four wives: all sisters. He had, we were told, renounced his Imperial Palace to live in the cottage that was out of bounds for everyone. EVERYONE. But I cannot grumble because His Majesty did not fail me. Despite reservations he acceded to my request of writing his biography and for many years continued sending me ripe, red apples annually from Bhutan with a personal note. If anyone is at fault it is I, for not honoring the royal gesture.

Back to Pavan and his Bhutan posting. As Ambassador, Pavan would be presenting his credentials to the current ruler, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, who is my friend King Jigme Singhye’s eldest son. Despite his intention to abdicate the throne  in the early nineties,  Jigme Singye Wangchuk finally stepped down in 2008. Pavan’s posting has rekindled the thought of taking the former ruler up on his offer of the biography.

Pavan does not know any of this. In fact till I met up with him last week, the thought had not even struck me. Bhutan, I am sure, has come a long way from its yak meat days, something we were forced to survive on then.  I wanted to forewarn Pavan but given that his wife Renu is a wonderful hostess, there will be no dearth of edible food if one chooses to visit Bhutan during Pavan’s tenure.

After the former King, Pavan is my next Bhutan connection. Both Pavan and Renu are wonderful people to know. They are not exactly the happening couple in Delhi. Nor are they the page 3 items. They are good friends and believe in living life to its fullest. Therefore whenever you feel like a party, dial Pavan and he will either organize one or host it himself at his Vasant Vihar home in South Delhi. For those who do not know Pavan and Renu, they are “that couple” who have the best collection of jamawar shawls and temple sarees respectively. If Renu is doning an exquisite saree can Pavan be far behind? In winter, it is rare to find him without an exquisite jamawar carelessly thrown over his shoulder.

When Pavan wrote the “Kama Sutra: the art of making love to a woman” his wife called it an “intellectual angle” to sex. But it was not till Pavan’s mother,herself a litterateur, gave the go ahead that the book was actually published.  That Renu had to suffer the how and whys of her husband’s “daring pursuit” is another matter.

Even though Pavan calls Bhutan a challenging posting, my guess is that Bhutan may be ideal for him.  Because at heart Pavan is a writer. Kamasutra apart, he has written a biography on Ghalib, translated Gulzar’s poems and done another one on the Havelis of Old Delhi. His first book, however, was on a contemporary subject The Great Indian Middle Class that is currently being translated into French.

Hate as I do to say goodbye to Pavan and Renu, I also nurse a fear: at the end of his Bhutan tenure, will Pavan end up as the former King’s biographer? Or savor the red, ripe apples from the royal Palace? My only hope: his turning biographer would be a conflict of interest in his role as India’s Ambassador to Bhutan.

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