I started off planning to write about a figment of old memory that came back to me today morning, but it soon got out of hand, and stumbled into a full-fledged rambling on what remains of my memories of Bhutan.
This, to the memory of a land that is much more a part of me than I'll ever realise.
It's strange how old memories are triggered by environmental stimuli. Like this morning, when I got off the bus to work, the smell of diesel fumes and smoke, and the light rain and cloudy sky together conspired to take me back, quite a long way, to Bhutan. An incident from my childhood there, that I seem to still have in my memory. It's not a moving or shocking or even particularly significant remembrance, just a picture that came back to me all of a sudden, crystal clear.
The day was similar, it was more like in the evening, with similar conditions. It was colder, though, and the rain felt more biting on the skin. I think it was my second year or so in Bhutan, in a place called Dremthse. It was an out-and-out primitive village - no electricity(i swear i'm not making this up), no real roads, and no vehicles save a rare sighting of a supplies-laden truck which would bring a noisy congregation of children and adults flocking to the village square whenever it came - winding up the torturous mountain dirt-trail - once every month. This day, the truck had come, and the village bore a look of festivities, with people bustling all around the steaming vehicle and children staring at the brute machine with wide-eyed admiration. The people there were a simple lot - living off the land, slogging most of the day in the farms and orchards, and tobogganing down the lush slopes or carving little fiery-eyed dragons from wood in their leisure. The truck, gleaming red and orange and brown in the setting sun, rain steaming off the hot surface - and producing seemingly endless and magical supplies of rice and corn and sugary chewing gum from its bowels to fill the two shops in the village - was always a bewitching sight there, especially to the kids.
The cold was clogging the fuel in the tanks, and they couldn't start the truck. It was a common thing, according to the exasperated driver. The usual solution was to light a fire(!) right next to the fuel tank, and wait for the heat to thaw into the sluggish fuel inside. Hairy as it is, the crowd always considered this the most exciting part of the whole 'truck-in-town(sic)' experience.
Besides, the people there always made it a point to gather around a fire, if one was available.
Fires were valuable resources there, much like public telephones or Coke machines elsewhere. I remember making miniature fires in a tin can filled with charcoal and fire-wood. These cans were perforated, so the air could enter from the sides, and stoke the gloomy embers. These fire-cans were to be swung around in the wind for hours, till all the wood caught fire and burned down to nothing but glowing embers, and then taken indoors, or to the courtyard, where people would huddle around it, warming their palms and sharing an old yarn or two.
So these kids were crowding around the fire, at the fuel tank of the truck. One of them must have gotten too close to the fire. Or the fuel must have leaked out, already warmed and ready to flow. I wasn't anywhere near, but suddenly someone was screaming - it sounded very faint, as from a long distance, barely audible against the thunder rumbling in the distant hills. There was a lot of confusion, as these things go, and I ran across to the truck, to find someone rolling a child around on the ground, his clothes ablaze. The flames were put out soon, but he'd sustained some burns, and his Gho was in tatters.
The Gho is like a cloak of sorts, only it is worn raised high at the waist and fastened with a cloth belt, and looks much like a Scottish kilt when worn. In full 'formal' attire, there are also some kind of wrist bands, called Lageys, worn over the sleeve. The front of the Gho folds into a large and comfortable pouch, which can be used to store anything from cracked walnuts - we kids used to carry walnut pieces to class, cracked on the courtyard floor with heavy stones covered on one side with soft green moss, and pick on the delicious nut inside using pins stolen from Mother's cupboard, whenever the teacher looked away - to scrap books and strange and beautiful flowers or leaves discovered on many a lazy stroll into the forested hillside and kept aside with unencumbered wonder and curiosity(how i miss that kid..). I had two, if I remember correctly, one slightly battered, the other ship-shape.
The rescuers brought the kid down to the shop, near which I lived. Urgent summons were sent to the HA, the Health Assistant. I am not aware of the reasons behind the nomenclature, but this HA person was supposed to be the general "Medicine Man" of the village, curing maladies with his small white tablets and weird potions. My memory of the HA is one of a smart and prim young man, who talked very briskly and smiled brightly if you asked him anything. Later, he figured in village-talk for a while, when he ran away with the Headmaster's daughter, a pretty little thing with large, liquid eyes and a sweet voice. So anyway, the HA asked for the child to be brought to the hospital. And people were looking around for a spare Gho for him. I don't remember who, Mother or Dad, someone took out my old one, and gave it to them. The child was wrapped around in it, and carried off to the hospital, to be tended to. To cut things short, the boy had a speedy recovery, and I never saw my Gho again.
And that was how it came about that I lost my beloved Gho, the one in which I slid down grassy slopes, screaming, on wooden roof-planks stolen from our neighbour's cattle-shed and polished on grass till they shone like knife-blades, and pulled down heavily laden tree branches in hillside orange orchards to taste the season's first fruit, and picked ripe strawberries for Mother - who'd make sweet jam from them - in summer when whole hills would be coloured red from the berries, and best of all, the one in which me, as a scraggly ten year old growing up in a huge mountainous land surrounded on all sides by fatherly hills and pine trees and sky, took to heart the stories of dragons and gods, and one summer day, swirled round and round in the sun, beating a makeshift drum, mimicking the soaring masked dancers in the monastery, cymbals crashing and horns blaring in my mind, going on till I dropped down spent on the soft grass, and then lay there smelling kind summer smells and freshly cut grass, as the sun shone pink and warm through my palm, slowly drifting away to sweet slumber, filled with unknowing gratitude, and satisfaction.
Postscript: I got a new Gho the next school-year, when I entered high school, at a different place, an almost-town entirely unlike Dremthse. I still miss everything about that place.