Sawan Bhadon

Traditionally, the monsoon is supposed to span the months of Sawan and Bhadon. We are at the beginning of Bhadon now, so one should expect rain for about a month more. It had been raining almost constantly through the last week of Sawan, but on the 4th of Bhadon the rain let up for a while. The Family and I put on our walking shoes and dashed out of the house.

Perhaps others did not have cabin fever like us, or maybe they were still dithering. Whatever the reason, we saw few people on the walk. In other years at this time we would have been planning a long drive and monsoon walks in the ghats, looking for wildflowers. This year I have to make do with photos of weeds growing on the lawn. I like weeds; you get more butterflies visiting them. They (the butterflies) usually begin to emerge around this time, but I suppose those which emerged in the last few days would have drowned in the rain. I guess those which pupate later will have a better time.

The heavy rain had not removed all flowers from stalks. On some hedges along the paths I could see flowers still managing to catch the sun. In the photo above, you see a typical sight: leaves heavy with pooled drops of water, flowers peering up from among them. Exactly fifty years ago a completely forgettable movie was released: Sawan Bhadon. The only reason it isn’t totally forgotten is that it introduced one of the super stars of that time, Rekha. She is likely to be over seventy now (contrary to press releases), but every now and then newspapers still write about her.

At one point on our walk sunlight found a little gap in the clouds and landed just in front of us. The effect was so dazzling that I stopped and took this photo. The long days of rain had brought down so many leaves; they were rotting into mulch now. This is the light of monsoon, astronomical summer. So beautiful when you get to see it.

The future is another place

I sat in a crowded and noisy food court in an airport. I’d just found that my flight was delayed by over an hour, making it certain that I would miss my connection and therefore reach home only in the early hours of the morning. I didn’t feel like working, so I got myself a large beer. The last time I passed through this airport, almost a year ago, the whole clan was here, and our chatter must have added to the white noise which I now noticed around me. I’d spent the clan holiday taking group portraits posed as action movie posters. But I’ll not bore you with reminiscences. If you bear with me, I propose to bore you with a rant.

I sat and stared at a large TV screen. For some reason it was playing a non-Bollywood Hindi karaoke. The lyrics scrolled across the screen as some half-familiar female model appeared in beautiful locations: “I was sent from heaven for you.” The horrible story which had dominated headlines for the last week was in my mind: a young doctor abducted from a road, gang raped and burnt to death.

This song was a reflection of an entitled male mindset: you are the apple of heaven’s eyes; women are sent for you. Consent is heaven’s prerogative. Many ancient Bollywood songs were love songs and duets, couples singing about their eternal love for each other. Those songs were set in the same unrealistic locations, but they implied mutual attraction and consent. How did they morph into this sexist song? The past was a foreign country, they did things differently there. But the future can also be a different country. I look forward to the pop culture of a more consensual future. Some of it is already being made. Will others please come forward to make it?

Wandering through Bumthang

Past Trongsa we had entered eastern Bhutan. It had been a while since we had seen any tourists.Bumthang, Bhutan Our experience in Chakhar Lhakhang told us that there are seldom any Indians who venture this far east. Dinesh was now our guide. He said he knew a hotel in Bumthang. We drove there, found three rooms, dumped our bags and decided to take a look at the town’s market before it closed down. We’d spent the whole day in the car and a little walk was welcome. Also, since we were going to stay in these rooms for two nights, we could eat in the market today, and try the hotel’s dinner the next day. Our rooms came with balconies. I opened the door, went out and took the photo you see alongside.

Shop window in Bumthang, Bhutan

The market was close to shutting down. The evening’s last shoppers were hurrying in to finish shopping before dinner. We had a leisurely time doing some window shopping. Shoes were clearly in demand. So were recharge cards and SIMs for B-Mobile; strange considering that along most of the road we had no mobile signal. DVDs were another hot segment of the market. Most offers were current Bollywood hits, with a dash of very well known older ones. Children at the Bumthang market, , BhutanI could see a few Nepali movies, but there were no Bhutanese movies on display.

The Family and I watched two children for a while. They were busy jumping into a puddle, with their school books in hand. Their father came out of the shop behind them to tell them to sit and do their work. He had quite a few customers, so as soon as the two sat down he went back in. Instantly the girls were up and at the puddle again. We laughed, and I tried to take a photo. They realized this immediately and sat down in a big show of studying their books.

We turned round and realized that the Sullen Celt had disappeared. As we walked around looking for her, she emerged from a store with a brown bag in hand. It was a brandy from a smaller Bhutanese distillery. Bag in hand we began a search for a place to eat in. A small restaurant just off the main square had rainbow trout on the menu. This is another atrocity that the British left in this part of the world; they seeded trout in the local rivers, created a disaster and a class of people who love to "conserve" this monster for future generations of fly-fishers. Quite as much of an atrocity as the industrial product that passes for brandy in this part of the world. We had a satisfying dinner with two things which the Himalayas would have been better off without.

Bollywood and China

A modern bronze and copper panel in the style of the Qianlong emperor
A modern bronze and copper panel in the style of the Qianlong emperor

We had a fascinating talk with our guide, who called himself Louis. He was born in northern Manchuria, probably around 30 years ago, speaks excellent English, and lives alone in Beijing. He has an interesting discursive style of talking, which perhaps comes from having to explain every little thing to tourists. That was useful to us, of course.

We were asking him about prices of flats in Beijing when he told us that he is getting married soon. We waited and he continued telling us about his first wife who has now paid taxes in Beijing for five years and therefore is now entitled to buy a car and a flat in Beijing. We waited. He said that he couldn’t afford to buy a flat even if he had paid taxes, and that whatever savings he had would be drained when he marries. We sympathised.

Then he told us that his mother loves Bollywood movies, and lots of people of her generation watch every Bollywood movie that they can get. He grew up watching Bollywood movies with his mother, but now he thinks all the stories are almost the same. We agreed and waited for the connection. It wasn’t long in developing. In India the hero cannot get his sister married because he does not earn enough money to pay for her dowry. It isn’t like that in China. The groom has to pay for everything. We understood and sympathized.

The Family asked Louis whether he watches any Bollywood movies now. Louis said, "Only the big ones, like 3 Idiots. It was good." In Mandarin? No, in English, with Chinese subtitles. Does Aamir Khan know of this version? I did not ask.

But Louis wanted to talk about his wedding. When his friends got married he gave everyone 100 Yuan. Now when he gets married he thinks they will each give him 120 Yuan (all presents are in cash). Then, when they have kids he will give each of them 150 Yuan, and then maybe they will give him 200 Yuan. We could see the wheels of Karma moving.

His story was new to us. We had not heard anyone from the precarious edge of the Chinese economy till now. He took us to the tombs of the Mings and the Great Wall, and he told us the usual facts about the grandeur of ancient China, and some which we had not known. But when we asked more, he gave us a very modern analysis of how many people had died in building these marvels. It is not the done thing in the circles we usually meet to talk about politics directly, so we had no opportunity to ask him whether he sees any parallel with the new marvels that China is building.

Having seen a few recent Chinese movies on flights and on Youko, it seems that some of the melodrama that Bollywood movies are famous for have also found their way into Chinese cinema. Or perhaps such melodrama is an ancient constant in all cultures. China must be as diverse as India. To understand the country better, we have to meet more people like Louis and talk to them. Unfortunately, it is not easy, since English is not commonly spoken.