In a Quiet Town Rus­tle Quaint Pages of Cul­ture

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Manika Dhama

The slant­ing rays of the sun peer through the match­box-stacked build­ings that con­verge onto the square. Traf­fic slows down at a sig­nal, not from bright chang­ing lights but from dance-like move­ments of white-gloved hands of the traf­fic po­lice­man at the junc­tion.

Thimpu is an un­abashedly quiet cap­i­tal city, hap­pily dis­tanced from the only air­port serv­ing the coun­try at Paro, 50 km to the west. Among a pop­u­lace of less than one lakh, there are many who leave for neigh­bour­ing na­tions like In­dia, usu­ally for ed­u­ca­tion and bet­ter em­ploy­ment. But some re­turn to their pris­tine home­land, like Kun­zang Choki (or ‘Mui’ to loved ones), who fin­ished school at Dar­jeel­ing fol­lowed by univer­sity at Pune in In­dia. All this time Choki nursed a child­hood dream of open­ing a book­store, and it was only when she was faced with the un­avail­abil­ity of ti­tles she wanted to read that she de­cided to open one in Thimpu.

Nes­tled along a wind­ing road close to the traf­fic junc­tion on Hogdzin Lam lead­ing to the Clock­tower Square, Junc­tion Book­store is a quaint gem draw­ing lo­cals and tourists. All vis­i­tors are greeted by Toto, a black moun­tain dog adopted by Choki when the shop opened in 2010. At dif­fer­ent times of the day, he may or may not be ac­com­pa­nied by Suzy, the other adopted pet of the book­store fam­ily or any of the seven strays who eat their meals with them ev­ery day.

In­side, rows of chil­dren’s sto­ries, clas­sics, au­to­bi­ogra­phies and a spe­cial sec­tion on writ­ings from and about Bhutan line the shelves. The store owner’s name­sake Kun­zang Choden’s Folk­tales of Bhutan is a pop­u­lar fic­tion­alised insight into the coun­try’s cul­ture. The His­tory of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho has also been well re­ceived by lo­cal read­ers. At the counter, there are glass jars filled with soil friends and cus­tomers have brought back from far­away lands. Vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to pick up a book and read, with tea or cof­fee. There is a tip box to do­nate for the beverages; this helps buy food sup­plies for the dogs or re­fuel the bev­er­age stock.

A Read­ing Group of six to seven mem­bers meets on Thurs­days to de­bate books. An­other group, a short story club—or the Ju­nior Book­club—meets ev­ery Sun­day to read sto­ries. The book­store hosted an ex­hi­bi­tion last year ti­tled ‘De­lib­er­ately Framed: Scenes from a Po­etic Stew’ where Choki and her videog­ra­pher friend Solly col­lected po­ems from 16 po­ets and pre­sented them (un­named) to pho­tog­ra­phers who were give three weeks to take a pic­ture best rep­re­sent­ing their un­der­stand­ing of the cho­sen poem. The pho­tog­ra­phers and po­ets met and saw the out­come only on the day of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“How do you sur­vive, in a coun­try of il­lit­er­ates?” Choki was once asked by a cus­tomer.

The Na­tional Li­brary of Bhutan, a few kilo­me­tres from the store, was built in 1967 to help pre­serve reli­gious books and manuscripts. This im­pos­ing tra­di­tional struc­ture re­sem­bles a cen­tral tem­ple tower of a Dzong and houses ar­chives and images of revered fig­ures, thus be­com­ing a place of wor­ship, of­ten cir­cum­am­bu­lated by devo­tees.

Bhutan is com­mem­o­rat­ing the 60th birth an­niver­sary of their fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, this year by host­ing sev­eral events, in­clud­ing ob­ser­vance of 2015 as Na­tional Read­ing Year. While ef­forts to es­tab­lish e-li­braries across the coun­try are un­der­way, some ex­ist­ing brick and mor­tar stores, like Junc­tion, have re­cently made a plea to Prime Min­is­ter Tsehring Tob­gay to al­low im­port­ing books from In­dia with­out 20 per cent cus­tom duty.

Own­ing and run­ning a book­store in Bhutan is a labour of love more than a cap­i­tal­ist en­ter­prise, given the mod­est mar­ket size. Peo­ple pre­fer to self-pub­lish, which helps main­tain a cer­tain nat­u­ral flavour but also loses the sharp­ness of edit­ing. In this mi­lieu, love for the writ­ten word led a pas­sion­ate poet and bib­lio­phile like Choki to turn a child­hood dream into a re­al­ity. Even as her coun­try bal­ances lo­cal tra­di­tions with re­stricted tourism and taxed im­ports, the joys de­rived from turn­ing the pages of a tome con­tinue to light up the faces of those who step in to her book-laden world.

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