23 September 2020

Sorry Dasho Nishioka- A Book Review

Dasho Nishioka (1933-1992)

The story of Dasho Nishioka and his life in Bhutan is no short of a fairy tale; I still can't fathom how a sophisticated metropolitan had possibly left behind his comfortable Japanese life and decided to work in Bhutan in 1964? 

The book, Dasho Keiji Nishioka- A Japanese who lived for Bhutan by Tshering Cigay and Dorji Penjordeserves the recognition of being the first to recount the life of a great being who by all means deserved to be remembered. However, it should be forgiven for not being a comprehensive biography, one that is worthy of celebrating an extraordinary life and works of Dasho Nishioka.  

A foreigner who is awarded Bura Marp by His Majesty the King, given a grand state funeral, awarded Druk Thugsey Medal posthumously, built a chorten in his memory and has a flower named after him, if he is not worth several volumes of books then something is missing.

Dasho Nishioka Chorten in Paro

His numerous accolades are not what defines Dasho Nishioka, the true value of the man is in knowing why has he been recognized so grandly. His death from a tooth infection in 1992 at the prime age of 59 could have been avoided if he was anywhere outside Bhutan. He paid the ultimate price for his dedication to this country. When lamenting the loss of a great being, his daughter, Yoko says her father had nothing much to live for, having achieved so much in his short life. His was truly a short and fat life. 

I have heard of a certain Japan Sayab who revolutionized agriculture in Bhutan but it was only in this book that I connected all the dots and began to form a whole picture that I could appreciate. He came to Bhutan in 1964 when life in Bhutan was physically daunting; only Thimphu and Paro were connected by road and it wasn't until the 1980s that we had electricity. But despite the formidable odds the Japanese volunteer chose to stay beyond his two years assignment and gave 28 years of his life to Bhutan, until his death. He spent five years of his life in Bhutan in Zhemgang, the Dzongkhag that took weeks to reach on foot back then and that still is considered a difficult place in 2020. 

Dasho Nishioka's Home in Panbang

A prosperous life awaited him in Japan but he laboured in Bonday Farm to change agriculture in Bhutan. The book gives us an overview of his experiments and initiatives to mechanize farming, improve seeds, enhance yield, create access to market, improve storage, initiate processing, packaging and exporting, build the capacity of the farmers, leverage on the organic brand from Bhutan. What? déjà vu! 

If I hadn't read this book I would be disillusioned into thinking that we have come a long way but half a century later we are still talking about the same issues in agriculture. My conversations with Dr. Lam Dorji on his 'farm to market' project and with Farmer Sangay on Farming 4.0 will never be the same. I want them to read the book and have a soulful conversation with them on how we failed Dasho Nishioka. 

This year the pandemic forced us to wake up to the hard reality that we are still not capable of producing our own food, not even rice. The book tells us that Dasho Nishioka succeeded in enhancing the rice yield three times by improving the seeds. How much have we enhanced it since? It's a shameful revelation of our hypocrisy that we haven't been faithful to the mission that Nishioka started. We left it to him. 

On page 59, a picture of Bonday Farm from the 1980s is juxtaposed with another one taken from the same spot in 2010, almost 30 years apart, and in sharp contrast to the common expectation that the Farm would have flourished into a mega farm, one could see the farm was doing better in the 80s than 30 years later. 

The book relates how even back in the days Dasho Nishioka had to bargain with insincere and lazy Bhutanese to work hard on their own farms by means of reward and punishment. Imagine the frustration of a hardworking Japanese when faced with our suffocating complacency. Had we inherited a little bit of Nishioka essence we won't be having the debate on food security today. We will be exporting premium organic food to the world.

But Sorry Dasho Nishioka, we failed you. Should you come back somehow and see how far we have reached since you left you will be heartbroken.

This book should be read like an initiation prayer by every Bhutanese who joins the agriculture sector so that they recognize and appreciate the history of modern agriculture in Bhutan, and about the foreigner who put his everything in it; to let them question why we are still where we began and to inspire them to work toward a real change with the dedication that would have won the approval of Dasho Nishioka.

The book that was published in 2011 deserves a second edition with more contents on the legend's private life in Bhutan to make it a complete biography. The book needs better design and change in the paper type (non-glossy) to make it reader-friendly while printing the pictures on glossy paper. 

22 September 2020

Tribute to My Late Teacher Karma Wangchuk (1965-2020)

It was in 1997 that I maintained my first journal. My English teacher in Class VII, Sir Karma Wangchuk gave us the assignment to record our day in a small notebook to build our writing skill. The class captain had to collect our journals and take to him for review every evening. We would get it back the next morning with his feedback. Back in the days, we could hardly write an intelligible sentence. We put him off every day. 

One day, by a great stroke of luck I got one sentence correct. I still remember that sentence after all these years, it read "Thinley Gyeltshen left the school on his own accord." My poor English teacher was overjoyed. The remark he left in my little diary had a big impact on me: "Beautiful Sentence. Keep it up!". I kept writing hard to get better remarks from him each day.

It was my teacher Karma Wangchuk who named me PaSsu. He was fond of Haap's accent and found it too funny to call me PaSsu, as a Haap would do, instead of Passang or Passa. I liked it so much and proudly kept it as my pet name.

Knowing him from Junior School to College, he wouldn't be easily impressed but he was openly proud when I handed him a copy of my book PaSsu Diary in 2018. It made a complete circle. It was he in whose class I began journaling and I came to be known as a blogger by the name he gave me, and finally, here he was holding my book. 

Back in March, Among his students who had established a lifelong friendship with him, there were three of us who made it to the funeral despite restrictions due to covid19. We stayed till the end with the members of his family. I stayed till the end because I wanted to his ashes being cast into the river to be washed into the sea and feel the sense of him becoming a part of nature that he loved so much. I thought to myself that he would have loved this part. 

With his death, we lost a living encyclopaedia on the natural world. He would talk about butterflies as if he lived among them. He knew orchids like he had an orchid farm. He could talk endlessly about a bird just by hearing its distant sound. He knew wild animals like a farmer knew his farm animals. He loved wild cats the most and have all the species of it painted. 

His life was simple- the guy seemed to have known the true essence of life already- he spent all his saving during the vacations to explore the wilderness or travel to a historic site. His notes, painting and photographs from the wilderness will very well make up several volumes of books. But he never published anything. I don't think he ever regretted that because he just loved doing it. Publication or exhibition never bothered him. He once told me, "I will always have my side of the story to tell which no one can own. The challenge is even more exciting."

In 1998, I took the only white t-shirt I had to him and requested him to paint something on it for keepsake. He did a black-necked crane on it effortlessly. The shirt didn't last for long but I managed to cut out the crane and preserve it (See pic). He was one of the finest artists I have known and the first to introduce me to art. His favourite subjects were his cousins from the wilderness; there are hundreds of paintings of birds, orchids, mammals, cats, etc. some from as early as 1987 when he was a boy himself. He never exhibited his artworks. In fact, his works were taken by others and published in their books, when he could easily do his own. 

I managed to convince him to do a massive exhibition that will not only showcase his artworks on the natural world but also his photographs on butterflies and his notes. The plan was to hire the RSPN hall and divide it into several sections- Cats of Bhutan; Orchids of Bhutan; Butterflies of Bhutan; Mammals of Bhutan; Birds of Bhutan; and after the exhibition the exhibits will be compiled into several books. But the timing was wrong. He fell ill shortly after that and he could not recover to do it. But I know even if he had recovered fully he may not have been so eager to do it because he was just happy that he had created them. That's all that mattered to him.

The other dimension to the man was his natural love for Shakespear and the literature in general. In 2006 when Shakespear was being removed from the Bhutanese curriculum, Sir Karma was devastated. He didn't say much in protest but when he hosted the Annual Award Ceremony in Paro College, he ran the two hours show using nothing but Shakespeare quotes. He did it so effortlessly like his mother tongue. That night some 400 of us in the hall knew how relevant Shakespear was to this day.

For us, Shakespear means two plays and a few sonnets we struggled with in high school but he was someone he read Shakespeare plays like a love letter he just received and watched the same plays alongside books like we would watch some hot movies. English literature came naturally to him, almost like a household chore and he must have scribbled hundreds of pages of poems and stories, hidden among his countless valuable papers. 

His brother and brother's children agreed to our proposal to form a team among his students and pay him a tribute by doing an exhibition and publishing his works.

Death is but a man becoming a memory, 

You are a powerful memory alive in hundreds of us.

You are alive in me and my beautiful life. 

So Long!

20 September 2020

BOOKNESE- Just for Bhutanese Books

When I was growing up, becoming a writer was the most romantic idea to choose as a dream. I tended to this dream by reading biographies of authors, watching movies and documentaries based on the lives of writers, collected pictures of V.S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Sidney Sheldon when kids of my age were collecting posters of Leonardo DiCaprio and Salman Khan. 

One day after I became a man, the beautiful dream turned into a disappointment when I learnt that there was not a single dedicated book publisher in the country and that the Bhutanese book market was too poor to produce any fulltime writer. There were only a few authors who managed to go beyond their first book, which is a sign that they managed to sell their first book enough to save them from bankruptcy and dare to publish again. In short, there was no hope. The idea is only romantic. 

I didn't want to believe that there isn't any hope after a lifetime of waiting to become a writer. I wanted to make things work. That's why Nawang and I sat down and charted out a plan to bring together all the Bhutanese writers under Writers Association of Bhutan (WAB). We thought we could collectively create a society where literature thrived and therefore writing became a well-paid profession. A decade into building WAB with some founding members we came nowhere. 

We failed to convince our writers that we could be a lot stronger if we worked as a community, create services and facilities that every writer could leverage on, build a platform to launch books and reach masses in ways that we individually could not achieve. We are disillusioned individuals who carry a massive ego to form any functioning team; everyone thought they are popular enough to survive and thrive alone.  

Crowdpublishing-What an Idea!

Well, all is not lost. WAB managed to create a platform where aspiring writers honed their skills and gained recognitions. Nawang's 'Crowdpublishing' model helped several new writers publish their books, including my book PaSsu Diary. I used my social network to sell 3000 copies of my book easily. If WAB became an institution much can be done to help every Bhutanese who aspire to become a writer and also those who have already published but couldn't do much as writers, which is a common problem that we fail to recognize. 

But when WAB didn't happen as expected because it involved so many players to make an association, I pushed for a more personal and smaller dream with Nawang and Tharchen, to do almost the same thing as WAB but as a private venture. And that's BOOKNESE. 


BOOKNESE is an ecosystem of Bhutanese books, their writers, their readers, and the bookstores where they are sold at. It’s the platform that is making an extra effort to celebrates Bhutanese literature because if we don’t, no one else will. 

BOOKNESE is archiving and exhibiting every book ever written by Bhutanese so that we could come to appreciate that a small country has produced so many works of literature, perhaps the highest per capita in the world. We showcase and promote every book with equal passion and unbiased attention. 

86 Bhutanese Writers Registered on BOOKNESE thus far

BOOKNESE aspires and works towards becoming that national archive where anyone interested in Bhutanese literature will come to seek authentic and reliable information so that no one will have to rely on random third-party foreign online sources, where we are not even treated with due respect. 

BOOKNESE ensures that every book receives its fair share of readers and that the content of the book is discussed objectively, reviewed fairly, and judged for its worth. BOOKNESE has established ways to celebrate good books, critique bad ones, and ensure that no writer is disillusioned by a few good reviews from close friends, or disheartened by a few bad reviews from jealous readers. 

BOOKNESE guarantees every book gets equal access to the market; ​the ​market that is enhanced through ​a network of bookstores​ that is made accessible from any dzongkhag through this online platform. Booknese establishes trust and goodwill with the bookstores and sources books from them and expands their reach beyond their towns to the whole of the nation and even beyond.  

BOOKNESE is a nonprofit venture, not because we aren't interested in profit but because there is no way we will ever make a profit out of books, especially Bhutanese books. It's, therefore, more profitable not to do this business but if we don't do it, who's going to do it?

It's been a difficult two years building the idea into a platform, and putting together 151 books by 86 writers, one by one, suffering the lukewarm response and complacency of so many writers. It took me hundreds of hours, sleepless night, more than three request messages and reminders to each writer before they responded. 

Of course, it's time for me to sit back and watch because the BOOKNESE is now ready to receive entries directly from you. 

Someday you will beg to be on BOOKNESE! That day is not today, so tell your writer friends to register their book for free. It may not remain free for long. Who knows, one day if a book is not on BOOKNESE the book doesn't even exist. 

If you are a good reader, you can become an asset for BOOKNESE by becoming a star reviewer who is loved and feared by every Writer. They will wait to see your review and quote you on the cover of their second editions. Your reviews will be printed in newspapers regularly and it might become a second source of income. 

18 September 2020

My Pandemic Paintings

The Pandemic has brought me down on my knees along with the world. It gave me time to face the empty canvases and fill them with colours. They have been waiting for two years for me to find some time. If it wasn't for something as big as a pandemic, life would have to go on and on, everyone claiming to be busy. 

Following are some of the painting I managed to complete in 2020. 

1. Buddha 

2. Phobjikha

3. Human Nature 1 (Wit and Wisdom)

4. Picaso Imitation (lol)

5. The Golden Girl, Taktsang and the Monkhood

6. Human Nature 2 

7. Four Friends

If I don't compile all of these and post it together like this, someday I won't be able to trace any of them. I don't have the original pictures of some of these paintings, let alone the original paintings. 

I want to write a longer narrative of these pieces but then I need to think harder and time longer, which will eventually lead me to abandon the idea. I am not going to wait for a better time or a story.