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The flight from Bombay arrived at Bagdogra a full six hours behind schedule. I was 27 years old, travelling on a drawing assignment to the mountain kingdom of Bhutan, terrified about the prospects ahead.
The arrangements for the trip had been made in such a haphazard manner by my publishers in New Delhi, that I couldn’t believe their assurances that all would be well. I was neither a resourceful nor a hardy traveller. I fell prey to every passing microbe. I was dead bored with cultural glories. And I lived in that state of chronic insolvency which magnified all difficulties beyond my ability to cope.
Purple storm clouds growled in the east, and the sun had already sunk below the horizon by the time I reached the ‘Enquiry Counter’ at the ramshackle airport at Bagdogra. I heard my name being paged and felt a surge of relief: Ah! I was expected. Then I saw the person who had paged me and my confidence vanished. A short dark man in a cheap shiny suit introduced himself as Mr Sharma. He spoke in a breathy gabble, complaining about the six-hour wait at the airport, assuring me nevertheless that he had secured a “bheekle” for me. I did not know what he meant, until he introduced me to the driver of the bheekle, a wild-eyed little runt, who looked about as capable of driving a car as I am capable of defeating the Mongol hordes in hand-to-hand combat.
I got in the backseat of the dangerously superannuated black Ambassador that was to be my chariot and so did Mr Sharma. The Mongol horde crawled in behind the steering wheel, joined by a cohort of two unidentified ruffians. Seconds later, we were hurtling along an unlit, pot-holed road aimed straight for the grand dark mass of the mountains directly ahead of us. The bheekle lived up to its promise for the full duration of the seven-hour trip, with three breakdowns and a malfunctioning front door which flapped open every five minutes or so, needing to be slammed shut with ever increasing vigour as we gambolled along.
Amazingly, we reached Kharbander Hotel in the border town of Phuntsoling without mishap. I gladly bid goodbye to the bheekle team, but it was 11.30 at night. Though the quaint, faux-Bhutanese-style building was lit up like Macy’s at Christmas, it was completely deserted. A semi-conscious desk clerk registered my presence and a somnambulist bellhop carried my suitcase across miles of empty corridors to my room. I ordered dinner and while waiting for it to arrive, turned on the switch of the bedside radio. A tongue of bright flame flashed out and licked my right hand. I looked down to see that the first three fingers of the primary instrument of my trade as an artist were charred black.
I rushed to the bathroom, but alas! There was something wrong with the plumbing, so that the only water in the pipes was scalding hot. I went down to the front desk but the clerk didn’t comprehend “Doctor” or “Chemist” or indeed, any form of human speech. So I went back to my room, and awaited dinner. When it arrived, I dunked my hand in the drinking water. Then I smeared Nivea Crème on my fingers, wrote several postcards about the pain – which was ferocious – and finally, because there was nothing else to do, fell asleep.
All through the eight-hour ride to Thimphu the next day I fretted about gangrene and amputations as a distraction from the sheer, mind-numbing unpleasantness of second-degree burns. When I finally reached Bhutan Hotel, there was no one to greet me and my room was tiny, dark, damp, cold and abuzz with flies. Feeling unbearably depressed, I opened the window. There was a rainbow arcing over the green cleft of the valley, snaggle-toothed mountain peaks soared up into the cloud-streaked, indigo-hued sky and the air was fresh as sparkling wine. I sensed the dragon smiling, then. I felt the first touch of his intoxicating, high-altitude otherness. I stayed four months in Bhutan and loved it more than any other place I have ever known.
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