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Bhutan Diary-5 -Takstang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)


When one thinks of Bhutan, the Tiger’s nest Monastery perched  high up on a mountain cliff is the lasting image that one carries around. That we had to go there was a given. How difficult was it going to be, was a guess that we didn’t seek to answer, when we started out.

From our hotel in Paro, we set out quite early, between 5:45 and 6:00A.M to reach the flat rocky base from where we would start the ascent , by around 9:00AM. My grandson and I hitched ourselves to horse-backs . We were told  that they would take us more than half way up the climb. Wangchuk , our companion, driver and guide , gave us his card to call him up in case of any need. That was a reassuring start . Daughter was going to trek up the whole way. But old mother Hubbard had not set any challenges for herself and so that assurance was just what I needed for myself and the kiddo who was short of a few days to turn six.

 

The path up the incline is a mud track, with boulders along the way. At this time of the year, it wasn’t as difficult to progress as it would have been during the rainy season, when the trail would become all slippery. It wasn’t a very broad trail and our horses had to give way to the ones coming down and it was scary when it would choose to edge along where the land just dropped below . They were sure footed, of course and used to the climbs. But accidents do happen. But then, there’s a lot to say for optimism.

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There were side tracks along which those on foot could choose to proceed. They would make the distance shorter but the incline was steeper. The weather was clear and hence warmer than we expected.IMG_9080

 

Somewhere at half-point, we were left to go forwards on foot. There was a cafeteria there. Daughter had caught up with us there, all read in the cheeks and perspiring. I bought myself a stick which would help me in negotiating the climb. Grandson and I took turns in depending upon it to get a hold on the tricky terrain.

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We stopped often , both for myself and the kid. My knees were okay but at that altitude, the oxygen levels had reduces and that would make me short of breath quite often. Paro is around 7000 feet above sea level and the height up to the monastery from the base was another 3000 ft or so.

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The track wound itself around the mountain through pine trees and the view of the surrounding mountains and the valley below was breath-taking. The little one was tired by the time we reached the point from where we could see the monastery perched straight across on top of another slope, to reach which we had to descend around 600 steps, not at once , but in different levels and then climb up another 180 steps or so.

 

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The Takstang Monastery or the Tiger’s nest gets it name from the legend which says that Guru Padmasambhava , who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan, had flown to the cave there  from Tiber , on the back of a tiger. The story further goes on to say that he had meditated there for three years, three months, three weeks, three days  and three hours.

The monastery was built around that cave in 1692. It was razed by a fire and rebuilt in 1998. While the first time, Taking up the building material to that height must have completely been done manually, in1998 they had used cable cars to transport the material.

 

Traditional building styles in Bhutan had never followed any drawn up plans and was just a skill that was passed down. Even at present , there are perhaps no architectural courses offered in the Bhutan Universities and most of the architects now in the country,whose numbers are still few, have qualified abroad. One of the first projects that the head of the Bhutanese Institute of Architects, Ms Dorji was involved with after returning from Australia as a junior architect, was the reconstruction of the Takstang Monastery after it was burnt down.

“She explained to me how they set up a camp at the base of the cliff with a temporary office, sleeping huts, material storage and construction area.  No measured drawings or similar documentation of the structure had been recorded so for the reconstruction efforts they had to go off old photos and diaries.  Apparently a call went out worldwide to people who had visited Taktshang appealing for photographs.  From these, a detailed scale model was built at the base camp rather than plans (as the Bhutanese craftsmen couldn’t read plans).  The materials were then winched up the cliff on a pulley system, and the full sized version constructed over the course of 5 years.”

The above excepts are from a blog which will tell you more about architectural traditions of Bhutan. Here is the link: https://jeninbhutan.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/14-architecture-and-construction-bhutan-style/

 

We visited only parts of the monastery as it was already past noon and we were concerned about our journey down . We wanted to take it slow and reach base before it became dark.

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It was easier going down , of course, but it was still a 3-4 km trek back.  I had always wanted to be fit enough to accompany my grandson on a trek somewhere. I hadn’t been sure the opportunity would come as he was still little and I was past sixty two. But then the universe conspired and the little legs co-operated albeit reluctantly at many stretches. For him, this will be a tale he will probably boast about once he grows up or feel humbled by. We hope it is the latter.

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A visit to Bhutan is incomplete without going to Tiger’s Nest. It is do-able if you are in fairly good health and your knees are still in good shape and your Bp levels are not high. I do have borderline BP, but did not find it beyond my limits.

You just have to choose your own pace.

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Posted by on December 5, 2018 in Travel

 

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Bhutan Diary-4 -“Simply Bhutan”


 

“Simply Bhutan” in Thimphu, is a museum which seeks to showcase the traditional culture of the Bhutanese people.

We were welcomed with the drink “ara”, a fermented drink made from rice, in the small circular welcoming area, on the walls of which hung the photographs of the five kings. Those who had passed on to other realms had the white “kadar” draped below the photograph. Those still alive had it draped around the top of the photograph. This is a small white scarf which symbolises purity and is used during all ceremonies.47574777_10155809410677093_2616340591771910144_n
Our guide, a pleasant young girl, told us about each of the kings and the appellate given to them which represented the most significant achievement during their respective reigns.

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The first one , who had established the kingdom, after unifying all the warring warring factions within the land was known as the King of Unity. The second who worked towards establishing Bhutan as a distinct cultural and political entity , removed from the rest of the world, was known as the King of Separation. The third was known as the King of Modernity. The fourth Jigme Singme Wangchuk who is known for factoring in the Happiness of the people into the country’s development goals is known as the King of Happiness and the present one, who ascended the throne after his father’s abdication and has been carrying forward his father’s intent of establishing an elected Government is known as the King of Democracy.

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There was a range of caskets, big and small, weapons, water carriers made from yak leather and ropes made of yak hair , placed around the area.

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All of it had been articles of everyday use in the old days. Bhutan had changed a lot since then, of course. But there is still an abiding simplicity in the living styles even now.
Their traditional dress , for example, is uniformly worn by everyone even now. May be there is some difference in the material, but to the outside observer, there appears to be  no scope for the Bhutanese population to flaunt their status through the range and texture or design  of the clothes they wore. Food similarly, is very basic. I did try out a couple of traditional dishes, Emu Dakchi , which had potato and Kewa Dakchi made from big green chillies, both cooked in a white cheesy sauce. My taste buds approved it.
Just inside the entrance are, there was a live demonstration of how mud walls used to be built, by ramming wet mud with poles, singing all the while to make their labour light.

 

The guide told us that the songs also included prayers asking forgiveness from all the bugs and insects that they were likely to be killing in the course of building those mud houses.

Those houses were very well suited for the climate of the land. One later learnt from the Internet that the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, headed by the well known Dr, Tashi Zangmo was doing much in reviving and promoting the old construction methods.

http://www.bhutannuns.org/mud-house-for-nuns/

There was also a corner devoted to the “Fertility Saint”, with an array of phallic representations .

 

Women wear them as talismans around their neck or hang it on the eaves or at the entrance of the houses to usher in prosperity. He is also known as the “Crazy Saint” because of the unusual methods he employed for bringing enlightment to the people. There is monastery in Punakha dedicated to this saint.

You can read more about this crazy /wise saint in this link :

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drukpa_Kunley

 

Inside the quaint cafeteria, four girls swayed to lilting music while we sipped at a sample of “Suja” or butter tea, which is very popular in Bhutan. It is brewed with tea leaves, yak butter,a dash of salt. They had sprinkled a smattering of roasted rice grains on top of the brew.

After the guide took around . explaining all about the traditional living of Bhutan, we reached a stall where a real surprise awaited us. Here sat Pema Tshering , who had been inflicted with cerebral palsy when he was a child. Abandoned by his parents, he grew up in the village under the care of his grandparents. The queen mother happened to visit that village and came across the young boy. Moved by his plight, she sponsored his education in an art school where he learnt painting and carving. Pema now earns a living out of this craft. He has received recognition worldwide now. The work is exacting , he admits, but he is happy that he is able to eke out a living. He is even planning to build a house for his parents who are now old. Compassion and forgiveness constitute a major gene in the emotional wiring of the Bhutanese people, it seemed.

This is a place any traveller to Bhutan must visit. For some reason it was not included in our itinerary arranged by the Travel Agents. Thanks to the suggestion rendered by Wangchuk, who drove us and accompanied us to the various places, we were fortunate to have not given it a go by. They charge Rs.200 per person for entry, but it was well worth it.

 

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2018 in Travel

 

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Bhutan Diary-3 -Dochula Pass


We were fortunate that we were travelling through Bhutan in October, when the weather was clear and bright. Dochula Pass, about an hour’s drive from Thimphu , on the way to Punakha, is best visited at this time. Then, you are able to see the majestic Himalayan ranges all around, the snow capped peaks adding to the allure .

 

Here, on a green hillock, 108 stupas have been erected in memory of the Bhutanese soldiers who had fought against the Assamese rebels who had built a base there to direct their insurgency against India. Queen Ashi Dorji had commissioned it.

 

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I should have stood in one place and wielded the camera , instead of trying to capture the scene while walking .Even so, I guess you may be able to get an idea of the ambience of this beautiful spot in the following two videos

 

 

 

There is also a beautiful temple called the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang Temple at the Dochula Pass , which has been built in honour of the fourth Druk Gyalpo (head of Bhutan), Jigme Singme  Wangchuk.

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In December, the annual Druk Wangyal Lhakhang Festival is held in the open environs of this place and they say that if travelling to Bhutan  during that time , this event should not be missed , for it would envelop the art and culture of Bhutan during those days for the benefit of those who participate.

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Later, we  sat in the nice cosy cafeteria, after going around and slouching on the sun-bathed grass of the hillock, drinking tea and eating fresh cream rolls, while soaking in yet again the panoramic view of the mountains and the cypress trees on the slopes, through the glass windows. Flags were festooned all over , fluttering in the breeze. They were blue (sky),white(clouds), red(fire) green(Water) and yellow(earth)in colour depicting the elements.

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Flags were festooned all over , fluttering in the breeze. They were blue (sky),white(clouds), red(fire) green(Water) and yellow(earth)in colour depicting the elements. Buddhist mantras were inscribed on them and they are believed to bring in good fortune.

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And here’s a video clip of our drive back from the Dochula Pass.

 

More in my next blog.:-)

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2018 in Travel

 

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Bhutan Diary-2 -Driving through


“Khozazampo”  Hello (Greeting)

“Kathi joomo”? (Where are you going?)

“Na thathu Thimphu jui. Na nava Paro jui” (We are going now to Thimphu. We will go to Paro tomorrow.)

“Bhutan Leshimdu” (We like Bhutan)

“Bhutan , nima tatumdu…chyure chomme” (In Bhutan it is hot during the day . In the night it is cold)

Smatterings of Bhutanese picked up from Wangchuk , who drove us to Thimphu from Phuentsholing and through it the next day and thence to Punakha and Paro and back to Phuentsholing.

map of Bhutan

As you can see, our itinerary covered only the South-West part of Bhutan.. I hadn’t really taken a look at the map before we had started out. If I had, I would have realised that most of the forest cover extended beyond this area , covering a major part of this country. It would also have left me better prepared for the comparitivly lesser green territory that we passed through. Lesser green as compared to the images one had installed in the mind whenever one read about how ecologically conservative  the development policy of the land has been.

The road trip was magical even then. Wangchuk had a collection of Bhutanese melodies on his pen drive and it gave an additional ambience to the experience. The roads were almost empty, once we left the city precincts , with an occasional vehicle overtaking us or approaching us from the opposite direction. Autorikshaws, an identifying feature of the roads in India, were altogether absent.

At this time of the year, at the beginning of Winter, during the day, sunlight poured down through the clear blue skies,creating patches of dazzling brightness interspersed with shadows at different turns of the road that wound its way round the mountain slopes.

Bhutanese labourers engaged in the building of roads and other construction activities earned around Rs.700 if they were men and around Rs.500 if they were females. Workers came from outside too, mainly India and Bangladesh.

Did corruption exist?, I asked Wangchuk.

The occurence was rare, he replied. Government officials caught taking bribes would be straightaway sacked, without even a pension.

There were no hoardings anywhere in sight. The people we passed by, were all wearing traditional clothes, the knee-length gho for men and the wrap-around skirts called kira for women. Even school uniforms were in the same traditional style.

We stopped for lunch and tea here and there at quaint eating places. Every building that we entered, even the monasteries , had the photos of the royal family decorating the walls. Clearly the loyalty was indisputable.

“The king is like God to us “, Wangchuk explained.

Did they have something akin to blasphemy laws? Did they have the freedom to utter anything against their king?, I was cuirous.

“Who would want to?” Wangchuk replied. “He gives us everything that we need ”

I recalled an article written by Professor Thurman in the local newspaper I found at the hotel reception that very morning. He was singing praises of the constitutional monarchy of Bhutan that was built on the bedrock of the principles of transcendental individualism, non-violence, learning, voluntary altruism and constitutional democracy.

After returning from Bhutan, I tried googling for that write-up and was pleasantly surprised that it turned up in a jiffy. Here is the link:

http://www.kuenselonline.com/turning-to-monarchy-fortuitous-for-bhutan-says-prof-thurman/

It was true…there was no evidence of any aggressiveness anywhere. There were lots of smiling faces. Their voices had a gentle timbre. The whole atmosphere was unhurried and non-competitive. Nothing exemplified that better than the pace at which Wangchuk ferried us across , with his frequent reminders that we could ask him to stop anywhere we wanted to take in the view or capture the scenes in our camera.

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2018 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Bhutan Diary-Part 1


A  country where developmental goals and achievements are measured in terms of Gross National Happiness, where utmost concern is directed towards environmental sustainability, where the philosophy of dharma is invoked in governance, where loyalty and love and faith in the monarch is invested to a degree that is only next to Buddha and the Rimpoches , where the air is fresh and largely unpolluted, where mountains and valleys and rivers make up most of the undulating terrain, where people live unhurried , honest lives……Bhutan had to be an inviting destination.

 

The trip had been planned months ago as a fairly decent package deal. We were to  be picked up at Bagdogra airport and the whole itinerary thereafter would be taken care of, only minus lunch and dinner.

The drive from Bagdogra to the Bhutan border at Phuentsholing,  was tedious, with interminable traffic moving without any lane sense  causing jams at several places. Long lines of trucks went past , carrying cement and boulders . Phuentsholing was the industrial area of Bhutan and construction material constituted a major chunk of exports to India and Bangladesh. At stretches where the roads were clear, our vehicle was zipping past . Seated in front, I noticed the needle touching  120 several times.

 

We checked in to the hotel assigned  in the free zone area of Phuentsholing, tired after after the long day and full of anticipation for what was ahead.

 

Wangchuk greeted us at the reception  the next morning ,wearing the  traditional knee-length robe, “gho” and a very pleasant countenance. He would be our driver and escort for the rest of the trip. He facilitated the necessary clearances from the Immigration office and then we were off to Thimphu.

The new road, which wound lower down the mountain slopes , had been inaugurated  less than a year ago. It would have taken us longer to reach our destination had we gone along the older route which was in the higher reaches.  The day was clear and the sun bright and very warm.  All along the way, flags of many hues fluttered in the wind. They were considered auspicious  and an ubiquitous feature throughout the land.  Structures that looked like bus shelters, dotted the roadside at regular intervals and women sat selling vegetables and long clusters of something white that looked like erasers. It was  dried yak  cheese , rubbery and tasteless, we found, when we tried it out on the return trip. Chewing on it was “time-pass”, Wangchuk told us .

Here and there , the colours of Autumn were still hanging on the trees, giving visual relief to the bare mountains and rocky ledges that hung over the road. We were slightly disappointed that the route was not as verdant as we expected. But then, many of the distant mountains seemed to have ample tree cover.

Wangchuk drove the vehicle at a slow pace, the needle on the speedometer rarely going beyoind 40.  We stopped for lunch on the way. Food was very basic , rice, chappattis , dal and vegetables and this was to be so throughout our stay .  We were told to avoid the non-vegetarian dishes on the menu , as animal slaughter was more or less banned in Bhutan and what was available was the stuff that came from India , with the likelihood of having been stored in the freezers for a considerable amount of time.

 

Smoking in Bhutan is banned too and smuggling cigarettes treated as a serious offence. There was no ban on alchohol though, the logic being that the former was not just injurious to the person who consumed it, but also to the others around . I guess the same logic applies to  a similar custom among the followers of the Sikh religion.

 

All farming in Bhutan stays free of chemicals . Wangchuk deplored the fact that everything that was grown and sent to the markets in India was completely organic , but when during the lean season they had to buy stuff from the markets in India for use in Bhutan, they got vegetables and fruits that was steeped in pesticides.

 

After checking in at the hotel in Thimphu by evening, we took a slow stroll in the neighbourhood. The architectural style of all the buildings, we noticed, was predominantly similar. It had to be so, as per the guidelines of the government . Residential houses in the rural areas rarely went beyond two storeys and in the cities the prescribed limit was six storeys. There were no high rises at all.

 

Even being the capital city, the place was not crowded. The total population of Bhutan is just about 8 lakhs and so the lack of hustle and bustle was not surprising. Moreover , the government was doing everything they could to discourage migration from the rural areas to the cities. There were schools and hospitals everywhere in the rural areas. Education and medical facilities were completely free. There was a land ceiling act in place which allowed individual ownership up to 25 acres only. Of course families owning more land generally assigned ownership to individual members  to retain the whole of the property between themselves. Those without any land to their name were allotted up to four acres by the Government. Those orphaned and elderly and without any means of sustenance were given free rations and also housing .

 

The livelihood of more than  60% of the Bhutanese population depends on agriculture. Irrigation where necessary, is provided at very subsidised rates . Holdings are marginal, by and large and so mechanised farming is slow to take hold, although the Government does provide use of tractors free of cost, Wangchuk told us. Rice and maize and potatoes are the major crops grown for domestic consumption , apples, oranges and cardamom being the cash crops.

 

By five thirty , it had started to become dark and we walked back to the hotel as the temperatures suddenly started dropping . Dinner washed down with lemon tea later, we snuggled inside the warmth of our quilts , winding up our first day in Thimphu.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2018 in Travel

 

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Take us home


We don’t know why we’re here
Far away from our hearth and home
All we know now is gnawing fear
And an abiding gloom

We don’t know why wars are waged
Or why landmines lie in the grass
We don’t know of barricades or borders
Or the punishment for trespass

We don’t know why we were snatched away
From loving arms and hearts
We’re too young to gauge the wisdom
Of shattering a “whole” into parts

Our limbs are too little, our sobs too soft
Will you hear us above the din?
Will you take us back to the warmth we know
Forgiving us our sins

Of hoping to grow in a better world
Where love builds cosy nests
And the songs of Spring echo all around
After seasons of unrest.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2018 in Community, Poetry

 

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Conversations with myself


So much happening around you. Do you need to talk?
“Yes, I do and nobody listens to me better than you. Do you have time to do that?
Oh yes….lots of time…go on. Are you happy with yourself?
“Most of the time now, yes. Gosh, but it’s taken me a lifetime to get here.”
Why wasn’t it easy earlier ?
“Too many guidelines from too many sources that would make me judge myself . I would qualify on many counts and fail miserably on others. I was confused.”
But you did keep talking to me, didn’t you? I remember your conversations from the time you were a kid.
“Yes…and thank goodness for that.”
You were about to say , thank God for that and then changed it to goodness. Why?
“Because the second I take God’s name so many images that have been superimposed from outside take over and I don’t like some of those images. “
You mean Allah’s image of a vindictive old man who is waiting to pounce on you for not worshipping him enough?
“No…not just Allah. I don’t like the images of the Hindu Gods either who were introduced to me as divine beings but with all the weaknesses of humans and all this high and low of castes and all that. I kind of like Jesus . He is cool and seems to personify the loving , forgiving, all embracing image most. But then, he cannot be God himself. Buddha talked about nothingness . I don’t want to think of God as nothingness either. It should be everythingness, right?”
Okay, let’s drop that and talk about more mundane things. Are you happy with the way you’ve conducted yourself?
“Not all the time. I’ve been responsible for disharmony many times, whenever I was focussed more on myself . But I haven’t honestly wanted anyone to be unhappy. I haven’t robbed or killed or been really jealous. No that’s not true. I’m a non-vegetarian. Lots of animals and birds have been killed in my name.”
But that’s okay , don’t you think? You have to have nourishment to survive. That is a basic requirement of nature. Killing for sustenance of your physical existence seems to be the way nature seems to have ordained it.
“I’m not so sure…may be when there is no other source of food and may be when you are wired to eat only flesh. That definitely isn’t the case with me. I can stay off eating non-veg and still survive. So do I really need to take another life?”
Okay , let’s forget that for now. Can you love without conditions of religion, nation, caste, region, language, colour of skin, looks, gender ..the works?
“Yes, I can. I most definitely can. I always have. I always will.”
Is that just a private thing ?What if you are put to the test? What if your son wants to marry someone of his choice who breaks all those parameters? Will you be okay with that?
“ I most certainly will . All I would want is their happiness. “
But will you be okay with being side-lined by your society for that? Those lines are being drawn more emphatically now . People are ready to kill for so called honour.
“What do YOU think? Is love conditional?”
I don’t think so. You can condition yourself to think so, but in itself it is not.
“ So too with God, right? Don’t you feel most at peace and blissful when you imagine that none of us exists in these forms that we are attired in and there is nothing but a knowing silence and there is a gentle breeze and fragrances and lilting music which is part of the silence, where each of us that ever lived is there and yet not there ? “
Yep. But …tell me this . Are you feeling proud of yourself at this moment?
“Oops! I can’t escape you, can I? There is no pride when I’m lost in that moment. But now when I’m talking to you…perhaps . We can work on that right ?”
Sure. Are you scared to die ?
“ I was. Not of hell or anything like that. I was scared of being lonely, of being wrenched away from the people I loved , of never being able to communicate with them, of this thought that I would no longer be part of their lives, of forgetting all the wonderful moments of connection with others that I’ve experienced, of forgetting what it is to be alive”
And now?
“ Now I’m dead sure that is not going to be like that. I think all we have to do is to click on “save” when those moments of pure love and connection settles in our hearts and delete everything else and then hey presto, it’s all there just the way you wanted it when the disrupted electricity comes on again. Who knows , may be there is an auto-save mechanism too! C’mon, we are talking of an all encompassing , benign whatever you want to call it. So no worries about dying now.”
Glad we had this discussion, right?
“Sure am. So glad you are there for me. Let me give you a hug” 

 

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