Saturday, 24 May 2008

Retiring to Gelephu

23 May, 2008 - Had it not been for the troubled situation in the neighbouring Indian state of Assam and the southern problem of the 1990s, Gelephu town might have grown to become a major commercial centre.

It was the shopping centre for the central districts of Zhemgang, Trongsa and Bumthang. Its ample flatlands held enormous promise for the future and proximity to the border made it ideal for industries.

All that vanished when circumstances took over. Young people started to move elsewhere for business and opportunities. People with money invested in places that held more promise. Gelephu town’s core commercial area has hardly seen any growth in two decades.

But go beyond the commercial areas and it’s a different story altogether. Hidden amongst endless betel nut trees are numerous residential buildings that have come up slowly over the years along the fishery road, the forest checkpost and the Tali dratshang areas. And this development has come from people who have left active service.

Along the fishery road is a two-storied yellow building. It has enormously thick walls to keep out the summer heat. A woman tends to a few flowers in the front garden that is surrounded by old bamboo fences.

On the upper floor, Dr Anayat, 74, sits on a chair watching what he calls ‘happenings in the world’ on a 29-inch Sony television screen. The former director of the National Institute of Family Health, who retired in 1994, settled in Gelephu and practices homeopathy, catering to patients from all walks of life from all over the country.

Further down the road, a retired police officer sits with his wife and 107-year old mother-in-law in front of his bungalow. Dasho Dujay, 68, from Thimphu, came to Gelephu in 1969 as a police officer and settled here after retirement.

“All the houses located in these areas belong to retired armed personnel and former civil servants,” said the Gelephu gup, L P Thapa.

One of the oldest residents of Gelephu, Gyeltshen, 70, who owns a furniture house, told Kuensel that there were a few people residing in Gelephu when he first settled there in 1966 to do timber business. “Only a few hut shops made of thatched bamboo were there,” he told Kuensel.

What is now filled with cottages and orchards was then a dense forest. There were times when people feared going to Bhur from Gelephu lest they might get lost. “People use to cut and mark trees so that they don’t get lost in the dense forest,” said Gyeltshen.

While many retirees, who worked in Gelephu, chose to live in Purano Busti (old village), retired armed officials and personnel settled in Lodrai, about four kilometers away from the town, and a few in Mainatar.

“A warmer place is best for old age,” said Dr Anayat, adding that the weather in Gelephu was favourable. In the cold, old people tend to suffer from arthritis, according to the doctor. “Pressure problems would also be more acute because of the higher altitude,” he added.

Gelephu, with its low cost of living, warm climate, basic urban services standards and a relatively quiet environment has attracted senior citizens. “Everything is cheaper in Gelephu compared to Thimphu, from vegetables to building material and it’s easily available and affordable,” said Dr Anayat.

Others, like Dasho Oko Tshering, 70, from Chang Dungkar in Paro said that, since a lot of his friends are settled in Gelephu, he feels at home there. “Retirement is a stage where you stop working but certainly not a stage where you stop enjoying your life,” he said. “It’s a time of relaxation, a time where you stop working for good and with friends around you, it’s worth living.”

Many retirees told Kuensel that they settled in Gelephu because land was cheaper when they bought it. A five-acre plot of land, which costs about Nu 2 million today, two decades ago cost only Nu 15,000.

While a number of retirees bought property in Gelephu while serving in the dungkhag, there are others who settled there though they had never served there. They are the ones who planned to have a peaceful retired life. “I bought 15 decimals land after I retired from service in 1999 and settled here,” said Wangdi from Trongsa, who runs a small grocery shop in Lodrai.

Retirees, new to the place, have had problems adjusting to the excessive heat in summer, mosquitoes and security issues that pop up once in a while.

Retirees begin their day early. They believe in exercise, and, on summer mornings, at half past five, the circular road is full of early risers, who go for walks or to circumambulate the Tali lhakhang.

Evening walks are livelier and reserved for talk. And the most absorbing subject is the recent political change.

While retirees like Dr Anayat are busy treating patients, other retired people spend their day watching the live National Assembly sessions, with a copy of the draft Constitution in hand. “Most parliament members are talking sense, but a few raise points just for the sake of being heard,” a retiree told Kuensel. “If only I was young, I’d be proud to be a member of parliament,” said another retiree.

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