Today I am writing about Peyangki, a typical carefree nine-year-old boy full of wonder, with a heart for discovery and adventure. He is quite atypical, however, in the sense that he lives on the other side of my world, in a completely different kind of world. I’ll nickname him Pey.
I got a glimpse into the life of Pey and his unique environment one evening last November. Channel surfing, I happened to click on the start of an episode of Independent Lens. Airing weekly on Monday nights on our local PBS channel, the Emmy Award-winning series introduces new documentary films made by independent filmmakers. That particular evening featured a film called Happiness, a 2014 piece written, directed and produced by French-Finnish filmmaker Thomas Balmès. With the Himalayas as a breathtaking backdrop, a dreamy musical score and an amiable main character you immediately want to run up to and hug, I figured this was going to be a cinematic gem. I was hooked to the screen in 30 seconds, and wasn’t disappointed.
Balmés introduces Pey in his remote home village of Laya, in the kingdom of Bhutan, about as far away from the twenty-first century as one can get. The country itself is about the size of Switzerland, tucked away between Tibet and India. The natives are as rugged and weather-beaten as their surroundings. Black-haired, almond-eyed with dark, dusky umber colored skin like well-worn saddle leather, they could probably blend in easily with rustic peasants in the Andes. The longer they age it seems, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish a male from a female face. Pey’s mother is probably 30 years younger than she looks. But the children are all bright and beautiful.
Bhutan’s geography expresses grandeur on a grand scale, with some of the world’s tallest peaks, the bluest skies, and a bleak, almost surreal landscape that can be surprisingly hostile despite its magical, tour book destination appearance. But it’s not Shangri-La. This is Pey’s backyard. It’s primitive, unchanged for hundred of years and the last place in the area to get electricity.
Pey’s father died of a heart attack recently after encountering a bear in the forest, so he lives with his mother and a couple of siblings. With too many mouths to feed, she feels he would be better off at the local Buddhist monastery. She drops him off barefoot and all wrapped up in brown and orange robes into the care of the monks, and rather unceremoniously says, “Good luck.” He just stands there, lost and lonely, separated from family and school chums, but handles it without a tear.
Soon utility workers are setting poles and pulling cable up and down the mountainsides. With electricity comes civilization’s crowning achievement: television. The village is ready to embrace this boon of modernity with open arms, even if it means selling a yak to get enough cash to purchase a set. Pey’s uncle asks him to go along to Thimphu, Bhutan’s largest city, on a mission to buy a second TV. The first one fell off a horse and broke. It takes them three days to walk to the nearest road, with the yak, to an automobile. Pey is exuberant with his first ride, but gets carsick all the way.
While in Thimphu, Pey gets a first-hand, down-and-dirty look at the new world. Cafés, stores, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Lights and noise. Browsing tourists and busy locals cramming the roads and sidewalks along with crimson-robed monks, aloof to the business of commercialism. He tries to locate his older sister, who is allegedly “working in an office” with computers, but the managers have never heard of any girl named Choki in that department. Finally she is discovered as a “dancer” at one of the clubs, and tells him she will probably never go back home. The journey is successful otherwise. The TV is bought and brought to the village without damage or incident, and Pey has seen curiosities that range from live fish in an aquarium to store window mannequins to a crippled man dead drunk in the gutter.
This film is a work of art, and therefore responses to it will be subjective. Some intellectually minded observers may see Happiness in the classic genre of progress spoiling the innate innocence of the noble savage. But what about the title itself? Maybe it’s a commentary on the nature of being satisfied, or seeking that lofty spiritual goal of fulfillment in Nirvana. After all, The Buddha says, “Happiness doesn’t depend on what you have or who you are. It solely relies on what you think.” Ironically the lama at Pey’s monastery at one point asks him, “So do you expect TV to make you happy?” Pey’s answer is an enthusiastic “Yes.” So does that mean if he thinks it will make him happy that it will make him happy?
The final scene in the film shows Pey with a few older family members in a darkened room, a tight crop on their faces illuminated by the flickering movement on their new TV screen. They are watching – of all possibilities – a WWE professional wrestling program. The audio is in English, the announcer describing every move made in the ring. They are mesmerized.
I looked at those blank yet crudely beautiful faces – so far away from Starbucks, GAP and fast food drive-throughs – so far removed from what we usually consider important or significant or the kind of lifestyle that we champion as making a worthwhile contribution to modern society. You know, people making a real difference. Staring at my TV I couldn’t help but ask myself, actually out loud, “Does it really matter whether these people live or die?” I know. It sounds cruelly judgmental. Intellectually and culturally superior.
But that is not my point. It’s deeper than that. It’s the question of the hour, of all mankind, for all time. Do we prejudicially esteem achievers and artists and thinkers so much more than the child with dirty hands and a bad haircut subsisting almost by himself on the roof of the world? Personally, I maintain that every life without a doubt has immeasurable value, no matter what. I think that’s the way God sees it. And Pey, in his sublime simplicity, does make a difference, even in the big scheme of things. His life spoke to me, because here I am writing about it. He’s an awesome kid who touched my heart and I won’t soon forget.