By C. Fong Hsiung
“Hey, guys…guess who just called me?” I shouted as I dropped the phone back on its cradle, “the Queen of Bhutan.”
“The Queen of what?” Jasmin’s head popped up behind her partition.
I got out of my chair and strolled toward my office door. Leaning against the frame, I said, “Bhutan, Jazzy, have you never heard of Bhutan before?”
Jasmin wrinkled her nose, squinted, and shook her head. Susan, at the next work station glanced at me and then at Jasmin, her demeanor exuding confidence. She said, “Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayan Mountains, right?”
“What’s the commotion all about?” Robin came out of her office.
My chest wanted to explode with all the stories bubbling up toward my mouth. “I was on the phone with the Queen of Bhutan. She went to school with me in the seventies.”
“Whoa,” Robin released a long noisy breath, “no sh**.” She leaned on the low partition in front of Susan’s desk.
“It’s true. We went to the same boarding school in India. Many Bhutanese girls did too. Bhutan is a small country north of India and has less than a million people. They send some of their children to study in India. Even the King studied in Darjeeling, about an hour from my school.”
Now that I had my colleagues’ attention, I regaled them with stories about St. Helen’s, my home for nine months of the year, in a hill station called Kurseong. I told them about the conversation I just had with the Queen.
Forty-five minutes ago, when my phone rang, I’d picked it up without looking at it and said, “This is Fong. How can I help you?”
A woman chuckled in my ear. “Guess who I am?”
The accent stirred a memory. Of course, it did—that’s how I had sounded when I was a teenager growing up in India. “Hmm…I’m stumped. Are you from Calcutta?”
“Ha…you’re close, but no. Do you remember Tshering Pepe?”
I almost dropped the phone. “Tshering from St. Helen’s?”
Now her laughter sounded familiar. “What do you think?”
“That’s incredible. How did you find me?”
“I phoned your home and spoke to your son. He gave me your work number.”
“No, I mean how did you locate me here in Toronto? It’s been twenty-four or -five years since we left school in 1975.”
“It wasn’t all that hard. I saw your name on Batchmates, and I also found your website about our school.”
Tshering, pretty, fair-skinned with high cheekbones. Her voice and words parted the cobwebs shrouding my brain. Nostalgia laced my memories of the old stomping grounds. My alma mater, ancient and majestic like a castle with a spectacular view of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga Mountain peaks. Schoolgirls in ponytails, shrill voices of youth in dark uniforms, knee-high navy-blue socks, and shining black shoes. I remember the long walks on hilly roads, eyes seeking out exotic foreigners who braved up the Himalayas. Excited whispers when uniformed boys chanced by to gawk at the girls.
Breathlessly I asked, “What have you been up to all these years? Are you married? Any kids?”
“You’re too much,” she laughed, “one thing at a time. Do you remember Jigme Wangchuk?”
“OH, MY GOSH…you’ve got to be kidding. You’re married to the King of Bhutan?”
She giggled. “Yes, he’s my husband.”
“When did you get married?”
“I remember the big news about the King’s coronation when we were still in school. He was only eighteen at the time, right? Didn’t you have a crush on him even then?”
The familiar giggle again. Time stood still—in my mind I saw her eyes light up as she tossed her head back, two tight braids swinging behind her.
“So what’s it like being a queen?”
“Don’t get any ideas about it being grand. Like most people I have a job too. I work with a youth foundation which takes up quite a bit of my time. It’s my quiet time right now as it’s late in the evening here.”
“Do you have any children?”
“Yes, two girls and my youngest is a boy. He’s only five and he keeps me busy.”
“What about travels? Do you do state visits? Have you ever been to Canada?”
“No, I haven’t been to Canada yet. We have a mission in the United States. My daughters also go to school there, so I visit sometimes.”
I paused and watched the rapt faces of my colleagues. They hung on to my words. Robin, the designated computer guru, said, “Let’s search the web and find out more about your friend.”
I watched while Robin typed, “Queen of Bhutan” and then hit the enter-button. Pictures of Tshering, the King and many other people filled the small screen. I recognized the almond-shaped eyes above the prominent cheekbones and pointed chin. In snapshot after snapshot, she wore the kira, a traditional colorful robe worn by Bhutanese women. The dollish face and the trim figure still seemed girlish. I remembered how she loved to wear western style clothing whenever we had a school holiday or a special occasion. She loved to dance. She danced every Saturday evening during our free time at the recreation room, and at the heavily chaperoned socials with our brother school, Goethals Memorial.
Robin paused the mouse and said, “Check out her title: Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck,”
“I still can’t believe that we hooked up after all these years. How amazing is the internet, huh?”
Robin started to scroll down the page again. Something caught my eye. “Hey, hold your mouse right there. It says here that she is one of four sisters married to King Jigme Wangchuk.”
Jasmin’s eyes nearly popped out of the sockets. “Is that even legal?”
I mulled over this new piece of information. “Well, she’s married to the King.”
Robin grinned. “In case you’re not aware, but polygamy is illegal here.”
I folded my arms and said, “In our Hakka-Chinese community back in Calcutta, I knew a few men who had two wives living in the same household. But they were married a long time ago.”
Susan nodded. “Oh yes, I’ve heard that some Chinese men have concubines. Is that what you’re talking about?”
“No, these men actually married two women. Maybe the first wife couldn’t bear a son, or maybe marrying a second wife represented great status for the man. Who knows what the reasons were.” I shrugged.
I scanned the computer screen a bit more. “The article says that the four sisters were married to the King in a combined ceremony.”
Robin said, “I guess your friend is a queen, not the Queen. How well did you know her?”
“She was one grade above me. We weren’t best friends, but we were in a small and close-knit boarding school. We ate, slept, studied and played together for nine months of the year, so it was impossible not to know each other. I remember teasing her about her royal aspirations. In fact, all the Bhutanese girls were probably infatuated with their young and eligible king at that time. Who wouldn’t be? He was handsome and oh, so groovy looking.”
That evening I could hardly wait to go home and tell my teenage-son, Curtis, about his royal encounter—unbeknownst to him—earlier that day. “Did you know that the woman who telephoned this morning was a queen?”
Never one to hold back, he snickered, “Mom, if she’s a queen, then I’m the king of my backyard.”
Curtis was born in Toronto and nothing in his life experiences up to that point had prepared him for an encounter with royalty—albeit by phone. He teased me about my starry-eyed gushing. I forgave him for acting crass.
For most of us, everyday living graphs like a series of small spikes and plunges occasionally broken by a freakish high or low. But when a queen calls—yes, a real one—the peak goes off the chart; and the story gets better with each telling.