The man with a pen and purpose
A blast of sarcasm, a burst of humour, an idea – he gave Kuensel shape and set it on course
|Dasho Kinley Dorji is the Secretary of MoIC today|
APPRECIATION 30 March, 2009 – A critic once told a Kuensel reporter, a caustic lilt of sarcasm tripping off his tongue, “One of the first things you learn in Kuensel is how to read in between the lines.” He was referring to the editorials written by Kuensel’s then editor-in-chief, Kinley Dorji. The remark was obviously meant to poke fun at the roundabout style of the editorial. But what he chose to ignore was the fact that they worked. Even to a critic like himself.
In fact, in the ocean of a small Bhutanese society, unaccustomed to receiving and giving direct criticisms, Kinley Dorji’s editorials were very much like a whale: its smallest splashes rarely went unnoticed. His pieces were never bluntly expressed and, by no means, indifferent to social conventions. He delighted in stirring the pot, but always gently, never maliciously or even vigorously. The message, whichever course it took, in the end came ricocheting through and scarcely missed its mark. It is said that sometimes his words were so loaded that policy makers, to whom his editorials were aimed at, were afraid to find out what it was loaded with.
Dasho Kinley Dorji was the first trained Bhutanese journalist and the founder and first editor of Kuensel in its newspaper format. As the reporter, editor and then editor-in-chief of Bhutan’s national newspaper for nearly thirty years, he turned a tiny government gazette into the country’s foremost paper. He was recently moved to the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoIC) as its Secretary.
He was the pioneer of Bhutan’s modern newspaper journalism.
He almost became a soldier. Like many of the first generation of educated Bhutanese, he had completed his high school in Kalimpong on a government scholarship and was in Thimphu waiting for word from the government on his future when he was told to join the army. He didn’t want to. “I used to write a few things while in school. I wanted to write,” he once told a reporter. Luckily for him, he’d scored top marks in school, which put him in the way of certain privileges, and that, combined with a bit of good luck, earned him the chance to pursue what he called his calling in life – journalism.
Dasho Kinley was at the time not only one of the few and impressive writers in town but also a bon vivant – a romantic, a fabled charmer (he was terrific with women), an early devotee of the capital’s parties and pleasures, and who in many ways embodied much of the energy and creativity that transformed rural Thimphu life. He liked to hang out at Swiss Bakery and was one of its ubiquitous party gatecrashers. His mode of transport was an Enfield Bullet bike with the letters “Iron Horse” inscribed on its silver metallic belly. He scarcely let go the chance to perform in a concert, or a get-together. He was there with his guitar. “He’d belt out Bob Dylan or Neil Young and whip up the crowd to sing along with him,” recalls a friend.
But his passion was Kuensel. It was, at that time, an erratic fortnightly publication documenting official activities. In 1986, with technical and financial help from UNDP, he succeeded in putting together a paper that was, well, not everything he’d dreamed it would be, but he knew it was a good start. What is inspiring is how much he did with that opportunity, how thoroughly he transformed the place and the time he was in.
His editorial was a staple for a generation of educated Bhutanese and it mirrored, with all its problems, the growth of Bhutan. He walked a fine line between criticism and appeasement of the government and many a time was caught in between. The response was often sharp. Some of it he shared with his reporters, other he did not. “It would have been too much for them to handle,” he said. Once he had struck out in a story the honorary title ‘His Excellency’ from a lyonpo’s name. The next day came a call from the said minister: “My man, don’t you know in which country you’re living.” He eventually took out the title from the future stories. The changes came slow and cautiously, but always forwardly. But the strain that took, perhaps, the biggest toll on him, was to take out next week’s issue, and the one after that, and the one after that. It was not easy. Machines would break down, lights would go off, computers would crash.
The man behind the editor
His most noticeable features are his eyes, which look out from behind squared glasses with steady curiosity, and his hair, now thin and gray, which by most afternoons in the office would spring up, like an unruly lawn after a rainstorm. While talking, he would frequently part his gho collar with his hands as though stopping it from tightening its grip around his neck. His laughter was never full throttle or even hearty. Far from it, the most it came to was an amused chuckle. He loved to patrol the reporter’s floor, hands behind his back, listening hopefully for the sound of typing and sticking his head into writer’s cubicles. A sarcastic remark or a complaint or a piece of gossip, and then he was off. When the hallway was too quiet for his liking, he called out, “Where the hell is everybody?”
A blast of sarcasm, a burst of humour, a gripe, an idea, a forceful opinion – he seemed to be alive in them. He beamed at the approach of booze. In an informal social gathering, he would move through the room, his face an expression of wry amusement, a corner of his mouth turned up in a half smile, one hand holding a Tiger beer, the other in his pocket, and upon stopping to join a discussion, he’d bend back a little from the waist and wait for an opportunity. He was a natural talker. He also had, most of the time, a broader perspective than most people, and his comments came coated with a rich sense of irony. Ideas poured out of him and he loved to discuss them. Obviously there were not many who were gaga about him and behind his back they said he suffered from a constant bout of “intellectual arrogance”.
Dasho Kinley made great copy for his reporters – he made them look good by contrast. Often a reporter – this reporter, for one – couldn’t quite remember what had disappeared from his text, or find where the scalpel had been slipped in. He stressed simplicity in writing. This is amply demonstrated in his book, “Within the Realm of Happiness”, a profound and loaded semi-fiction about innocence and beauty lost and the challenges that his country faces as it joins the modern world. His prose is precise and understated. His stories are meticulously crafted – sentences are moved around until they seem to stick. Even so, the finished work is without any self-consciousness or sign of effort. He never strove for effect. No flowery language for him either. In his pages one often reads with surprise descriptions and observations that seem truer and more revealing and more powerful than the deliberately shocking scenes and observations found in the pages of many contemporary books.
He was critical and did not spare reporters his anxiety about what they should be writing and how they should be doing it. He wanted stories behind the story. But praise or a pat on the back were hard to come by. Even if he liked something you had written, his praise was often tempered with fond disparagement. He was not really the nurturing and managing talent type of guy in the manner of editors in the west who fussed over your punctuation and brooded about your career. For the most part, he left it up to you to figure it out for yourself. That was his style. He also had a profound dislike of falseness and deceit and, once an offending reporter was caught, he did not easily forget.
He knew the difference between skepticism – the proper banner of the journalist – and cynicism, the mean badge of the nihilist. And he always strove to drive home to reporters this message. “Do not be an activist,” he’d tell reporters in his office. “Always keep the bigger picture in mind.” He was Kuensel’s intellectual conscience. Under him Kuensel broadened its range, lifted its gaze, and deepened its insights with a full sense of awareness that there were always more to learn. And beyond that more. He loathed a sensationally written story, or even a headline. He wrote in one of his editorials: “All of us who professionally use the media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarise that society. We can brutalise it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”