A student from northern India musters the courage to learn her native Bhoti language from a college friend.
“Does polyandry also exist in Ladakh?” I asked my friend Rewa* as we strolled around the college campus after dinner. We were both students at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, both of us hailing from the Buddhist communities in the Himalayas. Rewa is from Chemrey in Ladakh, and I am from Gemur, Lahaul, in Himachal Pradesh. We speak different dialects of the same language, Bhoti. We had been talking about ourselves and our regions. Without missing a beat, she answered with a grin, “We have many similar traditions, huh?” For another half an hour or so, we spoke about the many cultural similarities that exist between our regions. After all, my region Lahaul Spiti had been part of the Ladakh Kingdom for a long time; our language, dress and costume, and society were likely to share many of the features of other cultures in the kingdom.
After we returned from our stroll, I finished my routines, signing my hostel’s required daily attendance before 10:00 pm and bidding good night to my hostel friends. Then I called my parents to brief them on how well I had spent my day. In an excited tone, I told them about my conversation with Rewa and how polyandry and bride dowry were accepted as easily in Ladakh as monogamous marriages are respected in India’s northern plains. “Yes, that’s true,” my father responded proudly. He was in a cheerful mood, so he asked, “What more did you talk about?” He also confirmed what Rewa had said and provided other examples: “Yes, there are some families who practice polyandry in our neighboring villages. Oh, you know that ane [auntie] in the place where you volunteered? She has two fathers.”
My chats with Rewa about my community warmed me up from inside. It was the first time anyone was eager to listen to my stories from my region.
My chats with Rewa about my community warmed me up from inside. It was the first time anyone was eager to listen to my stories from my region. Inspired by our conversations, I read Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry. And that’s when I first developed the idea of documenting our way of life. After reading Mistry’s stories, I would jot down reasons why such books should be read by everyone to learn about the history of minority groups, their anxieties, and conversations about the isolation and alienation that they often experience. In a similar way, I wondered what would happen if I ever wrote Tales from Tzongza Household . . . (Tzongza is the name of my household in my village.) Would students like me study my community’s history and care about our anxiety living away from our homeland?
As the first year of college quickly flew by and my friendship with Rewa grew stronger, I decided to learn our Bhoti language from her before we parted ways. I don’t know from where I gathered my courage — possibly from my belief that “everything happens for a reason”! The fact that Rewa and I got admission to the same college and took courses in the same classroom opened up the possibility of believing in auspicious events — a possibility that is even suggested by my own name (Sonam meaning “lucky, auspicious”).
I slowly went up the staircase to Rewa’s room in the hostel. The hall was silent, but I could almost hear the furious beating of my heart. As I entered the room, I saw Rewa sitting on her bed, talking in her language on the phone to someone, perhaps her mother. She waved at me as we made eye contact. While I waited, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror that was located opposite the bed. As I looked into the mirror, suddenly memories flooded my mind. The only words that I knew in my language were julay, gyorio, khamzam and chi chayo, meaning “Hello,” “Where are you?” “How are you?” and “What are you doing?” respectively. I wondered whether the same words are used in Ladakh.
In a second, my childhood days flashed through my mind’s eyes. I was a child, eleven or twelve years old, fascinated and curious about the activities that my family friends, relatives, and mother performed like a ritual in winter. “One knot, two knots, take a U-turn and inside the hole”; knitting sounded like a nursery rhyme. When I made a mistake, my ane prodded me, looked me in the eye, and said “yunba.” I continued making the same mistakes unintentionally, and she spoke the same word “yunba” with greater intensity and fierceness in her eyes. I finally asked her, “What is yunba?” to which she replied, “It’s like pagal in Hindi.” My Hindi wasn’t good, but I understood the word as equivalent to a casual taunt used between friends. I don’t remember what my initial reaction to this word was, but I believe it reassured me to know a word that was unknown to my peer group at school. Since then, I have been using this word much in the same way as my ane did: when someone made a mistake and carelessly repeated it.
In repeating those same words again and again, I was also repeating my craving for knowledge about my community and my language.
Repeated it. Repetition. When my ane tried to teach me new words, such as “I am sitting,” I was often confused about the pronunciation. “Youdh or dhyeodh? I would repeat. “Dhyeodh or youdh?” I was an indolent teenager, but to spend some time alone with my ane, I gathered my energy to go on walks with her. She was ill, and I remember that period as a sad time for her family members, who had decided to hide the seriousness of her illness (last stage of a brain tumor) from her. I think I once saw a faint smile on her face, but it could very well have been a figment of my imagination.
We went twice to take a stroll around the children’s park, and both times I asked ane to teach me some words. My pronunciation was still garbled, but in repeating those same words again and again, I was also repeating my craving for knowledge about my community and my language. I took care to not speak those words aloud, though. “What if she gets stressed?” I thought. “What if she finds out that she doesn’t have much time left in this world?” The walks were a fine way to seek closure and spend time away from the suffocating walls of the medicine-reeking house. And who else would take pains to teach the younger generation their language and culture?
Certainly not my father. A man of contradiction, he seems to enjoy solitary time, often telling us that it’s better in the city than in our village. “What will you do by learning an endangered language?” he would say to me — words that I couldn’t understand. But then, on certain days he would play, sometimes again and again, music and documentary videos of his hometown and neighboring communities on YouTube. . .
I needed the comfort of knowing that a year before graduation was not too late to learn my native tongue.
As these flashbacks became intense, I forced myself to look away from my past and turned toward Rewa, who was still talking to her mother. With Rewa, I had no negative expectations — not even a doubt that she might deny my request. Her voice was encouraging. Perhaps, I saw her as someone like ane, a bearer of traditions. Once Rewa’s call with her mother was over and we had exchanged formal greetings, I blurted out my childlike request — a puerile request, as my father would put it. Yet, I felt reassured. Perhaps I needed the comfort of knowing that a year before graduation was not too late to learn my native tongue.
A few nights later, Rewa added new words to my vocabulary, such as rang and khyorang (the informal and formal way of saying “you,” respectively). She taught me the different ways of pronouncing the sounds rR and Kkh in those words and the different ways of using the same words with different people. I used my mobile to jot down words and sentences so that I could store them for a longer time. She didn’t know the terms gyureo (where are you?) and khamzang (how are you?), which my father and family members used on an everyday basis. It clearly meant that my dialect, sTod Bhoti, had minor differences from the Ladakhi dialect of Bhoti.
Behind our friendship was the love for our land, even a longing to be one with our homeland.
At times when Rewa taught me how to pronounce a word and I failed to repeat it properly, I sighed, remembering my ane using the word “yunba” or my father’s dispiriting reactions about learning an endangered language. But Rewa didn’t show any sign of disappointment and patiently waited for me to respond to her test questions.
On certain days, we would sit under a big tree with our group of friends. As a part of reviewing our language exercises, she would tell me to look up at the sky. I would catch a glimpse of her smile and intuitively respond “ngongpo” (sky). She would gesture with her hands and whisper, “What more?” At times I would catch the hint, at other times I would struggle to arrange the syntax in my head. After waiting for ten minutes to surprise my mentor, I would respond, “Namkha ngongpo inok” (The sky is blue). As a kind mentor, she would react by saying “very good” and clap her hands. Our friends and even strangers around that big tree would look curiously at us. They could tell that a new friendship had formed. What they didn’t know was that behind our friendship was the love for our land, even a longing to be one with our homeland.
These days Rewa is no longer with me. She took admission to a different university in another city. The connection that I have with her is personal, I believe. Earlier I had thought that our friendship was based on the shared culture and religion of our communities. But later, I realized that it was more than a communal bond that brought us together. It was more than what I had imagined. In my hostel and at the university, I have met other people from Ladakh, but I guess they don’t yet know that Lahaul and Ladakh have a lot in common. Should I tell them? I could bond with them like I did with Rewa and perhaps ask them, too, to teach me our language.
*Note: Rewa’s original name is Rinchen. For the purposes of this story, Rinchen’s original name has been changed to Rewa, which means “hope” or “a new beginning” in sTod Bhoti [Sonam’s language].
Sonam Chhomo recently graduated with a master’s in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She belongs to the Bodh tribe, a tribe in the western Himalayas from Lahaul Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. She is interested in studying Indigenous cultures and traditions from the western Himalayas and writings of exile and diaspora.