Worlds of words

Features Issue 139 Jun, 2013
Text by Ansubha Manandhar / Photo: ECS Media

Speaking the same language in two different worlds can be a life time issue, finds one Nepali who went to school in a region of India that is close to Nepali culture and language

When I fix taxi rates with the driver at the airport, I have to correct myself time and again. He quotes his price and I say, “Daaju! And it strikes me, I am in Kathmandu. So I wait and tell him again, “Dai! this is too much!” The phenomenon may sound familiar to people who have spent time in India’s Darjeeling, Kalimpong or Sikkim areas. The Nepali spoken in these beautiful hill stations has a distinctly different tone than what we speak here in Nepal. And so I switch to my Kathmandu tone and pick my words carefully.

When my mom puts too much rice on my plate, I complain saying, “Ambo! kati dherai!” (wow, that’s too much!) -- which always makes her laugh. The expression ambo (used to express surprise) is rarely used in Kathmandu. Its not just in Kathmandu that I have a problem though. Just as I’d finetune my Nepali to suit Kathmandu, my holidays would end and my Kathmandu accent would surprise friends back in school in Kalimpong. It started right from my first dinner in boarding school when one of the aunties serving dinner said, “Bhakku khau la naani?” I smiled at her assuming bhakku was a food and so naively asked her, “Aunty, khai ta bhakku”? Confused, she explained that bhakku was not a dish but meant “more”; dherai in Kathmandu-Nepali.

Language is expression and it is important to use the right style in the right place. While parents admitted children to schools in these areas -- undoubtedly impressed by the British style schooling -- the responsibility of adapting to the new culture fell squarely upon the children. The differences might seem subtle, but they are big enough to create a notable impact on one’s life. When in school in Kalimpong, someone or the other in our dorm would always study till late during exams and the lights would always be on. Like it or not, the rest of us had to adjust to sleeping like that; adapting to the local linguistic style was similar. Dai became daaju (elder brother), ma became mo (I, me), maiya and babu became naani (little one), jhyaal became khidki (window), dhoka became dailo (door) and kura garnu became baat marnu (conversing). When we came home, we also came back to our original accents and switched to another word bank too.

People never really talk about subtle changes in language and tone. When I think about it, I don’t really know which Nepali lanuage I can really call my own. My legs are on two boats. I am perfect in neither. Words that are acceptable in one place seem funny in the other and the people who live in both places seem to be in a permanent, linguistic transit. Its human tendency for people to want to mold others to be like them. Giving in however, means risking your already confused identity. If you do not, you risk being left out. Neither option is easy. Standing up for who you are takes courage. My friend who also studied with me in Kalimpong had to learn this the hard way. When she was first made to read in front of the class, she read mango as yum-a-yun-g-o, the way she had been taught in her kindergarten years in Nepal where pronunciation is still a problem. “It affected my confidence. Since then, I worked really hard on my pronunciation,” she said. To her, the memory is a bitter one. Trying to fit in, to unlearn old things and learn new ones while adapting to a new culture is difficult too.

Often we may let it pass, use any version of Nepali we want to, but we may not be rightly interpreted by the other. The different versions of Nepali are like different puzzles. Both have numerous pieces that fit in together to complete them, but you need to figure out which piece goes into which puzzle. I visited Kalimpong again after my schooling and soon as got inside a taxi, I called out to the taxi driver, “Dai!”