The Way We Lived
The Way We Lived is Jalebi Ink’s Oral History Project. Everyone has a story to tell. And everyone has a history. Young people talk to their grandparents, granduncles and aunts, and elderly people from their neighborhood and record their narratives about their childhood days. They find out what life was like in those days, what games were played, what people did in their leisure time, what was school life like, what was work like, what was their pet hates and their favourite pastimes,the books and films they liked, their idols, what was the happiest moment of their lives and the saddest, what are they most proud of, what is their earliest memory, etc. Through the project, we track the past, personal histories, and help people share their stories—and their lives—in their own words. And capture the unofficial, unrecorded history of their lives. By recording these stories, we track the past and experience our history. Young people learn the art of research and interviewing. And by opening up communication channels, this project also helps bridge the gap between two generations that are slowly drawing apart due to the disappearance of the joint family and the emergence of the nuclear family.
My Grandmother and Her Faith
By Lhendup Bhutia
My roots are Tibetan but I was born and brought up in India, like my father and my mother. My paternal grandfather brought his wife to Kalimpong — which was then a small hamlet, at times under the Raj and at times under Bhutan, and at one time also under Sikkim (then a princely state) — in the early 1940s. He was a trader who came for business. But he could never return as Tibet had come under attack from China. My maternal grandmother crossed over to Nepal when Tibet came under attack. She married a Nepalese trader who brought her to Kalimpong. They came to Kalimpong in the 1950s.
In the Kalimpong (a town in the Darjeeling hills) of old, we always collected newspapers. We had found various uses for them. Not so much to read, but to pack things in, to cover food items, and for our visits to the toilet. (Toilet paper was rare and if available, unaffordable). But grandmother scanned every newspaper before setting it aside for use. She didn’t know how to read but she had learnt to understand two words. Thus any mention of the words ‘Dalai Lama’ or a photograph of his, and the item would be cut out, bowed to and set aside in the prayer room.
Momo Yeshi Domala (Momo means grandmother, and la is suffix added to names to show respect) was a lot like many of the old Tibetans I’d seen growing up. Religion remained a constant preoccupation. She always spoke about the concept of karma, of sin and good deeds, and visited the neighbouring monastery. Her house in Kalimpong had only one bedroom, where six daughters, a son, my grandfather and she slept. Even half of that overcrowded room was converted into a prayer-room. And whenever the Dalai Lama appeared on TV, be it a news item or a documentary, she would go right up to the TV set, uncaring if she obstructing anyone from viewing TV, kneel down and bow to the TV set. Even when an actor playing the Dalai Lama appeared on TV, she would do the same. Such was her faith.
I saw her cry for the first time while we were watching Martin Scorcese’s Kundun. In the film, the Dalai Lama was leaving Lhasa for India. She doesn’t remember when exactly she had to leave Lhasa, but she guesses she must have been ten. Because she got married a few years later; 14 to be exact. She moved to Nepal from Lhasa, where she married a trader, who shared a similar fate. Even he had lost everything in Lhasa. He then started trading in Kalimpong, and seeing a profitable market, bought a house and moved with his wife and family to the small town.
Grandmother represented a time when borders weren’t rigid, when one could freely move from one place to another. But she also represented a time when she was forced out of her home and country. The only reason how she managed to survive, start afresh, even after having lost everything, she says, is because of faith.
As I grew older, I was embarrassed of her. I was studying in an English-medium school, and apart from not knowing how to speak in English, she had a heavy Tibetan accent even while speaking Nepali and Hindi, something that my friends and me always made fun of in others, and she slurped while having soup. I started distancing myself from her. She realized that but she was still fond of me.
She left her Kalimpong house and moved permanently to Nepal seven years back. Grandfather had passed away, and all her daughters and sons had married, and moved to different places. A month ago, grandmother died. By her bedside, were three of her seven children. My mother was inconsolable and she reached Nepal, a day before the funeral. I did not cry. Mother returned home a few days later. All the children had brought something of hers to remember her by. When mother described the silver bowls she had brought, I recognized them. They were the ones, in which my grandmother made me offer water to the gods.
I cried then.