Through The Big Story, I am keen to hear from the staff and children at ChoraChori-Nepal. This not only passes the time during lockdown for them too, but writing is an exercise in empowerment for everyone as children and adults alike tap into latent creativity. To get the ball rolling, I invited ChoraChori-Nepal Development Officer, Rojika Maharjan, to tell us about her memories of growing up in the Newari community. This ethnic group has historically been centred on Kathmandu valley with its own language that is quite distinct from Nepali:
Early morning’s fresh breeze of air filled with the ‘ting ting ting’ sound of the temple bells, the continuous humming of morning bhajans at nearby falchas [Small resting places, made of wood found in Kathmandu], the crisp smells of ‘Malpwa’ and ‘Gwaramaris’ [Newari specialty baking items] being prepared for a typical Newari breakfast… these reminiscent smells and sounds…so much of nostalgia as I think about those everyday mornings when maa (grandmom) walked me along the narrow lanes of Patan, my hometown – and home to the native Newars of Kathmandu.
Coming from a Newar family, I probably spent half of my childhood time having a fantasy about being this woman named ‘Rajamati’, a fictional folk character who is the prettiest and wittiest of Kathmandu and the other half fantasizing about being chosen as “Kumari’, the living goddess of Kathmandu ( no wonder I can perfectly wing my eyeliner now as both these ladies). But, on a serious note, I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the rich culture, traditions, festivals, cuisines brought by my community, and not to forget (a fact I can’t absolutely miss here), getting the chance to marry twice during childhood – once to a wood apple and another to the sun. Now, just in case you’re wondering how in the world is that possible, these ‘marriages’ are different coming of age related rituals done according to the Hindu-Buddhist traditions of the Newar community, and in no way serves any ill tradition as frequently misunderstood. However, let me just bulk all these fun facts for next storytelling because I want to focus on the one heritage that I am immensely proud of; my mother tongue language.
So, my first language is Newari, also known as Nepalbhasa which translates as Nepal language. Apparently, before Nepal declared Nepali language as its national language, Newari was its official language – hence the name given as Nepalbhasa. Now, you see that’s a little pride I can take in, right? But, anyways, I have spoken Newari since forever, and that’s the language you’ll hear everywhere in my house and community. It’s unique, and beautiful-; even has its own script which is nothing less of a calligraphy in itself. But, a little good thing always precedes with some bad experiences.
During school days, all of our subjects were in Nepali and English language (learnt both in school only as no one speaks these in my house). As a good student, I put all my hard work in to excel in my academics and extra-curriculars. But, somehow, no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get away with a typical Newari accent I had when I spoke Nepali and English. It felt like performing well in studies or ECAs didn’t matter because everyone ended up laughing at me whenever I opened my mouth; such a bummer it was. Once, when I was in grade 8, I put my name forward to participate in a Nepali poetry reciting competition because I was always trying to improve my Nepali. During rehearsal, my Nepali teacher called me in front of the entire class to recite the poem; naturally, my accent was present. All of my classmates laughed, and so did my Nepali teacher who ridiculed me in front of the entire class stretching to the point where he asked me,” How can you not speak proper Nepali living in Nepal?”
It was like a swirl of realization that day, that all this time I had been giving everyone around me the consent to make me feel lesser by always trying to hide my accent, instead of proudly presenting it. That day, I decided that I won’t give anyone else the power to ridicule me for my nativity, my heritage and my language. I went ahead with the competition, and I let all my Newari accent out. It felt like a burden had been lifted up, and I recited my poem in the most natural form of myself, getting myself a second position. Since that day, I vowed myself to become a good speaker and presenter, defying all the odds of language or accents there are. Today, I am fluent in all three languages – Newari, Nepali and English, and there’s still much more to learn. But you know, at the end of the day, what matters the most is when my Maa calls me saying “ Ja na waaa” (Come, and eat Rice), and I am the luckiest that I understand her.
I am reminded in reading this, just how tough Nepali society can be, where elders and peers can be very quick to mock and bring people down. This is why empowerment is so important within such a negative environment. And one of the best forms of empowerment is expressing yourself through writing and ignoring inner and external voices that tell you that you’re not up to it and never will be.
Go for it. Join Rojika in writing for The Big Story!