We all sat around the fire out back, staying warm on a chilly Terai evening. The conversation was primarily in Tharu, so I didn’t understand everything—just when subjects were being switched, or when Sangita gave my introduction to newcomers around the fire. Sometimes I asked questions in Nepali, or answered questions addressed to me. Well into our time around the fire, one woman commented how pleased she was that they could actually talk to me. I then found out that, because Sangita worked for BASE—a large Tharu NGO—as did many of her relatives, she would bring visiting donors to visit her in-laws all the time. But none of them spoke Nepali. “We say our ‘Namaste,’ they say their ‘hello, Namaste,’ and then we sit and smile at each other!” one woman laughed. “We can actually TALK to you though!” Questions followed concerning the United States, namely, what was my government’s development plans for schools in rural places? I didn’t know, I had not gone to a rural school; I had always lived in cities. Well, the schools I had attended then, what were they like? I said that I hadn’t actually gone to school—there was a system where all I had to do was show up for exams. This was my abbreviated definition of “homeschooling.” Sangita commented, “Oh, that’s just like college here—you don’t have to go to class, you just show up and pass exams to get your degree. Ok.” Nonplussed to discover that the United States wasn’t so different from Nepal, she stirred the fire and the conversation turned to Tharu concerns.
On another day, as Sangita and I sat in her kitchen where she was peeling potatoes for dinner, she commented that donors would always stay at hotels—never with staff, like I was staying with her—and usually just go out to the villages during the day. Sometimes they would stay the night, but not always. None of them spoke Nepali, just English, and as Sangita’s English was limited to a few words and phrases, she couldn’t communicate directly them—they always had translators present. Students would often come too, doing research for their theses—like I was—but none of the ones she had interacted with spoke Nepali. With one researcher, they had communicated via a phrase book, which contained the English phrase, and the translation in Romanized Nepali, and Nepali Devanagari script. She and the other staff had ended up reading the Devanagari, I assumed because the researcher’s pronunciation was so bad. And some students didn’t even speak English. How did they do research then? I asked. Sangita shrugged. It’s really hard, was all she said, picking up another potato to peel.
Sangita and I sat and talked over Sita’s transcription of the words to the sakya song—written in Devanagari, but because the language was Tharu, so I couldn’t understand it, even if I could read it when I deciphered Sita’s handwriting. I asked Sangita to read out the titles of the parts of the song, as Sita had written them. Sangita did, going through each letter—“ka-n-haa, mu-wa-ee-naa”—as I wrote in Devanagari. Sangita paused. “When did you learn to write Nepali?” she asked abruptly. I then realized she had expected me to Romanize the script. “When I was little…?” I mumbled shyly. Sangita commented, “You write really well.” She continued to read out the titles to me.
On the jeep ride back to Kohlpur, Sumitra commented that the message that the Gurbaba FM competition was supposed to be a Maghi song and dance competition didn’t compute with the competing teams; many of the teams had chosen to perform the hurdunga naach, which, according to her, wasn’t a Maghi song or dance—there were lots of Maghi songs they could have chosen from, but they didn’t use them. She went on to talk about the quality of singing. She said that many of the groups didn’t sing clearly; sometimes she couldn’t understand a word of what they were singing. For example, the first team was a group of old men; their voices were so croaky that she couldn’t understand what they were saying. But they were old men and that excuse was justifiable; the younger groups though? They had no excuse. I commented that, when people sing as a group, their voice should be as one, but so many of the groups didn’t sound like that—I was trying to say that, when a group sings in unison, they’re supposed to sing on the same pitch. Sumitra agreed; much of the singing had just been bad. During our conversation, several heads in the front of the jeep turned to look at us—did they want to be sure that the bideshi indeed spoke Nepali?
During the lull in our conversation, the guy sitting next to Sumitra asked where we had come from. Sumitra informed him that we had just come from a competition on Maghi songs and dances sponsored by a local radio station; she had been one of the judges and I was a student researcher here to observe the proceedings. The guy commented on how clearly I spoke Nepali. Sumitra explained that I had grown up in Nepal and lived several years in Kathmandu, so that’s how I came to speak Nepali—only, I couldn’t understand when people spoke fast; they had to speak slowly to me, and then I would understand.
In Kohlpur, as one guy was trying to convince us to come to ride to Nepalgunj in his jeep—which was packed to the max, although he said that he would arrange for us to sit—the same loud-mouthed bus boy who had managed our morning ride jumped between he and Sumitra and yelled at the top of his lungs, “au, au, eta au, aba jam [come, come, this way, let’s go now]!” We sat right up front, next to the driver, in the same vehicle we had ridden in that morning. The driver asked where we had gone and what we had done that day; Sumitra said she had gone to judge a song and dance competition at a radio station in Bansaghadi. Had I also judged the competition, he asked? No, Sumitra said, I was a student researcher looking at Tharu song and music. She gave my same abbreviated history to this jeep driver too.
Back at Sangita’s house, I sat with her five-year-old son, Sajeet, in front of the electric heater, trying to stay warm. He had picked up a puck from the landlord’s daughter upstairs. He held it out in front of him, said something in Hindi then turned to me, expecting an answer. “Come on, say it,” he said in Nepali. I told him I didn’t know Hindi. “Just try!” he insisted. He asked the question again. His cousin Yogish—a young man of about twenty—smacked his shoulder. “She doesn’t know Hindi, just Nepali!” he told Sajeet. Sajeet still pressed me for an answer. Finally, his other cousin, Srijana, gave the answer for me in Hindi. He looked at me, “now just say what she said!”