In her footsteps: Archiving Women’s Oral Narratives in the Eastern Himalayas
Aaitamaya Thami, Darjeeling
We met her along with Dhanmaya Thami, while she was pounding the rice on a large mortar, to prepare selroti for Tihar festival. When we asked them about the selroti, the conversation soon turned to Aaitamaya’s children. Aaitamaya Thami, migrated to Darjeeling from Nepal along with her three children. Now two of her daughters are no more and her son has disappeared when he went to work in Malaysia. While dealing with an alcoholic husband, Aaitamaya built her own house carrying stones on her own backs down the steep slopes of Gaushala. She tells us how in the 1980s when she came she didn’t know Nepali language and reminisces faint memories of the 1986 Gorkhaland Movement.
Currently, Aaitamaya spends her time with her in-law Dhanmaya Thami, doing household chores. She asks How do I control this heart? While thinking about the grief of losing her children, then break into tears as easily as a laughter.
Dhanmaya Thami, Darjeeling
Dhanmaya Thami speaks through broken teeth, but her speech is clear. When we ask her if she’s come from Pahad (colloquialy used term for Nepal in Darjeeling), she nods and instantly agrees to sit down for an interview while in the midst of pounding the rice.
Bhagwati Sharma, Darjeeling
Bhagwati Sharma is one of the oldest women living alone in Gaushala. At 12 years old, she walked to Darjeeling with her mother, sisters and brother when her family was unable to pay a debt back in Nepal. She started carrying the load in Darjeeling and did so until she was 60 years old.
Maybe because of the labour, her back has still not straightened. Despite the sickness, when we ask about the journey to Darjeeling, she chuckles. “We had nothing to carry except for some corn and pickles to eat for the trip”. Separated from her husband and with no kids, Bhagwati lives an isolated silent life.
Dawa Bhuti, Darjeeling
Dawa Bhuti was preparing momo, and serving customers at her restaurant when we reached there.
Dawa Bhuti, was born in Taplejung, Nepal. She had married at an early age, her parents were herders and from a young age she worked with them. They did not have any schools nearby, and when she married her husband who was also a herder, she crossed over the hills from Nepal to India, with her two children, and a big herd of cows and sheep. Since the past decade she has been running her restaurant selling momo & thukpa. She jokingly shares, that her only wish to have lived a fulfilling life would be to go abroad once and live there comfortably.
Mariam Shakuli, Kalimpong
Mariam Shakuli and her daughter in law, Aisha were waiting for us at their home for the interview.
Mariam was the only child her parents. Her father was a Lhasa khache while her mother was a Tibetan Buddhist, she had come in 1960's from Lhasa, while her entire family came to Kalimpong but some went to Kashmir. They had traveled in Chinese vehicles from Lhasa which took them almost 2-3 days, after which she reached a check post in Kalimpong.
When we asked what kind of food she carried, like all Tibetans she answered, ‘tsampa’.
Naumati Subba, Darjeeling
Naumati was on her way to Chowarastha to get photos of herself clicked at the request of her children. Adorned in the traditional Limbu jewellery and Nepali dhaka saree, Naumati wanted to get photographs with the flowers put on display for the flower festival.
We ask her to take a walk with us, and she doesn’t question us twice. Instead she starts to talk about her sons here and a husband she left behind back in Nepal. When we ask if she plans to go back to her husband she puts a counter question “Why should I?” Naumati has seen bone breaking labour in village life. She is content with the life Darjeeling has offered her, where she doesn’t have to engage in daily chores and she can get out of the house just to take pictures. Initially, she came to Darjeeling due to her health issues. And for now, she doesn’t have plans to go back.
Pasang Dolma, Darjeeling
When we reached Pasang’s home, she was doing her daily prayers on her bed.
Pasang Dolma, was born in Lhasa, to a Ngakpa father. After a failed attempt to cross the border along with her mother, she finally reached 15 mile in Sikkim. She later went to Assam with her mother to make a living and then came to Darjeeling along with her husband.
Thinley has just come from her daily visit to the monastery, when we met her at her home.
Thinley was born in Lhasa Tibet, she lives with her brother-in-law, also her caretaker in Kalimpong. Thinley had first arrived to India as a pilgrim, but with the chaos after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, she stayed back in Kalimpong. To earn a living, she started braiding tapshu, a Tibetan hair extension. Later, she then started selling tenshil balep and shanga balep, traditional Tibetan breads, with her brother in Kalimpong.