Whose English is it anyway?
Dharma and I had been sitting in silence all evening. It was a quaint home-stay, 7200 feet up in the Himalayas, in the happiest country of the world. My solo journey through Bhutan had taken many dramatic turns so far. But this evening was in sharp contrast to those last couple of days. Absolute silence.
I enjoyed the peace for a while. My host at the home-stay was young and stout. She maintained a straight face while clearing up the living room. She moved with quiet footsteps on the thick woolen carpet. Without asking, and without being asked, I did my share of work. I stacked up the books and arranged our shoes near the door. I was the only guest staying there that night. Perfect silence.
How do you know when silence stops being serene, and becomes awkward?
I was exhausted after the long journey. Perhaps Dharma was tired too. Polite smiles were exchanged once in a while, after which eyes quickly focused back on the pages of the magazines that we were flipping through. Do I start a conversation? How? Would she be interested in talking? I needed to stay awake long enough to maintain my sleep cycle. Should I retreat into my room? Would it be rude to do that? The living room was nice. The warmth of the living room came from the carpets, the colour on the walls, the wooden architecture and the traditional artifacts all around. I focused on these in an almost meditative state, taking in the smallest of details in my current environment. Many little statues of Buddha. A tapestry. An elegant low table with seating all around. The sound of insects. My nose was starting to feel a little cold. I think there was something on the glass of my spectacles. Was it dust? A slight itch.
A sudden bright light drew me out of this trance.
At 8.30 pm, it was time to switch on the television. I turned my attention to Dharma who was browsing through an array of channels and settled comfortably into her cushion after stopping at a movie channel. I believe that the smile that came to my face was involuntary and instant. I was expecting a local Bhutanese channel, perhaps the daily news, but Dharma’s choice confused and amused me at the same time. The dashing actor Suriya was staring at the two of us intensely through the screen and delivering sharp dialogues in Telugu. Neither the girl from the Himalayas, nor the one from the Northern Plains of India understood what this super star of South Indian cinema was going on about. I think it was an intense family drama unfolding in front of us. I didn’t understand, but I was smiling nonetheless.
“You see South Indian film?” Dharma broke the ice between us. Her naïve question turned my polite smile into a genuinely happy one. “Three times I see this film.” So Dharma was a real fan! Now I was the awkward girl trying to find the right words to respond with. Again. “I love Suriya. This actor. So handsome.” I couldn’t help but laugh with joy.
Dharma and I had discovered our shared appreciation of South Indian actors with sharp jawlines and beards.
I nodded frivolously, “Yes, yes. Very handsome. What is this story about?”
She brought me up to speed about the storyline during commercial breaks. Through smiles, shrugs and broken English, we “talked” into the night – about Delhi, about Paro, about airplanes, about shopping, about friends, and about food. Plurals, conjugations and pronouns did not matter anymore. The rules of grammar which made us jittery during school exams became irrelevant that evening. Instead of being an art to be mastered, language became a mere tool to be used. All we needed to communicate was our clear intention, confidence and a few simple words. We were connected by a language that neither of us considered our own. But in belonging to neither of us, English belonged to us both.
‘Very late. Sleep.’ Dharma was right. I needed to start my trek early the next morning.
This short travelogue was originally written as a submission to the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship 2019. You can read the winning entries here.