Gyani Maiyi Sen is 75 years old and the only Kusunda speaker in Nepal. Kusunda is a tribal language from west Nepal and only 100 Kusunda tribespeople remain. Linguists are rushing to record Sen’s voice to create the first Kusunda dictionary of this unique language.
Kulmohar is a tiny village in Dang district. It’s close to a small river with only a handful of houses there. Gyani Maiya Sen lives here – she’s a 75-year-old tribal Kusunda woman. She says her name and age. Then she explains that she works in the rice fields, takes care of her grand children and spends time in the forest. But no one understands her. “There are few from the Kusunda tribe who live here. But nobody speaks the language. The new generation doesn’t want to speak the language. They are not interested. They make fun of the language, and that it doesn’t make sense!”
The language is characteristic of the surroundings that the Kusundas lived in. For example, they don’t have a word for ‘green’ because tribespeople considers it to be a default color. Gyani Maiya is in the forest cutting wood and collecting mushrooms for lunch. She now lives in a village but she feels at home in the forest.
“When we lived in the forests, we would stay in a group. In caves. I really liked that. When we first entered the village, I was sad to leave the forest behind. In the beginning it was very difficult. We faced many troubles. We had problems adapting to the new life here.”Gyani Maiya and her family had to leave the forests because the were losing their habitat due to deforestation. Now, some members of the tribe live in and around Kulmohar village. Central Bureau of Statistics says only about 100 Kusundas remain. But only Gyani Maiya can speak the language fluently. Even her son Prem Bahadur doesn’t speak the language at all. “What is the point of trying to learn the language? If I leave everything and start learning the language, what will I eat and drink? I have to do farming. I don’t have a job, so I don’t have much money. So where will I start learning the language now? Now if I have to learn the language, I have to take classes. If I start attending classes, who will feed my children (laughs)? That’s why I haven’t learned the language.” He adds that there’s also a stigma attached to the Kusunda people – this stops him from learning the language.
“They would see Kusundas as those people who are not civilised. Those who are wild people living in the jungles. Now people are educated. But earlier they would badmouth the Kusundas. Even my mom has faced discrimination. She would get very angry.”
But Professor Madhav Prasad Pokharel finds it important to save the language. He’s a retired lecturer at the linguistic department in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University. He has been conducting research on Kusunda language for two years.
“Kusunda is an interesting language. It is because it is a language isolate. Language isolate means it is not related to any language of the world. And all the languages are analysed to have 20 family trees. But Kusunda makes a 21st tree, means that is a language isolate. It’s not related to any other language.”
When a language is lost, the culture will be lost too, says Professor Pokharel. He says it’s also important to restore Kusunda culture.
“Anthropologically also Kusunda are interesting. They are nomadic people, they’re great in archery. And they would hunt ground lizards. No other people in South Asia are reported to have eaten ground lizard! They don’t drink stream water, they have to look for a well. They don’t touch cow. They lived in the forest. Now because of this deforestation and other things, their habitat was at stake.”
Linguists and tribal campaigners are now demanding that the government introduce specific programmes to uplift the Kusunda tribe and protect the language. But for the moment Professor Pokharel leads a group of researchers to restore the language. Gyani Maiya is speaking into a recorder. Researchers have been recording her speech for over three months now. They’re preparing a Kusunda dictionary based on the recordings – it now has nearly a thousand words. Professor Pokharel explains why he’s taking these efforts.
“When the language is dying, first of all, the human heritage is being lost because every language bears a particular culture. So if the language dies, the culture also follows. That is one of the things. Another thing is every language may have its own worldview. That worldview, we cannot perceive. So with language, that worldview also goes. And without a language, it is not easy to give identity to any ethnic group.”
Gyani Maiya’s granddaughter is now able to name different parts of her face in Kusunda language. She even asks us to come back again to learn the language.