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Experiences

How Teaching Kashmiri To My Boyfriend Helped Me Better Connect To My Heritage

I come from a state in the north of India known as Jammu and Kashmir. My family belongs to the community of Kashmiri Pandits originally settled in the valley of Kashmir. Over a period of time due to the Exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and also for education, many Kashmiri Pandit families began to move out of Kashmir and settle across India. 

Since the very beginning of my childhood, my family has always inculcated that culture and values mean a great deal. They’ve always made it a point to teach me the traditions and festivals we follow, where we come from, and what our history is. For example, we have a festival known as Shivratri in India, which signifies the marriage of two gods. Throughout India, it is celebrated differently in different regions. Our family’s way of celebrating involves fasting for the entire day from sunrise till the next morning and placing several vessels in a specific manner and praying to them. The vessels are decorated with flowers and colors and filled with walnuts. Once the prayers are over, after two days the walnuts from those vessels are distributed amongst family and friends.

Everywhere I’ve been, be it school or college, I’ve had people come up to me and ask what it means to be a Kashmiri, where we are settled, how we live in such cold winters etc. I have always tried my best to explain whatever I can to them and help people get rid of their most common notion: that being Kashmiri means that we live in the mountains. Being part of a culture that not many people know about has always made me a bit reserved about my own culture. A lot of the people I’ve met in my life had never even heard about the exodus until I explained it to them. 

When college began and I started getting busy, I slowly began feeling separated from my cultural roots. At the time, I was no longer staying at home with my family, which made me feel disconnected from everything that was going on back at home. I was unable to go back for festivals. I don’t remember feeling homesick but because of being so busy with all the work in classes, I slowly began to not remember everything I was taught. Although home wasn’t far, there was never enough time to visit home that frequently. The kind of food I ate, the language we spoke soon began to just live in my mind like a distant memory.

Being a part of a culture that not many people know about has always made me a bit reserved about my own culture.

By the time college ended, I had started dating a new partner, Utkarsh, who is from a different culture than mine. When we began dating I didn’t pay as much attention to the cultural differences.I never planned on being with him forever. But as time passed by and he began coming home and meeting my family, a part of me did worry that maybe all of the traditions would be new and unexplainable. I had never felt the need to ask my parents why we performed Shivratri the way we did so I never knew what I would say if he ever asked me. Despite us belonging to different cultures, I realized over a period of time that we were brought up with very similar values. Both are families valued health and family over other things. We both were taught that our priority should always be peace of mind and happiness over anything else. Realizing we valued similar things was one of the biggest reasons I decided to bring him to my home and introduce him to my family.

Along with my family came the culture and the language we spoke.  I remember the first time Uktarsh met my family, they spoke to me in Kashmiri and he was spellbound. He had heard me speak a little in college but he barely knew that such a language existed — let alone the fact that I could speak Kashmiri so fluently! When he asked me why I had never spoken the language around him before, I told him that I never needed to, since nobody around me spoke Kashmiri in college. 

College always had different people from around India. The diversity was what helped us all be accustomed to different cultures, but there were always some cultures that weren’t as popular as others. For my classmates, Kashmiri was as foreign as German. But because there was so much diversity, I never felt isolated with my culture. I never had the time to think about it long enough.

Over a period of time, Utkarsh became fascinated with learning Kashmiri. He began listening more intently when I spoke, and he would pay attention to certain words and try to understand what they meant. When festivals like Shivratri came around, he started coming home with me more often for the celebrations. He would sit and watch how my parents would perform rituals.  

Utkarsh was surprised to find that some of our customs were very similar to his own, like fasting the entire day and some of the prayers we said. He would tell me which part of the ritual was performed differently in his family and which parts were similar. Even though I never expected him to pay attention to our rituals, I felt much closer when I saw how interested and genuine he was about understanding what we did.

Initially, I was very hesitant to bring all this into his life since I wasn’t sure how comfortable he would be with my family and how we lived. But to my pleasant surprise, he fit in perfectly with the family dynamic. Watching him talk to my dad and my grandparents and my cousins and listening to them, I began feeling that maybe this could be something more than a short-term thing. My faith in our relationship seemed to grow and I began feeling that when the time would come that he would take me home and introduce me to his side of the family, I’d be more ready and confident than ever.

Over time, I realized there was more to my culture and heritage than I remembered and that I knew.

As my family and I would tell him about Kashmir and our heritage, it would bring back tons of memories of how my father would sit me down while he performed the pooja and tell me about the times his grandfather would sit him down like this in Kashmir. Our talks would lead to long discussions with the entire family and my parents telling us stories from the past, stories I had also never heard! When my parents talked about their childhood, I could see the nostalgia in their eyes.  It reminded me that they were once kids too who had many adventures and with many stories to tell.

Over time, I realized there was more to my culture and heritage than I remembered and I knew. In my case, I recognize that there is an active effort from Utkarsh’s end to be a part of my culture. When I was teaching him Kashmiri, he would ask questions and attempt to learn basic words from the language — leaving my mom surprised when she’d say something in Kashmiri and he would reply back. 

His questions sometimes would even leave me perplexed since I would realize that I also do not know as much about my culture as there is. I began realizing that language played such a strong role in our lives. Him talking in Kashmiri even if it was just a few words, would make me feel happy.

And not just me, it would make my family happy too. When I realized this I began to work with him to learn and understand some words in his language too.

It’s important to stay connected to your culture and heritage, even if people around you don’t understand it. With the world increasing its pace every second, we tend to get busy with our lives, work, and homes — often forgetting that once a while, it is important to sit down and talk about our heritage. It’s meaningful to know and understand where you come from, and one of the ways to do this is by revisiting history — whether it’s through storytelling, reminiscing, or reconnecting with your native language — in my case, Kashmiri. 

For many years, I was never really comfortable with cross-cultural relationships since I believed that it would be difficult to explain certain things to an “outsider.” After all, how could I express to someone the importance of how a language is spoken, or how certain cultural rituals are performed? 

Deep down, I also felt that there was always the possibility that my partner would never want to be a part of my culture — or that he would always hold his way of doing things above mine, and it would be me who would have to mold my ways into his. 

It’s important to stay connected to your culture and heritage, even if people around you don’t understand it.

However, my relationship with Utkarsh is different. He allows me to come to a middle ground where we share ideas, values, and even our cultures to help each other grow. I’m certainly glad we crossed paths because our relationship has turned out to be one the greatest things in my life. Not only do we help each other grow, but we also help ourselves expand our vision and perspective about how families and relationships work. Plus, teaching each other a few sentences in each other’s language is a great idea for date nights! 

They say love has no language, but I’ve started to believe that languages can be the voice of love. I think one of the greatest things I learned from my relationship was that it is important to be open to new ideas and experiences. This could have been a disaster, but because of the fact that I was mentally accepting of the fact that there might be certain things he wouldn’t accept or understand, it helped me embrace all that came from this experience with open arms. Try embracing new cultures and traditions, you never know who may surprise you.

Sheen Gurkha

Manipal '21

I write till my heart fills with satisfaction.
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