Thoughts on Geleck Palsang's Prayers Answered
I have an offering: http://www.cultureunplugged.com/play/1591
A short 29 minute documentary about the journey of a group of small Balti children from Turtuk, the very border of India, Pakistan and Tibet, to a Tibetan school in Ladakh, Prayers Answered is a really charming small film with a very appealing hero. The events surrounding the film are thus: in 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Turtuk and suggested that the villagers could send some of their children for an education at the Tibetan Children’s Village school in Ladakh. The villagers then sent 15 children to Ladakh. The documentary begins with His Holiness’s visit and then follows the children.
I was fascinated from the first frame, when the village headmen of Turtuk talk about the history of Turtuk and its people and their culture. The Turtuk people, who are Baltis, speak Balti—which is an amazing stir fry mix of Ladakhi-Tibetan, Urdu/Hindi, Farsi (I assume it’s Farsi: I don’t know it but it sounds like Farsi and it must be Farsi) and… English. For a Tibetan speaker, it’s truly amazing to hear. It sounds like an invented language—the conjugations are mostly Ladakhi, the base vocabulary and the base grammar is Tibetan, with generous helpings of Urdu-Hindi and Farsi, and then the occasional dash of English. Perhaps some of the grammar is Farsi also. This is all coming from a non-linguist. I can only guess.
Here’s the caption that appears at the beginning of the film, to teach viewers a little about this remote region:
“Turtuk is a little known region located in a remote corner of northern India on the border with Pakistan and Tibet. Turtuk was once part of Baltistan, which is now in Pakistan. The village of Turtuk became part of India after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. This mountainous village is virtually cut off from rest of the world. Due to its sensitive border location, Turtuk is under the control of Indian army, and access is only possible with a special permit. Very few outsiders have visited Turtuk.”
The Balti people, of Tibetan descent, used to practice Bon (the pre-Buddhist practice of Tibet) before the 8th century, and when Baltistan fell under Tibetan sovereignty during the rule of the Yarlung kings, the Baltis also became Buddhist for several centuries. In the 14th century, Muslim scholars from Persia and Kashmir converted the Balti people to Islam, which they still practice today.
One of the village elders explains that the Balti people of Turtuk were a tribe comprising of people from Iran, Tibet, Dard and Mongolia. They certainly look it, and sound it. He talks about Baltistan’s cultural features, its similarity to western Tibet (eating, dressing, living, language etc) and how they used to use Tibetan script but later they switched to Arabic script.
Here’s a rough transcription of how he said this, rendered one and all in Roman alphabet:
“Dheney Baltistan ki daksai mi uney, dukso, langso, khashes ..…jis tare…..khaskar
meney pura language bi daksang original language pe use… ….. magar script khadam zos ki yaley.”
The ….. are Farsi sounds I couldn’t even catch.
See? It’s all like this and more so: Balti, Tibetan, Ladakhi, Hindi, Urdu, Farsi and English. It’s amazing.
Hearing Balti is like listening to a radio that keeps changing its frequency—I”ll understand some snatches of the speech and be able to break it down to its component parts and then there’ll be other long parts that I just don’t understand. There’s snatches and whole long clauses which are in Ladakhi Tibetan and then there’ll be some Urdu-Hindi vocab, some of which I know and some of which I don’t, and then there’ll be phrases that I think I have understood but when I think about it and try to break it down, I haven’t, and they may or may not have been Ladakhi and then there’s other sounds that I just don’t understand but assume must be Farsi, and then there’s the occasional English word thrown in.
For Tibetan speakers, just the sound of Balti is an auditory treat. For non-speakers, however, the film still has its merits. The film is made skillfully, with restraint and mature confidence and deep sympathy for the kids.
It was only about halfway through the film that I realized its hero was the little boy named Ata-ul Rehman, a plucky little chubby cheeked fellow, sweetly shy and passionately intense. It does feel a little bit as if Geleck Palsang himself recognized only halfway into filming that Ataul was his hero—in the latter half of the film, we stay closely with him, to the film’s benefit, and I was really sorry when the film ended.
I would have liked to see more of the children settling in—the film shows the children at Namaz, learning Arabic from their dorm mother and teacher Zenab who came with them, and learning Tibetan and English, and playing with classmates, and then that last scene, of the circle of them at a table singing the popular Phurbu T Namgyal song “Bhoejong ngatsoe phayul, Bhoerig ngayi phunda! / (Tibet is my homeland, the Tibetans are my people)” at the top of their voices. It’s a moving and bittersweet scene to end with. I remembered Ataul’s mother who cried at the thought of sending him away but said that education was important and hoped that he wouldn’t be hungry at the school, and the man who sang a Balti folk song to welcome His Holiness to Turtuk.
These children are bridging a thousand years and the Karakoram mountains and the Himalayas. I know that bridges are important, and there are rewards…but there are also costs. I just hope that they’ll continue to sing Balti folk songs along with Tibetan pop.
There’s a really funny little scene of Ataul and his classmates in English class. They are reciting a passage in tandem from their textbook, with little gestures and actions that their teacher had taught them to pepper their recitation with. It’s just such an incongruous little scene, and hilariously funny when you watch it, because the little gestures the children make are so cute, and they have so clearly memorized this passage and because they are chanting so seriously and earnestly.
A score of children’s voices, high, with the volume tuned up, and attendant motions:
Everybody says I look like my father!
Everybody says I look like my mother!
Everybody says my nose is like my father’s!
Everybody says my lips are like my mother’s!
Everybody says I am the image of somebody!
But if you really want to know,
I want to look like me!
I want to look like me!
Ataul Rehman hasn’t caught up to the rest of his classmates yet. He says the first two lines and then he moves his mouth to approximate the shapes but it’s clear that he’s lost for now.
Everybody says I am the image of somebody
But if you really want to know
I want to look like me!