I’ve always been fascinated by a Bhutanese folktale about an old man called Meymey Heylay Heylay. It is indeed a simple yet wonderful story of Meymey’s carefree and happy life. One day while hard at work in his field he swings his spade onto something hard and digs out a huge turquoise. Meymey looks at is happily realising he’s found something precious. He carries the turquoise on his back and heads home. On his way, he meets a man with a horse and gleefully exchanges his turquoise for the horse. Likewise, he continues exchanging his more valuable possession for a less valuable one, until he is left with a rooster in his hands. Funnily enough, he is still cheerful. As he continues to walk home, holding firmly onto his rooster he hears a melodious song coming from afar. He is fascinated by the tune and exchanges his rooster for the song. He sings the song with full-throated eagerness with his head held high in joyful spirits. Unaware of what lies in front of him, he slips on a heap of cow dung. He groans from the pain and rubs his bruised bottom and in the process completely forgets the song which he so painstakingly learned.
The story of Meymey Heylay Heylay maybe dated and his character equated to the likes of Suppandi or Hum Jaiga. However, even today in contemporary Bhutan Meymey Heyley Heyley’s carefree and happy attitude is still alive in the Bhutanese people and his antics still appeal to and amuse many of us. Surprising enough, most of the Bhutanese folk tales I’ve heard as a child are either of tricks played by animals on human beings or vice versa. Few were stories of quixotic pursuits by human beings. Rarely have I heard stories on perseverance, identity, values and so on. Could the Bhutanese carefree attitude be the outcome of the folk stories we’ve heard?
When I look at the story of Meymey Heylay Heylay from a modern day perspective I cannot stop seeing parallels between Meymey Heylay Heylay and the rhetoric of Dzongkha. Is the national language of Bhutan, Dzongkha, the modern day Meymey Heylay Heylay story? Once upon a time Dzongkha was deemed a priceless language. It was a language many Bhutanese men sort to learn, it was the unifier of Bhutan and it is a national treasure. However, now it is reduced to an oratory tactless skill used by some parliamentarians. It is whispered accolades in the Dzongkha Development Authority whose efforts are challenged by every English language speaking Bhutanese. Even in the last bastion of hope for Dzongkha, the ILCS, the English language has infiltrated. Besides this, the shedras and the Non Formal education sectors where Dzongkha remained the medium of instruction (MOI), for a long time, they now provide English language lessons because of popular demand.
Paradoxically, I come in defence of those English language speaking Bhutanese not because I defy the institution of Dzongkha but on the contrary, because I am anxious about the state that it is in today. As a child, I spoke Sharchopkha at home and English in school so there was very little opportunity for me to develop my Dzongkha proficiency. Apart from being told that Dzongkha was a very important language in my life there was nobody who emulated it or showed me the way forward. Instead, it was the English language which dominated the scene in my school life from sun up to sun down.
My Dzongkha lopen too took a back seat, and preferred to come alive only in the Dzongkha language classroom amongst the throng of students who spoke every other Bhutanese language/ dialect but not Dzongkha. So, his was a lonely uphill battle. He struggled and fretted alone trying to drum into us the meaning of words, enjoy stories and parables and speak and read the language in the 45 minutes slotted time he was given in a day.
That was 25 odd years ago; however, even today the same scene replays itself. In spite of two decades or more to rectify and improve the value of Dzongkha, oddly enough, it still faces the same predicament now as it did earlier. Many Bhutanese youths still wander the street with the same assumptions and seek answers to the same questions I did. Superficially, we all understand the value and importance of Dzongkha but we are still perturbed by the lack of good examples we see and hear in the Bhutanese society.
Why is Dzongkha the national language in such a quandary? Is it a dead currency because only about one million people in the world supposedly speak it, compared to the billions who speak English and Chinese? Do our language policies need redefining? Is policy borrowing adversely affecting our language choices? How can Bhutan truly be the stronghold for Dzongkha if the exchange value of the English language is so high in comparison? Can the Bhutanese maintain the happy and carefree Meymey Heylay Heylay attitude and still hold onto the turquoise?
Indeed, the questions asked are tricky but intentional. We need to ask ourselves what we can do. We also need to think of means and methods to increase the language value of Dzongkha. Perhaps, the success story of the national attire in the 90’s can act as a springboard to solve the Dzongkha conundrum. I remember the first time when the gho and kira was made compulsory for all formal occasions. It was met with resistance in the beginning but slowly an appreciation started to develop towards it and now it is a source of pride and identity. Perhaps the role of the media needs to increase. More Dzongkha programmes and movies which are authentic will provide us with the many Dzongkha examples that we so desperately seek, and perhaps still our modern Bhutanese writers will take up the pen and write more wonderful stories with a purpose!