All spring and early summer the grain stood green in the fields, rising green from shoot to heavy-laden stalk, reflecting green in the water when it flowed around the stems. In late July the green began to yellow, gold-dark under the rains of that time. After each storm more fields lay flattened, knocked down in tangled sheets by wind and water. “Nyit tangste duk,” they said. “They’re sleeping.” Then, under the returning sun, gold turned to white. Barley seeds hardened in their sheaths, seed heads strong and square. The crops were ready.
Nepali men came to the village in groups of three or four or six, young, mostly silent, bending to the work. And I, with them: utterly without shared language I was also silent, working with all the strength of my body to try and keep their pace. Grain fell behind us in neat lines, lengthening through hours and through days. The people of the houses worked with us as much as they could. Many houses had only one woman, most of her hours spent cooking, bringing food and tea and chang that we drank briefly, truly tired, in the shade. In the anxiety of murmured conversations I heard the villagers despair of the money they were paying out, three hundred fifty rupees per day per man. I heard money-fear in their willingness to call workers slow, or bad, workers who were better and faster than I.
Each night the Nepali men ate dinner in the houses where they worked, drank their informal salary of rum, and slept on roofs under bright stars. Each morning I would rise in half-darkness to water fields or gardens, wash dishes, wash clothes, to see to the needs of a household and a life. Almost every morning I arrived to the fields after the men. And I felt shamed— for this lateness, ashamed of my exhaustion under a lighter burden than the Nepali men carried. In this place I was a person with the wealth, the privilege of land. And they were not.
As time went on the men who had been strangers to each other became friends, and spoke and laughed in rapid language through the days. Sometimes without language we spoke and laughed together, sometimes sang—Hindi pop songs poorly pronounced (by me), the source of some hilarity. I got sick, and sicker, throat raw, voice gone, blowing snot. These men could not afford the luxury of rest. I couldn’t rest. I felt the weight of these days, and wanted with a fierceness to hold it, too.
After a field fell the men would lay the laptse (grain) in giant heaps, bundling them into loads with ropes, and carry all of it to a central place. Each family used the field closest to their house. I could not believe the size of them, the seeming-smallness of the men under the weight. After the laptse was all carried we stood the stalks in jyok, heads up, great heaps identical to those that stood in fields across Russia and Europe for centuries. When the jyok were finished we moved once more over each field, crouched low, pecking like birds. Fast, hungry hands gathered tumbu, the broken, fallen seed heads. They are snyemo when they are particularly full and fine; they say the best have forty-eight seeds. This is gleaning-work, and vital, when every grain is understood as precious.
One house finished their harvest, then another, and another. Ache Kunzes, our first host, harvested last. Her family could not afford to pay for labor. They worked together: Ache Kunzes and her husband Acho Tsewang, Abi Tsewang and Meme Rinchen (grandmother and grandfather, Acho Tsewang’s aunt and uncle), Dechen Angmo and Dechen Dolkar, dear friends, daughters-in-law from Abi Tsewang’s house. I heard then for the first time the harvest song: Yang-sol, the song I’m sure once marked the pace and filled all of the days of harvest. Call and response, words changing at the whim of the singer, never much:
Sha-la-bas hey---Ache Kunzes-le
Come, make it soft
Come, bring it easy
Fine work, dear friend
We finished in the dark that night then stayed up late, passing through weariness into giddy joy, laughing and singing and shelling peas.
In twelve days, the barley harvest was done. The Nepali men left, sudden as their coming. They walked in groups to other, higher villages, to continue the great labor of these months. They did not say goodbye.
A hundred years ago, the men lived in the villages. The children lived in the villages, and the half-empty houses were all full. In Ladakh there was little or no money to exchange—and I wonder, was there suffering for its lack?
And the Nepali men, young, groundless, fierce: I wonder how their great-grandfathers spent the autumns? How will their children, now?