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Interview

In Conversation with Anvita Abbi

‘The idea of mainstreaming and merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. “Development” may kill these tribes.’

Unfolding a linguist’s tryst with the Great Andamanese tribe and lost languages

Anvita Abbi

Time moves fast and we move with it, partly carrying the past with us and partly shedding it. Languages evolve. Sometimes, they get left behind. People forget them and with that where they came from. Why would familiarity with our roots or a moribund language be so important? Perhaps, Professor Anvita Abbi, a Padma Shri from India who has done amazing work with the Andamanese uncovering their fast ebbing language and culture, has some answers. She is a linguist who stretches beyond universities to uncover the roots from which mankind evolved and to exhibit to us the need to be in touch with what our ancestors knew. She urges us to accept the varied colours of mankind for a more humane and tolerant outlook.

Abbi has written a number of books on her experiences in Andaman. Reading Voices from the Lost Horizon (2021, Niyogi Books), her recent publication with videos embedded in both the hardcopy and softcopy versions, has been an adventure that transports one back to a civilisation that has its roots in Neolithic times. Unique in form and content, her book not only talks of her trips to Andaman and meeting the indigenous people but also shows how the lores of this culture can teach the civilised a number of things including, basic survival skills. She has summed this up in a recent interview, “When the tsunami came on December 26, 2004, tribes of the Andaman, Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese saved themselves as their knowledge about the tsunami was intact in their language. They interpreted the patterns of waves and sea churning and ran to a safe place.” Shuttling between different continents and time zones, Abbi is as unconventional as is her book. She unfolds her journey towards integrating the past into the present.  

You are from a literary family. What made you opt to become a linguist? Did your environment impact you in some way? What kindled your interest in ancient and moribund languages?

Yes, my background exposed me to different writers of my time, and I started writing short stories in Hindi and earned a name for myself very early. My first book of collection of short stories Muthhi Bhar Pahachan (Hindi, A Handful of Recognition) was published on my 20th birthday.  I was pursuing my interest in literature along with my first love for Economics. However, my father, the famous poet of Hindi, Shri Bharat Bhushan Agrawal, thought that I was pursuing a wrong profession and forced me (yes, absolutely against my wishes) to join Linguistics at Delhi University at the cost of quitting Delhi School of Economics. Once I started studying Linguistics, I realised I was made for this subject and never looked back. Subsequently, after receiving Ph.D from Cornell University, USA I started teaching Linguistics at the Kansas State University, Manhattan. While there, I realised that a large number of Indian languages especially those spoken by the marginalised communities are under-researched. The question ‘how different or similar are these languages to the known languages of the country’ motivated me to take the major decision of quitting the regular job at the KSU and move to India. I joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1976 and was instrumental in designing and developing the course of Field Methods that took me and my students to remotest corners of India from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar. My experience in India has been very enriching as I have worked on more than 95 languages of India so far and experienced India at the grass roots. At present, I am working on two languages of the Nicobar Islands.

How long have you been researching on Andaman?

Since late 2000. I wish I was there earlier!

Tell us why you chose Andaman as your arena rather than any other?

There were several reasons that drew me towards working on this language intensively. The topography of the area, the unexplored terrain, its people, and their antiquity and above all scant availability of published material on their language coupled with the fact that my observation in 2003 after conducting a pilot survey of the languages of the Great and Little Andaman that this language seemed to be a class apart from the other two languages of the region — Onge and Jarawa. Unlike Jarawa and Onge, Great Andamanese is a moribund language and breathing its last. I was encouraged by my linguist friends at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany to study and document the language widely, to unearth the vast knowledge base buried in the linguistic structure of Great Andamanese before it is lost to the world. Not only were my results of 2003 later corroborated by geneticists in 2005, but it also gave me assurance and proof beyond doubt that this group of languages forms the sixth language family of India.  I was moved by the speedy process of erosion of scientific and cultural treasure that this ancient world had embedded into its language. I had to plunge myself into its structure come what may!

You said that this group of languages was almost pre-Neolithic in age — “a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe, the remnants of the first migration out of Africa 70,000 years ago.” Does it have any similarity to the clipping Khosian languages spoken in Africa or any other African languages?

Not that I know of. We must understand that any similarity, if it existed, would have completely evaporated in so many years especially in a contactless situation. Anyway, we know very little of what human language sounded like 70,000 years ago.

Now a new language has evolved — Great Andamanese — from four languages (Jeru, Khora, Bo, and Sare). How long has Great Andamanese been in use? How did all these languages merge into one?

It is named Great Andamanese because it is spoken in the Great Andaman Island. The original name of the island in the heritage language is marakele and was habited by ten different tribes speaking ten distinct but mutually intelligible languages. I named this language Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA) so as not to empower any one of the four North Great Andadamanese languages of which it is a mixture. Present form of the language has been in use since all the four different tribes, Jeru, Khora, Sare and Bo were moved from the north and rehabited in the Strait Island, 56 nautical miles away from the capital city of Port Blair since early seventies by the government of India. However, the language is closest to Jeru in its grammatical structure.

Do people use Great Andamanese or Hindi? Which languages are commonly used by the local people and why? Is there a historic reason?

Most of them have forgotten their heritage language and speak only Andamanese Hindi. Some of them have a passive knowledge of Bangla. When I reached the island there were ten speakers of the PGA but now only three remain who can speak PGA but prefer not to. Colonisation by mainland Indians exposed the tribe to babu Hindi as well as to the lingua franca Andamanese Hindi existing in the Island. As of today, a few of them are hired by the government in Port Blair and some children go the local schools so that exposure to local Hindi is intensive. 

One of the interesting things I noticed in your book was there was a lot of use of ‘potato’ in the stories. Potato was brought into India by the Portuguese. So, how old could these stories be? Or have the colonial invasions altered their myths?

Potatoes that we eat were perhaps imported by Portuguese, but roots of yam and potatoes always grew in our land as all Adivasis have been using their indigenous varieties of potatoes called by different names. Great Andamanese also have more than five varieties of potatoes that they have been consuming since their establishment in the island. These potatoes appear and taste very different from ours. English word ‘potato’ may be considered a generic name for the tuber like products in the current work and bear no resemblance to the modern word ‘potato’.

The Andamanese sing: “O, God, Bilikhu! / We pray to you.” They have burial customs where they burn, bury, feed to the vultures, and throw into the sea. It is like an amalgamation of multiple religious customs. What is the religion the Andamanese actually follow?

This prayer that you quote seems to be a modern version created copying Hindu religious practices that the Andamanese see all around them. ‘Bilikhu’ means spider also and is considered sacred but not equivalent to our concept of ‘God’. They remember Bilikhu before going into the sea for any sea escapade like hunting for big animal such as turtle and dugong.  Andamanese do not follow any religion. They believe in their protectors jurwachom who protect them in the sea and in the jungle. They give respect to and remember their ancestors believing that the ancestor’s spirits surround them all the time. What more, the tales in the book convey an intimate relationship between people and birds as a ‘family’. One story, ‘Jiro Mithe’, depicts the origin of birds from the Andamanese people.

As far as the cremation of the dead bodies is concerned, you may have read that I have explained how one of the stories ‘The Tale of Juro the Head Hunter’ informed me that there were four different ways of cremation depending upon the way a person dies. Quoting from the book, these were:

“1. When a person dies of a natural death or in illness, s/he is buried in the earth (‘boa-phong’ meaning ‘hole in the earth’).

“2. When a person dies while hunting/killing, then s/he is put on a platform made on a tree (‘machaan’ in Hindi) and burnt.

“3. When a person dies because of choking on a fishbone, their body is taken to a particular place near Mayabandar in the northern part of the Andaman Islands and left for a month on a tree for vultures to eat. The bones are collected after a month.

“4. When children pass away, they are not buried initially; they are left untouched for a few days, then they are cremated.”

Often the villains and the demons depicted in their stories are cannibalistic. Was cannibalism an aberration for them? Was cannibalism ever accepted by them?

They are not villains or demons. They are people with supernatural powers. The practice of cannibalism existed — so it seems through these stories. However, it was always deplored as being against the survival of humanity. The story mentioned above depicts it very clearly. Nao Jr the key narrator of these stories compared Juro with Hindu goddess Kali saying that both were involved in similar activities. The story and my elicitation process involved in it explains the whole phenomenon of cannibalism that existed in the Great Andamanese community.

How did the colonials and the independence of India impact these people, their culture and language?

The history of present Great Andamanese is a tale of many tales. Outsider-contact has brought diseases, subjugation, sexual assault, and ultimately decimation of the tribal culture, tribal life, and tribal language. It is not new to witness as voice of the most powerful of the land…colonizers, makers of empires, and policy makers silence the voices of the vanquished and marginalized whether by annihilation or assimilation.

For years, Jarawas maintained the isolation and now they regret the interaction with us.

These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their uses, sea life, weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing), nor cowardly, nor violent (they safeguard their folks both women and children from outside intervention) nor fools. They have known the wonders of isolation and that is what they want to maintain. However, we have lost Great Andamanese culture, language and worldview as the process of mainstreaming them started with colonisation first by Britishers and later by Indians. With the result they are nowhere now, neither connected to their roots nor connected to the world that the government offers. Cultural amnesia and loss of their heritage language has affected their cognitive and perceptive powers adversely. The modern generation neither feels connected to the forest and sea life nor to the city life. It’s a lost civilisation bewildered of their present. In this scenario stories and songs of this book may serve as the only priceless heritage of an ancient civilisation of India.

Tell us of about some of your more unique experiences in Andaman.

There are plenty. You have to read the ‘Introduction’ of this book and log on to www.andamanese.net where I describe my experiences and many aspects of Great Andamanese culture. Great Andamanese is a culture that believes in sharing of everything that one has in life yet gives individual freedom to choose. We have misunderstood that this trait of theirs as ‘begging’ since they always demanded to share whatever we eat. Gender equality is worth admiration starting from the prenatal stage as the name of a child is assigned before birth, and both boys and girls are trained in hunting.

While it was sad to read that very few speak the language of the past now and yet a few more cultures are getting eroded, it is also a movement towards integration with the mainstream. What would be the ideal way for this integration so that the languages and cultures do not get eroded and yet they blend with the mainstream? What would be the best way of balancing languages and cultures so that we do not lose our past while embracing the present and moving to the future?

The idea of mainstreaming and merging these tribes into our civilisation is nothing but usurping their rights to their land, forest, water, and way of life. “Development” may kill these tribes. These tribes have amalgamated their life with nature so well that they are aware of secrets of life.  Any kind of interference will disturb this harmony. As I always say that Jarawa live a life of opulence where the supplies are in abundance in their forests — much more their demands. However, it is too late now in the context of the Great Andamanese. As I said earlier, they are a lost generation.

The best course to save their language and culture would be to introduce it in the primary schools in Port Blair so that the community feels motivated to retain this. Since the language has already been scripted by our team, reading and writing Great Andamanese is no problem. I have already produced the Grammar and the interactive pictorial talking Dictionary of the language that may make this task simple. One of the members of the tribe by the name of Noe who still remembers the language should be used as a resource before it is too late. Introducing these languages in the school will bring dignity and honour to our heritage language and will help the societies to overcome their inferiority complex.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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Click here to read the review of Voices from the Lost Horizon brought out by Niyogi Books, June 2021.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

3 replies on “In Conversation with Anvita Abbi”

Great interview illustrating yet again the unacknowledged intelligence of ancient tribes in living in harmony with our natural world. Pity they didnt colonise us. The world would be in a better state.

Liked by 1 person

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