We are living in strange times that seem to be filled with events to challenge the innovativeness of man. As if the pandemic were not enough, concepts that had come out of the best in our civilisation to unite mankind have been convoluted by a minority to manipulate and hurt the majority into submission. Life is not about surviving with faint-hearted compliance but about having the courage to live it as you want, facing it full up front, to voice out in unison against injustices, wrongs, and most of all to loan strength to help and care for each other. Often to understand this, we need to hinge on to our past, to learn from our heritage. But do we do that? In the hectic drive to be successful, we tend to ignore important lessons that could have been imbibed from the past. Like, did you know that the tribes in the Andaman can save themselves from a tsunami?
Padma Shri Anvita Abbi tells us all about the Andamanese and her attempts to revive their moribund language in her interview and book, Voices from the Lost Horizon, reviewed by Rakhi Dalal. While the review focusses on the uniqueness of Abbi’s work and the publication with its embedded recordings of the tribe fast dissolving into the morass of mainstream civilisation, her interview highlights the need to revive their lores that evolved out of a 70,000-year-old culture. On the other hand, Jessica Mudditt, interviewed by Keith Lyons, dwells on the ongoing crisis in Myanmar, which has been clearly the focus of her book, Our Home in Yangon. This interview focusses on the here and now of the crisis. But most crises have their roots deep and perhaps an exploration of these could help. There are 135 ethnicities in Myanmar but how many are actually integrated into the mainstream? Are they in the process of getting ‘lost’ like the voices of the speakers of Greater Andamanese?
That is why we tried to showcase a few such strains that are going unheard in the loudness of the ‘civilised’ mainstream. We have translations in poetry from Santhali and Adivasi, touching on the concerns of those who are often considered underdeveloped. And, perhaps, as Abbi said in her interview about the Andamanese, we can say much the same for these tribes too.
“These tribes are neither poor, nor uneducated (their knowledge of environment comprising birds, fishes, medicinal plants and their … weather predictions, and the Earth they walk on is amazing) …”
Distinctions have been created by a ‘civilisation’ entrenched in mono-cognitive enforcements leading to the loss of trust, confidence, languages, cultures and valuable knowledge about basic survival. Perhaps we can attempt to heal such wounds by imbibing the openness, love, devotion and compassion shown by the Buddhist monk, Upagupta (who is still revered in Myanmar as Shin Upagutta), in the translation of Tagore’s story poem, ‘Abhisar’ or ‘The Tryst’. Somdatta Mandal’s translation of Tagore’s letters introduce similar humanitarian concerns when the maestro mentions a German anthropologist and his wife who for the betterment of mankind were journeying to study tribals in India. Tagore remarks, “The people for whom they are willingly prepared to undergo hardship and to overlook all sorts of danger are not their relatives, nor are they civilised.” And yet even a century ago to fathom more about mankind, attempts were being made to integrate with our ancient lore. The concept of being ‘civilised’ is of course now much under the microscope. What is being ‘civilised’?
Is it about having power? We have Akbar Barakzai’s poem translated by Fazal Baloch on creation looking at the divide between a ‘civilised’ God and man. The theme stresses the two sides of the divide. More translations from Odiya, Dutch and Korean further mingle different flavours of the world into our journal — each questioning the accepted norm in different ways.
In an edition focussed on myths and stories from which we evolved, Rhys Hughes has created an unusual legend around elephants. His poetry also deals with animals — cats. One wonders if the T S Eliot’s famed ‘Macavity, the Mystery Cat’ could have to do something with his choices? We were fortunate to have Arundhathi Subramaniam share her poetry on myths around Indian figures like Shakuntala and Avvaiyar and the titular poem from When God is a Traveller that won her the 2020 Sahitya Akademi Award. Michael R Burch continues on the theme dwelling on Circe, Mary Magdalene and Helen. Sekhar Banerjee has a more iconoclastic approach to myths in his poetry. Jared Carter talks of modern myths perpetuated through art and cultural studies as does Mike Smith in his musings with his glance back at the last century through a photograph.
We have poetry by a Filipino writer Gigi Baldovino Gosnell from South Africa, looking for a new world, a new legend, perhaps a world without borders. Tohm Bakelas has given us a few lines of powerful poetry. Could these poems be a reaction to world events? Smitha Vishwanath has responded to the situation in Afghanistan with a poem. In this edition, photographs and verses in Penny Wilkes’ ‘Nature’s Musings‘ draw from the universe. She writes, “The sun never asks for applause” — a powerful thought and perhaps one mankind can learn from.
Ghost stories by Niles Reddick and Sunil Sharma perpetuate the theme, especially the latter has a ghost that questions myths of ‘isms’ created in the modern-day world. We also have a writer from Malaysia, P Ravi Shankar, with a futuristic legend set in a far-off time where man has embraced the reality of climate change and artificial intelligence. An interesting and fun read as is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s professions about why he did not become a professor, Geetha Ravichandran’s light musing on word play and a young writer Saurabh Nagpal’s musing, ‘Leo Messi’s Magic Realism‘ — a footballer viewed from a literary perspective!
While our musings make us laugh, our essays this time take us around the world with the myth of happiness deconstructed by Candice Louisa Daquin, to Burma and deep into Kolkata’s iconic history of the detective department started in the nineteenth century. There is an essay by Bhaskar Parichha that explores politics and media and mentions ‘gatekeepers’ of the media who need to be responsible for influencing public opinion. Guess who would be the gatekeepers?
Bhaskar Parichha’s review of Wendy Donniger’s non-fiction exploring myths around horses, Winged Stallion and Wicked Mares,and Basudhara Roy’s review of Bina Sarkar Ellias’ Song of a Rebel and Other Selected Poems perpetuate the theme of the importance of the past on the one hand and question it on the other. But that is what Borderless is about — exploring the dialectics of opposing streams to re-invent myths towards a better future.
We have a bumper issue again this time with nearly fifty posts. I invite our wonderful readers on a magical journey to unfold the hidden, unmentioned gems scattered on the pages of the September Issue of Borderless. Thank you again to an outstanding team, all our global contributors who make every edition an adventure and a reality and our wonderful readers. Thank you all.
Unfolding a linguist’s tryst with the Great Andamanese tribe and lost languages
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)
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
Title: Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese
Author: Anvita Abbi
Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2021
Professor Anvita Abbi is a distinguished researcher on minority languages and perhaps the only one in the Indian subcontinent who has done first-hand field study on all the six language families from the Himalayas to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She taught linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University for 38 years, was the President of the Linguistic Society of India, and has been invited as a visiting professor and researcher at prestigious institutions in the USA, Europe, Canada, and Australia. She served long as an expert from the UNESCO on issues concerning languages.
During her studies in 2003–2004, she identified a new language family of India—the Great Andamanese, which was corroborated in 2005 by population geneticists. Her pioneering work was recognized by the Government of India and she was awarded the Padma Shri in 2013. In 2015, she received the Kenneth Hale Award, most prestigious in the field of linguistics, for her outstanding contribution to the documentation and description of Indian languages, from the Linguistic Society of America, where she was also elected as an honorary member. She has 22 books to her credit, including the Dictionary of the Great Andamanese Language. English-Great Andamanese-Hindi (2011) and A Grammar of the Great Andamanese Language: An Ethnolinguistic Study (2013).
A 2018 analysis of a census says that more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken in India as mother tongues whilst only 122 of them are major languages. After the 1971 census, Indian Government decided that any language spoken by less than 10,000 people in India need not be included in the official list of languages. According to UNESCO, any language that is spoken by less than 10,000 people is potentially endangered. When a language dies, it’s not only the history, beliefs, customs of people that wither but also a distinct worldview that vanishes forever; a view, that could possibly have added to a greater understanding of ways of living of a people. Disappearance of a language may come for many different reasons like migration, urbanization, threat from external sources or language domination and when that happens, unique livelihood patterns, knowledge and skills may also disappear.
In the preface, Anvita Abbi writes that when she visited Andaman Islands in 2005, there were only eight surviving speakers of Great Andamanese, a moribund language of the only surviving pre-Neolithic tribe which had migrated out of Africa 70,000 years ago. The language was already on the brink of extinction. And none of the speakers were proficient enough to tell any tales, either in Great Andamanese or Andamanese Hindi. The fact that she still compiled 10 stories and 46 songs that make this unique collection is a testament of her will, hard work and dedication to the cause of retaining some remnants of a dying language and thereby preserving and contributing to the rich heritage of the Islands.
The Andaman Islands i.e. the Great Andaman, Little Andaman and North Sentinel Islands have been home to mainly four tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese whose languages are also named the same. The author tells us that the Great Andamanese is a generic term representing 10 languages, once spoken by ten tribes living in north, south and middle of Great Andaman Islands. And Present Day Great Andamanese (PGA), however, is a mixture of four northern varieties of Great Andamanese languages i.e. Jeru, Khora, Bo and Sare and the grammar of the language is based on Jeru.
While the task of collecting stories and songs in the language was difficult, Abbi was helped by two speakers of Great Andamanese. One was Boa Sr. whose ancestral language was Bo. She had not conversed with anyone in her language for 30-40 years prior to that. The other speaker, Nao Jr. was a male member of the society and the only one to remember the Great Andamanese language and names of various natural objects, birds and fishes. Of the 10 stories in the book, one is narrated by Boa Sr. while the rest are narrated by Nao Jr. and while four stories were narrated in bilingual mode i.e. Great Andamanese and Andamanese Hindi, six were narrated in Adamanese Hindi only. The original versions of the stories in Great Andamanese language with line-by-line translation in English is given in the Appendix of the book. What makes this book really unusual is that the readers can have an audio-visual experience at the end of each narrative. Each story carries with it a song towards the end in the form of a QR code which can be scanned for an audio-visual recording of the song, The songs are mostly sung by Boa Sr. from Bo tribe.
It is interesting to note that all 46 songs are only of one line or a phrase which is sung again and again. Their documentation in the book is done in all the three languages i.e. first in original (in Roman script), second in Devanagri Script (which was given to the language) and third an English translation.
The book also carries pictures of Great Andamanese birds, considered to be the ancestors of Andamaneses, along with their names. It is quite interesting to note that their names have some inherent meaning as the story Maya Jiro Mithe, a kind of creation myth, informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names.
The folk tales and songs included in this book open the reader to the world of Great Andamanese tribes, their beliefs, ways of life, knowledge, culture and their relation with nature. The diligence with which Prof. Anvita Abbi has pursued the project of compiling stories and songs of a disappearing language is evident through her exceptional work. A reader can possibly only imagine how difficult it might have been for the author to document a language and its grammar, when she could only understand it through the eyes and words of its native speakers. She has done an outstanding job towards the revival of a vanishing language, towards preserving the voices which might have otherwise been lost to the rest of the world and with it a culture woven with their intrinsic knowledge of survival and living with nature.
Click here to read Anvita Abbi’s interview.
Rakhi Dalal is an educator by profession. When not working, she can usually be found reading books or writing about reading them. She writes at https://rakhidalal.blogspot.com/ .
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.