Categories
Stories

The Slip

By Sushma R.Doshi

Her face looks pale. How do I console her?

It started with the onslaught of Covid and the sudden imposition of the lockdown. Fear enveloped the city. The otherwise congested city of Kolkata bore a quiet and eerie look. Rinku, our maid, who stayed in our servant’s quarters and worked in a couple of other houses apart from ours, was suddenly jobless.. Most households fired their part time maids without a thought and without a salary. The part-time maids were the ones who traveled by public transport or walked to work everyday, from their homes. Without any means of transport, they were unable to reach the houses they worked in.

The only domestic help who retained their employment were the full-time residents of the houses they worked in. Rinku was still fortunate. She had a place to live and continued to work for us and the old couple, the Ghoshes, who lived in the apartment next door. We didn’t fire her. It wasn’t because we were better human beings. The reason was that she lived in the servant’s quarters downstairs, and she wouldn’t bring in infections from other places. The Ghoshes retained her because they had no choice.

” Why did the rest of the houses chuck me out? Dipu da[1] and Mishti di[2] phoned me and told me not to work at their houses anymore…at least till Covid is over…Why?” Rinku asked me dismally. “I stay in your house and walk it down to their place. It takes me twenty minutes. I could easily have continued to work there.”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her that the urban educated upper classes of the city assumed that the maids coming from the ghettos and slums and traveling by public transportation were the carriers of the virus. Even those living close by in a tenement or in a servant’s quarters were not welcome anymore.

“Thank God that Ghosh jethu[3] has asked me to continue working for them,” Rinku finished with a tinge of relief in her voice.

The Ghoshes lived next door: Mr Ghosh, eighty-five and his wife, eighty-two and undergoing chemotherapy. Breast cancer — we had been told about a couple of years back. We would watch as Mr Ghosh, struggling with his arthritis, would walk down to the market to buy the week’s provisions. Treatment was expensive and appointing full time help or a cook on their pension was beyond their means. Rinku washed the utensils and mopped the floors in their house. On a good day, Mrs Ghosh would help her husband to cook and do the rest of the chores. On other days, the old gentleman would plod through the day with stoicism. The lockdown instilled fear in everyone but the Ghoshes couldn’t afford to let Rinku go. 

“You people are old, more prone to infections…don’t let the maid in,” they were advised by every well-meaning neighbor.

“We can’t,” Mr Ghosh stated dryly. “We simply cannot manage without help.”

Some not so well-meaning neighbors advised me not to let Rinku work in Mr Ghosh’s house.

“Why are you letting her work in their house? She stays in your house…Just threaten her with eviction…tell her she can work for you exclusively if she wishes to stay in your house.”

I couldn’t be so ruthless. I knew Rinku was under financial stress and that the Ghoshes needed a maid badly. I just decided to be a better human being this time around.

Rinku continued to work for us and the Ghoshes. Fear continued to rise with the news of the rising number of cases and subsequent rise in death rates. It was then that I heard the news.

“Do you know? Mrs Ghosh has tested Covid positive…she has been hospitalised,” Anita told me over the phone. “I’m told she visited the doctor in the hospital for her treatment. People are saying that’s where she got it from.”

I felt a cold chill in my bones. This was the first case in our locality. The news spread like wildfire. Had Mr Ghosh also contracted covid? What about Rinku? What was I to do if Rinku developed symptoms of Covid? Had I made a mistake by allowing her to work for the Ghoshes? I should’ve insisted she only work for us.

Fortunately, with contact-tracing that the government enforced, Mr Ghosh and Rinku were tested and the results were negative.

I wasn’t sure who was more relieved…. Mr Ghosh, Rinku or I. Then I felt guilty. My thoughts flew to Mrs Ghosh. Eighty-two, frail, sick and alone in the hospital.

“She’s as good as gone,” Anita told me soberly.

Yes. We knew. We wouldn’t be able to see Mrs Ghosh ever again. The neighbourhood fell into a melancholic mood. Phones buzzed with reminisces about the Ghoshes. People talked about the stories they had heard about them — how they had moved into the apartment, how desperately they wanted a child, undergone every treatment available to conceive but failed. Their love for each other withstood all trials and tribulations. They didn’t have anyone except each other.

“Remember the lovely sarees Mrs Ghosh would wear during Durga Puja and how Mr Ghosh would look at her?”

“She used to sing really well. I’ve heard her accompanied by her husband on the harmonium.”

“Her fish curry was incomparable…of course, before the cancer destroyed her.”

We all called Mr Ghosh to find out how his wife was faring in the hospital. Poor chap…he seemed dazed…at a loss.

“I don’t know much…this lockdown…can’t visit the hospital…they just keep telling me they’re doing the best they can,” he would say.

“Please pray for her,” he would finish softly.

I don’t know whether anyone in the neighborhood prayed for her. We were too busy worrying about ourselves. As a fortnight passed by, we stopped calling Mr Ghosh. We mused amongst ourselves whether it was best that Mrs Ghosh pass away peacefully. But how would Mr Ghosh manage? His life centered around his wife.

“I’ll take up the job of the cook in his house….in any case I’ve lost most of my jobs…I have ample time on my hands, ” Rinku said as she heard me discuss this over the phone with Anita.

“Yes. It’s a good idea,” I agreed.

“Have you spoken to him?” I queried.

“I did…but he didn’t answer…I don’t think anything is registering…seems to be totally lost,” Rinku replied sympathetically.

I nodded.

“How much money do you think I should ask for cooking in his house?” Rinku asked me the next day.

“You are just going to be cooking for one person…so not much I should think,” I shot back.

Rinku flushed. She understood the note of reprimand in my voice.

“I’m really hard up, I really need another job,” she retorted defiantly. “With his wife gone…he won’t have to pay for her treatment…I’m sure he can easily pay me what I deserve.”

I didn’t answer.

Another week passed with mounting deaths. We read and watched horror stories unfold across the world. On television, on our phones…everywhere. There was nothing else to read, talk or think about. People lost loved ones and heard about it on their phones. I lost a cousin and a friend to Covid. They were survived by their elderly parents, spouses and children. We all grieved our losses within the confines of our homes. Somewhere in the corner of our hearts, we were glad it wasn’t us or our children. We just prayed to survive tomorrow.

“I’ve heard the government is not allowing proper funerals for those dying of Covid. …because it’s so contagious…they’re just cremating all the bodies together…Is it true?” Rinku asked.

I nodded again.

“God…this is so wrong! Dark times indeed!” Rinku sniffed. “The soul is not liberated until the rites are performed…Ghosh jethu is such a religious man…he will be so disturbed if he cannot perform the last rites for jethi[4].”

I didn’t know whether religious rites brought peace to the dead. More important than what followed death was the way one met death. To die alone, in fear amongst strangers in a hospital was not the way anyone should die…certainly not Mrs Ghosh.

It was a hot sultry day. Rinku was mopping the floor. I was lazing on the bed. I heard the ringtone of my phone. I wore my spectacles to read who wa calling. It was Mr Ghosh.

I swallowed. News of death. Again. I pick up the phone. “Hello Ghosh da,” I spoke softly.

Rinku had stopped mopping the floor. She was unashamedly eavesdropping…as she usually does. Her eyes awee big and sympathetic.

“Sushmita!” Mr Ghosh’s voice rings out clearly. Elated. Euphoric. “She’s…I mean…Ronita…she’s recovered. The hospital called me. She is coming back tomorrow.”

“Recovered?” I shout in happy disbelief. “That’s great…God has been kind!”

“Yes!” Mr Ghosh.”Bye now…. I’ve to call the others.”

“Bye.”

I swivell towards Rinku smiling. I stop. Rinku has heard the news. Her face looks pale. How can I console her? I can’t tell her….”I’m sorry your hopes of being appointed as a cook in the Ghosh household have been dashed because Mrs Ghosh is alive” — life’s little ironies. I am not sure whether I should feel sorry for Rinku or just chuckle and say — there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.

The Ghoshes continued to live in the apartment next door. People say that it was her husband’s love that brought back Mrs Ghosh from the dead. The pandemic is over or so they say and Rinku is not so hard up anymore. She continues to live in our house and work at the Ghoshes…mopping the floors and washing the utensils …. only. She works in a couple of other houses and manages to get by. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

[1] Elder brother

[2] Elder sister

[3] uncle

[4] Aunty

Sushma R Doshi acquired a PhD in International Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She dabbles in writing fiction and poetry.  Her short stories have been published by Contemporary Literary Review India, Writefluence, Culture Cult Magazine and Press and Sweetycat Press amongst others. 

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Categories
Stories

Stranger than Fiction

By Sushant Thapa

Old Mr. Bubble sat in his armchair and observed the passers-by. The city rose in the morning when the clock struck five. The silence gave way to morning sounds.

Women walked and talked on the footpaths about educating their daughters and little sons. They believed every lesson should not be taught more than forty-five minutes. The leader’s inability to rule the country became a conscience of some new job holders. The morning walk seemed to be all about venting such problems.

The road ran across the suburban sight. No cargo trucks were parked in the morning although, the day ran on wheels. The path was spacious, and the children played without being deterred. The road carried buses, vans, students cycling to school amidst flocks of sheep that strayed into the road as they grazed along the greenery that often lined the edges or some abandoned patch of grass under the supervision of shepherds.

The city felt like it had to be observed more closely and that is where characters like Mr. Bubble stepped in. Mr. Bubble was a high school teacher. He lost his son during the civil war period in the army. His son’s memories haunted him and every day he washed the memories with a heavy heart. Every evening Mr. Bubble took a walk on the highway. He had lost spaces in his life. Now he seemed to be filling merely a vacuum. The lack of action in his life made him realise the pauses. Fishes do not think of dying when they are safe inside the water. Mr. Bubble was in his bubble and he was still safe until things started getting out of his hands like the time when his son died. He couldn’t stop his son from dying and that did him no good.  

One evening while he was on his regular jaunt, he discovered a grassland beside the highway. There was a small pond which did not look dry although, the water was slightly muddy. The trees seemed to bear fruit and some looked burnt. The grass seemed to be smeared with chemicals so that they could not grow. If the place was meant to be abandoned why bother spreading chemicals on the grass so that they would not grow? Mr. Bubble was already inside that grassland and away from the road.

The evening sun was on its way to the dark land somewhere behind the moon. It was about to hide itself and let one part of the world be steeped in darkness. The sun knew when to get hot or when to get cold. Mr. Bubble thought that the world was a fabulous discovery till it was over-used by all.

One thing that Mr. Bubble’s pondered was why houses seemed deserted in the grassland? Perhaps nature took matter into its own hands when things were not cared for by humans, this was a fact and not fiction. Fiction, after all, had been manmade although it could contain natural ingredients. How we perceive every other reality can contain details like clockwork as even things have their hours, minutes and seconds that keep ticking. A beating heart has always been a clockwork before it could be forgotten for good.

Mr. Bubble was really alone after losing his son. When the closest people walk away or disappear, we really cannot make friends with inanimate things. There can always be a reality which engulfs the truth which is stranger than fiction.   

A lonely house and again a vast grassland where wind blew alone without a purpose, the sight of an old man and somewhere far, how tides hit the beaches lining the ocean went unnoticed.

Mr. Bubble just waited for another day and another lonely walk away from people’s sight, but he wasn’t running away from himself. Old age was a thing that one could not run away from because death came slowly — speed was only for the escapists. Those who have the time to wait do not worry about the passage of hours, minutes and days…

Sushant Thapa is an M.A. in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, who lives in Nepal. His poems, essays, short stories and flash fictions are published in numerous journals and books.

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Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Anvita Abbi

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.

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