The survival of languages: the Khasi

ESTHER SYIEM

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THE tale of the Lost Script is often remembered; not simply any longer as the older generation did, but self-reflexively, with practised skill. It is a tale that recalls the time when God called all the people of the world to come and receive their own scripts. Among others who went was the Khasi messenger accompanied by a plainsman who kept his within the safety of his knotted ponytail. We are not clear about where the Khasi put his. But we do know that when they had to cross a river swollen with the rains the Khasi put it into his mouth. What follows is history being retold in artful ways. He swallowed the script: the one reason why Khasis have no script of their own.

Whilst the resultant narrative has disempowered a community when it has been used as a measure of comparison to other literate communities, it has also provided it with the empowering ability of viewing the incident of the loss through the distancing lens of humour. The Khasi messenger is a typical specimen of the lackadaisical spirit of a community that continues to thrive, however, on its own terms. When I heard about it as a child there was no written literature available. It was told with simple humour in denigration of the Khasi messenger’s negligence.

As time passed with the spread of education and the general tendency to create labels of all sorts, this story has been published, retold and re-crafted through different mediums. The overarching view has always been that of loss, which was obvious before, but which has become sharper now; an empowering contradiction that has steered many communities in North East India towards taking a re-look at their ground realities.

From the Nagas to the Mizos, the Garos and Bodos, the tribes of Arunachal and other plains tribes of North East India, to name a few, the tale of the Lost Script emerging from within these communities but in different forms and content, has been in oral circulation and projected as the foundational certainty around which has been structured their unstructured oralities. Struggling as they are today with language loss, not to mention other social and economic deprivations, these communities have displayed remarkable resilience in reorientating themselves towards a future that is marginalizing their core imperatives.

Be that as it may, if one were to look at the material reality surrounding them one would find resistance as being the key element of their struggle. This is widely reflected in domains that pertain to essentializing identity as in their cuisine, traditional wear, chants and songs or ritualistic practices but which have also been perversely commodified to cater to the patronage of other literate peoples.

 

In this respect, in order to understand resistance, I would like to clarify upon two sides of an existing coin, both of which have different stories to tell. These are the two realities that communities in these parts are dealing with: the commodified reality, that faces an encroaching world, that caters to the expectations of the hungry hordes, hungry for diversion in this supposedly globalized village of easy accessibility. The trope for this in Meghalaya as in other Northeastern states, lies in the expanding number of Bed and Breakfast Inns that have sprouted without containment. Yes, tourism has been an asset for many states and exhibiting one’s own has been a practised skill that has gradually emerged in the far corners of many regions dependent upon the earnings that it brings; which is fair enough, but which comes at a cost to the soul of culture which is language.

 

The other aspect of the same coin has been kept away from the curio seeker and collector’s insanity. It is this that has preserved these fragile oral communities from complete collapse. This is the resistant core of indigenous thought, the ‘oral resistant’, that lies at the heart of language. Preservation of this singular asset has always rested with the elders of these speaking communities. They have ideally, existed unseparated from the land and its offspring, and have encircled and been encircled by a universe made sentient by the speaking tongue. But their numbers are fast depleting as are the forests and natural environment that have cradled the wisdom of the ages and maintained the natural balance of our communities.

In an age of information, when almost everything is monetized, loss of this ‘oral resistant’ would surely, as in the depleted communities of the American Indian, result in severe crisis, near impossible to manage. Language loss, as everyone knows, is a fallout of many factors that stem from a globalized world.

Within the remoteness of the oral resistant, closed to trifling transactions, lies contravening germ of dissent that has authorized the alternative narrative for the Khasi community. This germ stems from the rngiew of the jaitbynriew; translated literally, it simply means, aura; that which naturally emanates from and surrounds a generation of people or an individual; to be nurtured at all times, in the uphill struggle of trying to maintain the challenging equations of life both at a personal micro level and at a larger macrocosmic level.

The rngiew provides the benchmark for the evolutionary progress of a community. It is intangible but manifests itself through a community’s ability to grow; in terms of the inner health of its people. It is an all-embracing term that comprises the relational stability that must exist, interlacing realities and experiences, in all aspects of life. Surely then if language is lost this would be an indication of the depletion of the rngiew of a community; something that warrants urgent attention; which is the reason why I now turn my attention to a group of young Khasi rappers, Khasi Bloodz (although there are others too), whose dealings with the larger world, ‘oppositional to an imagined dominant majority’ has brought them face up with questions that dip into the historical and sociological, as well as the existential.

Khasi rappers have indigenized priorities through language, mainly working through social media, and have also participated in performances outside the state. The call is to keep the rngiew alive, which will be manifest in more contemporary ways too as it adapts to change and the rappers, steeped in the creation of new vocabularies, amongst others, delivered in the spirit of rap, an imported art form, are adding more to the depth of a community’s rngiew.

 

The indigenous art form that may superficially be connected to it is the phawar, largely extempore and accompanying social and gaming events. These art forms thrive on the use of language and are dependent upon the transactions that emanate from a deep self-consciousness of the unpredictability of the lived circumstance.

North East India as we all know is an unstructured conglomeration of communities with separate languages, different worldviews and religions, comprising mostly patriarchal communities, with two communities being matrilineal, and many sections being Christian in population. Historically speaking, the impact that the Christian Church has made upon the language of many of these communities may be seen in the framing of the indigenous alphabet. In the Khasi context with the growth of an informed indigenous literati, other letters were added. Translations immediately took place, primarily to fill the gap in what was considered to be the non-existent written literature of the indigenous; at first from Christian texts, but gradually moving towards secular translations.

 

The contemporary situation finds the Christian Church contributing in its own way towards maintaining the primacy of local languages. Sermons and homilies, indigenized worship songs, pamphlets and many other forms of published literature, have audibly enveloped communities that are constantly reviewing their capacity for expression through language. In the arena of the Church, the indigenous language needs no turning back. In church gatherings impromptu translations from the local language into English or Hindi, to name two, take place very often and there is pressure to coin new words and phrases to meet the demand of the translation paradigm. This occurs not at the academic, isolated level but on the streets with the local congregation being the main participant in the refreshment of language.

On the same page may also be found the local imprint of the spoken and chanting language of the indigenous religion like Niam Tre or members of the socio-religious organization, Ka Seng Khasi. In recent years they have revamped themselves and witnessed a revival, where their auxiliary partners are taking a proactive stand in advancing the cause of Khasi-ness centred around religion, language and culture.

The picture presented so far seems to be a positive one. Hidden within the nooks and crannies of the dominant tribal languages, however, are a number of linguistic varieties that are only spoken by a few hundred or a few thousand. The moot point is, where do they go from here, when their permanent domicile is strictly within these regions naturally mapping out their own linguistic trails.

And it is in the observations of the noted Khasi thinker and writer, W.R. Laitphlang that the truth of the situation comes to the fore, wherein he observes, that it is in opening up remote villages by constructing roads and providing infrastructure to give them easier accessibility that loss happens. What he meant was loss of environment as well as culture, of which the subsequent loss is language. Can the development worldview then, that has always sidelined small narratives seek to redress its actions merely by taking the digitization stance?

 

Agreed digital technology has achieved what no other technology has. And it is in the right spirit that language conservation be attempted in whatever form. But one needs to see the unbridgeable chasm that exists between grassroot reality founded upon physical phenomenon and hyper reality founded upon the digital, which is the very substance of the contemporary. But again, if we were to preserve these small languages (which is surely required) the means for doing so would have to be the digital way.

There have been many sincere efforts digital or otherwise – a case in point is the phenomenal PLSI (Peoples Linguistic Survey of India) series instituted by noted thinker, writer, conservationist, social worker, Ganesh Devy – to testify to this difficult venture that is still on-going. The accumulated result of many of these efforts have, till date, been somewhat partial however – the reason why Ganesh Devy chose to go out to document the speaking language of the person on the street in order to redress the lack – erring on the side, perhaps, of the more populous of the smaller linguistic nations, because of the paucity of resources, financial or otherwise in respect of more ‘undeveloped’ communities; for every endeavour, let us not disagree, is solely dependent upon financial means and financial gain.

 

This is where government intervention is surely needed, but sensitively however, keeping the realities and expectations of these small speech communities uppermost in mind. The New Education Policy of the Government of India with its emphasis upon mother tongue education seems to open a small window of hope for linguistic minorities. The question, however, is the fairness of its delivery system, for these languages as the proverbial saying goes, cannot be bought nor can they be sold; commonly looked upon only as interesting specimens for generating study.

A preliminary linguistic mapping, as was attempted and to large extent achieved by the PLSI, is unaccountably required. What the People’s Linguistic Survey of India achieved was not simply a collection of linguistic data. It revived stories, recreating links blurred with time, and generally giving small communities a perspective that would have been erased from memory. More importantly, it gave them a sense of dignity and purpose in being able to export their language, possibly for the first time, to the rest of the country and the world. This has been an undertaking fuelled no less than by a vision, humane in approach.

In a country like India, where development has never been uniform, the challenge of each linguistic community has to be met on its own grounds. The PLSI demonstrates the possibility of language conservation at the grassroot level, where a linguistic resource has been created that could be included in the school curriculum. The significant lead that the PLSI has made is in confirming that the survey can never be complete. Each volume is open ended. The editors of each volume keep an open door for fresh entries of any other language or language variety that could be included in the volume. Its success lies in the understanding that language conservation is an ongoing venture. There are no easy paradigms to deal with it for the soul of language lives on even when it is thought to be verifiably dead; like the classical languages.

May I at this point look at Easterine Kire, the famous Naga writer who in one of her interviews was asked questions pertaining to her identity. Her short but pointed answer was that she was first of all Naga. Other identities followed only upon this. This is a pithy answer indeed that points to the cultural and linguistic component of the personal. It is upon this that all else hinges.

 

In the case of small communities in North East India, where one’s mother tongue is only spoken at home and no validation exists through printed literature, where histories, let alone literary histories are yet to be documented, Easterine Kire’s answer is surely an indication that this tertiary sense of the world outside one’s own community is common to the speaking communities of this region. We may contrast this with the famous golfer, Tiger Woods’ description of himself as Cablinasian, Caucasian, Black, American Indian and Asian: a fitting acknowledgement of a globalized, corporate identity, which of course has its own narrative to speak of, the least of which is ‘insecurity’.

And I refer to insecurity as being a state of mental anxiety on the part of most native speakers in Meghalaya, suggestive of similar feelings felt by smaller language groups in other Northeastern states. The angst is almost physical; the turmoil considerably emotional. For smaller linguistic groups like the Biate and Mikir, the feeling is one of unfair suppression in which the local politics of language has indeed left them far behind. The felt gap in their consciousness is visible in the struggle that they try, to borrow the Khasi term, to keep the rngiew of their community alive through a fraternity of language enthusiasts.

 

The internal dynamic of language binds them to common practices, common habits, common goals and a common sense of being disempowered and hence a discrediting sense of insecurity with which they are still contending. It is true that language engagement through the digital has increased the profile of the larger group of smaller languages like the Khasis and Mizos. But to stem the tide against other smaller languages requires the combined effort of the community itself working from within, but oftentimes with much needed help from external agencies.

The paradox in this situation lies in the double-edged awareness that the post-colonial has inducted into its worldview: awareness but also helplessness at the enormity of depletion; combined with a newly acquired orientation towards a more efficient future that is scientific and rational with its own call for an alien, global language. The choice for language conservation is in the hands of each one of these communities. But it is at this point that the intervention of an external agency is required to make communities aware of themselves as they should be. Machine translation and apps are facilitating agencies that have, however, only been able to keep some aspects of language in circulation, but what we need to understand and cater for are communities in transition, trying to catch up with the rest of the world.

When the colonial takeover occurred, almost everything was overturned with vulnerabilities being exploited and cultures dismissed. The very essence of language is linked to culture. And when culture dies language dies. Does language then have to be taught again to its people as has happened in some regions of the world, and that too in a cultural void? If documented virtually, does it have a chance of proper survival or growth? The threat of loss is here to stay and communities must fight back as indeed they are trying to, with every inch of themselves.

 

The ways by which technology can step in is made complex by the sheer smallness of such communities which will make such endeavours unprofitable. The printed medium has provided worthy solutions in the form of standard dictionaries and grammar books, translations and histories etc. The digital medium has also provided justifiable assistance. But in many regions where communication is problematic, language libraries maybe set up and a network of such institutions established. The idea of the living, talking museum could be central to this network and centres be established for the study of language in which may be nurtured a community of individuals, devising holistic strategies for the conservation not only of a single language but languages that are found to be interrelated to one another.

Community involvement in conservation efforts have always had positive results in the realm of ecology. Language conservationists will need to play a similar, interactive role. Possibilities of working together with this other group of conservationists would surely create an unenviable reserve of local language and native knowledge that would then require the biologist/the local healer for aid to reinvoke, in order to recall the indigenous complex of the plant world. Where the digital has worked via innumerable devices to collect and process data and freeze it in virtual space, the centres/libraries/living museums/hotspots of language learning would provide key access to the life of a language through living, learning, teaching and trained individuals that would utilize the digital to reinvigorate language.

A team of collaborators working together would attract more innovative ways of handling language loss, for as far as the situation in North East India stands, languages cross each other at odd points through stories and narratives that change form and content as they pass from one community to another. This trajectory forged in language cannot merely be handled by the methodologies of the digital alone. It requires the intervention of human intelligence to assess losses, refresh language within a web of relatable knowledge systems; for, although the new model cannot revive old systems in entirety, it can at least place the languages of this region within grasp of each other so that they do not become frozen in unused space.

 

References:

E. Syiem, The Oral Discourse in Khasi Folk Narrative. Eastern Book House, Guwahati, Rpt. 2018.

A. Pate, In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap African American Cultural Theory and Heritage. The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Maryland, 2010.

W.R. Laitphlang, Katto Katne Shaphang Ki Katto Katne. Shillong, 1994.

G.N. Devy (Chief Editor), People’s Linguistic Survey of India Volume Nineteen Part II, The Languages of Meghalaya. Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2014.

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