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Tracing the vanishing voices

Linguist Anvita Abbi’s research helps preserve history of an extinct language


Don’t let the language slip away, keep a hold on it,” Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Bo language from the Andamans, had told Anvita Abbi, a former professor of linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, over a decade ago. Boa Sr died in January 2010 and so did her language. But thanks to Abbi’s works, the language will not be completely forgotten without record.
Abbi did an extensive research on the languages of the Great Andamanese family between 2005 and 2009, salvaging stories and songs and compiling them into a book, Voices from The Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese.
There are 10 folktales in the book and before each story, there is a brief account of how the indigenous narrator delved into the abyss of forgotten memories to bring out the gem. The author had to go back to the island several times to get complete versions of the tales, which give an insight into the lives and customs of the tribes.
The Great Narrative of Phertajido, narrated by Nao Jr (he is the narrator of all but one stories), is a creation myth. Phertajido was the first man in the island who originated from the hollow of a bamboo. During his exploration of the island, he discovers food, fire and means of survival. He also finds kaut, a very fine soil, which he uses to create a female figurine that comes to life and becomes the first woman in the island. Together, they give birth to a tribe and after spending a fulfilling time on Earth, the couple decide to leave for the other world.
“This creation myth was the very first story that Nao Jr narrated to me in broken sentences… The climax of the story is very philosophical,” writes the author. It was the narrator’s favourite story too and he would often get emotional narrating it.
Then there is the story of a female headhunter, Juro, who the narrator compares with Goddess Kali. “I did not like the comparison as I told him that Kali never ate human flesh,” the author says.
Juro is a heartless killer who devours her husband during pregnancy. Her son, who is initially unaware of his mother’s heinous practices, finds out the truth and gets worried about the tribe’s existence. So, he decides to help villagers kill his mother and send her soul to the point of no return. It is a simple story but talks about the unique funeral practices of the Great Andamanese.
There were tales of water demons, supernatural powers, hunting, infidelity, revenge and bravery and each story helped the author understand the vanishing indigenous populace better. In Maya Jiro Mithe, a young man from the Jero tribe goes hunting and vanishes inside the stomach of a gigantic fish. His rescuers manage to kill the beast and feast on its flesh. But a small mistake changes their lives.
“It is a kind of creation myth, which informs us of the evolution of birds and their distinct and varied names,” Abbi says.

The author with Nao Jr, the narrator.

At the end of each story, there is a QR code that takes readers to the audio-visual recording of an indigenous song sung by Boa Sr, then the oldest member of the tribe.
For Abbi, finding the stories was not easy as she had to deal with the inclement weather, the challenging terrain, a bunch of non-cooperative government officials (who had threatened to put her behind bars if she continued with the research), fading memories and nonchalance of the tribals to remember their language. However, she encouraged the narrators to remember the forgotten language and inspired them to make the last effort to document history.
Genetic research shows that the Andamanese are “survivors of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years before the present”. Abbi’s research established, for the first time, that there were two distinct language families in the Andaman Islands. She collected first-hand data from three accessible languages of the Andamans — Onge, Jarawa and Great Andamanese — and she did this not as a passive researcher but as a sympathetic friend. This approach makes the stories of the tribes heartening.
The book has an extensive appendix that has the line-by-line narration of the stories in the indigenous language. There is also a collection of songs which the author extracted from the oldest member of the tribe. “… songs have better staying power than narrations in the life span of a language. We saw the proof in the verbal repertoire of Boa Sr, the 84-year-old woman who turned out to be the single person who could remember some songs,” Abbi writes.
Voices from The Lost Horizon is a repository of lost history and a forgotten language. It is a humongous effort to document a tribe that turned captive in its own land. Though the tsunami of 2004 ravaged the Andamans and endangered the tribes inhabiting the clusters of islands, life has gradually come back to normal over the years. But there is no escape from the State’s apathy to protect the languages that is leading to an apocalyptic end to the tribal identity. At this juncture, the determined and dedicated linguist’s book, which is the result of an extensive research, helps in preserving them for posterity.

~ Team Sunday Monitor

Book: Voices from The Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of The Great Andamanese; Author: Anvita Abbi; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Price: Rs 995

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