No One Speaks Bo No More

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By Anvita Abbi

Language keepers: Abbi (in saree) with Boa Sr (centre), two months before the latter’s death
Language keepers: Abbi (in saree) with Boa Sr (centre), two months before the latter’s death

WHY DO you come again and again to me?” Boa Sr was very inquisitive of my frequent trips to her cottage in 2005. “I want to learn your language,” I said, and her face beamed with joy. “No one speaks my language. All are gone. I have no one to converse with,” she lamented. When I asked her why did she not teach her language to young children in the community she reported: “All speak Hindi like babu in Port Blair. Our children (Great Andamanese children) don’t even know our songs, they sing filam (film) songs”. She would add in Great Andamanese Hindi: “Sab Khatam Ho Gayaa. Sab Chalaa Gayaa (all is lost, all are gone)”. Boa Sr passed away from this world on January 26, 2010. She took her language, Bo, with her.

This is not an isolated story of the last speaker of Bo of the Great Andamanese language family. Many languages of the tribal communities face the same dilemma. There is no institutionalised support to retain, maintain, or revive the ancient languages of the country. The total apathy shown by the Government of India in neither recognising their languages nor facilitating the education system in imparting knowledge of our so-called minor languages have deprived these tribals of their linguistic rights. Once thriving languages are becoming moribund as inter-generational transfer ceases to exist. The Government of India is oblivious to the fact that languages are witnesses of the diverse and varying ways in which the human cognitive faculties perceive the world and there is an urgent need to understand and preserve this perception for the nation’s posterity.

What I find most humiliating is the attitude of the bureaucracy and ‘saviour’ of the tribal communities such as AAJVS (Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti). Even with a letter from the Vice-Chancellor of our university and permission letters from the Home Ministry and the Ministry of Tribal Welfare in Delhi the local administration in Port Blair managed to drag their feet, to make it impossible for genuine researchers to go to Strait Island where the Great Andamanese community was settled. I recall during my project— The Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese — our research assistants were sometimes even threatened by the administration that they would be jailed under non-bailable offences if they dared to venture anywhere close to Adi Basera in Port Blair, where one or two members of the Great Andamanese community tribe were housed. I was denied permission to visit Boa Sr at Strait Island many times. Had I visited her more often we would have a more extensive documentation of the language. Another student of mine who had almost completed his PhD dissertation on the Jarawa language was not allowed to interview Jarawas even when he was well accepted and had permission from the Home Ministry. This was the first attempt by a researcher to write the comprehensive grammar of Jarawa.

This total apathy on the part of the local administration was appalling in the backdrop of a number of government officials brazenly visiting the tribal areas with their families, as if tribes were exhibition relics of the past. The sole mission of the Tribal Welfare Department is to bring the tribals into the mainstream, along with the deep-rooted prejudice that there is no knowledge worth resurrecting in tribal culture. It is painful to witness that a vast knowledge base engraved in indigenous and ancient languages is vanishing from this planet.

Anvita Abbi, Professor at JNU, documents the Great Andamanese languages

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