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An Indian academic’s lone fight to save the Great Andamanese

Monitoring Desk

How a 71-year-old professor has been trying to preserve the Great Andamanese language and culture since the 1990s.

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, one of the villains is Tonga, a “savage” aboriginal from Andaman, an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal. He shoots poisoned arrows from a blow pipe to kill people.

An internationally-acclaimed linguist from India, Professor Anvita Abbi, 71, who has spent years documenting the rapidly-dwindling language and culture of the Great Andamanese tribes, takes strong exception to such colonial projections that were published in 1890.

Abbi has been a silent chronicler of a crucial component of India’s history that has been globally referenced in the past few days, but in a slightly different context: reportedly, ten members of India’s fast-disappearing Great Andamanese tribe tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of August. But, beyond the headlines of a virus afflicting a vulnerable tribal community in these islands, there lies the story of the gradual extinguishing of the Present Great Andamanese language, which comprises four sub-languages: Bo, Khora, Sare and Jero.

PGA, however, a crucial part of India’s sixth language family, which include Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, Austroasiatic and Tai-Kadai, finds itself on the verge of extinction. Just three elders of the Great Andamanese community are left who speak the language, carrying the knowledge of their ancient culture, dating back thousands of years, within them. All others have, over the past several years, died. The three surviving elders speak Jero. Licho, the last Sare speaker, passed away in April 2020.

Abbi, is the only person who closely, and resiliently, has been documenting the journeys of these individuals. But beyond the obvious challenges of gaining the trust of the community, Abbi says that getting the remaining speakers to overcome a feeling of shame about their language and identity, making them understand the need to somehow remember their cultural memories, eroded by colonial and post-colonial history, is difficult.

“They [larger Great Andamanese community] are aware [of the vulnerability of their culture], but are resigned to their fate. No one takes pride in their language. They just keep trying to assimilate.” The disregard shown by contemporary governments in India towards active preservation measures have not helped either.

The British established a penal colony on the island in 1858. A Census of India note from 2011, which talks about all four tribes on the Andaman & Nicobar islands (Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese, in addition to Great Andamanese), states that while it is difficult to do an accurate headcount, “In 1858, their number was conservatively estimated near about 3500. In 1901 their strength depleted to 625.”

The 2011 Census handbook put the number at 44, though the Great Andamanese now count 50-odd, according to Denis Giles — editor of local daily, Andaman Chronicle. Evidently, though, as colonial presence increased, the tribes got exposed to disease and destruction of their land. In post-colonial India, in the early 1970s, the remaining members of the Great Andamanese were resettled to the Strait Islands, about 60 km from Port Blair, the capital of Andaman & Nicobar — ostensibly to save them from harm as society grew around them. The government provided basic shelters, in addition to some free rations every month. However, the rations meant a definite weaning away from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Schools, predictably, were geared towards teaching Hindi and English.

Abbi finished her PhD in linguistics from Cornell University, USA, in 1975, and returned to India the same year, before joining Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, in 1976, to teach.

“This is also when my personal interest developed further in tribal languages,” says Abbi, who was instrumental in floating courses on structures of lesser-known languages in JNU.

Speaking to birds

Soon, she says, she realised how these languages were actually endangered because of a lack of institutional support. “This creates an inferiority complex; eventually the community stops speaking the language at home — that’s when the language starts to die,” she says.

Abbi realised there were some tribal languages on the Andamans, which “haven’t really been worked upon at all… These were supposedly very ancient, so my interest grew further”.

In 2000, she convinced the director of Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, to fund a pilot survey of Andaman: the results were positive enough for Abbi to secure funding from the University of London and thus began her comprehensive work on the Great Andamanese language in 2005.

“Any unknown language is an obvious challenge,” says Abbi, talking about the challenges she faced as an academic, “It took me a while to figure out the grammar, and only then did everything else around the language make sense.”

Abbi says she also managed to win the community’s trust in good time. “To be a woman is a blessing in field linguistics,” she says, “They think if a woman has come all the way to their village, leaving behind her husband and children, she must be serious about her work.” Furthermore, she says, “If you are a woman, they don’t want you to sit outside on the verandah; they ask you to go inside. Most times, I have been taken directly to the kitchen. What more can one want other than to be taken to the most private space of the house for a conversation?”

The last speaker of the Bo language, says Abbi, had become very attached to her. “Her name was Boa Sr. She became fond of me because she said whenever I visited her, she and others around her would speak their language. ‘Don’t go. Once you leave, everyone will be back to speaking in Hindi’, she would say.” Once, says Abbi, “We caught her speaking to birds. When asked about it, she said the birds are her ancestors. They are the only ones who understand her language, besides me [Abbi]”.

Make a cream to make people dark

There’s another insight of Boa Sr. During one of her field visits, Abbi saw that some of the tribes had hunted and skinned a spotted deer, and hung it from a tree. “Initially, Boa Sr did not like me or my team. When I asked her the reason, she said because we (brown people) were ugly,” says Abbi with a chuckle. Boa Sr added that, “white people are the ugliest”.

When Abbi told her in countries including India, creams are available to make one fairer, Boa Sr was aghast, saying, “Why is it so prized? Have you ever seen a skinned animal? They look like skinned animals! Why make creams to make people look ugly? They should make a cream to make people dark.”

Abbi’s relationship with Licho, the Sare speaker, was also one built on trust and mutual respect. Licho, says Abbi, was proud of her heritage and was an exceptionally intelligent person, with an active interest in preserving the Great Andamanese language.

Abbi remembers something unique which Licho shared: “She told me the word for a person who loses his/her siblings; it was ‘raupuch’.” Abbi verified this with another Great Andamanese Jero-speaker, Nao Jr (he passed away in 2009). Nao Jr, says Abbi, was surprised and asked her, “Don’t you have a word like this in Hindi or English?” When she said no, he immediately asked Abbi, “Don’t you love your brothers and sisters?”

Abbi calls Nao Jr her “guru”. Describing him as “soft-spoken, very polite and intelligent”, Abbi says that it was largely due to his help that she could produce, in 2012, the Great Andamanese Dictionary, an interactive English-Great Andamanese-Hindi dictionary of the endangered language of the Andaman Islands.

When the tsunami of 2005 struck, most of the tribes survived the natural calamity. Abbi says that all four tribes had their own knowledge systems they relied on to predict the disaster. For instance, the Onges drew from their knowledge of the kind of fish that are found at different levels of the sea water. But on that day, the Onges noticed unusual fish on the shores deposited by the waves — that was the warning for them. The Jarawas saw the pattern of the waves change. The Andamanese, being “the most amalgamated with society amongst the three” were the “slowest to react”.

Boa Sr would later recount to Abbi how, “The water filled our cottages, and when it started coming till our ankles, we got worried.” They climbed a hillock on Strait Island deep inside the jungle, where they stayed for two days. The point to note, says Abbi, is “they were slow to react — because their indigenous knowledge or instinct had eroded over time.”

The need to help the tribes assimilate now threatens to fundamentally alter the lives of the other tribes in the Andamans. “Many of the indigenous people, including the Great Andamanese, frequently come to Port Blair for provisions etc so there is high interaction between them and those living in Port Blair — hence the chances of infection do exist,” says Dr. M. Sasikumar, deputy director of Andaman and Nicobar Regional Centre, Anthropological Survey of India, in the context of Great Andamanese-origin people getting infected with coronavirus. He also says, “Society has changed so drastically around them, there’s little scope to preserve anything, language or otherwise”.

Abbi says that moves such as offering ration and “mainstreaming”, have resulted in a situation where a people who fished and hunted now want “dal, chawal and chicken from the government.” Crucially, their immunity has decreased over decades because of such measures as transplanting them from their natural habitats into a different location, dietary intervention and manufacturing a dependence on a proto-urban lifestyle. Their vulnerability is just more pronounced now because of the pandemic.

Abbi says that in terms of what can be preserved of their culture and language, “For Great Andamanese, I fear it’s already too late. For Jarawas and Onges, my only advice to the government is to please leave them alone.”

Courtesy: (TRTWorld)

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