POINT BLANK - Language cannot be a static entity : Anil Raichoudhury

Noted ethno-linguistic researcher Anil Raichoudhury has written several volumes on the Axamiya language, his philosophies about it and its origins. In conversation with Seven Sisters Post, he talks about the idea of language and literature and how inter-ethnic works can make a difference to understanding the different peoples of this land.

Language evolves gradually. It is like water. Barriers can’t be created for it. People here today, the elite political class in particular, want to drum up the language card for their interests as if the language will be eaten up by someone else

Could you tell us about your philosophy regarding the Axamiya language?

It is important to understand the origins of the language and society to see where we stand today. We need to discount the theories about Brahmins from Kanauj bringing in elements of their language during the time of Bhaskar Varman because that was too far back in time and has very little in the way of evidence. Axamiya, as we understand it today, can therefore be said to have evolved from the language spoken by the Bhuyans of the Narayanpur area in Lakhimpur. We should remember that they were traders and elites living in close proximity with the Chutiyas: these early influences need to be taken into account. The language of the Bhuyans is said to have been brought from Magadh. But language is a gradual process; it does not simply fly in and land somewhere. So, as the Bhuyans progressed eastwards, the Axamiya language used in Goalpara, Nalbari, Kamrup and other areas gained currency.

That was how we began. About where we are today, it is the culmination of a process that started during the British times. The colonisers tried to divide us on ethno-linguistic lines, especially Bengal and Assam, in 1905, and even earlier. The divisions that existed earlier became deeper. We ourselves played a part in that. For instance, when Lakshminath Bezbarua started the periodical Bahi, Pratap Chandra Goswami and others launched Axam Bandhu and decried what they described as a hijacking of the language by Upper Assamese. In 1870, when the court language was to be changed from Bengali to Axamiya, sections of the people in Lower Assam protested saying the language in question was confined to a small part of Upper Assam.

Today, because of reasons of convenience, we speak or interact in our everyday lives in other languages. If I were to talk to you in what is correct Axamiya, you might not get half of what I am saying. Language evolves gradually. It is like water. Barriers can’t be created for it. People here today, the elite political class in particular, want to drum up the language card for their interests as if the language will be eaten up by someone else. Things don’t happen like that.

What have been the major influences of ethnicities from this land and neighbouring peoples in the formation of Axamiya language and its subsequent literature?

There are mainly three ways a language develops: through exchange of social production methods such as agriculture (and its accompanying jargon), through royal patronage and through the spread of religion. All three streams converged in the case of Axamiya. If we take up Bodo influences, you will see that they, on migrating from Tibet, as is supposed, brought shifting cultivation with them but found a different method here. On interacting with other peoples here, they exchanged cultivation systems and also the specific terms associated with them. Bodo influence can be seen to a greater degree in Lower Assamese today. The word “gariya” in Bodo, which is “dhud” in Axamiya, meaning a lazy person, becomes “gaira” in Lower Assamese. “Phraphri” in Bodo becomes “pakri” in Lower Assamese and stands for the pakori tree. Papaya or “omita” in Axamiya is called “modphal” in Lower Assamese and comes from “mudumphul” in Bodo. “Domora” in Axamiya, which is “damra” in Lower Assamese, is “dambra” in Bodo. There are similar instances from Koch-Rajbongshi and other ethnicities. As far as East Bengali dialects are concerned, their influences go back as far as the kings of Gaur, who sent people to settle here as a way to increase their influence and prestige. Thus all these strands have converged. Naturally these influences are also seen in literature.

What is your view about Bar Axom and where does language and literature play a part in it?
If language and literature can be taken as major factors in creation of society, matters are much different today. Our culture has eroded to its very base. Inter-mixing is inevitable and so is assimilation. If the elite class of Axam uses language as a tool to promote its vested interests, this is bad news for us all. To create Bar Axam, we have to create a common interest among the people and ethnicities who live here. We have had language and political revolutions here, but no economic revolutions. It is only through class struggle that people can be united, and when that happens, common language and literature emerge too. Look at the Nagas, for instance. Till the interests of everyone are considered, languages and literature as they exist today will have very little to do with Bar Axam as the idea means to me.

Have the writings of people like Rong Bong Terang and Jiban Narah helped in bridging ethnic divides through literature?
I have only read Terang. While these writings are good, we have to ask if any Axamiya writers attempted to write in the languages of the other tribes. This is partly because if they do, and talk about facets of Axamiya life known to everyone, then there is no motive for the reader to discover. Terang’s own Rongmilir Hahi is meant for us to understand Karbi society. Its Karbi version never came out. Also, inter-ethnic literature is not a one-way process. Everyone has to pitch in. Readership and literature itself develops for a certain utilitarianism. If, say, the working classes of all these ethnicities in Axamiya society had united they would have had a motivation to bridge their divides. That is when literature could play a role. Till then such works would only be, at best, exotic introductions.

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