Review Essay Books

The children of Phertajido: Ajay Saini reviews ‘Voices from the Lost Horizon’ by Anvita Abbi

Wondrous: An illustration by Subir Roy from the book   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami claimed over two lakh human lives in 14 countries in the blink of an eye. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were ravaged. But the particularly vulnerable tribal groups of the islands escaped the towering waves by moving to higher grounds deep inside the jungles. Their traditional wisdom had prepared them for such an exigency.

One of the four tribes of the Andaman islands, the Great Andamanese, with a population of about 59 now, who have been living on Strait Island, were evacuated to a relief camp in Port Blair. Months later, Anvita Abbi, a distinguished researcher on minority languages, visited them to document their moribund languages. The book, Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese, is the fruit of her research.

Reviving memory

Abbi was disappointed when she tried speaking to them — most of the islanders spoke in Andamanese Hindi. When she inquired why they did not converse in their own language, the indigenes revealed what could be the worst nightmare for a linguaphile — they had “forgotten it all.”

Population geneticists believe that the Great Andamanese have descended from the people who migrated out of Africa some

The children of Phertajido: Ajay Saini reviews ‘Voices from the Lost Horizon’ by Anvita Abbi

70,000 years ago, becoming the first settlers of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Guinea. Until the late 19th century, 10 groups of the tribe — 3,500 to 5,000 people — lived isolated in the north, middle and south of the Great Andaman islands. They spoke 10 different languages — “mutually intelligible like a link in a chain... two ends of the chain were distant from each other, but the links in between were close to each other in a mutual intelligibility scale,” writes Abbi.

In 1858, the British established a penal colony in the Andamans. The islanders fiercely resisted the colonists. Wielding simple bows, arrows, axes and knives, the Great Andamanese warriors took on the world’s largest empire in the Battle of Aberdeen (1859) and laid down their lives defending their ancestral land. The penal colony thrived and with it came mass extinction of the original inhabitants. Alien diseases and epidemics critically depopulated the Great Andamanese, plummeting their number to 90 by 1931.

Barely two years after Independence, the indigenes were relocated to tiny Bluff Island and their lands appropriated for the resettlement of refugees. The community dwindled further, reaching its lowest of 19 in 1961. The islanders were again relocated in 1969, this time to Strait Island, where they now survive on government dole.

In 2005, Abbi noticed that the islanders’ present language is an admixture of four languages — Jeru, Bo, Sare, and Khora — all from the north groups. The languages spoken in the south and middle Great Andamans have long died with their speakers. She named the language of the surviving indigenes as Present-day Great Andamanese (PGA).

That year, there were only eight surviving speakers of the PGA, and they too had lost fluency. Added to this, the fact that the islanders hadn’t heard any folktales in the past four or five decades made the elicitation of stories of the tribe even more challenging.

Bits and pieces

Abbi persuaded them to converse about important topics such as naming, boat-building or hunting. They complied with her requests and surprised themselves when the hazy memories began to revive. “Kuch kuch yaad aataa hai (I can remember bits and pieces),” says Nao Jr, a middle-aged male, after an overnight attempt at recollection. In the ensuing months and years, he enthusiastically narrates nine folktales to Abbi.

An intense feeling of loss would often overwhelm him, interrupting his narratives. “There were many people at that time. No one is left now,” he laments. While sharing the story of the “first man of the Andaman islands,” Phertajido, a creation myth, and “the greatest love story,” according to Nao Jr, he is moved to tears.

The last speaker of Bo, an octogenarian who hadn’t spoken to anyone in her language for four decades, other than to birds, whom the islanders consider their ancestors, Boa Sr narrates one folktale and offers several rare songs.

Anvita Abbi speaking to Nao Jr.

Anvita Abbi speaking to Nao Jr.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Voices from the Lost Horizon, a fascinating collection of 10 folktales and 46 songs of the Great Andamanese, is a significant scholarly work. Besides beautiful illustrations, it contains interactive QR codes through which readers can access rare audio-visual recordings. But what makes the book unique is the process of compiling the stories and songs as narrated by Abbi. Abbi painstakingly built a strong bond of trust with the Great Andamanese that helped them recollect and share their stories. The act of recollection, reflection and sharing was cathartic: it revived old collective memories, countering the cultural amnesia.

Nao Jr and Boa Sr, Abbi’s invisible co-authors, magically transport readers to the long-lost world of the Great Andamanese, so unfairly stereotyped by early explorers and colonists. For Marco Polo, they were “no better than wild beasts” while Robert Christopher Tytler, the superintendent of the penal settlement, described them as “a race of treacherous cold-blooded murderers”.

Holding on

These stories (and songs), writes Abbi, “encode the worldview of the Great Andamanese society as they encapsulate history, philosophy, culture, beliefs, values, and power of judgment.”

The impression we get of the islanders is that they are nature-lovers, generous sharers of food, upholders of collective interest over self-interest, bashful and honest partners, people of valour, and very human until reincarnated as birds. The Great Andamanese lost world, as seen through their folktales and songs, seems more compassionate, humane and egalitarian than any ‘civilised’ modern society.

An emotional Boa Sr once appealed to Abbi: “Don’t let the language slip away, keep a hold on it.” But with the passing away of the last surviving speakers, their tongue and worldview too would have died had it not been for Abbi’s documentation. Abbi records the richness of the language: Sare, for instance, whose last speaker, Licho, died in April 2020, has a unique word, raupuch, denoting a person who has lost their sibling(s).

The tribe’s loss of languages resonates with the experiences of other indigenous peoples across the world. Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, a linguist and indigenous rights activist, says, “Our languages are not dying, they are being killed.” Languages have been dying at an alarming rate since the ‘age of exploration,’ when Europeans started their colonising spree. As the bloodthirsty armies of the ‘civilised’ descended on the ‘savages’, millennia-old cultures vanished while colonial empires thrived.

Sadly, indigenous languages seem even more vulnerable in this age of neocolonialism. The world speaks around 7,000 languages; according to UNESCO, over half of them could die by the end of the 21st century unless there’s an urgent course correction.

Languages must outlive their speakers to preserve linguistic diversity. A song sung by Boa Sr lyrically expresses what the world feels like when one is robbed of one’s language: “a ure kaiyo lauka, ure kaiyo lauka, ure kaiyo lauka” — This place is not good for living.

Voices from the Lost Horizon; Anvita Abbi, Niyogi Books Pvt Ltd, ₹995

The author is Assistant Professor, IIT Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.


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