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The A, B, C, D of Our DNA

The A, B, C, D of Our DNA
Illustration Courtesy: Indian Express
The A B C D of our DNA
Illustration Courtesy: Indian Express

The story of languages lost and found and why we should be able to emote in our mother tongue

By Shefalee Vasudev

Keen on the evolution of Indian languages—which ones survive and why others fade away with time—I would occasionally visit the website of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), a unique project by Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, a Vadodara-based non-governmental organization. Peopleslinguisticsurvey.org can immerse you in information about scheduled and non-scheduled languages, those of nomads or Adivasis, languages spoken among the Indian diaspora and so on. These readings would urge me to follow up with other relevant material on rituals and practices, festival and culinary traditions, dress, costumes and various cultural aspects of a particular community.

PLSI’s primary project funded by Mumbai’s Jamshedji Tata Institute (with no government involvement), as quoted on the site itself, was “a nationwide survey carried out by members of respective communities, writers, cultural activists, scholars, practitioners of oral arts and traditions, responsible citizens interested in working out alternate ways of development and scholars who believe in maintaining organic links between scholarship and social context”.

The A B C D of our DNA -1
The last three women speakers of Magati Ke (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia)

So I sat up when the results of this survey were reported last week in The Indian Express in India Speaks…780 ways (http://goo.gl/2Y9Qma). According to PLSI, more than 400 of India’s 780 languages are spoken by tribal and nomadic groups. Unlike the Census of India, PLSI recorded even those languages spoken by less than 10,000 people. Alongside the main story was the compelling account of Thak Majhi of Majhigaon in Sikkim who, at 80 years of age, is among just four speakers of Majhi, named after the occupation of the community’s boatmen.

More than 400 of India’s 780 languages are spoken by tribal and nomadic groups

As a Sindhi born and raised in free India to parents who had migrated from Sindh in Pakistan during partition and went on to become well-known Sindhi writers, I share the community’s “disappearing language obsession” and the over-arching despondence associated with similar linguistic experiences. As a theme and resonance, this is also the leitmotif in Sindhi literature. I speak my mother tongue fluently but am not as good at reading and writing it. There is no Sindh in India, so it is a language without a region of its own, leading to fragmentation of an identity linked with cultural practices, but for the persistent work of some Sindhis to keep it alive. Headed by veteran Sindhi writers and propelled by young generation volunteers, The Indian Institute of Sindhology in Adipur, Kutch, for instance, founded in 1989, works towards the preservation of Sindhi culture. It archives and restores everything and anything written, sung or composed in Sindhi to enable advanced studies and research through original and translated work.

It is their Romanized Sindhi project that has been of recent interest to me. I had unfortunately hit a stumbling block while learning Sindhi, which is authentically written in the Persian script. I could grasp the meaning of what I was reading but without depth or appreciation of idiom, metaphor or nuance. Perhaps that’s why the work of PLSI was a background reassurance to what was going on in my own life. Not being married to a Sindhi, there is little perpetuation of community-specific cultural practices except that I do cook Sindhi food. No Sindhi words of endearment are ever used in our lives. It is an incomplete identity getting increasingly muddled with age and other life experiences.

The recent passing away of both my parents, the obituaries written on them in Sindhi publications, besides the re-discovery of books they authored urged me to relearn the Sindhi script to comprehend what they had written and what others wrote about them. The Romanized Sindhi project is now an ally in my grief work. It is a standardized Roman version of the Sindhi script first finalized in 2009 by a large gathering of Sindhis at a convention in Los Angeles and approved at a summit in Ahmedabad in 2010. Initiated by the Alliance of Sindhi Americans Inc., USA, a group of scholars and those committed to keeping the language alive—from Washington DC to Singapore to Kutch—the project was transferred to the Indian Institute of Sindhology and approved at a summit in Ahmedabad in 2010. Now, a downloadable teaching and learning program, including apps for iPad and iPhone as well as audio/video lessons, are available both on www.sindhology.org and www.romanizedsindhi.org. Recently, they got a request from a South Indian gentleman keen to do a certificate course in Sindhi.

I have no idea if Majhi from Sikkim or Gorpa from Dadra and Nagar Haveli near Gujarat or the other almost unknown languages listed in PLSI’s extraordinary report have such strategic rescue operations. Which is why naming colors and seasons in our mother tongue, speaking words of endearment and love, singing lullabies to our children or being able to name ingredients used in community-specific recipes could be non-negotiables in our lives. That may be the only way to show and tell the A, B, C, D of our real selves.

Long live Majhi.


Courtesy: Live Mint (Published on August 15, 2013)