“You are the Asur, aren’t you,” said the man, his voice faltering a little. “So… you are like the rakshasa, the asura?” She threw her head back and laughed. Clad in a white-and-red sari, glass beads around her neck, hair pulled back in a neat bun, the gentle-looking Sushma Asur was nothing like the demonic depictions conjured up by our literature. And she was a poet.

Excerpt from Asur Sangrah Ke Geet:

Kheton main jab hul chalaoge

Tab dhan booege

Nahi to ghaans aa jaayega

Ghaans dekhkar jaanwar bhar jaayenge

Dekhne ke liye charon disha se

Charon kone se

Pahaadon ke upar se

Nadiyon ko paar karke

Khet ke kinaare-kinaare

Panchi aakar baithenge

Kheton main jab hul chalaoge…

(Translated from Asuri by Sushma Asur.)

On her second ever trip to the Capital in October, Sushma brought poems from her first collection Asur Siring to read at a recent Indian languages festival. It was here that her surname drew stares and questions. In 2013 July, Sushma was also invited to Jawaharlal Nehru University for Mahishasur Martyrdom Day celebrations, where she urged people to stop burning effigies of her ancestors.

Much misunderstood as a tribe since the Aryan immigration and emergence of Vedic literature, the Asurs of Jharkhand are now waking up to the threats to their language and identity. In the 1872 census — the first in pre-independent India — Asurs came at the top of 18 tribes that were identified. Over 140 years later, they are classified as one of eight primitive tribes in the State, when they are not mistaken as a sub-sect of the Munda tribe. And their language, Asuri, is facing extinction, when not mistaken as one of 14 Mundari dialects.

In 2013, the Ganesh Devy-led People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI), which was released in State-wise volumes, sounded the statistical alarm bells on the state of our languages. Almost 150 languages of the 780 spoken across India are on the verge of disappearance, says Devy, fuelling an urgent discourse about survival and preservation of these “dying” languages.

Asuri bhasha in Jharkhand is one of them, with less than 8,000 people speaking and writing it. Coupled with a near-complete absence of institutional support and historical misrepresentation, Asuri bhasha is on the verge of disappearing, taking with it a rich tribal history.

Thirty-year-old Sushma Asur is also, only just rediscovering the history and culture of her ancestors. She says, “apne itihaas ki talaash karne wali main pehli Asur hoon (I’m the first Asur to document our history).” In 2011, she became the first published Asuri poet. And in 2013, she became the first Asur to board an airplane when she flew to Delhi from Ranchi.

Armed with her camera and notebook, she is now documenting Asur poetry and folklore in Netarhat — one that speaks of the shade of semar, pipal and gular trees, of jirhool and charai flowers, of the sound of Bhringraj birds, of their jungles and jatras, tales of the churel and baghaut told at their village akhras.

About 1,500km away from Delhi, the eastern end of Palamau hills in Chota Nagpur rises to about 3,000 feet and turns south, where it becomes the Netarhat plateau. Netarhat, more popular now as a tourist spot, was once described as a “great anthropological museum” in India, where one could find an abundance of adivasi tribes, including Santhal, Oraon, Munda, Kharia, Asur, Agaria and the nomadic Birhor.

Deep in the forests of Netarhat, the Asurs have settled into villages carved out of flat-topped uplands, called ‘pat’ — Jobhipat, Barpat, Kujampat, Chaurapat, Polpolpat, Sakhuapani. Once they were architects of iron furnaces and modern metallurgy, now, the 8,000-odd Asur have become reluctant pastoralists practising karua and daha forms of shifting cultivation or earning daily wages at the nearby bauxite mines.

It takes Sushma over two days to reach home in Sakhuapani from Ranchi just 200km away. Once in two days, a solitary bus plies on this road, dropping off passengers at a place from where their pat villages are at least two hours away on foot. Often, this lone bus is missed and rides are hitched on the backs of trucks making their way to the bauxite mines. The administration has also found it difficult to reach the Asur. The villages have no electricity, there’s one Prathamik Vidyalaya with no teachers and there are no essential medical facilities. In 2007, when Sushma’s father Khambila Asur fell ill, it took Sushma two hours to take him to the nearest Swasthya Kendra at Lohardaga, where there were no doctors present, and then two more hours to get to Gumla where he died upon arrival.

The story of the Asur is not complete without a retelling of the Asur Kahani or Sosobonga — the lopsided Vedic interpretations which have branded the Asur as demons, pagans and enemies of god. According to KK Leuva, author of the 1963 treatise The Asur: A Study of Primitive Iron Smelters, evidence exists that Asurs are perhaps, among the oldest working communities in India, and were the inventors of iron smelting. (References can also be found in some texts that the Asur made weapons for the war in Kurukshetra mentioned in the Mahabharata.)

The battle, it is said, was fought by the Asur and the Munda on ekasi piri and terasi badi (81 high fields and 83 terraced fields) in Jharkhand. A mini-epic, the tale traces the rise of the Munda god, Sisibonga or the Sun. The Asur Kahani begins after creation when the earth is plagued by a darkness caused by the fires burning in the Asur iron furnaces that raged day and night. When the people asked the sun god for help, he sent two vultures, Raigidh and Zataigidhi, to parlay with the Asur. Incensed, the Asur sent the birds back, ashen and broken. The sun god then sent another pair of avian messengers, Lokon and Kujru, who were shot at by Asur children with their iron bows. Later, yet another pair of messengers met with a similar fate.

The lord then took the form of a young boy, covered in itches and sores, and came to the house of Lutkum budha and Lutkum budhia in an Asur village. He offered his services as a servant, harvesting their paddy and millet, while they worked at the furnace. The boy played with the Asur children, defeating them at their games. The boy also used his powers and suddenly, the iron wouldn’t smelt. The village witch-doctor, a deonra, advised the Asur to offer a human sacrifice. The boy offered himself, and as the Asur looked on, descended into the fires of the furnace. Moments later, he emerged, his skin golden and carrying implements cast in gold. He told the Asur of a great treasure that lay at the bottom of the furnace, advising all the men and children to jump in.

While the Asur women watched, the men jumped in, only to be charred to death. The women wept and fell into the river. Some became water-spirits, some forest-spirits and others, hill-spirits, and according to the Munda interpretation, evil-spirits. The lord then leaves the Asur village, the fields turn green again and the people prosper.

This is the Munda version of Asur Kahani, which has gained currency over centuries. The Asur version, however, is considerably different and has barely any traction outside the pat villages. The mystery of when the iron-smelting Asur turned into villains and demons remains unsolved. While historians and writers debate on the Munda and Asur versions, our literature has made them familiar to us as monsters. (Remember the fable of Bakasur?)

“I was in class five when I thought about writing. But I tore up whatever I wrote,” says Sushma. However, it was Bhawani Prasad Mishra’s poem, Satpura ke ghane jungle, read during her matriculation years, that inspired her to start writing about her home. Today, Sushma can speak in Mundari, Oraon, Kurukh, Nagpuri, besides Hindi and Asuri. And she writes in both Asuri and Hindi. For many linguists, writers and mostly bilingual city-dwellers, Sushma’s multilingualism is a cause for hope as these languages are seen as “disappearing” or “dying”.

Growing up in Sakhuapani, travelling to Chaurapat with her friends to school, Sushma’s first encounters with education are both hilarious and revealing. She was christened Maghi at birth but when she came to school she became Sushma Kumari. Her friends, Kannan, Sumari, Gani and Bharti became Manita Kumari, Shanti Kumari, Basanti Kumari and Asha Kumari at the Hindi-medium school. The girls travelled from their villages in their knee-length sarees — “we had short petticoats for them too” — to the school where their teacher gave them uniforms to change into. Their trinkets came off, and then they were ready to mix with the rest of the class. The girls usually came in early to rehearse their ‘school names’. Often, her friends Dholu and Phawla would forget their ‘proper’ names and be scolded. The teacher would also instruct them to converse in Hindi whenever possible — at home, markets, fairs and at the neighbours’, often with hilarious outcomes. But as soon as school was over, the girls cast off their acquired identities as they returned home, singing old Asuri songs, sprinting up the hills:

Yeh mandad (drum) kaun baja raha hai

Jo pahaad ki ghati tak aawaz de raha hai?

Kiski baansuri hai

Jo upar tak gaana ga rahi hai?

Sushma’s higher education years were tougher; friends were few and family troubles many. In 2007, her father passed away and later that year, her sister-in-law. With her brother’s two children and sister’s two to take care of, Sushma’s education suffered. She took refuge in reading copiously, acquainting herself with the poetry of Mahadevi Verma, Bhawani Prasad Mishra and KK Leuva’s history of Asurs, and decided to document her history and write in her language. She wrote her first poem Asur Sangrah Ke Geet, learned to use social media, operate recorders, travel and talk to her purakh (ancestors). Today, she says happily, there are five Asuri poets in Sakhuapani.

On February 28, 2013, two days after Asur Adivasi Wisdom Documentation Initiative (AAWDI) opened its account on Facebook, Sushma issued a short appeal for a video recorder, laptop and an audio recorder. Prominent Hindi author Uday Prakash bought her a mini DV camera, a student from the University of Exeter bought her a digital camera. Since then, the lone Asuri historian has posted regular updates of recordings of her poetry, visits to Asur elders in remote parts of Netarhat for their folklore. Toting her cameras, she meticulously uploads pictures from every trip she makes to Ranchi and Delhi. With Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Akhra (JBSSA)’s help, she’s already published a collection of poetry.

Asurnation.in, mohallalive.in, the JBSSA website and AAWDI host her video and audio documentation and facilitate discussions on Asur history, folklore and petitions for ending Mahishasur celebrations and land struggles. She’s also a regular at literary gatherings organised by the JBSSA in Ranchi — last September, 20 new tribal writers were feted at a function where mementos and publishers were scarce but languages aplenty, and last November, Sushma attended ‘Sthaniyata ke bahar, sthaniyata ke bhitar’ where tribal writers shared their orature. Sushma is also taking up projects to teach children Asuri, to set up a school and encourage the fledgling Asuri literary movement. “Ab to majboori ban chuki hai. Bhasha aur identity ke bachav ke liye kayi Sushma Asur chahiye hume (It’s now a defence mechanism, to protect their language and identity, every tribe needs a Sushma),” says Ashwini Pankaj, Jharkhand-based activist instrumental in getting Sushma and many other tribal writers published.

On the night of October 27, before she returned to Sakhuapani, Sushma drank in every bit of Delhi. Would she write about Delhi next, we ask? She laughs and says, “I know that my nephews and nieces will be curious about the city, but more curious about the insides of an aeroplane. They will ask me ‘is it as easy as climbing a tree, how does one breathe inside it, what does one see outside’, and luckily, I have clicked pictures of everything so I won’t have to write about it!”