Keeping our histories alive

Janice Pariat | Updated on December 27, 2019

Native tongues: The only way to keep a language alive is to teach it to children — to speak it, sing and tell stories in it   -  ISTOCK.COM

When vulnerable tribal populations in the Northeastern states face the possibility of drastic demographic shifts, how can diverse cultures be preserved?

Within The Don Bosco Centre For Indigenous Cultures in Shillong, you may glimpse “the rich and multi-cultural lifestyles of the peoples of Northeast India”. Here, an Assamese woman sows rice, Naga farmers slash and burn, an Arunachali woman weaves a basket, a Khasi gentleman smelts iron.

Everything, though, is museumised. Taking place under artificial light and behind glass. The foot-high figures are unmoving, in their sowing, reaping, dancing, weaving. The jewellery remains unworn, the clothes are unwrinkled, the fishing baskets pristine, the knives unblunted. All is stasis. Undying, unliving, though exceedingly well detailed and documented.

I came away with a question: How do we preserve culture?

It’s a question asked very often — especially by a community that feels under threat. Here, in parts of Northeast India, for example, the historical trauma of having to deal with an often draconian Centre, coupled with the mass movement of migrants across the border from Bangladesh, has turned this into an issue of fearful urgency. When smaller, vulnerable tribal populations face the possibility of drastic demographic shifts, the point brought forth at most discussions on this is that one’s culture will be lost. If we are taken over, neocolonised, diminished in population through miscegenation, then who will be left to tell our stories? To sing our songs? To speak our language? To live our way of life?

And then, on cue, the example of Tripura is conjured — like a horrific spectre. We’re told the tribal populations there have dwindled to a mere 30 per cent in their own state. The Korborok language is now second to Bengali, spoken by the majority migrants. The Tripuri numbers are diminishing — and Assam, Meghalaya fear their own tribal communities will go the same way.

If you ask my father, he will say in his wonderfully fatalistic way that the Khasis, a mere 12 lakh in population, are destined, like all small populations, to disappear. And perhaps if we speak only of “pure bloodlines” — if such a thing even exists, to begin with — then this is true. My own ancestors have aided the project admirably. My Khasi great-grandmother, on my father’s side, had children with three partners — British, Punjabi, Bengali — while my maternal Jaintia grandmother married a Portuguese man.

“And what will happen to Khasi culture?” I ask Dad, and he replies, “Well if you and others write about it, maybe that’s how it’ll survive.” He means this scathingly — but I think it brings up the pertinent point of how the culture of a community is perhaps not linked to bloodlines. That it isn’t an entity passed down in solid, frozen form from one ethnically “pure” generation to the next, but that it evolves, is spread widely by emigration, fluidly adapting, changing, and being changed, by whosoever comes into contact with it.

And while I may not be a typical example of someone from my community — I grew up between Shillong and tea estates in Assam, was sent to boarding school, studied at university in Delhi and London — I do think that everyone lives at the crossroads of overlapping cultures, much more so than we might be willing to admit or acknowledge. How then is this unwieldy, hard-to-pinpoint “culture” preserved? (Leaving aside for now the tricky questions on whether it ought to be preserved in the first place, and by whom, and for whom.)

For me, it would begin where I suffered the most loss — language, literature, history. Even within “English-medium” schools, the languages of the place ought to be taught — here in Shillong that would mean including Khasi, Jaintia, Garo, with Hindi maybe served as a side. A friend who works at the Centre for Endangered Languages in Sikkim once told me that the only way to keep a language alive is to teach it to children — to speak it, sing and tell stories in it.

And this is perhaps ever more important if the language was largely oral, sans script. In school, a people’s history also must be learned — on a side note, I’d also strongly advocate states beyond the Northeast to include our histories in their syllabi. While we swotted over Indian Independence, and learned all about the Mughals, there wasn’t a chapter on Tirot Singh, a 19th-century Khasi freedom fighter, not a line on the history of Meghalaya — nothing on the varied histories of the Northeast. To learn nothing about a culture’s past is to place its future under threat.

If British colonialism divided people here into Christians and the unconverted, thereby deeming anything local “barbaric” and heathen, the neocolonialism of the Indian State marginalised indigeneity even further with its nation-building agenda.

Within “literature”, the story-telling traditions of the region ought to be included — and oral traditions acknowledged.

If a people’s literature lies in their songs, they need to be sung, and their musical instruments played. And storytelling sessions arranged around the hearth. Yes, Shakespeare and Kabir can be studied, but only if we also read the poems of Soso Tham.

Beyond this, I think “culture” finds its own way in the world — here, melding with K-Pop and Hollywood, syncretic Christianity, Netflix and Nepali — and become impossible to categorise or contain. But first, at least, we must teach our children, and teach them well.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

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Published on December 27, 2019
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