FIELDWORK AND ELICITATION OF DATA
The fieldwork in the Andaman was not easy. The first trip that we made to the Andaman Islands was in December 2001, under the project 'Linguistic Survey of the Tribal and Contact Languages of the Andaman Islands' (2001–2002) to conduct a pilot survey of the languages spoken in Great Andaman and Little Andaman. 1 I was assisted by two of my students, Shailendra Mohan and Pramod Kumar. We experienced the jungles of Little Andaman, saw water snakes more poisonous than any cobra, crossed narrow creeks laden with crocodiles, and lived in shanties regularly visited by snakes, scorpions and leaches. In our ignorance, we had armed ourselves only against mosquitoes, taking along coils and Goodnight tablets. Who knew that the simple act of dipping one's feet in the water to cool oneself would invite water snakes? When we travelled to the Little Andaman, 100 miles away from the city of Port Blair, we had to use every mode of transport to reach the place. First there was a night journey by ship, followed by a bus ride for few kilometres and then a boat ride in narrow creeks with thick mangroves along the coastline. The water in the creeks was clear enough to see several crocodiles resting at the creek-bed. We were, obviously, very frightened by the sight. At some distance we also spotted one crocodile basking leisurely in the sun. The worst was a seven-mile walk on the western side of the seashore of the Little Andaman, necessitated by the possibility that the boat might capsize in the rough sea. It was an arduous task to walk on the sand with our luggage on our heads. Luckily, our ration of food supplies was carried by one of the helpers provided by the administration. We were instructed to climb mangrove trees in case the water swelled up and covered the walking area on the shore. None of us knew how to climb trees. When we were returning from Little Andaman, there was a high tide and the water started covering the shore gradually swallowing up our path inch by inch. None of us was adept at in swimming in the sea either and we had to run for our lives. Mangroves roots are extremely unruly and entangle one's feet, so one cannot even walk on them. We were battling for life and many times, I wondered how many of my friends and colleagues back in Delhi could have endured an experience like this. But we did it and that is the most important fact.
During the first trip, I learnt that the languages of the islands, especially Great Andamanese, were endangered, but above all, I realized that the clock was ticking very fast and I should document Great Andamanese before it was completely lost. Soon I applied for a grant from the SOAS under their ELDP programme. I was fortunate enough to get the grant for the project 'Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese' (VOGA), and we set out to work in December 20042. Alas, the tsunami hit the Andamans on 26 December 2004 and our visit was postponed till March 2005. The fieldwork to elicit the words was undertaken between the period of 2005 and 2009, by me and my team members, Dr Alok Das, Bidisha Som, Arti Kumari, Narayan Choudhury and Abhishek Avatans during the period 2005-2006. Most of the work in the field was done by me from the beginning to the end.
We were discouraged by friends and relatives from going to Andaman & Nicobar soon after tsunami. The entire nation was passing through a fear psychosis but our determination was strong and unshakeable. We found out that all the members of the Great Andamanese tribe were transferred from Strait Island to Port Blair and were located under one roof in the post-tsunami relief camp at Adi Basera. This information boosted our morale as we could ascertain the availability of all the speakers residing at one place. Given the context, we collected several words relating to tsunami, words used to identify the trees that proved to be life saviours on the fateful day, and scores of words for seascape and sea-related matters. We also took the opportunity to converse with almost all the old members of the present Great Andamanese tribe as they were living under one roof. Boa Sr. and others obliged us by narrating how they saved themselves on the fateful morning of 26, December 2004 when tsunami arrived. These narrations proved helpful in obtaining new words for the dictionary.
The team members spent varying amounts of time on the island during this four-year period, but I spent the longest as after the initial phase of fieldwork, my research assistants could not sustain their interest in the work primarily because of the threatening attitude of some of the officials, the difficult living conditions in the islands and boredom. I could never stay longer than three months at a time because of the constraints that Jawaharlal Nehru University has on its faculty. 3 Thus, I made several trips to the Andaman Islands and worked in shifts. This helped me verifying data at intervals and gave me the possibility of spending time in the jungle in different seasons, which, I realized later facilitated me to obtain names of seasonal flowers, birds and fishes. The entire process of collation, sifting, slicing of sounds and digitization of the elicited material was carried out at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The speakers of the language were sceptical about our venture in the initial stages of our fieldwork, but became cooperative and friendly subsequently. As we motivated them to go down memory lane and converse about topics such as hunting, naming a child and boat building, which they had forgotten, a stage was reached when they realized that their language was being revived somewhat.
The most interesting was collecting words for birds. This was done by showing pictures of the Andamanese birds to the speakers, as well as by spotting birds on location. The process of elicitation led me to record one of the most wonderful folk tales, in which human beings become birds. Perhaps the reason why the Andamanese do not eat birds is that birds are considered ancestors. We observed that one of our speakers, Boa Sr, used to talk to birds in her native language, Bo, in the belief that the birds understood her completely. Nao once said, "There are so many names for the birds because they were transformed from human beings", a myth most of the tribes believe in. At times, some of our Great Andamanese speakers could identify the etymology of a word. We have tried our best to record it.
About the dictionary
We have maintained the original transcription of the words given by Manoharan and Radcliffe-Brown even when we found variations in the present Great Andamanese, so as to facilitate observation of phonetic and lexical change in the language in the past hundred years and more. Anthropological, mythological and other culture-related information is given wherever possible. At times, a real incident has also been cited so as to confirm the existence of an object in present times, especially the names of birds and reptiles. Each entry is marked for its source as well as for the name of the investigator, the date on which it was collected, the location of the recording on a particular mini-disk, the track and group number, and the page number on which it was written in the notebook by the investigator. This information is visible on the Lexiquepro programme on the CD.
This is an interactive dictionary with sound files and pictures. All care has been taken to elicit sounds in the natural environment. Most of the sound files were played back to the speakers to confirm the accuracy and appropriateness of the linguistic make-up and contextual use of the words. Examples of phrases and sentences have also been given for the reader's convenience and to shed light on the way the language is used. Most of the pictures were taken by us in the field.
Andaman has very rich flora, which has been recorded in words and pictures as far as possible. Some elderly members of the community could supply the original words in Great Andamanese for a vast variety of trees, leaves, plants, fruits and flowers and their uses. We could trace a large number of the Latin names of the endemic birds, reptiles and insects. Great Andamanese have been known to be keen observers of birds. Thus, information was collected on the various aspects of bird-life such as habits, habitats, food, nesting behaviour, breeding, migratory or residential status, abundance status, use in hunting, cultural relevance, use of body parts of birds by humans, role in augury, beliefs and mythology and later were correlated with the known observed ornithological aspects of species (Pande and Abbi 2010). The Andamanese words for these were largely supplied by Nao Jr, our main speaker, whose untimely demise has pained us beyond words. In addition, the names of various types of habitats, vegetation, terms related to seascape, the forces of nature, climatic aspects, food consumed, hunting equipment, colours, body parts of human and animals, corals, fishes, and other marine related concepts and objects, forest areas and its parts, and a variety of deictic relations have also been documented.
Our fieldwork continued even after we left Andaman. While compiling dictionary at the Jawaharlal Nehru University office, we realized the presence of several gaps. We wanted to confirm and reconfirm the data for its meaning and pronunciation. Thankfully, our main speakers had mobile phones to their access and this helped us establishing communication with them at Port Blair and sometimes at Strait Island. By the year 2008, I used to get regular phone calls from several of our consultants as they wanted to share their daily life with me. They discussed every issue, big or small, with me, e.g., the issue of Boa Sr not getting due attention in the hospital to the one related to acquire a boat for fishing, to arrange for the mundan ceremony of a new-born in the community to simple things as weather report. This friendship helped me in my data elicitation immensely. I still rely on this long distance communication and network to confirm my data. Not only adults, but children of the community also, call me regularly and share their experiences at their schools.
Collecting folk tales and songs
Imagine a scenario in which mothers tell no bedtime stories to their children. Imagine a scenario in which parents do not tell their children any stories and fables. Imagine a people entirely oblivious of their heritage, past practices and beliefs, utterly unaware of the richness of their intangible cultural assets and of the indigenous knowledge. Can such an unthinkable state of affairs exist? Unfortunately, yes. This may happen, and does happen, when the heritage language dies and the succeeding generation ceases to speak or even understand its heritage language, a phenomenon known as moribund language in the discipline of Linguistics.
Regrettably, the present Great Andamanese language, perhaps one of the world's oldest languages, is a language of this kind. Neither does the present community of the Great Andamanese remember any folk tales, nor have the living members ever narrated any tales to their children. The functionality of the language is past and the present situation is a pathetic one, in which no one even feels the loss. As if stories were never told in this society! As if the art of narration never existed! For the first time in more than 35 years of linguistic fieldwork experience, I encountered this dismal state of the 'lack of the feeling of loss'.
When I asked the tribes pointedly, "Don't you feel bad that no one among you has heard any story in the last forty years?" The answer was a quick "No". When I ventured further to ask, "Do you want someone to tell you the stories that your great grandparents would have known?" their only reply was in the form of a counter-question: "What's the use?"
When the members of a speech community adopt a 'couldn't care less' attitude, it makes the task of eliciting stories, even one story, next to impossible. One has to make the community see the importance of the exercise. One also has to motivate the members, at least some of them, especially those above the age of fifty, to remember what they had been told when they were children growing up in the jungles of the North Andamans. I was certainly not prepared for these two daunting jobs. However, my knowledge of the past heritage of the language and its structure, as well the additional knowledge gained through the current research in genetics, made it clear that the Andamanese were the last survivors of the first human migration out of Africa during the Pre-Neolithic period and this spurred me on to plunge myself into this most difficult arena. Needless to say, the efforts were worth their value in gold. I was able to extract ten wonderful stories, including a myth about creation, primarily from Nao Jr and several songs rendered mainly by Boa Sr. These treasures gave us new words and phrases to record in the dictionary.
A story called Maya Boro and Jurwachom exposed me to the tribe's supernatural beliefs. The word maaya in Great Andamanese means 'late' or 'ancient'.
These folk tales revealed an interesting aspect of life of the tribes, viz. change of names of a person during his or her life-time. The naming system of the Great Andamanese tribe is not gender-specific as the child is named when it is in the womb. Thus a name like 'Boro' or 'Nao' could be given to either a male or a female child. Moreover, the name of a child changes four times in a life span in accordance with the various stages of life. The last stage is when the person leaves this world and becomes 'maaya', which is prefixed to the same name that was given to her/him when s/he was in the womb of her/his mother.
When one is forcibly uprooted from one's home, one tends to lose interest in one's present life and relives the past over and over again. Boa was the only member of the community who had no one of her own. All her relatives had died. She missed Mayabandar, in the north of the Andaman islands, so much that no incident or visit was without a mention of her life there. Later, I realized that she did not share her past with anyone else in the community as no one among the existing people came from the same place. We were, perhaps, the only ones who were interested in her past life. Her narration, though minimal, was so vivid that I was tempted to visit the place and see the rocks mentioned in one of her tales.
I must make special mention of Nao Jr, the most fluent speaker of the language, who supplied us most of the stories and most of the words documented in this dictionary. He would surprise me time and again by his intelligence and coy social behaviour. His manners were far better than those of many of the city dwellers. Each story, for him, was like going down memory lane. At times, he would stop, think, and think again, trying to recall something and when he failed to recollect the exact sequence of events in the tale, he would ask to be excused, saying he would come back to see me the next day.
When I look back, I realize that it must have been my abnormally curious and inquisitive nature which motivated Nao to remember and narrate the stories that he did. However, Nao did make his own efforts to remember and render the stories with the utmost care. Soon, he became obsessed with the idea of coming out with the tales, thinking of them day and night. Suddenly, he became aware of the lost world that he had ceased to live in. He was motivated by the sheer desire to relive and experience the good old days when his Abba (father) or the grandfather used to take him hunting in the jungle or in the sea. When they used to go hunting for dugong on the boat in the middle of the night, he had often caught sight of the shimmering streak of light emanating from the sides of the dugong swimming as it raced through the water. Once the dugong hit the boat from below and split it into two parts. He ended up on one part of the boat with his mother while his Abba, on the other part, tried to salvage the boat in the moonlit night. The vacuum Nao had been experiencing for a long time suddenly seemed unbearable. The newly awakened urge to share all his experiences with me helped him to revive his memories and narrate the wonderful stories. I am sure that if he had lived longer (he died on 22nd February 2009), he would have remembered a few more stories to tell this world.
When Nao decided to help me record the stories, he promised to narrate the one he remembered well. This was the myth about creation, The Tale of Ancient Phertajido, the story of human evolution. Nao used to often interrupt his narratives with observations on the depleting population of the Great Andamanese. He would say things like, "There were many people at that time. No one is left now." I heard him lamenting in Hindi, "Koi nahin bachaa (There is no one left now)."
Our life on Strait Island
It was in January 2006 that I went to Strait Island along with two research assistants, Narayan and Abhishek, for the second time in the five weeks that we spent in the Andaman Islands. The Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) had arranged for accommodation for us in a government guest-house. There were two bare-walled rooms, each with a dirty but functional attached bathroom, windows without screens, and a hard, wooden bed to sleep on. The only other furniture in the room was three plastic chairs for each of us. Birds, bats and insects could freely wander into our rooms at night since we could not imagine closing the windows, given the sultry, humid weather and the absence of fans. The good old Indian mosquito net was the only shield we had against these intruders. The only luxuries here were the sheets we were given to cover ourselves and two-hour electric supply generated by solar power, which we could use from 9:00 PM every night to charge our recorders, cameras and other equipment. We had to travel to Strait Island fully equipped with rations, such as daal, spices, cooking oil, rice, tea, sugar, milk powder, soap, and kerosene to light the stove. The team members shared the job of cooking and cleaning the utensils.
Many words were collected during trips to the jungle, where we asked the speakers to identify a plant, bush or tree and speak about its uses in daily life. Similarly, we spent long hours by the seashore to help them remember the words used to identify several kinds of crabs, fish, reptiles and sea creatures. In the evenings, I would accompany my tribal friends on fishing expeditions on the north side of Strait Island. As I visited the island at different times of the year, I was exposed to different varieties of fish each time. The Great Andamanese became so accustomed to my recording the names of fish and snapping pictures of the catch that if I happened not to be on the seashore, they would come to my room with their catch before cooking it and ask me to take a picture. By this time, documenting the language had become a joint project of the Great Andamanese tribe and mine. Joint outings into the jungles and marshes intorudced me to several creepers, plants and their uses, crabs, snails and worms.
As Nao Jr was seemingly always busy either 'on duty' in the only medical unit on Strait Island, or fishing which he did in the early morning or late evening, or just sleeping, his favourite pastime, he agreed to help me record the folk-tale only after nine at night. I agreed to his terms as I was excited and happy to find at least one person in the entire habitat of eight households who claimed to remember a tale.
I remember distinctly that it was 21 January, 2006. Nao came to the guest-house, thinking that he would finish the job in one evening. Little did he know that linguists have the bad habit of checking each and every word and phrase that is uttered. In the first sitting, he tried to narrate the story in Andamanese Hindi. He would halt in between, groping for the right words or phrases. When he was not satisfied with the Hindi version, he would suddenly revert to the appropriate Andamanese word. This was rather exciting and educative for me. The long-lost language was getting revived gradually in an ancient tale. I never expected this!
The loud choruses of the crickets and frogs had begun in the tsunami-created marshes and swamps behind our guest-house, the power had been switched off and we were all sitting in the dark. We knew it was past 11:00 PM. Nao wanted to retire. I extracted a promise from him to visit us the next day, at his convenience, but with the Andamanese version and not the Hindi one. He said he had forgotten it all. When I insisted that he could remember at night while going to bed, he agreed to try but was sure that his attempt would fail. "Chaaliis saal se sunaa nahiin, kaun bolega? (It has been 40 years since I have heard it; how can I narrate it?)." He was sure he would disappoint me.
I was making some grammar notes sitting on the wooden bed the next afternoon. I saw Nao standing at my door with an expectant look on his face. The moment I looked up, he said, "Kuch kuch yaad aataa hai" (I can remember a little). I invited him and then we sat around the bed turned makeshift table. He started narrating the same story in short Great Andamanese phrases, not very fluently but code-mixed with Hindi. Narayan assisted me in recording and transcribing the story. This is how our long journey of Great Andamanese narration started, a journey into the past. I would interrupt him to get Hindi equivalents and he could, with a 90% success rate, render them. It took us several days, to get the full version of the narration of Phertajido and the subsequent word-for-word translation. Sometimes we would have our sessions in the afternoon and sometimes after 9:00 PM, as he was always busy fishing by the jetty after sunset. This was a great story and I could see he loved narrating it.
The translated version of this story had some gaps, which I realized only after coming back to Delhi. I decided to go through the entire process again during the next trip. I was lucky enough as Nao obliged me during my next trip to Port Blair in December 2006, almost 11 months after our previous visit.
On reaching Port Blair in December 2006, I realized that Nao was on Strait Island and not in Port Blair as I was informed by a tribal friend on the phone before I left Delhi. The AAJVS officials not only failed to honour the already sanctioned permit to visit Strait Island, but were also on the lookout to catch and arrest me if I pursued my research. 4There was no way of informing Nao of my arrival in Port Blair. Unfortunately, Strait Island had no phone connections. The only wireless communication that island had, was in the hands of the government officials. I had no option but to visit the Port Blair jetty and take a chance and see if I could run into any of my tribal friends on the ship. Ships for Strait Island leave very early in the morning at about 5:45 AM. It was 19 December 2006, I reached the jetty much before the stipulated time. A crew member from one of the ships recognized me. By 2006, many local officials, especially those who worked on ships and boats, had started recognizing me as a friend of the Great Andamanese tribes. As soon as this man, a ticket checker at the departure gate saw me, he indicated the next ship moored in the distance and said "Go and see Reya. She is going to Strait Island." This was a girl from the Great Andamanese tribe whom I knew very well and who had married a Bengali. I ran towards her, lest I lose her. She immediately recognized me and greeted me with a namaste. She introduced me to her husband. She asked me, "Kab aayaa (when did you come?)." Reya is one of those Great Andamanese tribal girls who loves to amalgamate herself into our society and is happy to forget her heritage language. I told her that I desperately wanted to see Nao. She informed me that Nao was on Strait Island and had no plans of visiting Port Blair. My world was falling to pieces.
I knew requesting the administration to transport Nao Jr to Port Blair would not help. It is really a shame that the members of these tribes are kept as captives in their own land and are restricted from meeting other Indian citizens. Had it not been for the initiative of the Great Andamanese themselves, they would have never befriended locals and visitors like us. I immediately fished out a piece of paper from my purse, wrote a note in Hindi in bold letters and gave it to Reya to pass on to Nao. I told her to ask him to have it read to him by one of the school-going children. I also told her that the sole purpose of my trip to the Andaman was to meet Nao and my other tribal friends, but Nao in particular. She promised to deliver the message. The following is a rough translation of what I wrote to Nao.
After giving Reya this short note, I visited Adi Basera, a home [a kind of guest-house with cooking facilities] for tribals near the Central Secretariat in Port Blair. All I found was closed doors and stray dogs. I returned to the Circuit House with a heavy heart.
It was not until 21 December 2006 that I got an opportunity to meet Nao Jr, who did respond to my request and made the journey to Port Blair just for me. He came to the Circuit House and told me that he had received my letter. He needed some money desperately and I obliged. He looked frail, weak and sad. When I commented on his health, he immediately complained of loneliness and desolateness. I took him to my room and we talked of days gone by, his solitary life on Strait Island and the irritating officials.
Every time Nao would leave for home, I would remind him to think of his parents before sleeping, how they hunted together in the sea and how his mother or grandmother must have narrated stories to him as a little child. My zeal for getting more and more infected him. One early morning, I had not even had my morning cup of tea when he knocked on my door. His eyes were red and he looked disturbed. When I opened the door, he said, "Madam, I could not sleep the whole night as I remembered this story and you have to listen to me." What more could I have asked for?
I invited him in and made him comfortable by offering him a cup of tea. Over tea, he told me that he was trying to remember the story of Maya Lephai, which was narrated to him by his Abba when he was about seven years old. He told me that he liked the story very much even then, but had somehow forgotten all about it. His bloodshot eyes told me how he must have waited for dawn to break to come and narrate the tale of Maya Lephai to me. He first narrated it in Andamanese Hindi so that I could understand it easily. He then gave it to me phrase by phrase in Great Andamanese, followed by the Hindi translation. I was amazed at the organized way in which he gave the information. He was better than many of us in the educated world. Whenever I got stuck, he would repeat and explain. The story has many dialogues and Nao obliged me by delivering each and every one of them with the proper intonation. Not only this, he would put the ear phones in his ears and ask me to rewind the tape so that he could listen to his own voice. Sometimes, he used to hear his own rendering to remember the next episode or sequence in the story. All this was very educative for me. He had learnt to use the tape recorder and was assisting me unknowingly to achieve the near-perfect version.
I was collecting the names of various endemic birds from Nao when I suddenly asked him, "Don't you remember any story about birds?" 6 He said he had heard one story in which all the Andamanese people became birds but informed me that he would have to think about it overnight to narrate it to me. I appreciated his willingness to help and we fixed a time to meet in the Circuit House on 4 January 2007 to record the story. Thus was recorded the story of Jiro Mithe, one of my favourites. He was very happy that day as he could remember the story very well. He told me that he had been thinking of it all through the night. This was an unusual story as the names of the various Andamanese birds are taken from the names of the Andamanese people, contrary to the general phenomenon where the reverse is true. That is, most often it is human beings who are named after birds. By now, Nao had become an expert in narrating stories. Not only could he recollect what he had heard in his childhood, but he could also remember words from his heritage language, which went a long way in helping me enrich the dictionary. He would switch back and forth between Andamanese Hindi and the Great Andamanese language, like a perfect bilingual. In some ways, I felt very proud of myself for having been able to help him revive the lost language. It is very unfortunate that Nao Jr is no more with us. Not a single day passes when I don't miss him.
I recall that working with me constantly had kindled hope in him. This was especially after when he co-authored with me the first ever 'Book of Letters' the Varnamaalaa. He wanted to teach the Great Andamanese language in the primary school at Strait Island. He was dreaming of something which was beyond the comprehension of the local authorities, who were oblivious of the fact that these tribes had immense knowledge of their environment, culture, language, and are capable to teach in oral tradition.
1 The project was supported by the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. I was introduced to the Andaman Islands for the first time during this project
2 The project was funded by the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Fund, SOAS, the University of London, 2004 under the ELDP (Endangered Language Documentation Programme). Entire work in this project is documented and can be accessed from: http://elar.soas.ac.uk/deposit/abbi2006greatandamanese
3 No faculty member is permitted to be away from the university within a working semester on a duty leave for more than 28 days. One can stay longer only if one adds vacation to this leave.
4 The present administration is very helpful and cooperative. However, the earlier administration directed by Mr Ghoshal, was not only disruptive but also left no stone unturned to humiliate me and my students. I could never understand why the whole unit was so averse to research, despite the fact that permission for research had been granted to us by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Tribal Welfare, and Ministry of Human Resource and Development, Delhi.
5 This is how I am referred to by the Great Andamanese. The tribes find it hard to pronounce 'Anvita'.
6 Gerard Diffloth, the famous linguist, who had been visiting the islands at the same time, had informed me that there could be several stories based on birds in this region. I am ever so grateful to him for lending me his picture book on the endemic birds of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This book made it easier for me to get Nao to come up with the names of birds as well as the story of Jiro Mithe.