Book Review: Anvita Abbi's 'Voices from the Lost Horizon' chronicles the literary heritage of the Great Andamanese

Print edition : December 03, 2021
The ‘first ever’ transcription and translation of folk tales and folk songs of the Great Andamanese captures some of the intangible heritage of the people of the Great Andamans, their history, culture, ecological base and knowledge of biodiversity.

IN January 2010, when the media mourned the passing of the last ‘speaker’ of the Great Andamanese Bo language, the linguist Anvita Abbi had publicly paid obeisance to both the speaker, Boa Sr, and the language. Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese comes as part of her continuing homage to the two, albeit in a fresh and singular mode.

Renowned for her work on endangered languages, especially the Great Andamanese, and awarded the Padma Shri in recognition of this effort, Prof. Anvita Abbi’s research in the field has been ongoing. She has been constantly finding newer ways of accessing moribund linguistic spaces. This handsomely produced volume, complete with edifying illustrations by Subir Roy, innovatively and creatively breathes life into the ‘dead’ enunciated word by co-opting 21st century digital technology to the service of the print format. Kudos to the publishers, Niyogi Books, for recognising the intrinsic worth of the project and for identifying an inspired and enabling format to carry it through.

Boa Senior’s yearning

Anvita Abbi, who is known for identifying a sixth language family in the dying Great Andamanese tongues, has been globally feted by her peers for her linguistic expertise, as evidenced by the multiple endorsements and the preface and afterword included in the book. Unique to this book is not only the self-avowed ‘first ever’ transcription and translation of Great Andamanese folk tales and folk songs but a verbalised, warm and intimate insight into the difficult elicitation process from ‘rememberers’ who have no listeners or responders in their own language.

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The empathy of the specialist linguist with these last tellers of tales and singers of songs in their heritage language, shines through the bleakness of their incipient extinction, inhering the one positive of recording these for posterity before their life runs out. If, in the person of Boa Senior, the death throes of a language and a culture are dramatised, then it is Anvita Abbi who makes note of it; if Boa Sr’s sorrowing, lonely heart’s yearning for someone who will listen to her and who will understand her issued a distress call, then it was Anvita Abbi who answered it.

Intangible heritage

This book witnesses the transformation of the cut-and-dried scientific exercise of data collection into a collaborative venture between the Great Andamanese speakers and herself. The excitement of capturing some of the intangible heritage of the people of the Great Andamans—their history, culture, ecological base and knowledge of biodiversity—is palpable, and the findings, priceless. This makes the volume truly an opening up of what Bernard Lowrie calls a ‘wonderful world’.

Most importantly, the awakening of love for their language and cultural inheritance gives the disheartened speakers a warming sense of accomplishment to such an extent that they themselves become eager to share their stories and songs. The author’s dramatised recall of the enjoined nitty-gritty speaks of the absolute emotional and intellectual involvement of both the recaller and the recorder, reaching out to the reader with the demand for an invested participation.

Anvita Abbi’s underplayed assertion that she was ‘fortunate’ to have been able to access their language and culture before their time ran out is patently not the whole story. The fortuitousness is more than matched by her foresight and understanding of the urgency of the situation and by her obvious perseverance in the face of dire odds.

The introduction and the details of the data collection make this book a field linguist’s delight. But even as these specifics, along with the word for word phonetic transcription and translation, invite the interest of the specialist reader, the stories are an enticement to the lay reader.

Oral legacy

Anvita Abbi’s documentation of the ethno-linguistic practices and the recognition of the identity of the community through the oral legacy is achieved by the inclusion of original oral narratives and songs. The 10 stories and the 46 songs give an inimitable peek into the birth, death and marriage rituals and beliefs of the beleaguered islanders.

The tale “Pheratjido” emphasises the centrality of love and care in the process of creation and in its preservation. Death is an accepted part of the cycle of life, and the funeral rites are dictated by the kind of life and death a person goes through, as “The Tale of Juro the Hunter” amplifies.

The narratives, harking back to different points in the history of the Great Andamanese, become dramatic witnesses to the invasive progress of assimilation as in Nao Jr’s insistent parallel drawn between Juro, their cannibalistic goddess, and the Hindu goddess Kali. They open windows, to a greater or lesser extent, to the importance of love, sacrifice, social responsibility, loss, sorrow, sense of belonging with a community and its food habits.

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From the stories a fair list of the occupations that the islanders follow can also be drawn: fisherfolk, bamboo weavers, hunters, and so on. Giving an insight into the sociology and psychology of the people, the stories highlight not only the inequality in gender positions and roles but also the latent feminist awareness of women’s rights. Social and sexual norms are laid bare. The evil man Dik is reproached and murdered by a long-suffering wife because he “would not help her in any of the chores”.

The narratives also document historical developments like colonisation, revolt and resistance as in “Golat and Tae Daniel: The Short Story of Two Brothers and a Crocodile”, which follows the strong and courageous Pujjukars, “who had so far resisted any outside intervention”.

Voices from the Lost Horizon, with its thoughtful division into an extended introduction and commentary on the general and particular details of the methodology and importance of collecting data through stories and songs by the author, is backed by an enabling QR code access to the songs and an open link-sharing to various allied sites. This makes the volume a delight for researchers in neighbouring fields: folklore studies, cultural history, literature, sociology, anthropology, psychology and musicology.

Most importantly, it illuminates the processes of language shifts evident in the preferred usage of Andamanese Hindi, either because it is necessary or because of the social and economic clout it gives.

This weakening of language vitality and the looming endangerment and extinction, counterpointed by Anvit Abbi’s practical demonstration of the ways in which this could have been circumvented, and her committed linguistic investment to cultural preservation make the book a complete, wholesome offering.

Meenakshi Bharat is professor, Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.