The Last of the Kharia Speakers

By Mintu Deshwara and Pinaki Roy
Feb 22 2021 (IPS-Partners)

Since her husband Abrahm Soreng died two years ago, 70-year-old Veronica Kerketa doesn’t get the chance to talk in her mother tongue at home. None of her children or grandchildren speak the Kharia language.

In her village, under Bormachhara tea garden area of Moulvibazar’s Sreemangal upazila, only one other person — her younger sister, 65-year-old Christina Kerketa — speaks Kharia.

“Except for the two of us, the nearest person who knows this language, Jaharlal Pandey Induar, lives three kilometres away from our village,” said Veronica.

“I talk with my sister or sometimes talk with him in this language when we meet.”

She added, “Nobody else from my own family speaks this language now. So, I need to talk in Sadri or Bangla with them.”

The use of Sadri is largely prevalent across the various ethnic communities in the tea gardens.

“After our death, nobody will speak this language [Kharia]. I tried to teach the language to the younger people but they do not show interest and laugh at me when I speak in Kharia,” said Veronica.

Jaharlal Pandey Induar, 65, of Sreemangal’s Mangrabasti, said that as a tea workers’ family, they are always under financial stress. “We do not have enough time to give for our own language.”

He said, “I still can’t speak Kharia fluently, as I have mostly used Sadri for a long time now.”

Dayaram Kharia, 60, also from Mangrabasti, said 110 Kharia families live in the village.

“There is no one in our village who can speak our own language fluently — there are only five people who know a few words of Kharia.”

In Krishnanchura village of Habiganj’s Chunarughat, of 41 Kharia families living in the village, only four old women can speak a few words in the language when they meet each other, said 45-year-old Manik Kharia.

Rajshahi University student Simon Kerketa, 23, from the Bormabosti area of Sreemangal upazila, said at least six members of his father’s family still know Kharia.

“But I myself can’t speak the language,” he said.

A DYING LANGUAGE

Mashrur Imtiaz, assistant professor in the department of linguistics at the University of Dhaka, who conducted a survey on the language in 2018, found less than 20 people in Sylhet speak Kharia.

“Only 10 to 12 people from their community know this language. And a few others know some Kharia words and some stories and rituals. But they cannot really make sentences or continue a conversation,” he said.

“There is no written form of this language in Bangladesh. I wanted to work on their grammar but did not get adequate people who speak the language.”

Kharia, a language belonging to the Munda branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family, is one of Bangladesh’s endangered languages, he said.

George Abraham Grierson’s “Linguistic Survey of India”, published in 1928, described Kharia then as a “dying” language, noted Mashrur.

Kharia people, who live in various tea gardens in Sylhet, were enlisted in the government’s updated list of 50 small ethnic communities, which was made in 2019.

Before this, they were not even recognised as a separate ethnic group in Bangladesh.

Pius Nanuar, a Kharia social activist, who conducted a study on the Kharia population in early 2020, told this correspondent they found around 5,700 Kharia people in 41 villages in Sylhet division.

“New generations do not talk in this language — they hardly know one or two words. This language is going to be lost from our country very soon as only 12 people from the community can speak the language,” he said.

Pius, who knows a little bit of Kharia, said he learned it from his grandmother when he was a school student in the ’90s.

His grandmother used to take classes informally every evening, telling stories of Kharia heroes, myths, riddles, rhymes, singalongs, harvest stories, Karam (a harvest festival) and other festivals, hunting, and folk traditions.

“In our boyhood, a good number of Kharia children at least learnt a few Kharia words and came into connection with our Kharia roots and culture. But after her death, that effort was lost,” he said.

In 2017, an initiative was taken to teach the language to the younger generation through a youth organisation called “Beer Telenga Kharia Language Learning Centre”, Pius said.

But it was a failed effort to save the Kharia language and culture in his community.

“Kharias in Bangladesh do not have our own alphabet. Kharias in India too use Roman and Latin alphabets,” Pius added.

According to the website Omniglot, an encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, Kharia is spoken in the Simdega and Gumla districts of Jharkhand state, in the Surguja and Raigarh districts of Chhattisgarh, and in the Sundargarh district of Odisha in India.

There are about 256 speakers of Kharia in the Mechi and Kosi zones of Nepal along the border with India.

Kharia is written also with Devanagari, Odia and Bangla alphabets, according to the website.

NOT JUST A LANGUAGE LOST

The majority of Kharia people in Moulvibazar, Habiganj and Sylhet districts are descendants of people who were brought to the plantations from various parts of India by the British colonists around a century and a half ago, according to the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD).

In 2016, SEHD identified 658 Kharia households in 16 tea estates in Sylhet division.

Not just Kharia, even the more commonly spoken ethnic languages are in danger of disappearing.

Pranesh Goala, chairman of Kalighat Union Parishad in Sreemangal, said those who still speak Sadri also mix in Bangla and Hindi words while speaking.

AFM Zakaria, professor in the anthropology department of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, told The Daily Star losing a language means closing the entrance to a civilisation, to a storehouse of cultural resources.

Sukra Kharia, 65, a younger brother of 70-year-old Gopia Kharia, a freedom fighter from Nalua tea garden in Habigang’s Chunarughat upazila, said as Bangladeshis, they are proud to be part of the country’s history and culture.

At least six Kharia people participated in the Liberation War in 1971.

“But it is very sorrowful to say we are waiting to see the death of our own language,” he said.

In the month of February, Pius Nanuar said, Kharia children pay homage to those who sacrificed their lives for the Bangla language but will never know how to speak the Kharia language, their own mother tongue.

Director General of the International Mother Language Institute Prof Dr Jinnat Imtiaz Ali told The Daily Star it is difficult to preserve a language spoken by less than 20,000 or 30,000 people.

“Finding the source of the language then becomes very difficult. We do not know then what exactly the oral form of the language was.”

“However,” he added, “we have formed a committee to compile the grammar in a dictionary to save endangered languages. We have started work.”

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