By H.A. Sarah
In 2017, Professor G Venkatasubbiah, one of the stalwarts of Kannada literature and theory, published a 9,000-page Kannada dictionary spread over eight thick volumes. His labour of love took 54 years to complete, far longer than the time Meghalaya has been a state. When the dictionary was completed, he was 104 years old. Not all such endeavours can be labours of love. As VG’s case makes evident, it takes an entire generation’s worth of labour, often underpaid.
There is a tradition of dictionary-writing, among them the works of Rev. E Bars, Rev. Ïarington Kharkongor and Nissor Singh are popular; the Don Bosco institution has been a historic publisher of dictionaries.
Yet, in its own half-a-century of statehood, why has there been no state patronage to create a more comprehensive dictionary set that covers every spoken and written Khasi word across the breadth of the state, with its many dialects and sounds? Dr. Daiarisa Rumnong, Assistant Professor of English at St Mary’s College, says these are hard questions to answer. In the early decades of statehood, a renaissance in Khasi literature did begin, but by the 2000s, it began to taper again. A quick search for Khasi literature on archive.org reveals hundreds of novels, novellas, folklore compilations, poetry collections, seminar and conference papers and other scholarly manuscripts in the Khasi language. Among these, many are now out of print, and these digital copies are the only accessible ones remaining.
“The Internet boom has changed the way we read completely. This isn’t unique to Khasis alone. We’re seeing it all over the world. That is part of what motivated me to start Speak Your Roots”, says Rumnong. Speak Your Roots first began in 2020 as a way to share and crowdsource phrases from tribal languages.
It soon morphed into a platform where Rumnong shares Khasi–Pnar phraseology and vocabulary.
But Rumnong is careful not to veer into language puritanism. “You cannot escape changes. We can’t really say Sohra Khasi, especially the way it’s spoken in Shillong, has only now borrowed terms from English; it has been a cosmopolitan language for a long time with Hindi, Urdu and Persian influences through Assamese and Bengali. Whether this dilutes it or makes it rich is an endless debate. Perhaps – and this is a very strong perhaps – the way Thomas Jones scripted the Khasi alphabet has anglicised the Khasi language, but if people want a richer language then they should have more knowledge of words. Even the script does not matter”.
There are no inherent qualities to a language that makes it especially suitable for standardising as a lingua franca. These are largely political decisions, and the survival of dialects against the “chosen dialect” for standardisation depends on how much people believe in the properness of a dialect. Here, Rumnong interjects – “One dialect cannot be the dominant one, you know. Really, there is no such a thing as a purer dialect, but in my own research I have found that there are more words in other dialects that even I am unfamiliar with”. Rather than scrubbing a language of its foreign or neighbourly influences then, Rumnong believes, is, quite simply, to let people speak. “Judging by the feedback I receive, people are enthusiastic about their own dialects. They exist and they should continue to be spoken. That is something that cannot be done away with just because we have a standard Sohra Khasi”.
A broad view of language studies in India shows that much of scholarly discussion and research is concentrated on what is called “Classical languages”, a political concept. Languages existing at the margins are less studied; but despite this handicap, there is substantial research on the Khasi–Jaiñtia dialects. “I do recommend people to take a look at the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, Meghalaya, Volume 19, Part I (Chief Editor: G. N. Devy, Editor: Esther Syiem). There is some impressive documentation of the languages and dialects in Meghalaya. I would not say Khasi is a language in decline, but we need to ask ourselves to return to the roots of our spoken language”. Most Khasi today is consumed through film, song and newspapers; in the rural parts of the country, written Khasi literature is even more inaccessible, but storytelling, in varied dialects, has continued to exist, but is vulnerable to disappearance as well. The problems plaguing the written word it seems are not too different from those plaguing the spoken word.
“We really need more work in fiction and poetry. I want people to read more.” Khasi may be have been revived from an endangered state, but its obscure dialects, especially in the War regions, remain in a delicate state. Garo, which comes from the Sino-Tibetan branch, is in an even more precarious state; Ruga, a language related to Garo, became fully extinct in the 2000s.
In all ways, time is the tyranny under which all languages crumble, but the pushback, Rumnong feels, is still not strong enough. “Even the content of Khasi books needs to change”, she says. “Authors like Janice Pariat write wonderful books that are so deeply rooted in the Khasi worldview and in Khasi society, and that is presented to us in English. Part of Boats on Land’s success is that it is written in English. If someone like Janice was writing the same thing in Khasi, that would be even more beautiful because it would offer another layer of meaning”.
Khasi learning is also not a need in Shillong particularly. Despite being cosmopolitan, the non-Khasis in Shillong who can understand and speak the language are a minority. However, the same Indians are very likely to pick accents and languages living abroad. Rumnong thinks because there is nothing pushing people to learn Khasi: “There is no compulsion because everything is in English. Even the traffic boards and commercial signs are in English, and part of it is because this was a British cantonment town, so English was always prioritised”. This “not needing” a language is infectious.
Rumnong senses, from her own personal experiences with students and language enthusiasts, that there are two types of families in Shillong – those that speak a very strong Khasi at home and those that have shifted to using English a little too often. Things are far different once you move outside Shillong and encounter alien diction from Raid Narleiñ in Ri Bhoi; War in the Jaiñtia districts, especially at the borders; or even the Nongkrem dialect. Sohra Khasi, as spoken in Shillong, despite all its dilutions and cosmopolitan richness – whichever way one prefers to understand it – is the most accessible dialect, with a syntax suspiciously close to English.
“I have relatives, in fact, in War Jaiñtia, and these are difficult dialects to understand because they have retained a far older and wider vocabulary”.
Rumnong says even the Khasi alphabet does not do justice to the various sounds produced in these dialects, rendering the script non-functional.
While she suggests a better alphabet to learn dialects more quickly, she adds that this is not a silver bullet. When she shared the Pnar alphabet published by the Jaiñtia Hills Autonomous District Council, many of her followers were critical of it. “They said – oh! This is only for Jowai because if you go to Tuber, Pnar sounds different and if you go to Nongjngi it changes again”.
Perhaps the 8th Schedule must be placed within this context. “Who has a say in what is standardised? There has to be a consensus about the reality of sticking to one Khasi. So while the 8th Schedule is a good thing to have, it might not be everything” Speak Your Roots is a small ripple in a slowly emerging tide of Khasi language scholars, linguists and lay enthusiasts who are re-discovering the depth and diversity of the entire Khasi–Pnar vocabulary.
To Rumnong, the seeds of revival have already sprouted, but the urgency to re-learn needs to be tempered. Learning is slow and discovery is slower. “I don’t know how possible vernacular education would be because with involving schools you are involving policy making, which is slow”. And Rumnong may be right. A drastic institutional change – such as mandatory Khasi, prioritising Khasi-medium schools over English ones – are revolutionary and harder to establish, let alone maintain. Much simpler is the community patronage of Khasi writers who write in Khasi.
“There are no answers from my side, honestly. There is a dearth of good writers and so there is a dearth of good readers. But we also don’t have translations of so many wonderful Khasi books”. Rumnong wonders if an epic poem like “Ka Jitlakhai” by EW Dkhar is still accessible today when it required even her to consult a dictionary too often. “Even what we spoke in the 70s or 80s was different, you know. We cannot simplify EW Dkhar because that would not do justice to it. I ask myself, ‘Will these books make a mark now?’” Difficult literature, despite the many accolades it receives, ultimately stops being enjoyable and becomes homework.
The conversation thus leads us to U Soso Tham, whose works echo a Wordsworthian tradition.
Having been exposed to British literature since childhood, his works have a natural appeal to readers. Rumnong says, “Soso Tham is a great poet and I recommend we venture into poetry that is more layered, more complex and might even be difficult for us to understand because the vocabulary is more attuned to the Khasi worldview. Again, all these things are debatable too”. Indeed, there is a wealth of literature in Khasi that has been left untranslated, even more, oral literature unrecorded and untranslated; English works as well are not so prolifically translated to Khasi.
“Let’s see in the coming years how things change. For me this is a counter-reaction. I have been studying English literature all my life and I thought – why? What about my own language? This is happening to many English students in Shillong. So we are seeing more work and research on Khasi orality as well in this counter-reaction”, says Rumnong.
For now, Rumnong’s immediate plan is a collaboration with Big FM radio to host Khasi language awareness campaigns. “Theatre is also something I would like to document more, especially with Lapdiang Syiem because of the indigenous themes of her performances. Sometimes only text becomes boring, so I want people to perhaps record themselves narrating stories. Hearing is so different from reading dialects written in a Latin script. We really need more storytelling to try to preserve orality. For this, fiction is a good genre, even perhaps Khasi comics”.
To power the budding literary revival in Meghalaya, Rumnong thinks it is better to rely on the media and literature world. Reading cannot be conditioned at school but grows organically. How we use and abuse language decides how rich and varied it becomes. “I think, all forms of entertainment will help in revitalising the language, but the reading culture still needs to change if the language needs to evolve in the right way”.
“I am always in search of new Khasi novelists and poets. Not many people read books that have already existed. There are wonderful Khasi books that have been out of print and others have not been translated. It really just starts with reading”.
(Dr Daiarisa Rumnong has a strong interest in Khasi folklore and Khasi oral tradition. On August 3, 2020, she launched the Speak Your Roots page on Instagram in an effort to document and conserve Khasi language, literature, history and culture. Her specialisations include Latin American Magical Realism, Life-narrative studies and Memory studies. Daiarisa Rumnong writes poetry and is also involved in translation).