The Future of Bhojpuri: Doomsayers Shall be Proved Wrong

By Paramanand Soobarah

There has recently been a spate of articles in the press seriously questioning the health of Bhojpuri, at least one even announcing its certain imminent death. Such reports, I am afraid, are greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain would have said. I would caution those who are planning to celebrate the expected event to put their plans in abeyance, at least for the time being.

Some may have been encouraged in their views on this issue by reports of the situation of Bhojpuri in Trinidad, a Caribbean island with a history of sugar just like Mauritius, with the difference that the plantocracy there is made up of the descendants of British settlers and not of French ones as in our case. The Creole that developed there was English-based, and that is the language that the Bhojpuri-speaking community gradually adopted abandoning their own language before graduating to regular English.

Trinidad-born linguist Peggy Mohan, offspring of an Indian-origin father and a Canadian mother, has been researching and reporting on the linguistic phenomena taking place in her island home for several decades. In her article “Discontinuity in a Life Cycle: the Death of Trinidad Bhojpuri “, written in 1986 with fellow linguist Paul Zador in the journal Language published by the Linguistic Society of America, she recounts with plenty of supporting statistics how fluency and linguistic competence in Bhojpuri dropped off with succeeding generations. She tells same story in a more accessible and more interesting manner in her novel Jahajin issued in 2007.

There probably still are many Bhojpuri speakers in Trinidad, but Bhojpuri is no longer spoken as the first language with children in homes: no child grows up with Bhojpuri as mother tongue. That is the reason why Bhojpuri is regarded as a “dead language” in Trinidad. Does this tell us anything about the fate of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi in Mauritius, and what is likely to happen to Bhojpuri soon if left undefended against the forces of the wilderness?

The loss of a language is also the loss of a culture. Many academics and journalists pay lip service to the need to save species, including languages and cultures, from extinction. But in our country, even though there are a large number of such academics and journalists, we are not aware of any who have mourned the death of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi as home languages; some even positively gloat about the supposed approaching death of Bhojpuri.

The death of Bhojpuri has already been planned
more than a century ago

Actually the death of Bhojpuri and other Asian languages has already been planned more than a century ago. Mighty forces have been working very hard for their disappearance since the nineteenth century. In 1880, the Education Committee made up of local bigwigs and vested by the colonial government with authority to manage education in the country, closed down Indian mother-tongue schools, even though at the sitting at which it took this decision it was informed that these schools were very well-managed and were doing good work. The Committee stated that it was waste of time to study Indian languages as these would soon be forgotten in favour of Creole. Having done their work, the plantocracy now maintain a stony silence, but others rush in where angels fear to tread.

La Voix Créole of 16 July 2010 carried the following headline “L’irréversibilité d’une mort certaine du bhojpuri à Maurice”; the article carrying the signature of Mr Roland Tsang Kwai-Kew. I do not think that the author had any evil intentions – he stated what he saw as facts. A little like Peggy Mohan of Trinidad, he relates how he himself used to speak Bhojpuri in his childhood in the village of Montagne Blanche, and how the language had declined over the years. This is a story I can corroborate myself, albeit indirectly. In the late forties, I had a Chinese-origin friend at the RCC, Ah Sew CSF, who also lived at Montagne Blanche. He was a great fan of Indian films, and his idol in life was actor Rehman; another friend from Central Flacq, Yahyia F, a Muslim boy, who used to travel with Ah Sew everyday by train from that part of the country to the RCC in Curepipe, had actor Karan Diwan as his hero; these two actors often used to play together in films – this was the reason for a great bond of friendship developing between Ah Sew and Yahyia, with myself completing the trio. We had a glorious time at school. In those days culture, language and friendships cut across communities and religions.

I have also witnessed how, even in those days, people in certain parts of the country, particularly in Rose Hill, were averse to speaking Bhojpuri. There were communal forces in Rose Hill that were very anti-everything-Indian. Only recently Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam disclosed how Hon Ms Sheila Bappoo was denied the opportunity of acceding to the position of Mayoress of Rose Hill: apparently party leader Hon Paul Bérenger thought it unacceptable or impolitic for a sari-wearing person to hold such a position in the sacred town of Rose Hill. The real damage to Bhojpuri was done post-1982, when those in power could not understand the concept of Unity in Diversity. The only thing they could understand was Ene sel lepep ene sel nation. From there it was easy to drift into Ene sel kilir ene sel langaz: the culture was the Sega and the language Creole. How could Bhojpuri culture and language survive in such an atmosphere?

It is very fortunate that for the survival of civilisation in the country the 1982 triumph did not last for long. Those who had lost the way and the young who had been misled recovered their senses. While the pressures against Bhojpuri have not disappeared, the language has not yet in Mauritius reached the situation that it is in Trinidad.

We need to look a little more closely at the few differences between the situations in Trinidad and Mauritius. To begin with, the proselytisation process has been much more effective in Trinidad that in Mauritius. Indians in Mauritius have been more successful in resisting the pressures in favour of conversion. It is well known that converts become more anti-their-original-faith/culture than people who have always been in the other faith; the Bhojpuri-speaking community of Trinidad has been particularly unlucky in this regard. In Mauritius there has been a strong movement in favour of Indian languages; few countries outside India have the number of Indian languages taught and broadcast as we do in Mauritius.

The first Prime Minister of independent Mauritius, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, was a Bhojpuri speaker. In those days I was Director of Civil Aviation, and I always waited upon him at the Airport when he travelled; he frequently addressed me in Bhojpuri in those encounters. I have also watched him address a political gathering of the Seva Shivir entirely in Bhojpuri from beginning to end, speaking for more than an hour. Nobody feared that he or she would be looked down on for speaking Bhojpuri. In fact it was in those days that the idea of Mauritius as a rainbow nation gained currency. Trinidad has had no such luck.

I left the country in early 1982 for a position abroad while SSR was still Prime Minister. On my return earlier in this decade after nearly twenty years abroad, I did find that things had changed. Not only Bhojpuri but French also had declined severely. Very few families people speak Bhojpuri with their children. In practically no government office people will talk to you in French. I had the shock of my life when, a few years ago, in the course of a survey, a female operator at Telecommunications called me up and spoke in Creole; at the end of our conversation I asked her whether she spoke Creole to all customers: “Ça dépend du nom du client,” she said! Somebody with a name like mine is not expected to speak, or to be worthy of the honour of being addressed in, French.

Recently, in a restaurant, the head waiter asked me whether I was from Madagascar: he looked very surprised, and even said so, when I told him I was a Mauritian. A Mauritian with a brown face like mine is not expected to speak, or even to know, French. The last 25 years seem to have worked wonders for Mauritian culture and civilisation! When I think that people have been naive enough to be persuaded out of Bhojpuri, a language with history of several centuries and descending from Sanskrit, laced with a culture of respect and consideration for others not found in any European language, in favour of Creole, I am forced to conclude that we have our sense of values upside down. It does take all sorts to make the world.

Hebrew, long regarded as a dead language, is now a thriving language

Left to itself, there is no doubt that Bhojpuri will indeed die out in Mauritius. But those who care about the language need not lose hope. In the middle of the nineteenth century, textbooks on languages used to quote Latin, Greek and Hebrew as examples of dead languages. They were still studied only by those interested in biblical studies. In the middle of the twentieth century, the state of Israel came into being. I do not wish to go into the rights and wrongs of that development, but I do wish to point out that Hebrew, long regarded as a dead language, is now a thriving language and is the mother tongue of all Israeli children. Where there is a will there is a way.

The will is very much there. Witness the efforts conducted by Mr Ramnath Jeetah, Director of Professor Basdeo Bissoondoyal College in Flacq, and Mr Jagdish Goburdhun, Chairman of the Indian Diaspora Organisation: they are teaching Bhojpuri to children on a massive scale. In a large proportion of Indo-Mauritian homes, there still are elders who can converse in Bhojpuri. When the pupils of Messrs Jeetah and Goburdhun who are learning or have learnt Bhojpuri go back to such homes, their interaction with Bhojpuri speakers will serve to strengthen the language.

* * *

 Are you Maître Cornille if you defend Bhojpuri?
Could you not be the Poet Mistral?

Mr Tsang Kwai-Kew has likened the work of Mr Jagdish Goburdhun to that of Maître Cornille in Alphonse Daudet’s Les Letttres de Mon Moulin. Maître Cornille was engaging in a make-believe activity to keep alive the fiction that his old mill was still active. I would suggest to Mr Tsang Kwai-Kew to re-read the story of the Poet Mistral which also appears in the same book about a hundred pages further. Alphonse Daudet tells the story of Nobel laureate-to-be Frédéric Mistral who spent his life trying to save the Provençal language. He used to say: “Qui perd sa langue perd son âme.” It is true that Provençal has been overtaken by standard French, but what is remarkable is the honest, genuine effort he was making in favour of his language: that is what Mr Jagdish Goburdhun is doing. In a way Mr Goburdhun is more fortunate than Maître Cornille, because he has the support of the government of his country, and a sizable proportion of the nation is behind him; poor Mistral had neither of these advantages. The actions of Mr Jagdish Goburdhun, Mr Ramnath Jeetah and others like them are unique in the world and half the nation is praying for their success. If they fail, there is no hope for minorities anywhere in the world – even when, as in our case, these minorities are actually majorities!

In those Indo-Mauritian homes where there are no Bhojpuri speakers, we would urge an effort in favour of Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu or Marathi. Outside the home of course it would be natural to use Creole with people who cannot understand other languages.

Mr Subash Gobine, the incisive commentator of Le Défi quotidien, referred in a recent column, perhaps somewhat mockingly, to the large number of non-Bhojpuri words used by Bhojpuri speakers. Absolutely true. Many people who ought to know better use a Creole in the place of a Bhojpuri word in their Bhojpuri speech. This comes mainly out of lack of practice. Such errors, if they can be so called, can only be remedied by constant practice.

But there are other situations where a Bhojpuri equivalent is simply not available. Mr Gobine’s “char-par-char” is a case in point. The technology of the motor car did not come with us from Bihar to Mauritius; it is only natural that we use the vocabulary of the technology that brought the application. In fact, my grandparents did not even bring with them the technology of the humble chair. As a child, I used to sit down cross-legged on the cow-dung plastered floor along with other children to have my food. I also sat down on the floor and placed my exercise book on the floor in front of me on the same cow-dung plastered floor to do my sums – I used to get them right too! It is therefore not surprising that my Bhojpuri does not have words for chairs and tables, and that these had to be borrowed from Creole.

But the same thing happened with French. The technology of the motor car came to us from Britain, and we use English words to describe bits of it. We know with absolute certainty for instance what a “starter” is. One day I found myself in a French-speaking country, in a broken-down car on the road. My companion who was repairing the car asked me to “tirer le starter”. I pulled the starter knob. I was surprised to see him jump at me, saying “je n’ai dit pas démarreur, j’ai dit starter!”. It turned out that in French, what they call “starter” is what we call “choke”! We have the word from English. Our ancestors from nineteenth century Bihar could not bring with them the complex terminology of today’s technologies. There should be nothing surprising or funny in that. What is not just funny but even tragic is when people use “damboré damboré” for “kinaré kinaré”. “Nadi kinaré” is part of Bhojpuri folklore.

There is a lot of talk about using the mother tongue in education these days. Nobody in his sound mind can oppose this and I hope it comes about. But may I forgiven for thinking a little about what I have been through myself, and hundreds of thousands others like me, for our education. That is why I take such an interest in languages and in education. I regard myself a victim of the education system, and I claim that my experience as a victim empowers me to speak on behalf of others likely to be tortured like me. Reading, writing, spelling, grammar, etc., are all right as far as they go, but my own experience tells me that I must learn to think and reason, and to listen and to speak, i.e. reproduce the sounds that I hear. As a new born, it would be a crime to be exposed to the speech of people who cannot speak properly or who speak vulgarities, for it is their speech that I will learn.

Orthodox Hindu families would not allow their daughters-in-law to speak vulgar languages when they pregnant – it is now known that children start learning sounds and recognising voices while still in the womb. These basic facts must be borne in mind by those who plan the care and education of children, be they in the Ministry of Child Development or of Education. Let alone our pre-primary, primary, and secondary education institutions, it is absolutely essential to ensure that all who are employed to train teachers at the MIE and other similar institutions speak and pronounce properly. Every word I have mispronounced in English or French is due to my having been taught it wrongly by a teacher at school.

At the pre-primary stage, it is not enough just to teach in the mother tongue. The correct sounds of other languages must also be introduced – that is the age when sounds can be recognised and learnt.

* Published in print edition on 30 July 2010

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