The Guardians of our language

My father Ai Lot Hailowng (extreme right), with his friends. Naamphake Village, Assam. Circa 1976

Image and Narrative points contributed by Pow Aim Hailowng, Assam

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

This photograph, taken in our village’s monastery complex under the Holy Peepal Tree, was taken with a camera my father bought for 50 rupees from a fellow college mate in Shillong. And in so many ways it holds the story of his life, and his community.

My father, Ai Lot Hailowng, was born in 1951 in Namphake Village in the Dibrugarh district of Assam to a Tai Phake family. Tai Phake is a small tribal community of about 2000 people scattered across Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India. The Tai Phake first migrated to Myanmar (formerly Burma) from Moung Mao (now South China region). Migrations from South East Asian regions were due to conflicts between erstwhile kingdoms and by 1775, many people in search of newer grounds eventually formed new settlements in what is present-day Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The word ‘Phake’ is a combination of two Tai words -“Pha” meaning a wall and “Ke” meaning ancient or sacred.

Namphake village was, we are told, at that time, an obscure settlement surrounded with dense groves of bamboo and trees. My grandfather, Chai Kyo Let was a farmer who was considered one of the wealthy of the village because he owned more rice fields than others. All houses were built on stilts to avoid the regular flooding and each house had boats tied to the stilts that were used to collect driftwood. The children excelled at swimming- because the topography facilitated and encouraged it. The village activity ceased after the sunset around 6 pm and then it was dinner time. This schedule and routine still continues for my father – in bed by 7 PM and awake around 3 or 4 AM.

Going to the Tuesday market, commonly known as “Mangalbar Bazar”, at Naharkatia, a town 5 km away, was a huge deal for the village people, including my father when he was a child. It was the one day in the week when people from various places gathered to sell their vegetables and wares, clothes and accessories. Decades later, the market still sits in Naharkatia. For a long time, my father remembers, that the village and the Naharkatia town was the extent of the world for him, and he would make a huge fuss if he wasn’t allowed to go to the market every Tuesday, for it was the only day in the week when he could be out of the serene and calm village and in an abuzz town and its colourful market. He says that travellers from the villages would be picked up and dropped off to the town in bullock carts if they had luggage; else, it was a long hike through the fields to reach the town. 

Our community, the Tai Phakes, is small and for centuries we have been followers of Buddhism. My father like tradition ordained, attended the monastery living there for almost three years. According to our tradition, boys must be ordained as a monk to serve the Buddhist order or the Sangha, for whatever period he or his family chooses. Some choose to serve as a monk for life and some don’t. My father decided to be a ‘Chow Saang’ –  a young monk at entry level, but having a different life purpose.

At the monastery, my father learnt the Tai Phake script, the prayers and the teachings of Buddha while attending the nearby primary school that taught only Assamese, the regional language. Since our community only spoke Tai Phake, he couldn’t speak in Assamese properly for the longest time but managed to pass his classes by rote. Interestingly, there were also several former tea garden settlements around our village. So, before Assamese, he learned the language spoken by tea garden workers- colloquially called “Bagania Bhaxa” – the language of the Gardens- Bagania Bhaxa is really a dialect of Sadri, with heavy Assamese and Bengali influences. Sadri had emerged as a lingua franca among workers brought in by the British from the Chota Nagpur Plateau, to work in the Tea gardens of Assam. 

In the 1960s, one had to choose between Science and Arts streams as early as class seven. My father had no idea what either of these meant and ended up taking Arts. From grade 7th to 11th, he studied in Naharkatia High School, situated in Naharkatia town. In class 10, a master named Pulin Dihingia who was a graduate of St. Anthony’s College in Shillong tutored my father in Assamese and other subjects. It was because of Master Pulin that my father wanted to pursue his BA in the same college. My reluctant grandparents were concerned for his safety and well being, but eventually agreed and in 1969, my father stepped into Shillong for the first time, with a friend from his village, living in the Plains’ Tribal Hostel for three years until they completed their studies at St. Anthony’s in 1972. 

My father’s exposure to a bigger world, in Shillong, made him realise the importance of learning the English language. So, after returning home from Shillong, he ensured that his sister (my aunt) and his cousins discontinued their education from Assamese medium schools and were admitted into St Mary’s school, an English medium convent school, founded in 1958 in Naharkatia town. The school has educated generations of Tai Phake children since. When my grandmother passed away, my aunt who was in her 10th class took up the responsibility of running the household, and her English education helped her guide her children in their school work. And thus, a generation was promoted to opportunities that the wider world offered. 

Our community’s language is monosyllabic. New words are formed by combining two words. A Tai Phake word has six tones, and each tone has a separate meaning. This makes it a complex language to learn because without the modulation of the six tones, it is impossible to understand. Any member of the Tai Phake family is encouraged to speak it from infancy. My father appreciated the need to keep our community’s culture alive, and for the last 20 years has been collecting lost Tai Phake words, with a dream to make the collection into a dictionary one day. Fortunately his interests were also shared by an Australian linguist named Dr. Stephen Morey, who had researched his PhD on the Tai people. Dr. Morey’s academic approach helped my father streamline his work, and have more technological resources. The dictionary – we all know will ensure that a lesser-known language spoken by an even lesser number of people will survive past him and have a future. The Tai Phake dictionary will be my father’s legacy one day.

I have been asked if I wonder about our community’s place in the big world. But then I realise that our small community was, and for the most part, still is, a simple agrarian life that most Tai Phakes continue to lead. Take for example – electricity – we did not have it until 1989-1990. I was born in 1986, and we still used kerosene filled lanterns and lamps. It is not always possible to equate modern technologies with society’s development. We could not desire something we did not know about. We were in a bubble in a remote region and with people from our communities stepping out, attaining higher education, and different professions, we have had to catch up with hundreds of years of development within a few decades. Like many other communities of the world, we too, ended up skipping many developmental rungs- like using mobile phones without having ever even used a telephone.

My father did his best to catch up with the world that had not existed for him before he left for Shillong. His generation of men and women had to really sprint so that their children wouldn’t be left behind in a rapidly changing world and country. Take our family : My mother, Am Chon worked as a Teaching Assistant at the Tai section, Centre for Studies in Language in Dibrugarh University, for 20 years. My elder brother and elder sister are both doctors, while my younger sister will soon be a working engineer. I graduated from law school and then, after gaining some work experience, embarked on a PhD in International legal studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University.  I would say my father, an incredible man, has indeed succeeded. 

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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