Reviving a language, rescuing a community, and an extraordinary Habibur Rahman
The story begins in 2014.
All of a sudden, there was a noticeable increase in the number of snake charmers in Teknaf, the border area of Bangladesh's coastal district Cox's Bazar. Each of them carried several baskets containing various types of snakes. Some of the baskets contained cobras, some dog-faced water snakes (jol boda), some white-bellied mangrove snakes (sundaree saap), some red-necked keelback snakes (lal dora saap) and more. As soon as the lids of the baskets were lifted, the snakes came out to attack. The snake charmers went in groups with their baskets to Teknaf to perform traditional snake shows there and returned home. But the question was, why did they frequently troop off all the way to Teknaf in particular for their snake performances?
It didn't take long for the police to unearth this mystery. They found thousands of yaba pills, a kind of addictive narcotic drug, concealed under these poisonous snakes coiled inside the baskets.
These snake charmers are mainly river gypsies, representing a community of nomads who care little about permanent settlements and frequently move from one place to another. Generally they are called 'Bede'. This Bede community lives collectively in boats on rivers and canals or in temporary shelters on the plain land and along the banks of rivers. They are dispersed across Bangladesh but now are mainly in Savar of Dhaka.
However, on investigation, it became clear to the police that these Bedes are not actual yaba traders. They work merely as carriers or deliverers of these drugs and carry these from one place to another in exchange of a down payment.
A major part of these Bedes live in the Savar Bede Palli, a slum like residential area.
Habibur Rahman, a Superintendent of Police (SP) of Dhaka district at the time, came to know that there was a drug sanctuary in that Bede Palli. As there is no paved road, police vehicles cannot enter there. So it was very difficult and nearly impossible to catch the drug dealers. If someone was caught from there, everyone of their community came and resisted.
Habibur Rahman decided that he would talk to the Bede. He arranged a meeting with 17 'tribal chiefs' of the community. The tribal leaders said that their lives were not dependent on drugs before. Time has brought them to this place.
Habibur Rahman knew, traditionally Bedes lives were centered on their boats. In the last few decades, their lifestyle had changed because the navigability of the rivers had decreased and the canals had dried up, while the overall communication system of the country had improved. In the past they would earn their livelihood with their snake performances and supposedly extracting poison from snake-bite patients.
As rural healers, they used to sell all sorts of herbs as natural medicines. They used to sell amulets and provide so-called medication and psychological treatments to uneducated marginalised people through their 'witchcraft'.
But with the passage of time people had become educated and don't believe in these things anymore. Modern medical treatment is now within their reach. And there are innumerable sources of entertainment and recreation too. People are no longer fascinated with the snake dances or traditional treatment of the Bedes.
Unfortunately Bedes failed to keep up with this socio-economic change. They could not get educated nor enter mainstream employment. As a result, these poor people have become poorer, losing their inherited traditional vocations. And the powerful drug lords, who remain in the background, pounced on this opportunity and use them in the drug business, taking advantage of their poverty.
Habibur Rahman's heart was filled with angst by the stories of the inhuman lives of these poor and crushed people. He asked the tribal chiefs whether they would give up drug dealing if he could provide them with alternative employment.
The tribal chiefs readily agreed to give up the drug trade. Habibur was deeply moved to see that these confident people, who are considered 'untouchable' social outcasts, were so eager to turn their lives around.
He pondered on what alternative employment could be arranged for them. He decided that since traditionally women were the main breadwinners in the Bede community, employment should be arranged for them first. Based on that, he established 'Uttaran Foundation' with the help of his acquaintances. Under this organisation, a boutique named 'Uttaran Fashion' was set up to create employment exclusively for Bede women. Later a factory named 'Uttaran Fashion' was founded to employ Bede women in larger numbers.
In addition to education, Bede children were taught to sew. Men were trained to drive. Very quickly they started entering alternative employment. A self-transformation movement began within the Bede community. At that time (2014), Habibur Rahman initiated the practice of Bede representatives participating in various meetings. The Bedes continued to come to these meetings regularly.
Habibur Rahman noticed one day that the Bedes who came to the meeting were speaking a strange language among themselves. He couldn't understand what they were saying at all. He asked one of his acquaintances among them about the language. The Bede man told him that the Bedes spoke a distinct language among themselves so that others could not understand them. They have no alphabet for this language. It is a spoken language with no written script. They call this 'Ther' or 'Thar' language.
Habibur Rahman became interested in this language. He started research on this and organised several conferences with Thar speaking Bedes and learned academic linguists.
More than a decade has passed. Habibur Rahman has been now appointed as the Additional Inspector General (IGP) of Bangladesh Police. But his research did not stop with simply improving the living standards of the Bede community and the Thar language. He has been by their side in good times and bad. Quite unconsciously he somehow became their guide and guardian, without even realising how and when he had slipped into this role. Meanwhile, his research on the Thar language continued. He has written a book after researching with the help of teachers and researchers of various schools for almost a decade. The book is titled 'Thar: The Language of the Bede People'.
This is book is an awe-inspiring narrative. It depicts how a police officer merged his life with the Bede people, extracting them from the grips of the drug trade. He made much sacrifice, devoting himself to mainstreaming the Bede community by changing their way of life around the entire country and saving the language spoken by that community from certain extinction, and how he became a language researcher.
This language called 'Thar' is not known by the majority of common people and so naturally no one was worried about the extinction of this language. But to one who appreciates the traditional and social value of a language, its extinction appears to be the unjust loss of a precious history in the relentless erosion of time.
Such language-sensitive people endeavour tirelessly to keep the language alive, out of an inherent and spiritual sense of responsibility.
An almost lost language unknown to the larger society is like an artefact to a dedicated linguist. Just as the inexperienced spade of a clumsy digger runs the risk of damaging valuable artefacts, so too does inexperienced research risk irreparable damage to the language concerned
Researcher Habibur Rahman did just that. His keen interest, zeal and tireless research saved the very fundamentals and vocabulary of the language, preventing the existence of the Thar language from disappearing forever in the dark chasm of obscurity. He has relentlessly researched this language from a multi-linear perspective. He compiled the language's vocabulary or diction and research data into a large volume.
When archaeologists dig up centuries-old antiquities buried underground, they place the equipment very carefully at the excavation site so that the artefacts are not damaged by the tools. In the same way an almost lost language unknown to the larger society is like an artefact to a dedicated linguist. Just as the inexperienced spade of a clumsy digger runs the risk of damaging valuable artefacts, so too does inexperienced research risk irreparable damage to the language concerned.
Like all other languages, the Thar language has an origin or birth and an evolution or growth. From that point of view, this language has an abstract vitality. And whoever has a life, can have a biography. The way this book is written, it can be called a 'biography of the Thar language’, because, while describing the origin and development of this language, Habibur Rahman did not stick specifically to the context of this particular language. He presents a holistic picture of universal language. He paints a portrait of an endangered language, but captures the common coexistence of all other languages.
Through this book we can know that its grammar and linguistic structure is similar to Bangla (the Bengali language). The author informs us that in future, this book will enable the Bede community to trace back the source and structure of their mother tongue.
This book has 11 chapters. In the first chapter, the definition and characteristics of language, origin of language, differences in language and diversity of language etc. are described in a very academic manner. From the theories of linguists in these cases to the commentary on language found in scriptures, detailed information is included in this chapter.
This is followed by an introductory discussion of the Thar language in the second chapter. The chapter entitled 'Ethnic identity of the Bede people and Thar language' explains the ethnic identity of the Bede people, the origin of the Thar language, the position of the Thar language in terms of language and literature.
The third chapter presents a fundamental analysis of the language in the light of the modern linguistic theory of the legendary American linguist Noam Chomsky. In the following chapters, the grammar and construction of Thar language, phonetics and sound analysis in the light of the structure of this language, morphology, basic words of Thar language and the mixture of native and foreign words in this language, grammatical variations etc. have been discussed in detail.
Apart from this, there is a very important chapter entitled 'Glossary of Thar Language'. In this chapter numerous words of the Thar language and their synonyms in Bengali are given. As shown in the phonetic analysis section of the book, the alphabet and sounds of Bengali are similar to the sounds of Thar.
One of the unique aspects of Habibur Rahman's research is that he did not stop only at the investigating the Thar language. He specifically identified the steps to be taken to save this language from extinction. He has also organised a special conference on how those steps can be implemented at the government and private levels. He made some recommendations to prevent the extinction of Thar language. These included, giving constitutional recognition to the ethnicity, language and culture of all minority groups, including the Bedes; formulation of Thar language development policies and preparation of textbooks in their own mother tongue; preparation of dictionary of Thar language, etc. under government initiative.
Several issues have emerged in this book. First, it shows the inclusion of language-related universal theories and facts. It gives a detailed idea of the life of the Bede community and their language. Above all, the initiative taken by the author to change the life standard of the entire Bede community is also revealed in this book. He is working to create employment for the Bede community as well as ensure education for their children.
The book also reflects the efforts he is making to free their future generations from lives of misery and suffering. From that point of view, it is a great introductory book of the entire Bede community. This book of 352 pages has been published by Panjeri Publications Limited.
* Sarfuddin Ahmed is assistant editor of Prothom Alo