The issue of language starts to nag at people's minds as soon as February comes round. Is it only in February that we start to think about our own language, and why we don't write, speak, sing and indulge in addas
The truth is, we speak our own languages throughout the year, but we don't realise it because no one talks about it. We only wait for this month to come around to think – why don't we read, write and speak in our mother tongue!
Well, while we all bicker over language, let me take you back to my school days at the missionary-run Mariam Nagar Maddhomik Highschool. I'm studying, writing poetry, running around on the field – but never does it occur to me that I have to study in my own Garo language, or question why we aren't taught in Garo. As soon as I went home, I reverted to my native tongue. Yet I managed to learn Bangla somehow, although I'm still unsure if the credit goes to my teachers or my friends!
But now, I understand why it's important to be educated in your mother tongue and to hold on to your culture. Instead of going into a long-winded explanation, let me give you a few examples to demonstrate how I reached these conclusions.
Scene one: the outcast
When Agri Ghagra first went to school (in Norda, Dhaka), she didn't know any Bangla. She used to be shy and cry at school, couldn't play with others or make friends – she mostly stayed alone. The school turned into a kingdom of fear, because she didn't know the language of instruction at school. At one point, her parents were forced to take her out of school and teach her Bangla at home before trying for the next school year.
Scene two: the outsider
Nangni Bimung Mong? (What's your name?)
What's your name? (in Bangla)
A scene from the city. If you speak to them in Mandi (Garo), they become mute, staring at you in surprise - as if they're hearing a foreign tongue for the first time! Most Garo children who are currently growing up in Dhaka, can't speak our language. Whatever little they do know, they forget once they go to school. While there are various reasons, most guardians agree that the lack of education in the children's mother tongue is the chief cause of this.
Scene three: the obliging parent
Nayade ruri kho ha raya khon? (I see you've hired a Bengali boy at home!)
Bacchha ruri! Angnin dalguba pisakhon niggari! (Where? This is my eldest son!)
This is set in a Garo house where the father and son are working together. Because they're speaking in Bangla, a neighbour mistakes the son as a local Bengali who's been hired by the man. Garo children who are born and brought up in cities rarely know our language well, and to accommodate the children, parents also start to speak in Bangla. After a while, Bangla becomes their mother tongue.
All of these scenes show only a part of the picture of the state of the Garo language today. But of course, it has been worse. My grandparents told me about a time when in Garo areas, we were not allowed to play our musical instruments, or even speak in our own language – I've read about this too. It was all forbidden.
They told me of how an elderly man from their village was publicly caned for playing the dama
in church, but because of protests from eminent Garo leaders, the Christian missionaries changed their position in the mid-19th
century and started allowing prayers in our language, and even allowed our music in the churches. The interesting thing is, now the main social and religious event of the Garo community, Wangala, has become a Christian festival, and is still being celebrated as such in Garo areas.
In Bangladesh, there's a large number of Mandi (Garo) people in the Mymensingh, Modhupur and Sylhet areas, and seven out of the 13 sections of these matriarchal societies recognise 'Achik' as the Garo language. While there is currently no written script, researchers John Thusin Richil, Daniel R Ruram, Martin Rema and Pradeep Shangma have devised four different alphabets for the language, which are now under scrutiny.
In the near future, maybe it will be possible for us to write our own literature in our own script, but for now, Achik literature is being written down in Bangla and Roman letters. In the Meghalaya region of India, Roman letters are commonly used to write in the Achik language.
What gives us hope is that the government has taken the initiative to provide education in their mother tongues for Garo, Chakma, Marma, Tripura and Sandri children at the pre-primary level. I hope this will mean that indigenous children will be less at risk of dropping out of school, and that their native languages will be preserved as well.