Sunday, May 13, 2012

Plea To A Nation United in Helplessness

Just as we are struggling to devise a polity that would enrich and empower the diversity of the languages and peoples that collectively form Nepal comes stark reminder of how perilously close Kusunda is to extinction.
It turns out that Gyani Maiya Sen, a native of western Nepal, is the last person alive on the planet who can speak the language. And she’s 75 years old. So when nature takes it course – as it inevitably will – the Kusunda language, too, will perish.
Long considered a relic tribe of South Asia, the Kusunda people of central Nepal were known as seminomadic hunter-gatherers, living in jungles and forests. Often described as shorter and darker than neighboring tribes, the Kusunda’s language shows no similarities to surrounding tongues, something that has baffled experts and observers alike.
The Kusunda first appeared in the literature in 1848, when British naturalist and ethnologist Brian Houghton Hodgson described them thus: “Amid the dense forests of the central region of Nepal, to the westward of the great valley, dwell, in scanty numbers and nearly in a state of nature, two broken tribes having no apparent affinity with the civilized races of that country, and seeming like the fragments of an earlier population.”
The Kusunda, according to Hodgson, who had just concluded a turbulent tenure as British Resident in Nepal, were one of these ‘broken tribes’, while the Chepang were the other. In an article in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, Hodgson described the Chepang, on linguistic grounds, as closely related to the Lhopa of Bhutan. They were presumed to have split off from this group and moved west.
It took Hodgson nine more years to publish the first linguistic data on Kusunda and other Nepalese languages. While he did not specifically discuss Kusunda in detail, his data showed that Kusunda bore no resemblance to any of the other languages he studied. While some additional data on the Kusunda people and tongue began appearing over a century after Hodgson’s findings, more recent research places Kusunda in the Indo-Pacific family.
This is a startling revelation considering that the Indo-Pacific family is located on New Guinea and surrounding islands. The possibility that Kusunda may be a remnant of the migration that led to the initial inhabitation of New Guinea and Australia has raised enthusiastic calls for additional investigation.
By some estimates, over a dozen languages indigenous to Nepal are now endangered because of their tininess of the concerned populations. Those claiming that Nepal’s indigenous languages have suffered sustained discrimination and domination from the state as well as from other dominant language communities are leading the march towards national renewal.
The provision of the right to education in one’s own mother tongue and the granting of equal legal rights to the practice of all national languages are no doubt significant developments. Yet in the basket of real and manufactured grievances that confront the architects of change, what value can one language – even one as unusual as Kusunda – really hold. And, as the debate raging globally around the world underscores, are dying languages even worth saving?
In one sense, Kusunda has proved resilient. In his early work, Hodgson had predicted that the Kusunda people and their language would die off in a few generations. Today, there still are about a 100 people from the community living in Nepal. Yet that is small comfort, which becomes apparent from Gyani Maiya Sen’s comments to BBC reporter Bimal Gautam.
 “Fortunately I can also speak Nepali,” she says. “But I feel very sad for not being able to speak my own language with people from my own community.” Sen adds: “Although there are still other people from the Kusunda tribe still alive, they neither understand nor speak the language. Other Kusunda people... can only speak a few Kusunda words, but can't communicate [fully] in the language.”
Then comes the ultimate lament. “The Kusunda language will die with me.” Her plea reverberates across a nation fiercely proud of its heritage but also united in its helplessness.