|Visitors at the 72nd biennial session of Asam Sahitya Sabha at Barpeta Road. File picture
Seriously, not if you have words that begin or end with an X, not when the all-important letter makes for crucial internal rhyme in a pretty poem, not when you are speaking Assamese, or Axomiya.
Not when the difference can be as subtle as that which exists between an asterisk and Asterix.
Not when xorai is a tray with a stand that we make offerings on, and sorai is a bird. Not when xari is a sari, and sari is four. Not when xitol is cool and sitol is a fish. Definitely not when moi xui aso is “I am sleeping” and moi sui aso is “I am touching”! There’s the rub, you see.
But there is a nice new trend, or at least the beginning of it, and it begins with this entire bunch of people I see on Facebook, who carry the surname Xaikia, not Saikia. So there’s Pronab Xaikia, Nayan Xaikia, Ruma Xaikia, Alex Manoj Xaikia, Dhruva Jyoti Bor Xaikia, not Saikia. Going by their profile pictures, they are all young people. Good show.
I never tire of telling people we are like that. I never also tire of telling people that we Assamese, minus an alphabet that goes “cha” or “cho” as it is with Hindi and Bengali will forever have to settle for sip, sop, sau and sutney instead of chip, chop, chow and chutney.
And that, minus that chime of a cha and a cho, Alfred Hitchcock will always turn heads and raise eyebrows in Assamese. But so what?
We still love something, not lau it, as would be the case among a lot of south Indians.
And never expect a newspaper story on hairfall here to flash a headline that goes “Hair today, gone tomorrow” because here in the Northeast version of the Queen’s English, far away from London and Ludhiana, we have still managed to retain that all-important difference in our pronunciation of “hair” and “here”. In the Hindi heartland, and Punjab, it’s mostly all “hair”.
Then again, I have also had to explain, while my Delhi friends have guffawed, that Chutia, the Assamese surname, is actually Sutia.
Not to mention that I have also attempted, with the best of my philosophical finesse, to try and explain to them that it’s okay to have someone called Hitler, Hilarious, Oral and Frankenstein in Meghalaya, saying what a Garo gentleman once told me of their choice of names: “Life is too serious anyway, so why not have names that can take away some of the gloom?”
My friends haven’t accepted that line of reasoning yet, but that’s their problem really, we are good.
But back to our language and our peoples. As the Asam Sahitya Sabha met at Barpeta Road this week and last to mull matters of Assamese literature and language, there were two messages that struck me on Facebook. “As the 72nd biennial session of Asam Sahitya Sabha, the apex literary and cultural body of the state, gets under way, I cherish the heritage of my great grandfather, late Amrit Bhusan Dev Adhikari who was its fifth president,” said one. “Extremely proud to be his descendant. We need to take pride in our rich tradition and cultural heritage. I feel truly proud and blessed to be an Assamese.”
The lady posting the message was Madhuchanda Adhikari, manager, corporate communications, Numaligarh Refineries Ltd.
The reply to her post was as poignant: “Wow! I never knew that. You must be so proud of him... love Axom Xahitya Xobha...” Anita Baruah, senior policy analyst with the Australian Public Service, said from Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. “Did you also know that my great grandfather late Padmanath Gohain Baruah was its first president? Siro senehi mor Bhaxa jononi...” The last bit, meaning “eternally love the language of my motherland” in Assamese, is the Sabha’s slogan.
Beyond the precincts of the Sabha and the love we have for our language, though, we are in a bit of trouble.
Many schools, especially those from the CBSE format do not teach Assamese at all. Schools such as St Edmund’s in Shillong have stopped teaching the language. In Assamese schools themselves, teachers don’t often teach pronunciation seriously.
So you have the zippy-zappy lot for whom every “jo” in Assamese is now a “z” and every “o” an “u”. It’s stylish they say, and believe. So it’s moi zaam, for I am going, when it should have been moi jaam, it’s mur mur bixaise when it should be mor mur bixaise (mur mur would be head head rather than “my head”) — the list as they say is endless.
And among those who are now part of the trend, are many of our actors, and radio jockeys and video jockeys, people who are meant to be role models.
And then there’s the whooping cough lot that needs to be taken care of, for whom every “x” is an “h”. So expect a salvo of moi hunisilo for “I heard” instead of moi xunisilo, and they could come from the nearest Assamese school, you know.
So if you had a non-Assamese wanting to learn the basics of the language, leave it to the trendy lot to do the job and they will teach it all wrong. Our media, which would be entrusted with the job of carrying the language out beyond our borders, are often too zippy zappy for the real thing. But that’s the downside. The upside is our people are taking the language to the country and the world. There are so many from the “mainland” who are Hindi-speaking and Bengali and Tamil, but make that effort to say Axomiya instead of Assamese. People a long way from the time when we were called the Asami or the Ashami.
Haven’t we all learnt to say \or-d-vr\ for hors d’ oeuvre because that is what the French say, and Xo-se Feliciano for José Feliciano, because that is what the Puerto Ricans say, and ([ko-ik-o-] for Kozhikode because that is what the Malayalis say? So can we, as northeasterners, teach people to say khmat in Khasi for eyes without a vowel between the “k” and “h”? And teach others to pronounce the X in Assamese? Being X-rated really isn’t so bad you know. It’s our language.