On an 80-year-old living in this small village in the valley of Jorethang,on the West Bengal-Sikkim border,rests the hopes of Indias most threatened language. Thak Majhi is among the four recognised speakers of Majhi,once the flourishing mother tongue of his hill tribe,deriving its name from their main occupation as boatmen.
From 10-year-olds to adults,everyone in the area knows Thak and his unique connection to Majhi. The octogenarian,belonging to the oldest family in Majhigaon,himself doesnt speak much. His grandsons who surround him say he is an orthodox man who has been disheartened by the infusion of the Hindi culture in his tribe.
The dialect that he learnt from his parents as a boy is slowly fading even to him under the dominance of this Hindi culture and the vestiges of age. Apart from him,only Iswari Prasad Majhi of the four Majhi families here knows it now. Fifty-year-old Iswari is among the ones fighting the hardest to keep it alive. Anil Majhi,50,and Sisir Emmanual Mark Majhi,29,Anils relative,also speak Majhi,but in snatches.
The script itself is believed to have been lost more than 100 years ago.
Thak speaks with nostalgia about his dying mother tongue. Majhi was the language of fishermen in the hills. It was a tribal language which never had any proximity to Nepali and Hindi. However,since the influence of Nepali culture is predominant,the next generation has accepted Nepali as the mother tongue. I too hardly remember Majhi now, he says.
Once Majhis were the only ones who could ferry people across the Rangeet river in Sikkim. Steering a boat in a rapid mountain stream like Rangeet was an art only known to the Majhi tribe. The Majhi community made a special boat using stems of trees locally available, says Anil,a member of another Majhi family from the village. Boating and fishing in the river were their main occupations.
Their religious rituals continue to involve Rangeet. We worship mountains and trees,but the main religious festival involves going to the riverbed of Rangeet and praying to the river lord, says Sisir. His wing of the family has however converted to Christianity now.
Both Anil and Sisir say they hope to keep the Majhi language alive. I learnt several words in Majhi from my grandfather,who is no more. I collected some other terms from some of the elders in the village. But except for Thak Majhi,all those people who knew the language well are dead. We have found out that there is a group in Nepal trying to revive the language, says Sisir.
The Majhis are also unhappy that while they wanted to be listed as a hill tribe,the Sikkim government considers them a Scheduled Caste.
Balaram Pandey,a professor at Sikkim Central University who worked on the Sikkim part of the Peoples Linguistic Survey of India,says,We have been working on the Majhi language for a long time. We have submitted a report to the government,but our work is still on. We have also tried to document the folks songs passed on verbally.
Pandey says the loss of Majhi doesnt just mean the death of a language but the end of a way of life. Since Nepali groups are predominant,they have taken over the Majhi culture, he says.