Let me start this book review with three definitions: Ethnography is the study of cultures through close observation, reading and interpretation. Literature has been applied to the imaginative works of poetry and prose. Linguistics is the scientific study of languages, language form, language meaning and language in context.
This book, written by two English scholars and an Anthropologist, has been the outcome of an ethnographic, literary and linguistic research study on a language, almost extinct, and the culture of an Adivasi community based in Ishaqpur in Joypurhat and Pakri in Rajshahi districts. The commendable research study was taken up by the three scholars from Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) which gives meaningful insights into the language, Lahra, spoken by a very small community of 215 people in that area. The authors worked hard, completed the study and presented us a brilliant opportunity to understand the ethnography and language of that community which were beyond our reach.
Language defines humans. Therefore all the civilizations were built around languages. Language is not only a code or a means of communication, rather it is what defines the entire life of a community. The researchers wanted to learn about the Lahra language, life of the people who speak that language and their contemporary life.
The authors took up this study in 2012 and through many field trips during 2012 and 2013, did a quantitative survey of the said community and then through intensive interviews, focus group discussions, observations and readings found out the community's language, culture and history.
The book is a compilation of three research papers. The first paper attempts at describing the life and living of the community from an ethnographic standpoint. This paper also describes the complete lifestyle of the Lahra people. In the second paper, they present a portion of the lexicon they have compiled from Joypurhat and elucidate the phonology of the language by listing and describing the consonants and vowels of this language. A list of words is also presented which may be used by future lexicographers as a basis for a complete study and compilation of the Lahra lexicon. The third paper starts the process of preserving the language and the literature of this community. The transcription and the basis for using the word “Lahra” to refer to the language of this community are also discussed.
The research finally discovered that Lahra was a language on the verge of extinction. It also revealed that many Lahra communities of similar sizes (approximately 100 or so) exist in the northern districts of Bangladesh. According the Ishaqpur Lahra people, riots in the 1960's between Hindus/Adivasis and Muslims led to their exodus from India and they settled down first in Bogra and then migrated to Rajshahi. The Pakri Lahra community obliquely referred to the 1971 Independence War and said all Adivasis had to flee to India when their homes were razed to the ground. After the War they returned to their old hearths and homes.
The detailed baseline survey on the community shows that there are 215 people living in these two villages. The survey also depicts their gender, education, occupation, type of households, possessions, wage per head and phone expenses. Very few, only 11, have finished class ten and 80 are absolutely illiterate. The community belongs to Sanatan Hindu religion and Kormokar by caste.
The Lahra is an oral language. There are no written scripts. Because of introduction of Bangla in the schools and the community, the speakers are forgetting their original words and expressions in Lahra and thus the language is becoming extinct. The study has a list of each and every member of the Lahra people in these two villages, with their names, education, age, occupation etc.
Interestingly, the researchers have used Arial Unicode MS to transcribe the data. For recording the data they also used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This was done because, if and when the community decides to write their language and use the Bangla or Roman or any other script, the script could be incorporated to this research work. The research has discussed about the sound system of the Lahra language and also given a list of their sounds and words which are similar to Sanskrit, Hindi and Bangla. For example, Ageh means before, bat is rice, Sandzi means evening or sunset.
Finally the book discusses about the songs, rhymes, oral traditions and stories explaining people's interpretations. The study also describes the hopes and aspirations of the community through recording and analyzing their songs which are at the core of their beliefs and cultures.
This book has been extremely valuable, informative and educative. It gives the reader knowledge and information on the life and culture of a very small community which still speaks their language. It also raises questions that could be researched in the future to find ways to learn more to preserve an almost extinct language and culture.
I congratulate the authors to have taken up this remarkable and fascinating study and bring up to the reader an exceptional portrayal of a community in the northern Bangladesh about which most of us do not know.
Dr. Salehuddin Ahmed is a freelance contributor.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org