Al Chiki, a date with the colourful Santalis!

At the Chanakya BNR heritage hotel in Puri, on an October 2012 forenoon, I am sitting with fourteen Santali translators to finalize the anthology of forty post-independent Odia short stories in Santali translation. The men, led by Dr Damayanti Beshra, academic and Santali language expert, the Director of this particular translation project, have travelled three hundred plus kilometers, from several Odishan interior neighborhoods, to reach the holy town. The event has been sponsored by Sahitya Akademi (New Delhi).

‘Santali short stories are still very elementary; they parrot slogans and are rhetorical. The translation of Odia short stories into Santali is an exercise to expose the writers to ‘high’ literature,’ Anpa Marandi, a meek participant justifies.

Among other fringe excitements – some are visiting Puri and Lord Jagannath for the first time. There is a shared euphoria about the date 22 December, 2003, the day that saw culmination of about a century-long battle of a community to reorder the dynamics of the country’s linguistic demography – Al Chiki, the Santali script entered the Eighth Schedule of Indian Constitution. Scripted by Pandit Raghunath Murmu, Al Chiki had had the sanction of King Pratap Chandra Bhanja of the Princely state of Mayurbhanj years ago in 1925, but the Indian Government seal had been eluding the calligraphy.

Mayurbhanj, the northern most frontier district of Odisha rears sixty-five percent Santalis. Keonjhar district shares the next major bulk of the community; the steel town of Rourkela too flaunts a sizable presence. Marriages occur within the community.  Twelve surnames attest Santali identity: Beshra, Murmu, Hansdah, Hembram, Marandi etc… Two from the surnames are no longer in sight, a tragic inevitability in the march of civilization.

A participant says he is particularly sensitive to the cause of Santali language and literature as we must protect identities at the margins. The enthusiasm and commitment of the participants is honest and laudable. I learn, three such seminars have been conducted in the year before. The gathering is an assortment where age and professions have collapsed: a bank officer is comfortable beside an academic; an insurance company employee argues about the nuances of Santali with a school teacher – lots of activities, animated and subdued would fill up the 10-to-5 (with a Spartan one-hour lunch-break) work hours of the workshop for the next four days, under the passionate scrutiny of Jadumani Beshra, a professor at IIT, Kharagpur, who has volunteered to answer the call of the mother tongue.

The anthology has taken Odia short stories in the time-warp of independence or thereabouts. By authors of impeccable merit and commitment: Basant Satpathy,  Bhubaneswar Behera…  ‘A beginning to foreground Santali language and literature against the national and international backdrop’ a participant in traditional clothing tries to explain. Challenges nee handicaps galore; Santali writers, critics and translators must compete with other Indian language literature writers – cynicism replaces euphoria.

Yet an identity struggle, for a race, seldom goes waste; by any objective assessment this event spells a triumph for those at the margins. Anpa Marandi is now a Faculty at the Department of Odia, Utkal University, a respectable platform for the cause he was part of five years ago.

And the sprawling Chanakya BNR, witness to exquisite anecdotes of Indian history, would quietly associate itself with another momentous anecdote – the first Santali version of short stories by illustrious Odia writers.