Resurrecting linguistic diversity

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Trans-cultural collaboration may be the key to saving ancient language practices

Ali Cobby Eckermann

What can India teach Australia about representing minority groups? As a thriving social model, quite a lot actually, given its rich ethnic inheritance that not only spans thousands of years, but is also being successfully carried forward into the future.

Keeping Languages Alive, a short but meaningful discussion at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival, drew many parallels between the two nations’ linguistic and cultural legacies and the crucial work that remains to be carried out.

While India is often acknowledged among the elder civilisations of the world, the role and relevance of Indigenous peoples in Australia is erroneously overlooked and often even denied. The outlook, though, is brightening as efforts are being made to shed the monolingual approach in Australia and revive dying linguistic traditions.

Moderated by Roanna Gonsalves, the forum brought together Aboriginal writer Ali Cobby Eckermann, caste inequality crusader and Navayana publisher S. Anand, director of Monash University’s Asia Institute Mridula Nath Chakraborty and McKenzie postdoctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne Samia Khatun for a fascinating peek into the multilingual literary hierarchical space. The conversation explored how India and Australia could engage through performance and discussion.

Mridula Chakraborty is of course well known in Indian Australian literary circles for facilitating the Australia India Literary Forum (AILIF). Following on from AILIF, which tested hitherto uncharted waters, much artistic collaboration has been happening between the two nations, particularly in the realm of translation. Working through diverse linguistic terrain, the Literary Commons was a direct outcome of the cross-cultural exchange.

Fighting battles against homogenisation, language forever transfers itself with new meanings, leaving a deep anthropological footprint, says Chakraborty.

In an era where English is increasingly establishing its stranglehold as medium of communication, the importance of the mother tongue as the ultimate expression of unique identity is not lost.

“One’s mother tongue is the soul of our existence and without it we are lesser individuals,” Eckermann poignantly noted.

At once our anchor and our wings, language is beyond utterance, breaking down barriers and transcending boundaries.

Dr Samia Khatun

Growing up in Sydney, it is Bangla that eventually helped Dr Khatun understand her roots and embrace her identity. Ironically, her quest for her heritage took her to remote central Australia.

“A surprising discovery of a Quran in Broken Hill led me to a working class text in Bangla. What came out of the woodwork were Urdu, Persian and Arabic sources that eventually led me to history telling and sources in Aboriginal marriages,” she recounted. Khatun’s research examines connections between South Asia and Australia using Aboriginal and South Asian linguistic materials. She is now working on the 400-year-old history of textile workers from time of Mughal Bengal to contemporary Bangladesh.

Marrying Hindustani musical notes to an Aboriginal poetry reading, the audience was treated to soul stirring performance, indicating magical possibilities of future trans-cultural collaboration.

Tracing India and Australia’s shared anthropological history through ancient Gondwana land, S. Anand spoke about his personal experiences in India’s fledgling multilingual publishing space.

“I work in the institution of castes,” he declared.

His publishing house is aptly titled ‘Navayana’ or ‘new vehicle’ and Anand hopes to carry the torch for an unbiased society where individuality carries more value than one’s role or place in society.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Too Afraid to Cry, a powerful memoir on the Stolen Generation, is among the many cross-cultural experiences now available to a broader audience through Navayana.