The glorious Assamese medium years

[ Denhang Bosai ]
I have always maintained that the word ‘education’ is a broad term. It is not just about reading books and accumulating knowledge. It is as vast as the ocean. The great patriotic saint of India, Swami Vivekananda, said, “Each soul is potentially divine.” He also said, “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man.”
My father was a simple villager who had no formal education at all, but he was much more educated than me in many practical fields. In fact, his pragmatic knowledge of life was more useful than my bookish knowledge. The degree that I earned after years of toil and moil was no doubt instrumental in providing me a good and steady government job, but I cannot equate it with the amount of practical knowledge about life that I learned from my illiterate but highly educated father.
All said and done, today, I am saddened to observe the plummeting standard of education, especially vis-à-vis moral and ethical education, in the schools and colleges. The education which is being imparted today in the schools is examination-centric and not much to do with the practical lessons of life. The students just want to pass in their examinations, and the teachers also work only with the motive of seeing their students get through the examinations.
About the teacher-taught relation, the lesser said the better. There is no love lost between the teachers and students these days. It is going from bad to worse – a profoundly worrying trend indeed. The students take great pride in the fact that they study in English medium schools. But paradoxically, only a few of them are proficient and well-versed in English. It is food for thought, really. During the Assamese medium days, the students were not only well-versed in the Assamese language but were also more efficient in practical fields as co- curricular activities were made compulsory.
I was fortunate to experience the wonder years of Assamese medium education during the formative years in the primary school when I was a small boy. I am talking about the 50s and the late 60s, when the medium of instruction was Assamese language in all the schools of Arunachal Pradesh (formerly North-Eastern Frontier Agency.) The teaching-learning process was totally different then, unlike what we see today. We literally treated the schools as temples of learning and our teachers, mostly Assamese, as gods. The relation we had with our teachers was sacrosanct and yet very cordial. We used to enjoy going to the school then, because the Assamese teachers then created an ambience conducive to learning by engaging the students in gardening, cane work, games and sports, and cultural and literary activities.
During the cold winter, the teachers would conduct the classes outside the school building, amidst the flowers and natural environs, which enabled us to enjoy the warm sunlight. I used to love those classes in the school premises. The teachers loved us like their own children. Though they were very strict at times, they had that strong urge and determination to build our career. We were also very sincere in studies and literally burnt the midnight lamp.
Unlike in the English medium pattern of learning in the schools, the lessons and the poems during the Assamese medium days were very interesting and meaningful, conveying moral lessons. I still remember some of the poems and titles of lessons in lower classes: ‘Moromor ai kune muk tuli-tali korile dangor, mouhona mitha mate pahori bhagor’, ‘Hookh hookh buli manu bolia nedekhe’, ‘Hookhor mukh hookh bisarungte paye honharot dookhor uportu dookh’…
Apart from these, ‘Soor’, ‘Bordoisila’, ‘Huwoni Amar Gaon’, ‘Ratipua’, etc, were so beautifully written and contained moral lessons. I later studied in English medium school and college. As a child I found English poems like ‘Baba black sheep…’, ‘Jack and Jill went up the hill…’, etc, not at all appealing, as they hardly conveyed any moral lesson.
I still have lots of love and respect for those Assamese teachers who treated us like their own children. We so loved them that we would turn-wise go to the teachers’ quarters in a group and sleep there because those days the teachers’ quarters were situated on the outskirt of the village, sometimes about 2-3 kms away. We would collect firewood and fetch water for our teacher, and also help him in other chores like cleaning utensils, cooking, etc. Our teacher would tell stories at night. There used to be a particular day in a month when all the students would contribute a bundle of dry firewood to the teacher. The teachers then would treat the village in which they were serving as theirs and would participate in the village’s community hunting, fishing, festivals and other community activities like house construction and jungle clearance, and so on and so forth.
There was one Gohain sir, from Naharkatia in Assam, who was an accomplished swimmer. During one of the community fishing, it was he who caught the maximum fishes. Another very popular teacher was Deori sir, who was an expert hunter. My villagers still fondly remember teachers like Mahanta sir, Sarma sir, Kalita sir, Borah baideo, and many others. They were so concerned about their students that they would visit the houses of their children to inspect and check whether they were studying at home. They would also interact with the parents. The parents loved and respected them like one of their own. Such was the rapport they enjoyed. The Assamese teachers would sometimes take their students along with them when they went home during the vacation. This would facilitate in giving the much needed exposure to the students.
Those days, Assamese Bihu and Piriti songs were very popular among the young boys and girls. Some of them mastered these songs so well that even Assamese people in Assam used to be surprised when they heard them sing. The youths of the village would sing Assamese Piriti songs to woo their prospective lovers. Young boys who were well-versed in singing Assamese songs were very popular among the girls. The young boys and girls would gather at a particular place in the village to partake in Bihu dance even during normal days and not only during the Bihu festival in Assam. Later, Assamese was introduced as the third language in the schools, and subsequently replaced by Sanskrit.
I sincerely feel that Assamese should be the third language instead of Sanskrit, because Assamese would be useful for the students. Sanskrit is of not much use as a third language. During my schooling days in Ramakrishna Mission School, Narottam Nagar, in Tirap district, the third language was Sanskrit, after replacing Assamese. We simply memorized some slokas to pass in the examination. In practical life, it was of absolutely no use. But Assamese would have helped us in improving our communication skill in Assam, where we visit every time for marketing, medical treatment and higher studies. Assam being our next door neighbour, Assamese is of immense use.
Literary luminaries from Arunachal Pradesh, like late Lummer Dai, who wrote the popular novels in Assamese ‘Pahare Hile Hile’, ‘Pithibir Hanhi’, ‘Kannya Mullya’, etc, and YD Thongchi, who also wrote the popular novel ‘Sonam’ in Assamese, besides other popular Assamese novels, are today household names in Assam. Their names are taken with great love and respect by the intelligentsia of Assam. Had the Assamese been used as the third language in schools, who knows, we may have produced more Dais and Thongchis.
In Tirap district, all the villages, especially in the lower belt, had a Namghar each, built under the aegis of Merbil Chaliha Bareghar Satra at Sasoni near Naharkatia in Assam.
The story of Narottam, who became a famous disciple of Sri Ram of the Satra, is very popular. Earlier known by the name of Lotha Khunbao, a Nocte chief from present Namsang village, Narottam (Nar-Uttam) was christened by his guru Sri Ram because Sri Ram was highly impressed by the spiritual knowledge, devotion, discipline and overall personality of Lotha Khunbao. I had earlier written an exhaustive article on Narottam. The Noctes of Tirap district embraced Vaisnavism with the influence of the Gohains or Gorkhais from the Satra, which was later discontinued due to the lackadaisical attitude of the Mahantas and Gurkhais. They could not carry forward the wonderful effort made by their predecessors. It is a sad episode indeed. However, having said this, I have the feeling that the Assamese intelligentsia in the past did not contribute enough to influence the tribes of Arunachal in terms of language, religion and culture. Although most of the tribes living on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra still use Assamese as the lingua franca, the tribes residing on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra use Hindi as the common language for communication.
Though the past cannot return, I derive a special feeling of immense satisfaction when I recall my association with my loving and respected Assamese teachers, who sacrificed so much to show us the light of knowledge. But for their guidance and selfless services, I would have been a villager now, toiling hard in the jhum fields instead of writing this humble article. (The writer is Deputy Director, Information & Public Relations, and can be reached at [email protected]).