Was Thomas Jones the Father of Khasi Alphabet?

It is widely believed that when the Khasi translations of two Catechisms (one English and one Welsh) by the Reverend Thomas Jones were published in 1842 they gave birth to the Khasi alphabet in its Roman script. The short release of breath that was ‘A’ now stood without its constant companions ‘NG’ with lines running up, down and across it and looking particularly constipated and miserable in its lower case. But it also stood as a vindication for the Welsh and their civilizing mission having thus successfully mid wived the written word out of the Khasis’ womb. The process is beyond dispute; the missionaries gave us the written word though it could have easily been Bengali rather than Roman. It is in this process that a complex history of battling calligraphies contrived to sort out an oral tradition that they considered to be uncivilized. Various actors played their part but perhaps the billing may have gone a bit awry.thomas-jones

It is not as well known, as it should be, that the first published form of the Khasi language was in the Bengali script when William Carey and his Serampore Baptists brought out a version of the New Testament in 1824 (with an expanded version containing 898 pages called the Khasee New Testament coming out in 1831)1. But its use of the Shella dialect and the lack of acceptance for Bengali beyond the southern slopes of the hills meant that the ‘First Khasi Bible’ remained a mere novelty – something talked about but not read. This, however, didn’t deter the Baptist Mission in Serampore from sending A.B Lish to these hills for further efforts at proselytising the natives.

Alexander Burgh Lish was what people in those days euphemistically called a ‘Eurasian’ and what Khasi modern colloquialism would classify as a ‘Shipiah’ (even though his mother was a Sylheti woman, being half-white meant he would’ve been a highly regarded shipiah). Lish arrived in Sohra in 1832 armed with the ill fated Khasee New Testament and promptly employed the services of U Duwan – one of the first Khasi converts to Christianity.2 In a short time, Lish managed to establish schools in Sohra, Mawsmai and Mawmluh and initially instructed his students in English. But, as if to give the Khasee New Testament another push among the Khasis, he changed the medium of instruction to Bengali saying that ‘it seemed pretty intelligible to them’. His efforts paid off in fits and starts where on the one hand, as many as 36 students were recorded to have been enrolled in the early years and by mid 1837 some ‘boys of the first class’ had learnt to read the four gospels and some parts of the Book of Genesis in English while also managing to read other lessons in Khasi using the Bengali script. It seems that some of these boys had also been trained to translate from Khasi to English and vice versa. But, on the other hand, his assessment of Bengali being ‘pretty intelligible to them’ proved off the mark for all the other boys as little progress was made using it as a medium of instruction and enrollments slowly dwindled.calcuttachristia cover

Lish gave it his best shot in these hills establishing a boarding school for boys in Sohra and translating a number of texts which included primers for school education, translations of the Gospel of Matthew and Dr Watt’s First Catechism for Children (which was sub titled as ‘Translated into Khasee for the Use of the Churra Mission Schools’). In 1835 Lish even took a group of Khasi youths to Calcutta in some sort of ‘excursion’ trip, or what development NGOs today would call an ‘exposure visit’. But the Khasis at the time proved impervious to the ‘Good News’ with the weekly newspaper Friend of India attributing this to their ‘determination to receive no more nominal adherence to the Gospel, as to any strong reluctance on their part to renounce their idolatry’. Lish left these hills in 1838 and soon after his essay ‘A Brief Account of the Khasees’ was published in the Calcutta Christian Observer.Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 10.45.53 pm

In the essay, Lish gives a somewhat condescending overview of the social, political, cultural and religious life of the Khasis with certain passages being downright disdainful. In short it was a document of its time – paternalistic, racist and infuriatingly inaccurate. But at the end of the essay, Lish undertakes an exercise that he thought ‘may not be uninteresting’. And in his effort to provide a specimen of a verb in all its tenses and of a few common-place words’ in the Khasi language, he ended up creating a document which now stands as the tablet on which the first Khasi words were etched in their Roman form. The rudimentary grammatical structure on which our verbs are supposed to work might be inaccurate and his transliteration of some Khasi words should give the present day Khasi reader cause for much amusement. But in spite of his imperfect renditions of our present perfect tenses (nga lalawan), this Eurasian lad had already laid out on a page at a time when  “The founding father of the Khasi alphabets and literature” was just making up his mind to come to these hills.Lish language

There is no doubt that Thomas Jones’ efforts at codifying the Khasi language were more sustained and purposeful. His translations, books, almanacs and primers are the source of an uninterrupted flow of Khasi literature that stretches up to now. He laid the foundation on which William Pryse, John Roberts, Jeebon Roy, Soso Tham, H. Elias, Homiwell Lyngdoh, Mondon Bareh and others built the structure and form of the Khasi language. But, it is a fact, that he was not the first to render the Khasi word into roman script. That credit goes to Alexander Burgh Lish.

A brief Account of the Khasees

Notes

  1. There are reports that suggest that Khasi translations in the Bengali script of the Gospel of Matthew may have been circulated by the Serampur Mission to the Khasis in the Sylheti plains in as early as 1817.
  1. In 1813, U Duwan along with U Anna was converted in the plains of Pandua by Krishna Chandra Pal who in turn was William Carey’s first Indian convert. This would make Pal the first missionary among the Khasis. It was reported that Duwan’s baptism was conducted in a river near Pandua in the traditional Baptist way and was witnessed by 8 Syiems and 600 Khasi people.

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K Mark Swer Written by:

K Mark Swer is a filmmaker, writer and a radio artist. He is a resident rock critic for raiot.

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