So Much to Learn, So Little Language

My project is with Bhasha, known in Gujarat as Bhasha Sansodhan Prakashan Kendra (Language Research and Publication Center). Bhasha works with tribal and adivasi (indigenous communities) in India. There are about 104 million adivasis across the country, and about 60 million Indians fall under what is called nomadic or “denotified” Tribe – meaning they were at one time officially designated as criminal gangs by the British and often subjected to forced labor and migration.[1],[2] Although the designation has been dropped in the Indian constitution, the denial of tribal communities’ civil rights and stigmas against their cultures have persisted. My goal during the AIF fellowship is to learn from tribal communities about their worldview, and their local approaches to solve problems.

Bhasha works to help tribal communities accomplish their goals, as well as educate the public – Indians and non-Indians, tribals and non-tribals, about tribal culture. Bhasha staff research and conduct advocacy about social, religious, and agricultural practices of tribal communities and are documenting tribal and Indian languages. Beyond its thought leadership, Bhasha also manages an alternative education program (Vasantshala), a local health clinic, a library and a museum.

Vasantshala educates children from tribal families who have dropped out of the government school system or have gaps in their education. While government school teachers generally teach in Gujarati state languages (Gujarati and Hindi) at school, some of Vasantshala’s students may not speak either at home or are only familiar with the language of their tribe. The Vasantshala teachers are mostly from tribal communities themselves and incorporate tribal languages and traditions familiar to the students. My project is to study the extent that this model can help prepare out-of-school tribal children to return to school and continue successfully.

What Can Be Learned

When I asked Bhasha’s librarian for the title of his favorite book, he handed me Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule, a series of essays by Mahatma Gandhi. I borrowed an old, tiny copy using someone else’s library membership. Gandhi wrote Hind Swaraj to strategize a civil rights movement in South Africa in 1908, and later applied his arguments to the Indian independence movement.[3] It’s written as a dialogue, and he advocates to the reader a future in which Indians aspire to and live by uniquely local values, where those who hold the most resources and power do not define progress for the nation.

Gandhi quote on rural India
A quote by Mahatma Gandhi hangs in an office at Bhasha campus. Photo credit: Lina Khan.

Turning this vision into a reality requires, in part, learning from rural or other traditionally ignored communities that may not subscribe to the dominant definition of progress, and understanding how to honor and support them. Along these lines, Bhasha collaborates with tribal communities, researchers and activists to create a body of tribal knowledge and support tribal communities’ priorities. Its founder, Dr. Ganesh Devy, has called Bhasha’s efforts an ‘experiment’ in empowering tribal people through an improved understanding (by both tribal and non-tribal society) about tribal arts and culture.[4] How can tribal people work towards their own definition of development, without leaving behind their homes, cultures or languages? I also wonder, what can the rest of the society learn from tribal communities? I am immensely curious about what has and will come out of Bhasha’s experiment, but I don’t know how to ask the right questions yet.



Language problems

Bhasha’s Adivasi Adademy campus is located in the village of Tejgadh, Gujarat, within view of Koraj Hill, a green mass that anchors a mostly rural landscape. On some days, the hill appears clearly outlined against a blue sky; on others it is faded by dust and a haze of heat. Koraj Hill brings to mind what Tejgadh could have looked like when dinosaurs existed.

Bhasha's Adivasi Academy campus
Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy campus is located in the village of Tejgadh, Gujarat. The green and fuzzy giant in the background is Koraj Hill. Photo credit: Lina Khan.

My first morning walking the 20 minutes from my apartment to Bhasha’s campus, I followed women wearing loosely wrapped, brightly colored saris and carrying large bundles through what I thought was a shortcut, since we were circling Koraj Hill. Even in the morning, the sun was beating down bright and hot. They eventually stopped at the edge of a large field, and I knew I was lost. Some of the women looked at me curiously but didn’t seem upset that I followed them without introducing myself. Aware of the absurdly copious rivers of sweat running down my face and soaking my t-shirt, I asked where I might find the ‘Adivasi Academy.’ I got confused expressions in return, but when I tried ‘Bhasha’ they immediately understood.

Through a series of gestures, one of the women seemed to ask if I was capable of walking on my own once she pointed me in the right direction. She thought better of it and led me down a shady path until we reached crops of tall stalks, then asked some farmers if it was okay for me to cut through their fields or if they were willing to lead me (or both, I’m not sure). In any case, the farmers encouraged onwards in the fresh dirt between the plants until we reached the low wall that borders Bhasha’s campus.

I made it that time, but I have what my supervisors at work call a language problem. I struggle with Gujarati and Hindi, and even Bangla (my parents’ native language); further, I am unfamiliar with Rathwi and other tribal languages spoken in and around Tejgadh. I was interested to learn that the British banned Gandhi from publishing Hind Swaraj in his native Gujarati. Is that where the Gujarati language pride I’ve heard about comes from? Gujarati has enough cognates with Bangla to make me think I can follow along, but in reality, I’m only catching a fraction, maybe 5%. Through classes and self-study, I have begun learning Gujarati and Hindi—and have unwittingly put myself in the same boat as the Vasantshala students. Vasantshala is designed to bring students with different levels of Gujarati and Hindi language ability up to speed, across the spectrum of reading, writing and speaking.

In a one-week Hindi language class I took recently, my classmates’ and my abilities also varied. The teachers had us practice both writing and speaking, but after we felt like we could absorb no more grammar rules, one teacher agreed to let us test our comprehension of a Hindi song.[5] I had already attempted to translate it with my sister and knew we hadn’t understood all of it but felt satisfied that we had gotten the general picture. The class exercise proved me wrong. I totally missed a poetic take on the confidante-like relationship a writer shares with a typewriter, and how it can be used as a vehicle to reach one’s special someone.

I am alarmed by the possibility of missing the heart (and the art) from future interactions due to language problems while I’m here. I see the value but know it will be a challenge to bring my language up to speed enough (and not to mention unearthing subconscious biases) to be able to learn another worldview and carry out my project. I wonder if Vasantshala students arrive at Bhasha’s campus feeling daunted in the same way.

Birthday celebration

During my first week in Tejgadh, I lived in a guestroom on campus located a short distance from the student dormitories. At night, at lunchtime, and in the morning, I could hear the students from Vasantshala singing. One morning I came by the outdoor classroom to see the students sitting on their individual straw mats in rows, the girls in salwar kameez with hair neatly combed, braided and tied with ribbon, and the boys in tucked in button-down shirts. They seemed more put together than usual, but then I noticed a framed picture of Gandhi propped on a table against the wall and draped with garlands of flowers. Tiny candles and incense were lit.

View from guesthouse
View from the guesthouse window on Bhasha campus. Singing children not pictured. Photo credit: Lina Khan

The teachers explained to me that today was the anniversary of Gandhi’s birthday (his 148th). They continued to explain in Gujarati, and perhaps other languages, about his legacy to the students. I could catch only a few words, about how Gandhi worked to unite the Hindus and Muslims. In Hind Swaraj, Gandhi writes that, “Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads so long as we reach the same goal?”[6] The same could be asked about India’s diverse ethnic and linguistic communities. But the muddled and perhaps less trusting side of me asks, what is the goal?

While they were sitting quietly, many of the kids were fidgeting, while the older students seemed to be listening more closely. How much were they taking in? Hopefully more than I had. I didn’t have the words, but I wanted to ask them what they thought of Gandhi’s work and whether they could relate. Thinking back to my own experiences celebrating an American visionary, Martin Luther King, Jr. (who learned from Gandhi’s civil disobedience approach), it took me until high school to really understand his achievements. They may not see it in themselves yet (or maybe some of them do), but these kids may shape whether India can embrace diversity of cultures and an inclusive vision of progress. ‘Inclusion’ is part of the current discourse on development. It’s my goal to translate that word into a relatable story, somehow.




[1] Note: Estimates based on a 2011 census. Adivasi & Bhasha. About Bhasha.> Accessed 23 October 2017.

[2] Devy, Ganesh N. “Culture and Development, an Experiment with Empowerment.” Field Actions Science Reports, Special Issue 7: 2013, Livelihoods. <> Accessed 22 October 2017.

[3] Gandhi, M.K. Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule. Jitendra T. Desai and Navajivan Publishing House, Ahemadabad, 1938. <> Accessed 29 October 2017.

[4] Devy, Ganesh N.

[5] Note: Our song of choice was “Typewriter Tip Tip Tip” by Asha Bhosle and Kisore Kumar from the 1970 film Bombay Talkie.

[6] Gandhi, M. K., p. 45.

Lina is excited to join Bhasha in its efforts to advance the goals of tribal communities, including helping educate kids in a nurturing environment and prepare them for a bright future. She is looking forward to meeting children, parents, and everyone else in her community, and using her limited Bengali to begin learning other Indian languages. Prior to the fellowship, Lina assessed federal programs in international trade, security, and environmental restoration for the Government Accountability Office, and supported monitoring and evaluation of democracy assistance programs for the National Democratic Institute. She has also volunteered with kids education programs in Washington, DC and with a water pipeline project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

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