That Mysterious Alphabet Named, and Other Adventures in Amateur Anthropology


Worth traveling 8,000 miles for

As alert readers of this blog know, I’m in Bangladesh in search of an endangered alphabet. To be specific, any one of the scripts used by one of the indigenous peoples living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in south-eastern Bangladesh, over toward the border with Myanmar.

Straight away, it’s only fair to say that I’ve massively underestimated how hard this field work is. All over the world, anthropologists and field linguists are smiling grimly. Yeah, we knew all along.

So here’s a brief rundown. First of all, the combination of the monsoon and the political/security situation–until recently there was virtual civil war in the area–makes it very hard for me to visit the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and the hartals have made it all but impossible for me even to visit Chittagong city. So it’s a question of who is in Dhaka, or who is willing to come to Dhaka.

Several people in Bangladesh and elsewhere suggested my best bet was to meet one of the Mro people, and sure enough I was able to gather several possible contacts.

It doesn’t help that the Mro, as a marginalized people, are not wealthy, so they can’t gad about at the whim of an amateur linguist—who is pretty much unable to gad about himself, as the hartals have shut down almost all forms of public transport, and I can’t get a car and driver from any of my host institutions because they won’t put a foreign visitor in jeopardy.

(By the way, I thought this jeopardy business was exaggerated as usual, and I was told that the main centers of demonstration activity weren’t around me anyway—but this morning’s paper showed graphic photos of the Opposition Chief Whip being knuckled hard by police yesterday morning, and parked right outside the guest house yesterday I was slightly alarmed to see not only a police van but a TV news truck. They were expecting something.)

Of the list of contacts I had built up over the past few weeks, one by one (or in one case, two by two) they were melting away. One was off to Singapore, others were out of town, three were simply MIA, perhaps having thought better of my scheme. And a strange non-replacement scheme was taking place: each day someone would hear of my project, their eyes would light up, and they say they knew someone who cold help—and in every case these phantom contacts, too, would turn to vapor.

But the true depth of my naivete was revealed only when I started getting close to actually meeting an actual Mro.

Utpal Khisa, the most consistently helpful man in the country, put me in touch with Mr Ranglai Mro, and I had high hopes—but then it turned out Ranglai was actually back in the CHT. Once I braved the Bangladeshi phone system, though, he gave me the phone number of Kham Lai Mro, though, and  Kham Lai unhesitatingly said yes.

But what exactly was he agreeing to? It turned out that he was in town for just a few days, staying at a hotel all the way across Dhaka, which is like saying all the way across Los Angeles. (Actually, to my nervous visitor’s eye, all the way across the Los Angeles of Blade Runner.) He asked if I could meet him. Of course I wanted to meet him, but there were no taxis, no buses, no available private cars, and it was out of rickshaw range. (There was a brief suggestion that I might hire an ambulance, as ambulances are usually safe during hartals, but no ambulances were available.)

Could he come to me, I asked timidly. I’d cover the cost of his transport. Yes, he said again, decisively. He would come to me at 10 the next morning.

Got up early. Opened up the right pages on my laptop so I could show him examples of what I’m doing. Set aside a fresh, unopened bottle of water, pretty much all I had to offer by way of hospitality. Got out a legal pad for him to write on.

10 came and went. I called him; he was taking care of errands, and could I call him in half an hour. I gave him an hour and called again. He could come in the afternoon. Wonderful. Did he know where I was?

By now it was becoming clear that we had, surprise, surprise, a bit of a language barrier. When he used mainstream English words, I was pretty much with him despite his strong accent, but anything Bengali, such as a street or district name left me groping. “Is there Bengali man in guest house with you?” he asked sensibly, and we added a translator to the negotiations—Mohammed Abdul Wadud, the guest house manager. Wadud did sterling work, and after Kham Lai tried again to get me to come to him, which Wadud firmly discouraged, it was agreed that Kham Lai would come to me at around 4.

With an hour or so to go, the sky opened and we had a brief but vigorous monsoon shower, which is all it took to turn the road into a shallow river of mud. And I was asking poor Kham Lai to make his way all across Dhaka in this.

The delay, as it turned out, was a blessing, because at long, long last it struck me: I was asking someone of uncertain education who spoke English as a third language at best, to understand and write poetry. What the hell was I thinking? If I could barely communicate map directions and times with him, how could I convey the complexities of script loss?

Brainwave:  went downstairs, found Wadud in his office, and implored him to take my little poem and translate it into Bengali. Then Kham Lai could work from that.

Even someone as educated and multilingual as Wadud blinked and hesitated. This writing business is harder than I give it credit for.

He recovered, agreed a little uncertainly and asked if he might have a few minutes to work on it. I agreed with guilty unease, as if I were a pal of T.S. Eliot’s who has asked him to write, say, the Four Quartets, and would he mind getting a move on as I had a train to catch?

A quarter of an hour later, when I was on the brink of assuming that I was completely out of my depth and should leave all this to real anthropologists with some actual, uh, training, Wadud tapped on my door and showed me his work, a printout in Bengali font so crisp and beautiful I wanted to frame it. He walked me through the script, explaining that he had produced a second version with the word “then” added at the beginning of the last line to make it flow better. It was my Rosetta Stone.

No sooner had he retreated shyly from my room when my phone rang. “Your visitor is here, sir,” said the desk man.

In a state that can only be described as a tizzy, I grabbed legal pad, laptop, glasses, room key, two pens, two bottles of water, my phone and my wallet, and tumbled downstairs.

Kham Lai Mro turned out to be a short, handsome man of about thirty-five in alligator polo shirt and khaki pants. He also turned out not to be alone: his friend, in white short-sleeved shirt, jeans and sandals, was clearly ethnically different from Kham Lai, just as Kham Lai was different from your Dhakan on the street.

Sure enough, once we had settled in the lounge upstairs, Kham Lai drew breath and gave a practiced explanation of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As a Mro, he was one of perhaps 75,000, the fourth largest of the ethnic communities; his friend was Marma. Each of the indigenous peoples had their own language, he said: it struck me as remarkable that there was such genetic and linguistic diversity within a relatively small area. Must find out how that came about.

He already understood the importance of one’s own native script. Five of the communities, he said, had their own scripts—he used the word—and could express everything that was important to them. When I showed him my poem in Bengali, with its text stressing the importance of one’s own written language, he read it and nodded approvingly.

He gave a succinct, articulate and remarkably restrained account of the government’s attitude toward and treatment of indigenous peoples of the CHT area (news articles on the subject can readily be found online, as can details of Amnesty International’s involvement) and then I pulled out my legal pad and Wadud’s translation, and asked him to try writing my little poem in Mro.

“Of course,” he said graciously, leaned forward and concentrated.

For the first time in two and a half years working on this project, I watched someone actually writing in an endangered alphabet. He wrote firmly and fluently, pausing to make sure he had correctly translated each word, even offering me two alternatives for one particular phrase. In some respects the characters resembled a Devanagari script, with their superscribed line, but in other respects it seemed its own species, replete with diacriticals above, below and even between letters. I was already imagining myself carving it, wishing I had the same springy élan with the gouge that he had with the ballpoint.

I thought my geeky excitement couldn’t be much greater, but then he explained that his friend was Marma, and thus had his own language and script, distinct from Mro. I couldn’t believe it. I had hoped beyond hope for one endangered alphabet, and I had been granted two.

They worked together, Kham Lai writing and his friend correcting a word or a pen-stroke here and there. In other words, Kham Lai spoke not only Bengali, English and Mro, he also knew Marma and probably more of the CHT languages. No wonder he seemed to be acting as a representative of the entire hilly district.

Once again, Marma was familiar yet unfamiliar, sharing sme characters with Mro but using others of its own.

When they had finished and checked their work diligently, Kham Lai surprised me all over again by asking if I knew the work of the anthropologist Lawrence Lofler. (Or possibly Laurence Loeffler—I haven’t yet been able to track him down.) “He stayed in my grandfather’s village for five years,” he said. “He wrote a book called The Mro.”

I realized I still didn’t know the other man’s name, and, given my tin ear for local accents, might still not know it if he told me. On my request, he carefully wrote his name beneath his sample of Marma, in a curly and loopy Latin script, like roast beef flavored with Bengali spices: Chasa Thowai Marma, of Thanchi district, Bandarban.

Our time was up: they had a long journey home ahead of them. We said our goodbyes and they walked out, side by side, into the monsoon downpour.


The well-traveled legal pad


P.S. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH! And other cries of despair and frustration.

Okay, I am getting the full anthro experience now–namely, I’ve just been told that everything I believed was wrong, and all the work I’ve done has turned out to be next to worthless.

Just met Shantimoy Chakma (like the Mro and the Marma people, the Chakma use their community name as their last name), a wonderful guy who is working on adapting Sesame Street for Bangladesh television. That in itself is a fascinating exercise in preserving and reviving traditional cultural modes, including scripts, among the young, but that’s another story.

He took one look at my legal pad and told me that yes, Kham Lai and Chasa had translated my poem into Mro and Marma respectively, but they had written it in the Bengali script. It looked sort of familiar to me, but then I’m not used to seeing handwritten Bengali and in any case they added their own dialectical diacriticals, so to speak. But the bottom line is–the Mro and Marma scripts look nothing like Bengali.

Shantimoy had brought with him a history of the Chittagong Hill Tract peoples and their scripts–a history he knows all too well, as his father was a noted writer in the traditional Chakma script, but during the fighting in that region their house was burned down twice, all his works were lost, and Shantimoy and his siblings grew up speaking Chakma but unable to read or write it.

All may not be lost, though. He has taken my poem in Bengali, once more approving of its sentiments, and promised to find someone who can write it in Chakma–and, with luck, another friend who can do the same with Marma.

All I can say is, it’s just as well I hadn’t already started carving.

For more on the issue of endangered languages and alphabets in Bangladesh, click here.


2 Responses

  1. Anke Wehner

    The linguist mentioned might be Lorenz G. Löffler (I just did a google search with the German version of “Laurence”). The list of publications at includes a title “Mru, hill people on the border of Bangladesh”.

    • Tim