The citizens of the erstwhile Indian state of Assam have decided to challenge the rest of us by starting a campaign whereby our tongues will be twisted beyond company specifications, but it looks like we will remain where we started and not be pronouncing anything correctly. Not for your average Assamese gentleman/gentlelady will the conversion be as simple as from a Bombay to a Mumbai, a Madras to a Chennai, or a Calcutta to a Kolkata. No, first they will tell you that Assam is no longer Assam, it is to be ‘Asom’. Fair enough. And ‘Assamese’ will be replaced by Asommiya (it used to be Assamiya, but let that be).
Now, Messrs Borbora, Bordoloi and Bezbaruah tell us that it is not so much the spelling as the pronunciation that they are after. Spell it any way you like, as long as you pronounce it properly, is the refrain. And how do you pronounce Asom? Something like Akhhom, in which you replace the middle consonant with a deep-throated aspirated attempt to reach into the lungs and exhale bits and pieces of diaphragm tissue. As long as you can say Akhhom in the process, the Akhhomiya do not really care how you spell it.
On a recent trip to Akhhom, I walked the Brahmaputra banks desperately seeking Sanjay. No one had heard of him. Okay, then, Sanjoy. No one had heard of Sanjoy either. Then it dawned on me. “Babuji, could you please point me in the direction of Mr Xonzoi?” I found my man, who then explained to me the fine nationalistic distinctions that separate Assam, Asom and Akkhom. I did ask him, or I think I did, why he was not called ‘Khonkhoi’. But I forgot to ask Xonzoi why Asom was Akhhom and not Axom.
Akhhom is the crucible of eastern Southasian civilisation, and it is today leading the way to cultural revival, starting with correct pronunciation. This is laudable, and the rest of Southasia – including the Indian Union government, all PSUs, all the security forces and all NGOs – please take note and make the required adjustment to your tongues.
One of the problems of Southasian integration that the SAARC organisation should take seriously is the matter of pronunciation. Like the Eminent Persons Group on Poverty Reduction, which has achieved such success in raising people’s awareness about the status of their penury, might we suggest an Eminent Person’s Group on Accents, Enunciation and the Rendition of Long Surnames?
Take the name Sembakuttiaratchi, a Lankan surname that carries with it a hallowed tradition of public-spirited service to fellow man, nay humankind. But should we not be fearful of a breakdown of hard-earned Southasian camaraderie if we cannot correctly pronounce the name of a fellow Southasian citizen? In the Lankan case the problem is of sheer distance between where a name starts and where it ends. This is a typically south-Southasian proclivity also continued north of the Palk Straight. As we know, the British colonials departed when they learnt that the freedom fighters were about to bring Trivandrum back to Thiruvananthapuram. As you will notice, Thiruvananthapuram stands tall today while the Brits have gone.
I want to get back to Akkhom, or Axom, however. At least in the case of Mr Sembakuttiaratchi down in Colombo, the rendition may be long but there is no subterfuge in the pronunciation. A diligent Balochi or Ladakhi who does his or her homework can break the name down to its component parts and have a fairly good go at semba-kutti-a-ratchi and he would not be far off. One can make a speech from the SAARC rostrum without making a mistake on that one, as with Katunayake, Bandaranayake or Dissanayake.
But fast-forward to the Indian Northeast, where our friends Xonzoi, Xonzib, Xiva and Xaraxwati are patiently waiting for this columnist to be done with his drivel. Before I am bonked on the head by these proud Axxommiya friends, let me have the last word: “Southasian camaraderie will not be supported by having sounds to which no script, Roman, Nagari or indigenous, can do justice. This is definitely a matter to be referred to the Eminent Person’s Group on Accents, Enunciation and the Rendition of Long Surnames. Be xeeing you! Ouch!”