India is the land of languages. Apart from the 22 recognised as national languages by the Constitution, there are no less than 80 other written languages or those having scripts of their own, and countless verbal ones, i.e. those that either do not have any script or depend on the scripts of other more widely accepted languages like Hindi, Bengali and Tamil. By some conservative estimates that number is anywhere between 700 and 800.
There is no doubt that such a multiplicity of linguistic groups arose primarily out of the racial and sub-racial divisions. But it cannot also be ruled out that other factors like caste and religion have led to the evolution of new, acculturated and assimilated languages in different corners of the subcontinent. To add to that list is yet another factor—the need for business and trade communication. One such example is Sadri, lingua franca of the tea gardens.
Sadri is an inseparable part of the jungles and ravines of the tea gardens of North Bengal. Almost ubiquitous, I have seen and heard the language to be integrally linked to everything about tea. Undoubtedly the lingua franca of more than 50 million people who work and have been working for generations in the tea gardens of West Bengal, Sikkim, western Arunachal Pradesh, northern Assam and even Bangladesh,
Sadri is a gloriously miscegenated marriage of Hindi, Bhojpuri, Nepali, Madheshi, Santhali and Bengali words or syllables. But the order in which that admixture takes place happens to be a real mystery.
Sadri has been and even to this day remains essentially a language of mass communication in the tea gardens. It is more of an eastern Indian version of pidgin which lacks the pedigree of a written format. But what is surprising in this comparison is that while pidgin has decayed and lost its usage over the years, Sadri is still alive and very much in use.
Even today the tea garden employees of Darjeeling (West Bengal), Dooars (comprising Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar districts of West Bengal), Sikkim, and parts of Assam’s tea-growing districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia or Jorhat and even Sylhet district of Bangladesh, continue to use this language as widely as it used to be a century ago. By contrast, pidgin has transformed itself into a relic of the past, brought alive somewhat by Amitava Ghosh in the third part of his Ibis trilogy, Flood of Fire.
he business of tea has, in the last hundred years, transformed these regions into veritable cultural melting pots, drawing lowly paid workers not only from nearby Nepal but also from central Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. Comprising adivasis of these vast areas, namely, Santhals, Totos, Oraons, Bodos, Khasis, Kols, Bhils and Mundas, there has been a plethora of business interaction with the Bengali babus—clerical or supervisory staff, British, Scottish or Irish managers, Hindi-speaking private law-enforcers from Bihar, UP, Punjab, Haryana and even doctors and nurses from far-off Tamil Nadu or Kerala.
Co-habitation brought around not just business interactions but a sub-cultural inter-mingling through the days and years of coexistence. The festivals of one came to be attended by all others. Crisis and devastations of the majority undeniably had a bearing on the privileged few. Co-existence, however compartmentalised it might have been, went on to breed varying degrees of familiarity that contributed to the evolution of a medium of communication that thrived on generous contributions from all.
As there is no grammar or syntax this makes the language not just easy for illiterate country folk who were its primary users but even for the English-speaking sahibs and their spouses.
Sadri is a gloriously miscegenated marriage of Hindi, Bhojpuri, Nepali, Madheshi, Santhali and Bengali words or syllables. But the order in which that admixture takes place happens to be a real mystery. There is just no logic or order at all in the way in which these words or syllables undergo such assimilation. Why a particular word in a sentence is used in Santhali and not Bengali or Bhojpuri is anybody’s guess.
This undeniably leads us to the deduction that the language had a colloquial origin that was generously sourced from multiple contagious linguistic inputs. No less logical is the other presupposition that it took years if not decades for the language to mature into its current form with inputs continuously pouring in to enrich Sadri through its evolution.
As there is no grammar or syntax, there are no sets of rules or prescriptions in the use of verb or tense. This makes the language not just easy for illiterate country folk who were its primary users but even for the English-speaking sahibs and their spouses who found it not difficult to comprehend. All that the latter had to do was to memorise a few commonly used words in Hindi, Bengali, Santhali or Nepalese and the rest of the sentence could be figured out in the right spirit.
Some etymological experts are of the opinion that the term Sadri originated from the word Sadan, derived from Nisada, a north-east Indian ethnic group. This view however has been challenged on the grounds that the infusions of north-eastern Indian linguistic words or syllables are virtually negligible in Sadri. The more dominant opinion is that the word Sadri perhaps originated from the term Sad—Sat or Satya meaning truth. Actually, the word Sat undergoes a phonetic transformation into Sad as it travels upwards from Utter Pradesh or Bihar to Punjab or Haryana.
The term Sat however has another connotation apart from truth. It is also used to describe hundred per cent while referring to matters of purity. The term Sad or Sat got associated with Sadri perhaps to emphasise on the honesty or purity of the transactional negotiations made by the users.
idgin, the language with which we are drawing parallels, developed in the 18th century as a language of communication between coastal Chinese populations and Portuguese seafarers during their trade transactions. It was impromptu and expanded aggressively with copious additions of English, Dutch and even Hindustani or Urdu words as the volume of trade in the Indian Ocean region expanded by leaps and bounds during the 19th and early 20th century. Pidgin not only included words from other languages but also assimilated sounds and body language, or onomatopoeia. That is why pidgin has historically been considered a form of patois, a kind of slang or unsophisticated and simplified version of language, and as such usually has low esteem in the eyes of linguists.
The evolution of pidgin is usually through prolonged, regular contact between different linguistic communities, which creates a need to communicate between them.
Pidgin, however, differs from creole, a group of languages that have become the first language of a speech community of native speakers that at one point might have had an origin similar to pidgin. Unlike pidgin, creole have fully developed vocabularies and patterned grammar. The word derived its name from a corrupt Chinese pronunciation of the English word business.
Pidgin is morphologically less complex but more syntactically rigid than other languages. It usually has fewer morpho-syntactic irregularities than other languages. Grammar, tense, use of singular-plural, conjunction, and such features of a developed language are absent in pidgin or have been done away with. Exclamations are made through body language or voice modulations and punctuations are made by breathing patterns.
The evolution of pidgin is usually through prolonged, regular contact between different linguistic communities, which creates a need to communicate between them, plus the absence of a widespread, accessible intermediary language. Keith Whinnom suggests that pidgin or similar communication or trade languages need three or more languages to form, with one being clearly dominant over the others.
It is the same with creole but it is the opinion of linguists like Salikoko Mufwene that the origin of pidgin and creole are absolutely different. They evolved under different socio-cultural circumstances and have totally different transactional needs.
Sadri has often been identified with Nagpuri, which is an eastern Indo-Aryan language spoken in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, northern West Bengal, Assam and even Bangladesh.
Pidgin, according to Mufwene, emerged in trading colonies among “users who preserved their native vernaculars for their day-to-day interactions”. Creoles, on the other hand, developed in settlement colonies in which speakers of a European language, often indentured servants whose language would be far from the standard in the first place, interacted extensively with non-European slaves, absorbing certain words and features from the slaves’ non-European native languages, resulting in a heavily corrupted version of the original language. These servants and slaves would come to use the creole as an everyday vernacular, rather than merely in situations in which contact with a speaker of the dominant language was necessary.
he features of Sadri clearly show the close similarity between Sadri and pidgin. The reference to creole shows the dissimilarities with Sadri despite the fact that like creole, Sadri too was used primarily by indentured labourers or slave and bonded labourers in the tea gardens of Assam, Dooars and Darjeeling. Their frequent interfaces with other non-Sadri speaking locals like Bengalis, Biharis, Haryanavis, rather than the Scottish and Irish managers or with their spouses with whom they interacted only once in a while, as bungalow attendants, cooks or gardeners, helped both to spread Sadri and provided a constant flow of additions to its original vocabulary.
Sadri has often been identified with Nagpuri, which is an eastern Indo-Aryan language spoken in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, northern West Bengal, Assam and even Bangladesh. The name Nagpuri is derived perhaps from the fact that this language is the native language of the people living in the Chota Nagpur plateau, especially by a large number of tribal groups like Kharia, Munda, Mundari, Bhumij, and Kurukh. But this Nagpuri language, despite strong similarities with Sadri is also different on many more counts.
It may be that the two languages have a common origin, as the people using Sadri in the tea gardens were mostly madheshia or tribals migrating from the Chota Nagpur plateau which spans the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhattishgarh. It might also be correct that the Nagpuri language evolved from Prakrit languages in the reign of Nagvanshi kings who ruled districts such as Gumla, Lohardaga, Latehar, Palamau, Garhwa, Chatra, Simdega, Ranchi, Khunti, West Singhbhum, North-east Chhattisgarh in districts such as Jashpur, Surguja, Balrampur, northern Odisha in Sundargarh and south-west Bihar in Aurangabad district. Yet there are substantial differences between the two.
The Sadri of the tea gardens is markedly different from the Nagpuri. First, Nagpuri is commonly written in Devanagari script, and has 11 vowels and 33 consonants. It is written from left to right. The main source of the Nagpuri vocabulary is Prakrit and Sanskrit, discounting the medieval contact that resulted in the incorporation of some Persian words. In short, Nagpuri happens to be a language that may be written down and is more or less in its original state.
By contrast, the Sadri used in the tea gardens has no written script and remains till today a spoken language only. Significantly, it has in the course of its evolution incorporated Hindi, Nepali and even Bengali words.
For instance, to say “What are you doing”, the Nagpuri version is Roure ka karat hi?
Sadri on the other hand will say Roure ki kar ho?
Again to say “I am going home,” in Nagpuri: Moen ghar jat hon.
But the Sadri version will be Mu ghar ko jawat.
In both examples readers are requested to note the replacement of original Prakrit words with Alchiki (spoken by Santhals), Bengali and Hindi words.
I may even take the liberty from my own experience to observe that Nagpuri phonetically sounds a little harsh perhaps due to the extended influence of Marwari, Punjabi or such hard-sounding north Indian languages. Sadri, spoken in the tea gardens, on the other hand, sounds soft and sweet as other eastern Indian languages like Bengali or Assamese.
To ask why there wasn’t a concerted effort to develop this language by adding the usual grammatical connotations or a script of its own, as with Esperanto, is a legitimate question. The answer, of course, is not difficult. One has to bear it in mind that Esperanto was a scientifically developed language designed for worldwide communication by experts in the field. Sadri, or for that matter pidgin or similar assimilated languages developed naturally, by guess and by god, without any intervention by linguistic experts. It was born purely of a daily transactional need.
It may be just a matter of time before Sadri joins the list of extinct languages. However sometime in future, lovers of antiquity might explore the phonetic sweetness of Sadri to produce novels portraying the verdant yet volatile life in and around the tea gardens.
Secondly, in case of languages like Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu, the infusions of stalwarts like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay and Rabindranath Tagore in the case of Bengali, or Bhartendu Harishchandra and Jaishankar Prasad in Hindi enriched these languages immensely and were central to their present status. Sadri, on the other hand, was used by uneducated working class people who just didn’t have the interest or ability to make similar contributions.
Thirdly, any language that wilfully or otherwise limits it usage to transactional needs cannot go beyond a certain point of time or demographic expanse. As pidgin started to decay with the rise of anti-colonial nationalist forces in the 19th century, so will Sadri with the spread of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the all-pervasive, state-sponsored, expansion of Hindi as the national language unless some generous conservationists decide to act otherwise.
It may be just a matter of time before Sadri joins the long list of extinct languages. It can’t however be ruled out that sometime in the near future, lovers of antiquity like Amitava Ghosh might feel inclined to explore the inherent mystery or phonetic sweetness of Sadri to produce similarly exciting novels portraying the verdant yet volatile life in and around the tea gardens.
Not that there hasn’t been such work by contemporary Bengali or even Indian English authors like Debesh Roy (Teesta-parer Brityanta) or Kiran Desai (Inheritance of Loss). But, sadly, they have side-stepped the use of Sadri for reasons best known to them. The only redeeming part of this otherwise bleak story of neglect is that Sadri is still alive and actively used among the teeming multitude of tea garden workers.
There is, however, some hope. Although Sadri still lacks a standard form, some literary works have been published in the language in magazines such as Johar Sahiya, currently published from Ranchi, although this magazine has more to do with Nagpuri. Veer Birsa, and Adivasi Express are published occasionally in the Dooars and Tarai regions of West Bengal although the scripts are in Alchiki and not Devanagri. A few feature films have been produced in the Sadri language in Assam, Dooars, Jharkhand, Siliguri and in Odisha, in order to authentically depict the tribal life in these regions.
Since 1980, many Sadri songs and videos have also been produced. Maybe these efforts will lead to further development and breathe new life into the language in times to come.