Four months ago, his tribe’s near-miraculous escape from the devastating tsunami catapulted King Jirake to fame. His interviews describing the disaster, and how his tribe was adjusting in their new quarters in Port Blair, made headlines across the world.
But all that was in stark contrast to the 65-year-old’s quiet and painful death in a Chennai Hospital on April 17—the tribal chief died of brain haemorrhage and consequent paralysis.
And apart from the 49 remaining members of his tribe, including Jirake’s grandson Berebe, who was born days before he died, the only other people mourning his demise were a group of researchers from the School of Languages in Jawaharlal Nehru University.
For, Jirake was the last member of his tribe who knew all the 10 variants of the Great Andamanese language. With his death, the trilingual Great Andamanese-English-Hindi dictionary that Professor Anvita Abbi’s team from JNU is working on, has suffered a setback that it will probably never be able to fully recover from.
Not more than 18 of Jirake’s remaining tribesmen speak Great Andamanese and, after him, there are just five who speak it fluently.
Speaking to The Indian Express from Port Blair, Alok Das, a sociolinguist member of Professor Abbi’s team, remembers the day Jirake died. ‘‘At around 10.30 am, when I reached the Adi Basera tribal guest house in Port Blair where the tribe is presently lodged, I was bemused when everybody who I met wanted to shake hands with me. In the one-and-a-half months I have been here, the Great Andamanese had never shaken hands with me before.”
It was only after some time that Das realised that Jirake was gone and the tribe traditionally shook hands only when there was a death in the community.
For Abbi, a professor in the department of linguistics, the greatest irony of Jirake’s demise is the fact that days before he suffered the brain stroke, Jirake was found drunk in the streets of Port Blair. “Alcoholism is something we have introduced among the tribals and that is only speeding up the process of their extinction. Even in his death bed, Jirake repeatedly asked for liquor,” she says.
Describing her project as a ‘‘race against the setting sun’’ now, Abbi says, ‘‘Any disappearance of a unique language is a big loss because it also means disappearance of indigenous knowledge and culture. Jirake had vast knowledge about not just his own people but also other tribes. He was multilingual, his father was from the Bo tribe and his mother from the Cari tribe. The tribes are now extinct, but Jirake spoke both their languages apart from a host of others like Jeru, Khora and Pucikwar.’’ The king also knew Burmese and a language called Sadari spoken in the tribal areas of Ranchi.