Boneless Tongue of Assamese Proverbs

One of the best sources of information of the conditions prevailing in the country during the days of the Raj has been the books written by British administrators posted in India, some in areas that were remote and unexplored. The North East has been one such area. Though the region came under the British umbrella later than other parts of the Indian subcontinent, the British officers took keen interest in Assamese culture and society and wrote delightful accounts of their stay there.

Captain P.R. Gurdon, who was the deputy commissioner of Goalpara during the turn of the century, was one such officer. What interested him the most was the richness of the Assamese proverb. Few outside Assam knew of the Assamese proverbs passed down through generations by word of mouth.Gurdon took up on himself the task to compile some of them and publish them in a book titled Some Assamese Proverbs in 1896.

Printed at the Assam Secretariat Printing Office in Shillong, the book was priced at Rs 2, 'inclusive of postage.' Not many copies of the book were available until recently, that is, until the MacNeil and Magor group of companies took an interest, and brought out reprints. A copy of the original was found in the private collection of a tea plantation manager, from which it was reprinted and distributed free to libraries and public institutions.

Wrote Captain Gurdon on July 4, 1895: "This collection does not pretend to be a collection of all the Assamese-speaking districts of the province; it consists of only proverbs from Sibsagar, Nowgong and Gauhati, hence the title Some Assamese Proverbs."

Classified under six heads, the 300-odd proverbs encompass almost the entire spectrum of life in the then Assam, which, today, has disintegrated into as many as seven states due to the policies of the Indian federal government. Hence, the proverbs included ones known among the tribals in the present Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland as well.

However, a qualification is required here: since the time the book was written, several upheavels in the North East have virtually reduced the word 'Assamese' to indicate only the caste Hindus in the present Assam. Still, the collection makes delightful reading for anybody interested in the region.

In Goa, the carefree, languid lifestyle is called susegado ; in Assam, it is lahe, lahe . Two proverbs that characterize the slow, laid-back life in Assam are:

Tuponir sikun puaa

Kotaarir sikon guaa

(The best time to sleep is the early morning,

The best thing to do with a knife is to cut betel nut).

Writes Gurdon in his footnote: "This proverb is characteristic of the Assamese." It is to be noted that the Assamese love betel nuts, generally cut raw pieces, and many take it regularly with betel leaves and lime, several times a day. It is served when a visitor comes, at the time of arrival and before leaving. It is served in all social functions. It is like the way many Westerners chew gum.

The next one is more to the point:

Naai he nekhaao, loguneo nejaao

Gaatu nidio dukh

(I will not eat. I will not go to the feast even

if a Brahmin is there. I won't give myself any trouble).

Adds Gurdon: "This should be more properly called laziness. The last line should be, I think, the motto of the Assamese, for he hates, above all things, giving himself the least trouble".

Many Assamese today, however, would be shocked to read a proverb on managing one's wife:

Kotaari dhoraabaa xile

Tirotaa baabaa kile

(Whet your knife on a groundstone,

Manage your wife with blows).

According to Gurdon: "This is the Assamese recipe for managing a wife. The word kile means a blow given with the elbow, and represents the pommelling given to a person when he is lying prostrate".

There are many equivalents of English and Hindi proverbs to be found in the collection. For example, the Assamese equivalent of the Hindi proverb Naach na jane angan tera is:

Naasibo naajaanile, sutaalkhon heremgoriyaa

(He who does not know how to dance,

Finds the floor of the courtyard sloping).

An interesting Assamese version of the English proverb 'None but the wearer knows where the shoe pinches' is:

Luitehe jaane bothaa

Kimanoloi bohe

(The Lohit knows how deep the oar dips).

Explains Gurdon: "The Lohit is another name for Brahmaputra. Now-a-days by the Lohit is understood that portion of the Brahmaputra between the mouth of the Subansiri river and Lohitmukh." The Subansiri and the Lohitmukh are today in Arunachal Pradesh.

The lifestyle of various sections of the people in the region in the nineteenth century is also reflected in some of the proverbs. Almost every proverb has been elucidated with perceptive comments by Gurdon, which makes it more enjoyable for those not

Teliyaai kaande tel pelaai

Kopuhuwaai kaande let petaai

(The oil seller weeps for the oil that is spilled

The cotton dealer weeps and soaks his cotton in tears).

Gurdon explains: "The cotton dealer is not a man like the oil man, who cries over spilt milk but finds a way out of the difficulty. The latter part of the proverb, perhaps, refers to a practice which came under my personal observation when in the Golaghat. The cotton is brought down from the hills by the Nagas and other hillmen, who almost invariably soak it in water, or sometimes put stones inside the bundle to make the cotton weigh heavier. The cotton dealer, who is not outdone, soaks the salt, which is generally bartered for the cotton, in water, for the same reason.

The peculiar way of eating by a particular tribe acquires new meaning in the proverb:

Dohu angulire khaai

Buraai hechukilehe jaai

(All the ten fingers are used in eating,

But it is the thumb that has to push the food into the mouth).

To this, Gurdon adds: "The Assamese takes up the rice in the hollow of his hand, and then crams it into his mouth, using the thumb to push it in---not a very elegant way of eating".

The liberal form of Hinduism, or the Satra system introduced by Sankardeva in Assam, through which a tribal could progressively aspire to and gain entry into higher castes, is reflected in the well-known Assamese proverb:

Naakot laagil paak

Moha bhokotor chintaa laagil

Medhi paatim kaak

(An unexpected thing has happened,

The head bhokot (or, disciple) has been found fault with

Whom shall I make a medhi?)

Explains Gurdon: "The saying is ironically meant. The head bhakat is next to the gosain, the most powerful person at the satra. He is a person who is generally supposed to be above suspicion. A medhi is a person of much less importance, being only the gosain's agent in a village. These medhis are entitled to receive, I believe, a small portion of the offerings, or the gosain's kar or tax, as the comission for collecting the same. These officers exist all over Assam, and through them the gosain and the bhakats at the satra keep in touch with the people."

An interesting proverb on giving false excuses runs thus:

Haar naaikiyaa jibaa

Koy kibaa kibaa

(The tongue because it has no bone,

Says various things).

Gurdon adds: "A poor excuse made by a man when he says more than what he ought. He does not admit the blame, but throws it on his tongue, which, he says, is easily pliable, because it is unsupported by bone".

A sound piece of advice emerges from the following proverb in the book:

Dhon lobaa lekhi

Baat bulibaa dekhi

(Count money before you take it,

Start walking only if you have seen the road).

Another homely truth is evident in the proverb on knowing minds:

Tiri, Miri, bhaati, kowa

Ei tini xaari aax nupuwaa

(Of women, Miris, the parrot and crow

The minds of these four you cannot know).

To this Gurdon adds: "Assamese never trust women. In this they do not differ from the people of the rest of India, who have a very low idea of the sex. Miris (a plains tribe) are always supposed to be deceitful. To me personally they have always appeared very simple, but perhaps I have been taken in. The words bhati and kowa have been inserted for purposes of rhyme.

Gurdon adds another interesting one on the relations between a Miri and his wife:

Tirik mile, Miri kile

(When the Miri meets his wife he beats her).

As he explains: "I should doubt if this is true of the Miri husband, as a rule, and there is no need to suppose that the Miri wife needs chastisement any more than her Assamese sister, although the Miri beats his wife when she deserves it. Miri women have, however, often plenty of muscle, and would be apt to turn the tables on their husbands if roughly handled.

The author gives an explanation of the proverb:

Sur pur mukh khanihe

(The stock in trade of a thief is his appearance).

As he says: "There are two kinds of thieves in Assam---the thief in the ordinary sense of the word, and the chowali chor, or, the stealer of young women. Marriage by capture still exists in Assam; indeed, amongst the lower classes this is by no means uncommon. A young man singles out a girl at the Bihu festival, who is perhaps not insensible to his attentions, and when the opportunity offers, elopes with her. In this way, the bridegroom escapes the payment of money or presents to the girl's parents. Hence this proverb: "The stock in trade of a thief is his appearance."

A tongue-in-cheek proverb about the uneasy relationship between a mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law is:

Xaahu buwaarir ghor

Kune khaai gaakhiror xor

(The mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law are in the house,

Who is to drink the cream?)

This means there will be a fight over it.

The cooking by a wife is defined thus:

Khor raandhoni khor baarhoni poiek loghune jaai

Udaa raandhoni udaa baarhoni poiek tini xaaji khaai

(A hasty cook and a hasty broom and the husband goes fasting,

A slow cook and a slow broom and the husband eats

three meals a day).

On the pampered wife in Gorgaon or Nazira, which is currently in Sibsagar district but was the capital of the Ahom kings:

Betiye bhaangile kotoraa, Gorgao palehi botoraa

Ghoiniye bhaangile kaanhi, thole misikiyaai haanhi

(The maid servant broke a coconut shell, and the news spread to Gargao,

The wife broke a brass plate, and the husband gave a knowing smile).

The height of women is considered important, as the following proverb indicates:

Tirir suti baarhonir buti
(Women that are short in stature, are like brooms That are worn out).

"The Assamese think a great deal of tall women", notes Gurdon.

Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist for the Times of India who was stationed in Assam for several years in the ealy 1990s. In the middle 90s, he was a graduate student in England. The article was published in 'The Times of India', June, 1990. Jugal Kalita has changed the transliteration of Assamese words to make them more phonetic.He also has edited the article slightly. The article was contributed to the Assam Web site on Sunday, 21 April 1996. The revised version was posted on the WWW on April 23, 1998.