Dr Gobinda Prasad Sarma
In the article The Orunodoi: A long-misunderstood publication (AT, March 18), we wrote about this newspaper-cum-magazine, the first in Assamese language, mentioning at the end about Rev. Nathan Brown’s unceremonious exit from Assam.
As he left, in the same language front he saw a development which the missionaries could not regard as total acceptance of their work. The spelling system of Assamese that they introduced in the pages of the Orunodoi was based on Assamese phonetics or pronunciation systems just as in other languages like English and Sanskrit. They did it with their knowledge as students of language and linguistics at the higher levels of American universities. Miles Bronson, his co-worker at the Sibsagar Mission, even compiled the first full-fledged dictionary of the Assamese language in the same system which came out in 1867. But towards the last few years of their heyday in the Orunodoi, they saw a development which did not augur well for their scientific spelling system. Hem Chandra Barua, one of their own literary circle writing in the Orunodoi, begged to differ and write in another spelling system. He even went out of their fold and compiled another full-fledged dictionary in a different spelling system by putting in hard labour for a long period. He of course could not publish it in his life time, he himself being out of his means and there being no professional publishers at that time. He died in 1896 and the devastating earthquake of 1898 buried his voluminous manuscript in the debris of his house. Luckily for Assam and the Assamese, the manuscript could be dug up and was found in a still printable state. Hem Chandra Goswami, one of the Assamese students at Calcutta who formed the Assamese Socio-Literary Club in 1888 and started the first Assamese literary monthly magazine Jonaki in 1889, later a government officer, a poet, collector of old Assamese manuscripts and books persuaded the government through the good offices of the highly-placed British Government officer Gordon, a lover of education, literature and culture, in getting it published in 1900 under the title Hema-Kosha. The Assamese people at once accepted it with its spelling system which was familiar to them. Lakshminath Bezbaroa, the doyen of Assamese literature, called it a golden monument of the Assamese; and it came to be regarded as a treasure of the Assamese language. But thereby the Assamese people did not reject the contributions of the missionaries through the Orunodoi as a harbinger of modernity to Assamese literature and the Assamese mindset. Their contribution not only in restoring the language to its own deserved place but also in giving a modern form of expression based on the spoken language of the people became the ideal and universally followed form of expression of the language.
Coming to the tenacious efforts of the missionaries in making it run for over half a century, regularly in the first nine years under one editor Dr Nathan Brown, and then intermittently under various missionary editors, we gather a clear idea of it from the long introduction to the collected edition of the Orunodoi by Dr Maheswar Neog which is one of the finest specimens of Assamese scholarship and research. He shows how these foreign missionaries in an alien land under adverse circumstances made the paper run among people having too low literacy and little reading habit. The paper had only 576 subscribers during its best days. With the subscription of Re 1 only annually, one can easily imagine how unrewarding the difficult task of running it was. And the Mission needed qualified persons to collect news, write them and then print the same. They needed persons with technical knowledge of block making which was to be done on wood of local trees. And the art was to be taught by the missionaries themselves to the local boys. The missionaries had also to suffer from the lack of encouragement from the readers for whom it was intended. The local Assamese who subscribed to it was at first 249 in numbers in 1846; but it dwindled to 158 in 1854. The resident foreigners who subscribed to it numbered 213 in 1846 which went down to 131 in 1854. Compared to it, we see missionary subscribers numbering 114 in 1846 which rose to 151 in 1854. This shows that the missionaries stuck to the paper with their own with subscriptions to be paid to it as their duty. The other foreigners also remained with it as a welfare venture of their fellow brethren. But the local people whom the foreign missionaries wanted to serve showed only a lukewarm response, their subscription going to the minimum of all the subscribers. And yet what devotion and dedication of these missionaries against odds in this chilling atmosphere!
The new generation of Assamese people with a liberal mindset, while rejecting the spelling system of the Orunodoi and accepting the form of expression picked up from the lips of the common people, also accepted wholeheartedly the liberal ideas and scientific outlook that emanated from the paper. In the process, the missionaries with their eyes on the whole world had to coin many new words and terms and translate into Assamese many others as substitutes. Many such words, simple or compound, went to the common use gaining currency while many others went out of use.