Sarnami: An Indian language born in South America, on the verge of becoming an endangered tongue

  • Sarnami (sometimes called Suriname Hindustani) is a mixture of the Indian tongues that the immigrants spoke.

  • It has also adopted words from Dutch and Sranan Tongo. The grammar and lexicon of Sarnami reflect the influence of all its mother languages.

  • The lone survivor among the Caribbean Hindustani tongues, Sarnami is valuable both as a cultural resource as well as an abiding artefact of a historical period.

On 5 June 1873, a ship by name Lalla Rookh (probably named after Thomas Moore’s literary work) reached its intended destination: Fort Nieuw Amsterdam (now Paramaribo) in Dutch Guyana (now Suriname) in South America. The ship had left Calcutta on 26 February 1873 with 410 indentured Indian immigrants. When the ship arrived, there were 279 men, 32 boys, 70 women and 18 girls (a total of 399 people) on board. 11 had perished en-route. The Indians got off the ship and made their way to the plantations situated in the hinterland beyond Paramaribo.

The Dutch presence in this region dated back to the late 1600s when after initial disputes and disagreements with the British, who also had interests in the region, they had exchanged a settlement named New Amsterdam in North America for the colony that later came to be called Dutch Guyana. The North American New Amsterdam later became New York City while the Dutch who thought they had the better of the bargain developed coffee, cocoa, sugar cane and cotton plantations along the rivers of their South American colony. Inevitably, these plantations were worked by slaves from Africa.

 Sarnami: An Indian language born in South America, on the verge of becoming an endangered tongue

Lalla Rookh (1876). Image via WikimediaCommons

The relentless slave-fed economy lasted for close to two centuries till, in 1863, slavery was outlawed in Suriname. The process of freeing slaves took a further ten years and the arrival of the Indians coincided with the abandonment of the plantations by the slaves who made their way to Paramaribo to find their fortune. The indentured system was introduced to cope with the end of slavery since the sole objective of the plantation owners was to continue their agribusiness with labour that was as cheap as possible.

Indentured workers signed a contract to work abroad for a period of five years or more. They were supposed to receive wages, a small amount of land and in some cases, a return passage once their contract came to an end. In reality, this rarely happened. Working conditions were harsh and their wages low. Also, in most cases, workers were recruited through trickery and false promises.

Still, in order to escape poverty at home, between 1873 and 1916, when the indentured system was abolished, close to 34,000 Indians – both Hindus and Muslims – made the journey to Surinam, almost all of them from modern-day Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. They were required to serve their contract at their allotted plantation at the end of which they had the option of renewing their contract and continuing to work on the plantations, staying back as free men or returning to India. More than two-thirds of the arrivals stayed back in Suriname.

The Indians who had arrived in Suriname spoke Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili and Magahi and in their new home, these tongues interacted as people from the various regions of the Gangetic Plains communicated with each other. Inevitably, the tongues, which in any case were mutually intelligible, tended to mix with each other – a process known as koinéisation. The language of the coloniser, Dutch and a local Surinamese tongue, an English-based creole called Sranan Tongo (which is Suriname’s lingua franca today) were the other languages that the Indians heard and in time, developed some understanding of. It was in this linguistic situation that Sarnami (which literally means Surinamese) developed.

Sarnami (sometimes called Suriname Hindustani) is a mixture of the Indian tongues that the immigrants spoke. It has also adopted words from Dutch and Sranan Tongo. The grammar and lexicon of Sarnami reflect the influence of all its mother languages. Some linguists have noted in particular the influence of Awadhi and Bhojpuri on the tongue. Its development is unique in the Caribbean since in the other Caribbean colonies of Trinidad and Guyana, which also have significant Indian populations, the Indian tongues the immigrants spoke largely fell into disuse.

Suriname’s being a Dutch colony was crucial to Sarnami’s development and use. Unlike the British who emphasised the superiority of English civilisation and language (hence the decline of Indian languages in British-administered Trinidad and Guyana), the Dutch government followed no consistent cultural or educational policy. For a time, they even encouraged instruction in the Indic languages. As a result, Sarnami became well-established.

From the 1960’s onwards, as Suriname moved towards independence (Suriname became independent in 1975), Sarnami speakers mobilised support for their tongue threatened as it was by the prestige associated with Dutch and Sranan’s claim to be the only ‘authentic’ Surinamese language which was contested by Indians who claimed that Sarnami was also authentically Surinamese.

Parallelly, Sarnami proponents also had to contend with the many Indians who had developed an affinity for Hindi-Urdu, which they felt more comfortable in identifying with, since their own language was often associated with the pejorative term – ‘tutal bhasha’ (broken language). Hindi and Urdu which were greatly developed tongues seemed more attractive in comparison.

Support for Sarnami was especially loud and vocal in the Netherlands where many Surinamese Indians had found a home. The development of a Sarnami literature also helped in giving the language a firmer ground. While the first literary work in Sarnami had appeared in 1968 – Bulahat (The Cry in the Night) by Shrinivasi (born Martinus Lutchman in 1926), the work of Jit Narain (pseudonym of Jit Baldewsingh) and Rabin S Baldewsingh was particularly influential. Some writers like Chitra Gajadin switched from Dutch to Sarnami as a result of Jit Narain’s influence. In January 1982, a magazine named Sarnami began to be published. Stifa, a long prose work by Rabin S Baldewsingh was published in 1984. In 2003, a Dutch-Sarnami dictionary was compiled.

Much of recent Sarnami poetry, especially in the Netherlands, has sought to put into words the anguish of the community about their own identity – are they Indians (Hindustanis as the Surinamese term it)? Indians from Suriname now resident in the Netherlands? People of Indian origin? Surinamese? This anguish at having become ‘bidesias’ (foreigners) in the colonial period and not having a firm sense of belonging poses conundrums with no clear resolution as these lines from Jit Narain’s Agni ke yaad (1991) indicate:

Kahen u Bharat choris, ito ham samjhila
Bharat oke nahin choris, uto ham sahila

(I want to understand why my ancestors left India,
They were not forced to leave, but left by choice and now we bear that pain.)

The lone survivor among the Caribbean Hindustani tongues, Sarnami is valuable both as a cultural resource as well as an abiding artefact of a historical period. Its future though is uncertain. It continues to be in use in Suriname’s 1.25 lakh strong Indian community as a colloquial tongue even as Hindi-Urdu remain languages of prestige along with Dutch and English. In the Netherlands, as the generation that was born in Suriname and moved to the Netherlands at a young age pass, it is a moot point how much the younger generation will be able to keep the language alive. Like many others, Sarnami is perhaps on the verge of becoming an endangered tongue.

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2020 23:58:59 IST