WHEN Dr Visham Bhimull set out on a personal quest to reclaim his ancestral language, he never imagined he would spend the majority of his life working to ensure that a part of T&T’s history would never be forgotten. The medical practitioner and language preserver began his journey by collecting data and documenting the remaining speakers of Trinidad Bhojpuri—a dialect of the Caribbean Hindustani language.
Trinidad Bhojpuri or Caribbean Hindustani is the ethnic language of the descendants of Indian indentured immigrants in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean. This language, like Patois, shaped Trinidad’s identity and was spoken by many including Bhimull’s “nani-nana” (maternal grandparents).
When his grandparents died, that link to his ancestral language was gone. It might have been all but forgotten if Bhimull hadn’t taken the next step. Although he knew how to read and write Hindi and Caribbean Hindustani, he observed that the latter was on the brink of extinction. So he made the decision to research the language with the intention of reviving it for future generations. It sounded like a foolhardy task to his mother who saw no economic benefits to it but there was something much more meaningful that motivated Bhimull.
“I believe the death of my grandparents was the stimulus that awakened that desire within me to know more about this language. I had spent every day at my grandmother’s house up until she died. Researching the language she spoke was my way of finding her again,” says Bhimull.
Fortunately for Bhimull, he had a natural inclination towards languages and studied Modern Standard Hindi up to advanced level at the Centre for Language learning at The University of the West Indies. Then he had what appeared to be a fortuitous encounter with Trinidad-born linguist Dr Peggy Mohan in 2008. Mohan had based her doctoral thesis on Trinidad Bhojpuri and granted Bhimull access to her data and recordings. By 2010, Bhimull began meeting with and documenting the remaining speakers of Trinidad Bhojpuri. He came to understand that Trinidad Bhojpuri is not a broken form of Hindi but comes from the Magadhan language of Bhojpuri that evolved from a different form of spoken Sanskrit than Modern Standard Hindi.
During his research he met with Motilal Marhé who has done extensive studies on the Bhojpuri of Suriname called Sarnami. Bhimull’s journey to understand more about the language spoken by the descendants of Indian indentured labourers led him to Guyana, Suriname, The Netherlands and Guadeloupe. In Guadeloupe he met with Surendra Gambhir who did his doctoral thesis on Guyanese Bhojpuri. Every year Bhimull travels to the Netherlands where there is a vibrant Surinamese Dutch Hindustani community.
Today Bhimull’s research is known in the international diaspora.
Bhimull founded the Caribbean Hindustani Facebook page which has attracted interest from the diaspora living as far away as Fiji and Mauritius. He also conducts workshops on the language to promote this precious linguistic element of our identity. By appearing on several talk shows on TV and radio, he is working to promote and propagate the Trinidad Bhojpuri language against the threat of extinction. He has tried to influence the chutney and chutney soca world by doing brand new Trinidad Bhojpuri compositions for the Chutney Soca Monarch competition. Bhimull has also begun teaching Trinidad Bhojpuri at the Lloyd Best Institute of the Caribbean.
“I’m currently working on a grammar book and dictionary to teach Trinidad Bhojpuri,” adds the family practitioner.
To say that the entire experience has enriched his life academically and personally would be an understatement.
“My journey helped me to better understand my identity and who I am. Because Bhojpuri is separate from Modern Standard Hindi, the Indo Caribbean community can stand proud knowing that our history and the language spoken by our ancestors is unique. Like Patois, Trinidad Bhojpuri is an integral part of our Trinbagonian identity. It forms much of the grammar, vocabulary and expressions of our Trinidad English Creole and is still spoken among descendants of the Indian indentured labourers in their winter years,” he says.
In his pursuit to know more about the language spoken by his ancestors, Bhimull also learned four—French, Patois, Modern Standard Hindi and Dutch.
When Bhimull began his research, he did not know that the results would have had far reaching implications. Those enrolled in his Trinidad Bhojpuri class are eager to discover a part of their heritage which they previously thought was not possible. It’s one small, yet promising step towards ensuring that the language of Bhimull’s ancestors will not be forgotten.
For more info, visit the Caribbean Hindustani Facebook page www.facebook.com/caribbeanhindustani.tt.