The popular month-long Rath Mela in Pakur (in Jharkhand’s Santhal Pargana area), that began on 6 July, has a unique stall this time. This is a stall selling books in Santhali written in the Ol-Chiki script.

It is rare to find Santhali books written in Ol-Chiki in Pakur. Santhal Pargana is the place where, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the words of the Santhali language were first written down. A Norwegian Christian missionary did this and he used the Roman script, because of which the Christian Santhals of Santhal Pargana have always championed the use of the Roman script to write Santhali. The government of Bihar encouraged the use of the Devanagari script to write Santhali through the oldest and highly respected Santhali magazine, Hor Sombad, published by the government of Bihar and printed in Devanagari.

Fewer means of transport and communication between Santhal Pargana and other Santhal areas of southern Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal ensured that Santhal Pargana remained an island for a fairly long time. During this time, the Santhali language saw an evolution in Odisha and southern Jharkhand.

In 1925, Santhal author and linguist Raghunath Murmu, who came from the Mayurbhanj area in northern Odisha, invented the Ol-Chiki, a script that has now been adopted as the standard script to write Santhali, an achievement for which Murmu is often called Pandit Raghunath Murmu. The Sahitya Akademi has recognised only three organisations in matters related to works in Santhali language:

- The Odisha chapter of the Adivasi Socio-Educational and Cultural Association (ASECA), headquartered in Mayurbhanj, Odisha.
- The West Bengal chapter of the ASECA, headquartered in Bhowanipur, Kolkata.
- The All India Santhali Writers Association, headquartered in Jhargram, West Bengal.

All three organisations recognise Ol-Chiki as the script for Santhali. Several fonts have been developed for Ol-Chiki to be used on computers. However, Santhal Pargana in northern Jharkhand – cut off from the rest of the Santhali-speaking world, oblivious to the evolution that was going on in the Santhali language, and under the influence of Christianity that patronised the use of the Roman script – stuck to Roman for writing Santhali. This is why books in Ol-Chiki are non-existent in Pakur even as Santhali books using the script are common in Jamshedpur, which is southern Jharkhand.

The brave shopkeeper

The stall, named Adim Kherwar Parsal, is being run by an elderly man named Madhu Mardi, himself an author. He sells books that he has published himself. There are books on Santhal history, social mores, and religion; Santhali songs and stories; the Jharkhand Movement, etc. Mardi’s address in his books is a village named Pondehansa, under the jurisdiction of Sundernagar police-station on the outskirts of Jamshedpur. What made Mardi come all the way to Pakur when his books could have found many takers in Jamshedpur itself? What course has his life taken?

“My ancestors belonged to the village Seyajang,” Mardi tells his story. “It is a village in Odisha, thana Tiring, district Mayurbhanj. I used to work with the Tata company. So I came to Pondehansa from Seyajang. Though I built a house in Pondehansa, we have a bigger house in Seyajang where my entire family lives.”

Mardi has had no formal education. He learnt to read and write on his own. Before he began working for Tata Steel, he used to sell rice from his fields in Seyajang in markets outside Jamshedpur. On being asked what made him bring his farm produce to Jamshedpur when he could have very well sold it in Odisha, Mardi says, “The people, the market were in Jamshedpur. Because of the factory.”

“The police was very strict in those days,” he recounts. “They did not allow rice to be passed from Odisha to Bihar. But we knew all the routes. And we made the policemen our friends. They allowed us entry.”

Asked how old he is, Mardi squints into the distance and says, “Eighty. Maybe ninety.” Then he mentions an event from the Jharkhand Movement: the massacre at Gunduria. On February 6, 1949, the government of Odisha had the police open fire on a gathering of Santhals at Gunduria village. It is still not known how many Santhals lost their lives in that masscare.

“I must have been five years old at that time,” Mardi says.

He also remembers the massacre at Kharsawan on January 1, 1948, another blood-soaked event from the Jharkhand Movement. Under instructions from the government of Bihar, the police opened fire on a gathering of Adivasis. The massacre in Kharsawan is often called the Jallianwala Bagh of the Jharkhand Movement.

If Mardi were really five at the time of the massacre in Gunduria, he must be at least 76 years old now. In fact, to actually remember an event from the year 1949, he must have been older than five. So he must be over eighty. When did he begin writing?

“I began writing some 20 years ago,” Mardi says. “After my retirement. I had heard stories from my ancestors. I decided to pass them on.”

The inspiration

“In Seyajang,” Mardi says with a smile, “we were told the story of an ojha named Salo Majhi. He was a very learned man who could cure every disease. He had grown very old, and each time people went to him to request him to teach them his art, for who knew when Salo Majhi would die, he would just tell them, ‘Hape hape’ – wait, wait. And then, one day, Salo Majhi died, and along with him his art went away too. So, I decided, I shouldn’t do ‘hape hape’ like Salo Majhi, and that I should spread the knowledge while I still have time. So I began writing and began travelling the world to spread my knowledge.”

Mardi has been going to the Hijla Mela in Dumka for the last 10 or 12 years and to Bhognadih on Hul Maha for the last seven years. Bhognadih is in Sahebganj district, some 100 km from Pakur, and, every year, on June 30, Santhals gather there to commemorate the Santhal Hul of 1855. This is celebrated as Hul Maha or, as the government of Jharkhand calls it, Hul Diwas. The farthest Mardi has gone is to Darjeeling, 10 years ago. In his shop he accompanied by his grandsons, Rajkumar and Kunwar, both in their late-teens or early-twenties.

A man stops at the stall. Mardi instructs one of his grandsons to give him twenty rupees. The aged author has rented this prime, roadside location for twenty rupees daily. How’s business? “About half our books in Bhognadih were sold this time,” he answers.

Besides books, Mardi sells the kacha, the traditional striped garment that Santhals wear. The traditional kacha does not have patterns, but Mardi’s do. There are flowers, vines, peacocks, the three-arrow symbol of the Santhals that the ASECA has adopted as its insignia. Mardi procures the kacha from the pende (the Hindu weaver caste, also known as “tanti”) from villages near Jamshedpur. Then he employs artisans to stitch designs on them.

Quite obviously, Mardi’s kachas are attracting more attention than his books. Because of the designs on them, the kachas are expensive. Two thousand rupees, three thousand rupees. Yet, in Pakur, these designer kachas have found takers. Two kachas, each priced at three-thousand rupees, were sold on the first day of the mela itself!

Scripting the future

Finally, an important question. How did Mardi believe that his books in Ol-Chiki would find takers in Santhal Pargana, where the clash between Ol-Chiki and Roman is inevitably a clash between two identitities – Sarnas and Christians?

“People are buying Ol-Chiki books,” Mardi says enthusiastically. “In Amrapara and Littipara (two of the six blocks of Pakur district), I sold several Ol-Chiki primers. There were both Sarna and Christian Santhals. Among the Christians I noticed some hesitation, but they still bought Ol-Chiki books.’

His grit and faith makes Madhu Mardi a miracle. Also, the fact that he brought Ol-Chiki to a place where it is greatly needed: Santhal Pargana. A script gives a language and a community its identity. How beautiful it looks to see a particular language written in its own script!

Ol-Chiki is already there – does it make any sense now to keep Santhali tethered to Roman or any other script? The government of India intends to have Santhali in Ol-Chiki printed on currency notes. As one looks forward to that day, one cannot but just admire the contribution of people like Mardi in making Ol-Chiki known to the world.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar lives in Jharkhand and is the author of a novel, The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey, and a collection of short stories, The Adivasi Will Not Dance.