The last leg of the 15-km journey from Jalgaon Jamod in north Maharashtra to the tiny village of Sonbardi is arduous and nauseating, especially right after breakfast. A rattling autorickshaw speeding on a road with crater-like potholes makes us wish we were walking instead. As we get closer and the Satpura hill range on the border with Madhya Pradesh becomes more visible, our minds slowly veer off the brutal ride.
Sonbardi is home to 70 families of the Nihal tribe, who speak Nihali, a language estimated to have not more than 2,000-2,500 speakers, which is half of the entire community, in a few villages of the Jalgaon Jamod division of Buldhana district. Shailendra Mohan, a professor of linguistics at Pune’s Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, has been researching Nihali for five years. He visits these villages at least twice a year, collecting words and understanding their customs and beliefs.
His objective this time is to gather as many rhyming words as possible. “Could you tell me words like akar-bakar (‘in a hurry’ in Nihali) and aaplapaapla (each other)?” he asks a group of men with sharp, rough-hewn features, some of whom are seated in a circle, immersed in a card game, after they greet him with ram-ram. They begin to respond as if they want to contribute to the discussion but soon break out in laughs over gibberish. Mohan realises his best bet is Bhavrao Yadav, a repository of knowledge on everything to do with the tribe and the language. Yadav, who pegs his age at probably 70 years, and his family reel off a stream of words and expressions like rapa-rapa (pitter-patter) and taru-turu (clattering of utensils).
The Nihals, who work as farmhands, are usually clubbed with the much larger Korku tribe, but their languages are not similar. Korku is categorised under the Munda branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family, while Ni-hali is believed to be a language isolate, which means it does not belong to that family or any of the other major language families in India, including Indo-European, Tibeto-Burmese and Dravidian. Nihals in the region usually also speak Korku and some even Hindi and Marathi, but the Nihals in Madhya Pradesh, whose border is just 30 km from Sonbardi, do not speak Nihali.
Read more: The Economic Times