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The Magazine That Saved A Language

Orunodoi - An Assamese 19th Century Magazine

Father came back from the market, with a bundle of groceries, and a paper tucked under his left shoulder. My sister and I were playing in the verandah when we saw him enter the house. We rushed to help him and took the groceries to the kitchen. He lay the magazine on the table when my sister curiously asked, “What is that deota (father)?”

“I don’t know Majoni (my dear)”, my father replied, while gently patting her head. “Seems like something the sahebs worked on.”

He sat on the stool of the verandah, during the evening, and we sat next to him, in front of the burned out meji from Magh Bihu. He opened the first page of the magazine.

“Orunodoi, Sibsagar, 1845. Volume 1” and then, Father began reading the science section. He knew that I absolutely loved science.

He then read the General Intelligence section and then the Summary of Events. We were about to start the religious section when Mother called us inside for dinner.

“I hear that the magazine editor is Nathan Brown,” my father said to my mother, while we ate dail bhat.

“I see. Mrinali said that he has come all the way from America. A missionary it seems.”, my mother replied, while pouring some more dail on my plate. “He came to Sadiya and thought that Assamese was a dialect of Bengali. Her husband works for the sahebs you know, so he often hears them talk about such affairs.”

She took a sip of water and continued.

“Mrinali also said that the Americans are going to write books in Assamese to keep the language alive. She says that the sahebs do not seem happy with this initiative. Surely they would be much suited to Bengali.”

I understood what she meant. A few years ago, the British had taken over Assam, and changed the language in administrative offices and such similar areas to Bengali, because the clerical workers that they had brought were Bengalis. Even the medium of instruction at school had been changed.

“But why would they want that?” my father asked judgingly. “They must have some personal motive, just like the sahebs.”

“I don’t know. Mrinali did say something about using the vernacular to spread Christianity.”

Later that night, with overpowering curiosity, I went to the verandah where father had left the magazine. I turned on the flame and began reading. I directly went to science section and was so engrossed in it that I lost track of time.


After a month, Father brought the second volume. We waited eagerly for the magazine each month, and while our lives changed, Orunodoi remained consistent. It became the gateway of global events to all of us.

Soon, the magazine began accepting articles from the local authors. This helped to keep the movement of keeping Assamese alive. Eventually, many Assamese reformers, like Hemchandra Barua, Gunabhiram Barua and Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, along with American Missionaries, continuously petitioned the British and worked tirelessly to create a large body of literature in Assamese.

In February 1874, the government finally changed its policies by making Assamese a medium of instruction. The Assamese language had won its 37-year-old battle for survival. Orunodoi was last published in 1883 and it had played a critical part in saving the language.


©Aaira Goswami, 2021. All rights reserved.



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