Like most research projects, the initial groundwork of my MPhil thesis, ‘Minor Literatures: Two Novels on the Bearys’ began during a period of self-doubt and anxiety in the months after I had completed my MA in Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), 2015. I remember standing by the barricade on the second floor of the newly built School of Languages (SL II) building at JNU, staring into the distance and thinking how my long familiarity and constant engagement with the English language in terms of literary, philosophical, and theoretical readings etc is now backfiring spectacularly.
I might have felt the impact a little more because this was a time when I was in a hurry, reading more and more texts in the library, at home, on any scholarship that I could lay my hands on, and yet, had no idea what I was doing or what doing ‘(re)search’ actually meant. I was sensing a complete lack of imagination in terms of what they call a weltanschauung or world-view. I could not make a connection between what I was studying within the field of humanities/social sciences and what I understood as ground reality. Many of my batchmates were by then writing their entrance exams at universities in Delhi, Hyderabad and elsewhere for MPhil/PhD, while I was in a way forced to find a job (which I thankfully did) and gather myself and my thoughts.
Like almost everything in life, with time came change and with change came good change. It gave me a lot of confidence to first work as a freelance writer and then as an English language trainer in Calicut, and more importantly, to receive a small remuneration per article and later, a salary as part of my job. It was around this time, as I was considering my options and area of research that my father Dr Auswaf Ahsan (who among his multiple jobs works as a publisher at Other Books, based in Calicut, Kerala) had suggested I consider working on the Beary question.
The Bearys are a Muslim community, located mainly in parts of South Karnataka and North Kerala (Tulunadu/coastal Karnataka region) along the coastline of Southwest India. As a native Malayalam speaker who grew up in a predominantly Kannada/Tulu/Beary/Konkani speaking region of South Karnataka; coupled with the fact that my mother Razeena Ayesha (also a publisher at Other Books, Calicut) and her family hails from this region meant that I was well-placed to study the Beary Muslim community and its cultural formation in the region through the perspective of language and literature. I took my time to ponder over the idea and then slowly began to collect material and make notes on it.
The Research Assistant (RA) position back at JNU with Prof. Purushothama Bilimale could not have been more timely as I began to delve fully into non-English languages (it does not mean that I stopped keeping abreast of scholarship in English, after all, it is the language in which most of the scholarship is produced today). I tried to get back to reading Kannada seriously by getting hold of short stories, novels and essays in the language. The opportunity to translate a Kannada short story into English during this period meant that I got an initial taste of what it means to engage with Kannada closely.
At the same time, I tried to focus on the Tulunadu region in specific by trying to understand the language dynamic of the region and the literature produced in the area. I remember discussing with friends working in the disciplines of Linguistics, Literature, History, and Sociology as I tried to place the project in a discipline that I most favoured and would be able to contribute towards.
By the time I had worked for a year at the Kannada Chair, I came across a description of the new Comparative Literature department that had opened at Ambedkar University Delhi. The opportunity to become the first set of research scholars here and the team we developed around Professor Radharani Chakravarty and Dr Shad Naved gave me an opportunity to work and think across languages. My classmates and friends worked on Urdu, Ao, Kannada, Bengali and other South Asian languages and here I was finally enjoying my work and research!
My thesis focuses on South Asian Islam in writing through a comparative literary approach between the only novel in Beary (which uses the Kannada script) and a multilingual novel in Kannada set in the Tulunadu region. As my first long essay in academia, and as someone learning the craft of academic writing, there would surely be many areas that I may have to improve on in terms of my writing and approach to literary criticism but I have nevertheless attached a link to my thesis on academia.edu.
Further, I have to mention that it was my great privilege and joy to be invited by Nouman Sadiq for the first episode of his Beary podcast project “Kusal Katte: Oru Beary Podcast ” where the interview questions were in Beary while I responded in Malayalam. It shows the close relation between the Kasaragod dialect of Malayalam I am familiar with and the much more distinct sounding Beary.
Ali Ahsan is an incoming PhD student of Comparative Literature and Intercultural Studies at the University of Georgia, Athens (UGA). You can reach out to him at email@example.com. As a researcher and otherwise, he is perpetually fascinated about ‘language’ in its different senses and is now intending to expand this project by working on other minor languages along the coastal regions of South India and across the sea during his PhD!