Bo: A Story of the Andaman Islands
by Simon Kartar
It was enough for me to know that in the Bo language, the word for ‘flower’ had been an inflection of the word for ‘flame’, itself a shortened vowel away from the word for ‘star’. I’d curled my tongue and then my brain around these gentle, sensible contours for a decade since taking Linguistic Anthropology 101 with Dr Denizen M. In the intervening years I’d published a thesis myself, gone public with my love, and now only my admiration for Denizen was private – especially from her. Dr M. had been asked to discover what had been the purpose of the Bo culture, and whether the recent extinction warranted United Nations commemoration, and so it was only natural that she and I board a boxy airfreight out of Kolkata bound for the Andaman Islands community at Port Blair.
Our home was an adobe shelter, a tumbledown joy. During the day I fed scraps of rice and chicken to the brightly coloured frogs. I ran for miles on dusty paths and forgot about my research work. In the evenings we sat and looked over the water towards distant dystopian Myanmar. Denizen was tired after three weeks of oily interviews with dignitaries and cricketers, and no further forward in her mission. Nobody could say whether the Bo culture had a purpose. How would they measure it? She slept fitfully, woke fretting. In contrast, I slept the sleep of the dead. When I woke the 34 Bo words for dappled light played across my mind. It felt like an eternal spring.
Bo. Prototypical, archetypal Bo, a grandmother among languages, spoken long before biblical Jericho was even a blueprint, before those cities of Ur and Harappa had sprouted from and crumbled back into the alluvial dust, before the great texts of the Torah and Veda, the epic poetry of Beowulf and Gita. Before writing had invented our future.
It was on a rainy Sunday that the pakora seller knocked on our door and told us that the last word uttered in Bo was ‘tikh’, a word he translated as: ‘feelings that span and change worlds’. After we had shared his savoury tray I looked up the word in my own Bo dictionary – a work in progress. Etymologically, ‘tikh’ was among the oldest unchanged words, a time machine stretching way back into the Pleistocene era. My rather inferior definition had it as: ‘the compelling happiness or sadness one takes between states of consciousness that change these states thereafter’. I thought it referred to waking and dreaming life. I marvelled that such a word existed.
At 70,000 years old (give or take) Bo was, perhaps, the missing Afro in Indo-European. And that last word breathed by this dying culture: ‘tikh’ – feelings that span and change worlds – how fitting.
While Denizen worked I walked. I ran. I discovered 45 new words for mangroves, another 17 for the reflections of water on leaves. The word for alcoholic drink, I found at a beach bar, had changed sometime in the 19th Century from horseshoe-bat-behind-your-eyes to death-will-call. People knew these things, but nobody could tell Denizen the purpose of Bo. She began to sense failure.
I cashed my life assurance, who wants to live forever? I called home, sold my car. Sold my stuff. I stopped paying rent on my university apartment. Denizen grew jittery. I wrote my last assignment, saved it on my laptop and FedExed it to my university office. Inside, on the screen I stuck a Post-it: ‘Thank you for the work, it was fun but I’d like to stop now please’. I made shelves in our adobe house. I started making shelves for our neighbours’ adobe houses. I planted vegetables. Two days after she left for home she called me from New York.
“I slept all the way,” she said.
“You were exhausted.” We listened to each other breathe. I knew she was fidgeting with her hair. My stomach tightened.
She said: “At the airport, I asked a pakora seller about the purpose.”
“Yes, of Bo.” She was silent again. In the background I could hear sirens wailing.
“What did he say?” I caught myself whispering.
“Well, I know it’s a meaningless question now,” she said. “He laughed at me.”
“But did he say anything?” I said.
“He said tikh,” said Denizen.
“I miss you,” she said. “I’m coming back.”
Simon Kartar writes short, flash and novel-length fiction about the spaces between us. An anthropology graduate, Samba drummer (he plays Timba), and accidental endurance athlete, he also runs, cycles and kayaks through these spaces. He lives in southern England with his fabulous, energising family.