For The Assam Tribune (Published on: 25th June, 2007)
Foreword: Wrote it on my Uncle's (Mr. Dilip Thomas') behest on the occassion of the the 200th Birth Anniversary of Dr. Nathan Brown.
The advent of the Christian Missionaries in India has been both valorised and criticised. Keeping the political inference aside, there's no denying the fact that we Indians have profited greatly from them. Take Rev. Dr. Nathan Brown, for example. An American Christian Baptist Missionary, he pioneered the establishment of vernacular schools in Assam, was the founder Editor of the first Assamese newspaper periodical - "Orunodoi", translated the New Testament and many significant literary works into Assamese. One of the most versatile Missionaries of that period, Dr. Nathan Brown's gamut of Missionary activities encompassed three countries (Myanmar, India and Japan) and of which, he laid the foundation of Baptist Missions in the North-East India.
Rev. Brown was an enthusiastic Evangelist and was committed to spread the word of the Gospel and in the process got involved with Assamese language and culture. It was actually the then Commissioner of Assam who was so impressed by his work, that he sent Dr. Brown an official invitation to come and help 'civilize' the warrior tribes of Shan, Khamtis and Singphos, who were threatening the smooth functioning of the British administration. Little did they expect then that the Brown's arrival would usher in a new era of literary development in the region. Brown discovered the uniqueness and popularity of the Assamese language in "its open aggreeable vocation, its picturesque Sanskritic characters, its quaint inflexious idioms", chose its purest form [as spoken in Upper Assam] as his language of teaching and preaching. He therefore started learning Assamese, Khamti and Singhpho languages, and very soon (by July 1837), he had prepared spelling books in English, Assamese and Khamti languages.
Rev. Brown laid the cornerstone for the publication of Arunudoi Sambad Patra (later Orunodoi), the first Assamese newspaper periodical in January 1846 and with illustrative articles on Geography, Astronomy, History and many other topics, it soon found an encouraging readership amongst the Assamese intelligentia, fueling an intellectual awakening of sorts. He played a pivotal role in retaining Assamese as "the vernacular dialect of the people". In his Journal dated October, 1838, Brown writes: "From the last papers we learnt that the Government has resolved on establishment of 21 schools in Assam, in which the bengali language only is to be taught. This makes it pretty certain that Assamese as a distinct language, will, in course of a few generation become extinct, and Bengali supply its place". He forwarded his objection before the Inspector of the Government of Schools stating that Assamese is more indigeneous to Assam than Bengali and that "..It [Assamese] never came from Bengali...[and] has much greater affinities with other branches of Sanskrit then with Bengali. It is more easy flowing, agreeable language and not less copious, and is fully entitled...to be considered as the vernacular language of the people".
Towards the end of 1844, Dr. Brown travelled some 200 miles on foot, from Sibsagar to Guwahati, visiting the villages to ascertain personally the racial elements of the inhabitants. Under his able editorship, the periodical published its first "Chutia Buranji" (1850) and "Purani Asom Buranji" (procured and translated by Rev. brown himself). His array of contributions include - A Spelling Book in english, Assamese and Tai; Catechism in Assamese, Tai and Khamti scripts; The Alphabet and Spelling lessons; A Hymn in Assamese; Worcester Primer in Assamese and many more. Rev. Brown was the first to publish "History of Assam", compiled by a learned Assamese Pundit Kashinath Tamuli Phookan in early 1842 and printed at Mission Press, Sivasagar. The most outstanding literary publication of this Press was the booklet, "A few Remark on the Assamese L and on Vernacular Education" (1855), by Ananda Ram Dhekial Phukan. Rev. Brown's original papers include: "The Alphabet of the Tai Language", "Comparison of Indo-Chinese Language" and "Specimen of Western Languages". He chanced on the translated Assamese Bible by Atma Ram Sharma of Koliabor, and seeing it so full of Bengali and Sanskrit terms, volunteered to transtlate the New Testament into pure and simple Assamese, intelligible to the common people. Next he took up "The Life and Gospel of Christ" for translation into Assamese. By the time Brown left Assam, he had translated a considerable part of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and handed over the responsibility to Nidhi Levi, the first Assamese convert, to assist Rev. Danforth in completing it.
Inadequate assistance, domestic and financial worries, and tribal aggression (of the Khamits in 1839), compelled Rev. Borwn's Mission to shift bases several times within Assam, while his Missionary and educational activities continued undaunted. Due to acute financial constraints, the Home Board decided to cut down on their missionary activities and Assam, being remote and recent, Dr. Brown doubted, would probably be one of the first fields to be abandoned. He appealed to the Board, saying, "The call of the RETURN is one which we could never obey, so long as life and a moderate share of health is granted to us". But fresh problems cropped up between the Home Board and the Missionaries pertaining to the educational work the latter was doing, instead of concentrating completely on Conversion work. Rev. Brown, on the other hand, was crippling from within with every passing day owing to the work-load, several deaths in the family and ill health. On his doctor's advise and due to his long due furlough and disagreement with the Home Board, Rev. Brown, heart-broken and hurt, left Assam on February 12th, 1855. On his parting, he wrote: "One of the hardest partings I ever expereinced. If God in mercy restores my health so that I can again be useful, I will return and labor till life ends with all my heart". Unfortunately, this was not to be and though he gathered himself up for the service of humanity and spread of Christianity, he never came back to the land he so loved and cherished.
Rev. Brown's next destination was Japan. Within no time he learnt the language, translated the New Testament and part of the Old Testament into Japanese, composed religious hyms, founded the Yakohama Church in Japan and so on. He became so much a part of the land that the inscription on his tombstone had a: "God Bless the Japanese", so requested by the genius himself before he died. This 22nd June, 2007, we celebrate the 200th Birth Anniversary of one of the most influential and humble Missionaries the world has known and reminisce with gratitude his unparalled contributions to Assam - its people and culture.