Till Cotton College was established in the year1901 in Guwahati, Calcutta was the only centre for higher education for the Assamese students. They created their space in that port city among the bhadroloks (gentlemen) by taking their houses on rent and forming messes. It is a global phenomenon, I think, for the students studying in an educational centre to rent a house and manage eating, washing, studying and other day to day activities. But, what is important here is the feeling of the ‘otherness’ and the sense of exile in the midst of a dominant culture - Bengali. The Assamese students in that cityscape always had their umbilical cord attached to their native province and in their search for the identity they contributed immensely to the growth of an Assamese nationalism. The Assamese mess in Calcutta had a very important role in the narratives of Assamese nationalism. Instead of the colonial economic exploitation, the Bengali linguistic hegemony was perceived as the real threat to the burgeoning Assamese nationality. The Assamese students studying in Calcutta, who designed Assamese nationality in the late nineteenth century, took the language as the most important unifying factor for the formation of an Assamese nationality. ‘Bhāxār bikāx holehe jātir bikāx hobo’ (The nation develops only when the language develops) was the slogan of the early Assamese intelligentsia and they began the process of standardization of the language by standardizing orthography, writing grammars and dictionary, and most importantly by using the standardized version in the print. By the end of the nineteenth century the language spoken in Upper and Middle Assam became the accepted standard language of Assam as a direct intervention of this group of young men. Jonaki bears the testimony of their efforts.
There were a substantial number of students in Calcutta in the eighth decade of the nineteenth century. Students used to form the messes. At the beginning, there were two messes for Hindu students and one for the Muslim students. The two Hindu messes were the 50 Sitaram Ghosh Street and 62 Sitaram Ghosh Street and the Muslim mess was the 33 Muslim Para Lane. It is important to mention some names of the students living in those messes to give a glimpse of the people who played a pivotal role in the early imagination of Assamese identity. Benudhar Rajkhowa, Dalimchandra Bora, Lakshiprasad Chaliha, Ramakanta Baruah, Krishnaprasad Duwara, Ramakanta Barkakoti, Gunindranath Baruah, Golapalchandra Baruah, etc, were some of the names associated with 50 Sitaram Ghosh Street mess. The important names associated with 62 Sitaram Gosh Street mess are Lakhyeswar Sarma, Tirthanath Kakoti, Hemchandra Goswami, Kanaklal Baruah, Krishna Kumar Baruah, Chandra Kamal Bezbaruah, Ghanashyam Baruah, Kamalchandra Sarma and Lakshminath Bezbaroa, etc. With the increasing influx of students, the number of messes also increased. Some of the important messes later added were 67 Mirzapur Street, 107 Amherst Street, 14 Pratap Chandra Lane, Eden Hospital Street mess, etc. The students used to have a lot of inter-mess activities and one such an activity was the ‘Tea Party’. Influenced by the western coffee-home culture, they had innovated this concept for social gathering. They used to gather over a cup of tea on every Wednesday and Saturday to discuss different topics and in one such a Tea Party, at the 67 Mirzapur Street mess on Saturday the 25th August 1888 (1810 Saka), the idea of Axomiā Bhāxā Unnati Xādhini Xabhā was mooted and unanimously decided to bring it in shape. Thus the tea party got converted to a literary organization. We get this information in the pages of Jonaki (Vol 5 No. 7) under the title ‘Axomiā Bhāxā Unnati Xādhini Xabhār Karjya Biboroni’1. The first secretary of the Xabhā was Shivaram Sarma Bordoloi. In the same article, the goal of the organization was discussed: “The objective of the Sabha is to find out solutions as to how an infant mother tongue would grow; how would it equalize the other rich and developed languages of the world and brighten the poor and gloomy face of Assam; how would it grow from the present weak and sick status to a healthy state.” Elaborating the objectives, the article further it states: “The development of Assamese language and literature is the primary aim of the organization. For that purpose it strives to preserve the old Assamese texts available, to translate different important books from Sanskrit and other languages into Assamese which are not available in the mother tongue, to develop reading habit among the masses to introduce pure grammar and orthography instead of the impure orthography and grammar, and to create one standard written language all through the areas of Assam”. (Translation: mine).
The last two objectives were rather important and had a far-reaching effect upon the growth of a composite Assamese identity based on language.
The Xabha had taken many important decisions among which the most important was to publish a new monthly magazine. But they did not have the financial strength to come up with a magazine. But to their rescue came Chandra Kumar Agarwala, a second year FA student in the Presidency College also a member of Axomiā Bhāxā Unnati Xādhini Xabhā. He belonged to the rich business family of Harbilas Agarwala. He came forward to take over the financial burden of the magazine and named it Jonaki (the moonlight). On two conditions Chandra Kumar came forward to publish and edit the magazine on his own: first, every member must take care of Jonaki; second, every member must write an article for Jonaki. If anybody violates any of these two conditions, he will have to pay a fine of Rs15. Axomiā Bhāxā Unnati Xādhini accepted these terms of Chandrakumar. The date of the first publication of the magazine is not mentioned in it. Only the Assamese month ‘Māgho’ and the year of publication 1889 are mentioned. It is surmised that on 9th February 1889 the first edition appeared. We get conflicting pictures on how many copies of Jonaki were published and till which year it was published. Jonaki was printed till 1898:11 issues in the first year, 12 issues in the second year, 10 issues in the third year, 11 issues in the fourth year, 7 issues in the fifth year, 11 issues in the sixth year, 6 issues in the seventh year, 1 issue in the eighth year, with the total number of 69 issues of Jonaki were published. Jonaki was again published from Guwahati in the year 1901 which continued till 1903. 2
The aims and objective of Axomiā Bhāxā Unnati Xādhini Xabhā were expressed in the pages of Jonaki. It did not have an editorial. What it had was a column called
1 ‘The Description of work of Axomia Bhaxa Unnati Xadhini Xabha’
2 Dr Nagen Saikia, the editor of the compiled edition of Jonaki has discussed the following facts in great detail in the introduction of the volume. Enthusiastic readers must read it for the nuances of the facts.