The North-East BlogKnow what leading academics, writers, poets, musicians, activists and journalists from the region have to say to develop an informed perspective on matters related to this part of India.
I grew up amidst an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism generated by the Assam Movement of the late '70s and the early '80s. And then, there was the romance of insurgency, the fire of idealism that inspired an entire generation of Assamese youth. That fire, though dimmed to a great extent, was still burning when I left home in 1996: 'home' has always been equated with Assam - and Northeast India as a whole - in my vocabulary. And that was my first time away from home, away from everything held fanatically dear.
I was eighteen then and romanticism at age eighteen is permissible. With juvenile simplicity I wrote in a poem how 'after cradling me for nine months in her womb, my mother planted me a tiny seed in the soil of my birth'; very idealistically, I wrote of myself as the tree that grew towards 'the sun and the blue', till one day, 'I touched the sky and gathered the blue'. I bent then to plant the sun in my soil and my siblings thereafter grew higher and higher, taller and taller, 'till all said, "Look, they are the sun, the blue."'
It has been a long time since I shed such messianic ambitions and unquestioning idealism. But at the time, I was very much steeped in these sentiments and did not see the irony of the fact that I had unintentionally symbolised Delhi as the sun and the sky of my poem. Delhi, after all, was the place I was grudgingly going to; for me, as the heart of mainland India it was a place where every person (or so I thought) would be hostile to me because I was Assamese.
I was wrong. They were not at all hostile. They were mostly curious. I was something exotic to them, coming as I did from the land of half-naked tribals, perhaps even cannibals, and which was now the land of insurgency, of terrorism, of secessionism and all things decadent.
Do you have plains in Assam?
Haven't you done your geography in school?
You have buses in Assam!
No, we travel by bullock carts, or by boats across the Brahmaputra.
But the Brahmaputra is in Bengal.
How did you ever reach college?
I did not look 'Oriental' the politically correct term that had been devised in lieu of the derogatory sounding 'chinky'.
So I did not have to face some of the more incendiary questions. My friend from Mizoram was asked if she needed a passport to come to India. 'I am Indian, f*** you', she said in sheer exasperation. But who cares? Naga or Mizo, Assamese or Manipuri, it was all the same. If one came from beyond Bengal, one came from beyond India. Like this first year student who was ragged when we were doing our second year BA who thought that Nagaland was in Nepal.
The 'Oriental' looking among us were not ragged Indians are always nice to foreigners. One year, the students from the Northeast volunteered to be ragged in the hostel ragging sessions 'we also want to feel a part of the community here'. And then they ask why we need separate students' unions for the Northeast students when none of the other regions have such bodies. I wonder now if it would have served any purpose to tell them that we have very strong community ties in the Northeast, especially those among us who come from 'tribal' communities. Some communities even own land as a body, not as individuals.
And these communities may be patriarchal in many ways, but at least in the public space, women are not treated as sex toys. Imagine the rude shock then to find men masturbating over you in public buses! It is no romanticism certainly when I say that in my part of the world women are not burnt with their husbands, or by them. A Naga friend could not understand what the big deal was in being from the opposite sex 'we are brought up as different units of a community; we have our well defined functions in the community but we are not polarised by gender.'
My angst as a woman and Northeasterner come across in everything I wrote at the time. I wrote,
Each day is another lifetime in purgatory As soon as I step out, I drown in a sea of eyes Hands seize me, breaths scorch me.
I struggle to swim across.
On the other shore, I am shorn of my identity I stand half-naked They call me a barbarian 'You eat human flesh, don't you?'
Now-a-days, I do not resist.
Quietly I pay the price of being superior.
The exile begins to seem pointless. (1996)
Distance, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Though in some cases, blinder too. I'm thankful that in my case distance from home only cleared my perspective and cured me of my blindness. Familiarity with the outside world, instead of breeding contempt, bred tolerance in me. Fanaticism and love were sifted and separated. Yeats felt like a kindred spirit.
Out of Ireland have we come,
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us from the start,
I carry from my mother's womb,
A fanatic heart.
Literature is good. It emancipates, makes you bigger, better, broader. At last you have found the right set of people. Of course, once in a while there is a new lecturer in class who makes it difficult for you to remain very tolerant.
Uddipana. Nice name. Bengali?
No ma'am. Assamese.
But you don't look Assamese.
What is looking Assamese?
Why, chinky of course.
College over and the world of journalism. You write about your culture, your people. You are read and appreciated; you feel you have done your bit. Of course, the mainstream national media cannot give you the kind of space you would ideally want for representing your region nor afford to place your concerns over Delhi's, but within these constraints, you can work your way around.
Then suddenly one day, you open a magazine where your write-up was supposed to be. Only, it is not your write-up anymore. It used to be until the printer's devil (I suppose) took away whole alphabets from the transliterated text of your language. The language that in your literature has been described as honey-dripping, the very language to incite the dumb to speech, is not even a coherent language anymore; just some garbled conglomeration of letters. Perhaps a language spoken by the fidgeting females and the peacock-feathered accompanist in the illustration? Where do these people come from? They are surely not Assamese. And certainly not the graceful, erotic, enticing, ecstatic Bihu dancers about whom the write up was supposed to be!
Time then to return from a pointless self-imposed exile.
All this was a long time ago. I am told Northeast students in mainland India still face similar questions and prejudices. Now when I go back to Delhi, I see many eateries increasingly employing girls from the Northeast the 'Oriental' ones to serve customers, a trend not entirely absent even 10 years ago when I first went to Delhi. To my mind it is commercialisation of an attitude. It seems to me as cashing in on the mixed reaction I had seen even among my mainland Indian classmates seven to ten years ago on the one hand they were in awe of the more 'Westernised' (as they felt) Northeasterners and the way they dressed or carried themselves; and on the other, they looked at them with some curiosity, some derision, some fear: the usual ambivalence attached to exotica.
I used to shudder to think that it was people with attitudes like this whose parents, or relatives, or friends were sitting in crucial decision-making forums and determining the destinies of my region. By now some of them would themselves have picked up the mantle of 'Northeast experts' perhaps. The popular imagination is after all, not so far removed from the political and all of it affects policy-making, which in turn determines the destiny of an entire region.
[Published in the Indian Journal of Post-colonial Literatures No 11, Jul-Dec 2008.]
More about Uddipana Goswami
Uddipana Goswami is literary editor of the Seven Sisters Post and Assamese literature editor of Muse India, a literary e-journal. Her publications include We Called the River Red: Poetry from a Violent Homeland (2010, New Delhi: Authors Press) and Indira Goswami: Passion and the Pain (2012, New Delhi & Guwahati: Spectrum). Her forthcoming books include This is How We Lived (short stories; Zubaan, New Delhi) and Conflict and Reconciliation: The Politics of Ethnicity in Assam (academic study; Routledge, London & New Delhi). As writer and researcher, Goswami’s area of interest is the Northeast region of India. She has worked with some major media houses, like the India Today Group and National Geographic Channel (India), before turning to sociological research. She writes and translates regularly for many national and international journals.
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