Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s new, sparse and fable-like film, ‘Le Havre’, story of a shoeshine, his ailing wife and how he came to help an underage African immigrant, in the French port city of Le Havre, there is a scene that set me thinking about the issues of migration, and more than that issues of indigenous cultural/national identity.

There’s a Chinese-looking character in the film, and everybody considers him to be Chinese, although he says, he’s from Vietnam. The white European cannot be bothered about the details. He looks Chinese, so he’s Chinese.

Same is the case with mainland India. The Chinese-looking guy on the roadside fast-food stall is Chinese, because he looks ‘chinki’. The eyes are a dead giveaway. You ask him where he is from and he’d happily tell you he’s from Beijing. In truth, he may not even have a passport. He may be a Nepali from the border, or a North-Eastern, a Naga or a Mizo, or he may be a Tibetan. But an Indian cannot be bothered about the details. But, he looks Chinese, no?

This is one of the pet peeves of Tibetan poet-activist Tenzin Tsundue, how every other Tibetan is mistaken in India as Chinese. Almost every Indian has heard of Dalai Lama, but only a handful of Indians really understand the implications of the Tibetan identity.

Same is the case with the North East. When I say I am from Assam, people ask, but you don’t look like a North-Eastern. What a North-Eastern looks like? Chinki. Slanted eyes. Western Clothes. Inability to speak Hindi. Addiction to drugs, to western music. Where did you learn to speak such good Hindi? They ask.

And if they meet someone who conforms to these parameters, he’s a North-Eastern. He may be a Naga, or a Mizo, or a Manipuri, or a Bodo, or someone from the Adi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh. It doesn’t matter. An Indian cannot be bothered with the details. All North-Easterns are the same, aren’t they?

And, if you are from north, you are a Gorkha. Never mind if you are a Nepalese, or a Sikkimese or a Tibetan, or an actual Gorkha.

When I first arrived in Pune, Maharashtra, one of the largest states in India, people would ask me if I carried a passport. Assam? Assam is a foreign country, isn’t it? Like Bhutan? Perhaps, sooner than later, I would carry a passport, with People’s Republic of China embossed on the cover. The Indian government is at loss when China claims that Arunachal Pradesh is part of that country. It doesn’t matter for India if Arunachal is part of the country or not; they would not wage a war against China. We have the precedence. When the Chinese army marched towards Tezpur, in the Assamese district of Sonitpur, in 1962, what did the Indian government do? They ordered retreat. They surrendered before the invasion. That night, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India, gave a speech in radio, declaring the retreat, and said: “My heart goes out for the people of Assam.” That was the consolation, as the people of Assam waited for an attack. The attack did not happen. That’s a different story!

In our school syllabus, in Assam, we read about Shivaji Maharaj and his exploits. But, an educated person here doesn’t have a faintest idea about Assamese history. Forget history, they do not have any idea how many states are there in North East. Seven or seventeen? They cannot be bothered with details.

Assam? You are from Assam? So, you grow tea in your house! Yes. We do. And we are savages. Thank you, very much!

When I point fingers at Indians, we, Assamese, are equally to blame, as far as the other six North-Eastern states are concerned. For long, Assam has played the Big Brother role to the other North Eastern states, and not in a good way. In the context of the Assamese culture, all other numerous cultures in the north eastern states have always played a second fiddle. Now, people of these communities are aware of this discrimination and they now look at the Assam people, their cultural brother, with distrust. Hence, there are skirmishes between the Assamese and Naga people near the border. So long, the Assamese people have exploited the other communities and now, no more.

A few years ago, I was in Kolkata to attend a workshop. In the guesthouse where the accommodation was arranged, I met a young man from Nagaland, also a participant. We went to have tea together; I told him that I’m from Pune and we got along famously. This was until the next day, when I told him that I’m from Assam. From that moment onwards, he avoided me, courteously, of course (people from the hills have no malice unlike the people from the plains), but visibly. I don’t blame him, really. It’s a cultural thing, this distrust of the Assamese people. There is a long, torturous history behind it.

Llumer Dai is a well known and often brilliant writer from Arunachal Pradesh, who writes about the cultures and rituals of the tribes in the state, in Assamese. Mamang Dai is a poet-writer from Nagaland who has achieved national and international fame for her work on North East. She writes in English.

Now you know, why an average North Eastern speaks English than Hindi and follows the Western culture. It’s a matter of culture. When an Assamese would be mortified to visit a Naga village in early 19th century, American Baptist missionaries threaded that dangerous path. You may argue about the motivations of the missionaries. The fact remains that they built a bridge.

And what we do? We set fire on such bridges. Intentionally or unintentionally.

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