I’m often ridiculed for my passionate opinions of my part of the world. So much that when I look back at some of the instances, I do find myself very comical and very animated in such situations! Most of my friends will tell you that I’m fiercely defensive about my roots. I hail from Manipur, a state snugly fit in the north eastern corner of India. Though I haven’t stayed there for more than a couple of weeks at a time, I share the same defensive attitude towards my culture as do many others from here. I used to find it most irritating when people from other parts of the country ask vague questions like whether I ate snakes and dogs! I don’t have a problem with people’s culinary habits. I just hate the uneducated assumptions. Many people think I’m from China, Nepal, Thailand, etc, basically from the Mongoloid countries. But it is rare for someone to ask me if I’m from Manipur! Surprisingly though those who know about that region very easily pin point that I’m a Manipuri! Most of such people hail from a defence background where there fathers, brothers or husbands have served a tenure.
When I was in school, what surprised me was that it was more of a matter of ridicule for others if you looked ‘different’ from them! Oft times I’ve been asked if Manipur was in Karnataka, referring of course to the Manipal College in Mangalore. I have been called ‘Ching-Chong’ and Onion (my surname is Oinam). My siblings & my name have always generated very interesting nicknames. Looking back, some of them were really funny and many names have still stuck on, but back then it used to leave me exasperated. Back then there weren’t any psychiatrist on TV to tell you that children tend to be cruel towards each other or offer you advice on how to be tolerant of your peers! I don’t think it would’ve helped much anyway but what the heck. We are all allowed some wishful thinking. Once my brother became school captain of course the attitude changed. It helped that I too later went on to be school captain but till this date many of my then batch mates still recall me by that name!
When I was in college, my attitude changed from defensive to sympathy towards people who didn’t know about NE. I took it upon myself to educate everyone who came across as NE illiterate. It was a one woman mission to change the perspective of people around me. It must have been painful for my friends as I left no opportunity to do so. It was amusing what ideas people carried with them! Along the way, I found many youngsters from the NE who shared my views and my pool of stories just grew from then on. Some were downright weird and most of them hilarious if not ridiculous!
As part of an industry visit, 2 of my classmates, one of whom is Assamese and both are good friends of mine; we went to a Textile unit in Punjab. We had an interesting encounter with one of the top level managers there who had peculiar ideas about everything so it wasn’t a surprise that he had some about NE people as well! He had this notion from somewhere that the streets in Assam were full of elephants and rhinos! So my dear Assamese friend decided to pull his leg and told him that what he had heard was true and there was more! That rhinos were used as local transport and that for a nominal fare, the rhino and its mahout could take you to the airport which was very far from the city! To our surprise he believed it! I can imagine my friend perched on a rhino… it’s not a pretty sight and I don’t think anyone will survive such an ordeal. It’s never been tried before; maybe our man can visit Assam someday and hitch a ride on the great Indian rhinoceros! That would be front page news!
My Assamese friend’s younger sister has had more than her shares of such experiences. Once in college, one of her classmates raised a point that girls from the NE had hands that were genetically modified over the years trained to pick up tea leaves and that they started this occupation of picking leaves from when they were infants! Of course that didn’t go too well with the other students who were from the east and my friend’s sister instead of getting angry added that when she was a little girl she too had been taken to the tea gardens. But she chose to be educated and to join the ranks of the hallowed students with whom she was studying today! By now the class had caught on and the joke was on the girl who decided to voice her information in the first place. It’s not her fault that she had this idea; it was her father who gave her this valuable piece of information!
There have been instances where well educated people have asked such questions as what currency is used in Assam! Some people wanted to know if vegans could survive in that part of the country because they had this notion that it was largely a meat eating population. And recently I was very amused when a gentleman pointed out to me that Manipur was famous for its beautiful dance; and he added that he loved watching our Bharatnatyam! One of my aunt’s is a retired renowned Manipuri danseuse – wonder how she’d react to that. I have been asked if Manipur was in Burma or Thailand! Looks like most of us didn’t pay much attention during our school years when we were all desperately memorising states and capitals of our immense country!
Somehow the concept of NE Indians evokes images of semi-clad tribal folk who still live on trees in jungles and take enemy heads for trophies for many people. Mind you, it was a reality in Nagaland till a few decades ago. What a vision to monkey around with. But that’s just one of the seven states of the NE. Christianity clothed them and now it’s a predominantly Christian state and there are hardly any traces of that life here and if one were to visit Nagaland today, you would find it an extremely modern society with really sociable people.
My husband finds this quirk of mine a great way of getting me agitated! He is of course extremely supportive of my ideas but every now and then he likes to pull my leg on this issue. Ten years ago, I would’ve fist-fought him over it but thanks to the little maturity that has settled into me over the years, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
And here I am trying to educate still more people. I’m so tempted to explain about how things really are in NE India but I shall keep that for next time. Thank you for reading.