Interestingly enough this region which was once mostly rainforest with a few scatterings of permanent settlement is struggling to maintain it’s identity whilst also trying to take unto itself the challenges of the ever changing economics & technologies of the globe. Perhaps its own past is also what is responsible for it’s slow growth. As a tribal community much of the population is coming out of it’s traditional beliefs & ideologies. It’s not a very recent past when there were many tribes that were warring with each other to gather all the resources they needed to survive. That need has been diminished as goods are brought in from the heartlands by road, rail & air. Of course that ideology still prevents quite a few parts from receiving resources easily with roadblocks, raids etc coming in the way! The Ahoms fight the Bodos & Meiteis with Nagas etc etc
We only seem to make matters worse for ourselves with all the bloodshed & violence. Instead of blaming the central government, we should take matters in our own hands! If for just a year all the insurgents give up arms & focus on creating socio-economic resources, one can only imagine what amazing things can happen!
We are still at war with each other when we should be actually coexisting which is far more beneficial economically! Imagine if there was smooth movement of goods & services to all parts of the NE.. We’d have fantastic tourist destinations, crazy colourful traditional & music festivals! There’d be rail & road development & India too could boast of world class highways on the mountains.. We could have excellent schools & colleges thanks to the wealth of knowledge that lies dormant & waiting to be put to use! And we’d have world class health centres that’d make the region ideal for medical tourism! & we’d bring forth sportspeople who’d break new world records in every international venue!!!
My thoughts are very utopian perhaps but the sheer thought of these possibilities makes my heart soar for I can see the wealth of amazing things that can happen. I hope and pray that this vision gets shared amongst my country folk too.
Each of the NE states is richly endowed with ecological diversities and an equally rich cultural heritage. It is unique from what you get to see in the other parts of the country. The flora and fauna, the culture, language and way of life are distinct and surprisingly multi-varied here. The features of the people here are dominantly Mongolian and language and culture an interesting mix between mainland India and the Mongolian races. It is here that the Dravidian, Caucasian and Aryan blend with the Mongolian… hence you get to see a wide range of anatomical variations. Of course, from the great Hindu epic Mahabharata, you also get references of this region signifying the recognition of the region across texts & over centuries.
This region also has its own share of global contributions. The game of Polo has its origins in Manipur. The great Indian Rhino has its habitat in the Kaziranga National Park in Assam. The Brahmaputra River carved out the largest mud island – Majuli, on its course in Assam. Manipuri dance is highly admired all over the world. The Naga tribes still invoke an ancient world charm and are part of the world’s indigenous peoples, just to name a few.
The biggest problem that this area faces is that of regional unrest. Political and social divisions here have created violent rifts amongst the people of this region. Insurgency is a major problem here. What started out a few decades ago as a resistance to political corruption has now taken on a different meaning altogether! Militancy and insurgency makes this region unfavourable for development of any sort. Attempts of industrialization and development have been grounded due to the presence of such anti-social elements. Many states of course are now realising the need to modernise and develop their territories if any progress is to happen. Nagaland and Meghalaya today are completely different from what they used to be. Shillong and Kohima are now urban cities perched in the most coveted laps of nature and are attracting people from all over the world. Shillong has been in the news recently owing to its people setting the World record for largest number of people drumming together for a given period of time. It might sound like a small thing but it has finally brought this region to the world’s attention.
Another aspect of this region is the presence of a textiles & handicrafts industry here that has existed for centuries. Almost every traditional house owns a loom – be it a handloom or a hand-held loom. One can go into even the most interior of places here and one can find evidence of the rich textile heritage of this region. It’s not only a means of livelihood but it also defines the people. Many well known Indian designers head here to pick up the well crafted cane products. This sector is unorganised as the crafts started more as a way of equipping the locals for their daily life and not for commercial purposes. Non-governmental organisations are now trying to change this scenario and make things more accessible not only for the consumers outside but also for the local craftsmen.
Tourism should boost the economy as this geographical area has a wide variety of activities to offer and the region is largely unspoilt by industrialisation – the only thing good that came out of the decades of non-entry of development! The local people will also have to make a collective effort keeping aside their differences and move towards developing infrastructure facilities and restoring regional pride.
There is much to be done in this north eastern corner of India and there is a need for a change in attitude not only of the local people but also of the rest of the nation. If only the mega industrial houses of India look east and see the overwhelming potential that this region has to offer. There is a customer base here that will lap up new technologies, new fashions and new anything at a neck-break speed as long as it is the latest that the world has to offer! It is a place that has an underlying hunger for change even if it is largely a need for the latest consumer products available.
Despite having grown up outside of this region, I feel strongly about it. I feel strongly about the lack of industrial development, the animosity between tribes& peoples, the absence of a good rail/road network across the region, the gigantic potential for eco-tourism in these states, the beauty of the region… I can go on & on about it.
The alienation of this region has existed for too long now and this alienation has become the identity sadly of some of the anti-social groups in the region. Many amongst the youth here don’t identify themselves with the rest of the nation & vice versa. And then again there seems to be some comfort in being alienated as well. That ways they don’t have to deal with finding new jobs where they have to work hard & earn less than what they can through extortion & exploitation! But for how long… I wonder sometimes… don’t they want steady jobs with steady incomes where they are not hated… or feared… where they can hold their head up high, where their families don’t have to worry about getting ‘bad’ news from the police or the army or their neighbours! maybe some day…perhaps there will come a day when everyone gets fed up of this madness and decide to bring back some feeling of normalcy back into their lives if not the entire region!
The Mango Tree
Dawn broke silently over the horizon. We watched the orange hues push the night from ink to purple and then slowly the orange took over the sky paving way for the sun to rise. It was magical watching sunrises at five in the morning from our terrace; especially in a place like this where there were almost no man-made obstructions to the view apart from the temple’s prayer flags. Three days into our vacation to our parent’s house and it felt as if we had never left in the first place. As kids, we never ran out of things to do around the sleepy neighbourhood. We knew everyone and we would group up with our cousins & friends and wreck havoc around the small school park across the road to our place. We were both in our twenty’s now and whatever we missed out as children seemed to slowly unfold before us as the sky turned pale gold.
There was evidence of cementing in parts of the front yard of the house which had been evened out to give way to the new Highway. It was to be the connecting road to Myanmar. The same front yard where once our mango tree would sway heavily with ripe fruits every summer with the wind! There were so many memories that had been rooted with the tree. So many moments that every now & then crept up in my mind – sometimes stealing a tear & sometimes making me smile. Now in its place there was a patch of cement running along the bank of the road, stretching as far as the eye could see.
A few summers ago, our parents moved back to the ancestral home in Imphal after Dad’s retirement. It was an emotional trip home that year. We didn’t know when we would make this trip again as a family but we would definitely visit once a year depending on my work & my sister’s college schedules respectively. Like every summer, on our way from the airport to the house, this year too we had involuntarily looked out for that branch of the mango tree that used to loom over the road. It used to be an indication that we had reached home. But this year it wasn’t there.
This year the government had suddenly felt the need to widen the highway after nearly twenty years. Unfortunately for us, our beloved tree was in the way of this grand project. Many illegal constructions & roadside temples where accidents had taken place were to be razed to the ground. It was a sign of change and of better times as the government had put it across in the local newspapers. But it spelt bad news for our garden & our mango tree. My father initially tried to see if there was a way he could urge the authorities to widen the road more on the left hand side of the road without having to cut down a tree. He still finds it depressing to see trees being cut, something which my sister & I have inherited from him as well. My dad even went to the extreme contemplating if there was a way of uprooting the entire tree & planting it elsewhere! Well, of course there were too many practical problems with it. Apart from the scale & absurdity of this operation, we didn’t have enough land for a tree in the back yard. Yes, we did a lot of research over it. It might have sounded silly to others but to us, this tree was much more than just another shady place to rest in the afternoons. My sister & I even went to the local forestry office. They were very amused but sympathetic. And they were happy to see two young people showing interest in conservation. So what if it was just one tree. It was a symbol of home. And all we had of it is a photograph of it that my father took before it had been cut down.
The tree itself used to be a bit of a mystery to us. How we loved hanging from its lower branches as kids! Its fruit when ripe was terrible & we preferred having it when it was green. It never once struck as odd that we preferred its raw green emerald fruit to its reddish gold ripe offering. Till date I don’t know which variety of mango it was. All I know is what my grandfather told me about it. According to him, it was planted by his Great-Great Grandfather and along with it they had planted many other trees but only this one had survived. It wasn’t so hard to believe considering the fact that the number of houses here now exceeds the number of trees. The village had changed over the years and now looked like the rest of Imphal. There were cyber cafes, STD/ISD booths & gift stores in every nook & corner one would turn to. There were billboards staring down everywhere promising all kinds of things like fairer skin & better network coverage aside every road. The locals who used to ride Hero cycles now rode the swankiest motorcycles money could buy. Despite all these changes, our mango tree never seemed to grow any taller or give less fruit each year. It stood as a silent witness to the sea of change that was occurring all around it.
In the beginning of the year, our tree had been felled. That evening, Mom had called and I could make out from her voice that she had probably cried. The tree under whose branches my Dad had courted Mom as a young lad… from under whose shady boughs, a palanquin had brought Mom home… where my grandmother had decided to spend every morning for a month before she passed away. There was just so much that had rooted itself with the tree. This summer not finding it there was something that we weren’t quite prepared for. When we reached home three days ago, I recall my sister’s eyes welling up at the sight of the cemented sidewalk. We had all shed a silent tear for it. The next day I had absent-mindedly taken out my folding chair to sit under the tree after lunch!
This morning sitting on the terrace, we started to trace back the years and all the fun times we had. Somehow the tree was always part of it. She recalled her first crush who she had seen as he passed by on a bike and how every evening for that trip she had stood under the tree hoping to catch a glimpse of him! It later turned out that the lad was related to us in some odd way that I can’t quite recall. It wasn’t too much of a surprise considering the fact that almost every other person was related to another in this small town. We had a good laugh over it every time we talked about it. The sun was slowly peeping out now and we decided to go down to the kitchen and make some tea for the third time that morning.
We both looked down at the place where the tree once stood. It was a reminder to us of how things can never be permanent. Who knew what other changes would come up in the years ahead! But the memory of our mango tree still remains with us. Many people there don’t miss it as much but every year on our way from the airport to home we will still be looking out for the branch of our beloved mango tree.
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.