by Rehana Munir
“What can we do to make ‘them’ feel more Indian?”
Author Sudeep Chakravarti got that carelessly phrased question about the assimilation of Indians from the north-east into ‘Mainland India’ at the launch of his new book Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land in Mumbai. His reply was straightforward. “Make nice,” he said, followed by rapid-fire suggestions that covered the administrative, social and humanitarian.
So how do we make nice? As an ordinary Indian citizen, an outsider to journalism and academia, here are my suggestions of where we can make nice.
1. At school
“And now … the students of Class III C will perform a tribal dance from north-east India!” Thunderous applause from parents who’ve spent days fussing over bottle-straw headgear. Jingly-jangly nine-year-olds leaving kajal trails across their faces. Red-painted feet dodging bamboo sticks being raised and lowered. Drum beats and generic woodland cries. All that was a regular feature of my Bandra convent school days.
Dear Parents and Teachers: Can we please have a blanket ban on any more such hideously inaccurate, badly researched “tribal” dances and related clichés? We lack awareness; it’s your job to provide it. A token class project on a north-eastern state does not cut it either. Please don’t enforce the most embarrassing stereotypes due to your ignorance, disinterest or bigoted humour. Celebrating plurality and reinforcing positive images, especially with children, is invaluable in mending a deeply worrying situation.
2. At the movies
Chak De! India got many things right, not least an uncharacteristically restrained, Aviator-sporting SRK. The film’s plot turns when the Indian women’s hockey team forges a fierce unity against the louts who harass its two north-eastern members at a fast food place. Ten points to Bollywood; minus 1 gazillion for all the Danny Denzongpa moments of ritual racism. The industry has turned the Muslim minority into prevailing royalty by providing equal opportunity. We need more steps in that direction. We need more faces and talent that reflect the real India, not a Lokhandwala mall.
3. At the food court
Unfamiliarity with the diverse cuisines of the region is a common affliction; this ignorance comes at a very high culinary price. Naga bhut jolokia, the erstwhile record holder for the world’s hottest chilli, is a fiery example. It rocket-fuels an otherwise innocuous pork so many of us in ‘Mainland India’ are clueless about. Seventh heaven via seven states. The ad copy writes itself. Where are the restaurants, carts, takeaways and caterers? Patrons wait, kerchiefs in hand.
4. At the newspaper stand
Irom Chanu Sharmila. Bhupen Hazarika. Mary Kom. Very few names come readily to mind. But even amongst the stories that we do hear and see, there’s a dearth of characters one can relate to. Tales of misery and terror are sadly all too real and too common to be ignored, but they’re also distant. Equally important, if not headline-grabbing, are stories of resistance, rebuilding and moving on. Highway 39, for instance, brings unsettling accounts of uncomfortable truths to the fore. Theatre guru Ratan Thiyam and other pioneers have wrought art out of both war and peace. Shillong-based blues band Soulmate, with compelling female vocalist Tipriti ‘Tips’ Kharbangar, is a more contemporary marker along a very rewarding path.
5. At the travel agent
Crossing the Brahmaputra is a poignant moment even for the most unsentimental Indian. History, mythology and beauty conspire to turn you a bit softheaded. In a haze of nostalgia for a collective past you ask: Why does one of the country’s largest and most naturally beautiful regions miss out on more visitors? Yes, there’s the unpredictability. But in this instance, it’s worth drawing a parallel with Kashmir, where the ubiquitous CRPF and the shadow of violence are obvious barriers for tourists. But India and the world are realising that the unrest may be continual but it isn’t continuous. Kashmir is once again turning into a travel and tourism destination, as it should. The seven states that form India’s north-eastern arm are closer than they appear. If India feels more north-eastern, the north-east will naturally feel more Indian.
Rehana Munir has spent as much time running bookshops as editing cricket websites. She’s now a freelance writer based in Bangalore.