HOW DELHI’S NORTHEASTERNERS SEE THEMSELVES IN THE CAPITAL TODAY.
When I became a Delhi University student in 1999 I soon became a part of a band of five, in the collegiate manner. We were, two Nagas – one fun-loving party girl, the other a poetry-spouting homebody – one former wild child Mizo, one vivacious Nepali-Indian who knew every Northeasterner in town, and me, the Malayali everyone thought was an exchange student. We pronounced ourselves “the four chinkies plus one.” We had our own songs, our insider jokes, our convoluted bonding rituals; of course, like any tribe we were more closely nit because ultimately, we were so different from the others no one would have us as well as vice versa. And no one got it. Puzzled, my other Stephanian friends would often ask me, “Why do you have so many friends from the Northeast?” I’d answer, both nonplussed, having always had some friends from the region as I’d studied at a school where many Northeasterners attended, and wanting to provoke: “Because they’re the most fun.”
As they make a place for themselves in Delhi society ten years on, how do young Northeasterners see themselves: as reluctant Delhiites, self-styled non-belongers, non Indians or perhaps, just another group of disenfranchised people in a city that belongs to no one?
Delhi is arguably increasingly integrated today. The capital is now home to many young Northeasterners who have moved here largely out of socioeconomic necessity and stayed, making a name for themselves in the workplace. Some are even making the news, among them designer Atsu Sekhose and MP Agatha Sangma. In the last few years, increased visibility in the arts space and hospitality sector and relationships with non-Northeastern partners have helped settle at least a section of the Northeastern population, though many would argue that a large part of this segment is one that settles well anywhere.
However, the divide persists. Historically, people from the Northeast have lived in Delhi, as they have in India, somewhat uneasily. The truce they make with existence in the capital city is often a temporary one. Many of my Northeastern college friends moved back home after a few years in Delhi or planned to soon do so, though today, they are staying for longer. They are self-proclaimed “strangers” in their own country. Even my friends, who had gone to the best schools and were privileged within Delhi circles, dealt with the looks and quick verdicts when we went to restaurants or clubs.
Northeasterners continue to be at the receiving end of xenophobic behaviour, and the stereotypes attached to their distinctive looks have been hard to shake. A girl from the Northeast continues to deal with tags of being “loose,” partly because of a more liberal, Westernised dress sense as well as cultural openness when it comes to interaction with the opposite sex. And the men are still cast as drifters and ne’er do wells by many a jaundiced eye, in part because of the stories people hear of drug use in the Northeast. A lack of cultural and geographical awareness about the region too means that often, Northeasterners are simply mistaken for people of other nationalities. The census puts Delhi at 19 million this year, of which the estimated 100 000 Northeasterners living here form a small and uncertain pocket of young migrants who have largely moved without their families; not only are many Northeasterners undocumented, they are often confused with Nepalis, Burmese, Tibetans and others of oriental ethnicity residing in Delhi, some illegally.
A visible community in more than one way, 86 percent of Delhi’s Northeasterners reported racial discrimination, and 41 percent of total cases handled by a Northeast support centre focused on sexual abuse, according to a 2009 article in Women’s Feature Service.
I recall an incident from Delhi University days, when a friend’s cousin, a young Naga girl, was slapped by an “Indian” guy; none of the onlookers, other young college-goers, did anything about it and the girl claimed the incident was ethnicity-motivated. Whether or not this was the case, my Northeastern friends say they put up with racial slurs, including being called “chinkie” and even prejudice in the form of unprovoked physical and sexual harassment. In the winter of 2008, a Naga friend was denied entry into a South Delhi bar while in my company; the people at the door saw she was oriental, asked where she was from, and when it was revealed that she was from the Northeast, denied her entry saying she didn’t have the “right profile”. Sections of the city took it upon themselves to protest this instance of alleged racism. Remarkably, the case caught the attention of the national and international media, and the owners of the bar even made kind of an apology in the Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe court. But the common observation? For the first time a Northeastern girl is in the news without her having been raped.
“I want to go to Europe,” declares Paul, who works at a beauty parlour and came from Nagaland a few years ago. “I wouldn’t go back home,” he says. “Here, I can make money, save, find a better life after Delhi.” A proud Christian, neat and near metrosexual in his attire, he has the apathy of someone who longs to be elsewhere; if not home, then a more Western place.
“Northeastern men feel themselves to be better than their North Indian counterparts,” says Australian researcher and ethnographer Dr Duncan McDuie-Ra. “They think North Indians are “mommie’s boys,” while they know how to cook, clean, look after themselves.”
McDuie-Ra has been studying development in Northeast India for the last eight years, and the phenomenon of Northeasterners moving to cities, particularly the capital. “Northeastern people now fit into an idea of the cosmopolitan India,” he stresses, linking the increasing prominence of the area to the globalisation of India.
While this new visibility of the Northeasterner in Delhi means more social acceptability at one level, the association of Northeasterners with an idea of the smiling oriental is a limiting one. “Hospitality is the identity imposed on them,” says McDuie-Ra, explaining that this stereotype has narrowed job options. “The best and brightest come to Delhi to serve in spas, shops, restaurants,” he says. “And there are different kinds of people coming in, there’s a shift towards more hard core needs-based immigration and a remittance industry.” For, as he explains, there are no eight to 12 thousand rupee jobs in the Northeast; lower level ones and high levels ones, yes, at 90 000 plus, but there’s a whole bracket that’s missing. “To the Northeast, goes another flow; the merchant and labour classes,” he says.
“They [Northeasterners] don’t see Delhi as their city,” says McDuie-Ra. “A lot of people don’t have that sense about Delhi. They know who they are and they live apart. They face a whole lot of challenges, but are actually better equipped to deal with them than we think. Then they go back home and say, ‘I survived Delhi.’ ”Though, for some of the young men and women who live six to a room, eating pork together, adds McDuie-Ra, this life is better than what they knew back home.
“We Northeasterners all have community-based societies,” says Zuchamo Yanthan, 36, a lecturer at Indira Gandhi National Open University. For Yanthan, who hails from Nagaland and moved to the capital in 1999, the coming together of people back home, through community sports, festivals and church-based activities, is an important albeit improvised part of life for Delhi’s Northeasterners. Here, Yanthan believes food cultures and religion play a big role in bringing Northeasterners together, as does class. “Tribes in [the] Northeast are basically a casteless society which doesn’t restrict them to mingle with [one] another.”
“When I first arrived to Delhi, I stayed in a paying guest [house] where there was not a single person from the Northeast,” Yanthan recounts. After living there for seven months, he moved into a place with some friends from the Northeast, citing common food habits as the key reason. “I could not adjust with the North Indian foods that were being served.”
This step, of breaking someone’s personal bread, may be the first, most basic one in fostering cross-cultural understanding. I was recently working in Jowai, a mining area in Meghalaya, and ate pork with a new local friend in the marketplace. “You’re no more than a Northeast [sic],” the man said, delighted I could eat his food, and sure no one in Delhi would be able to eat the smelly fermented goods he then sent me off with. Curiosity is taking many Delhiites to the Manipur stall at Dilli Haat or the new Naga restaurant in south Delhi, which could be starting points for someone who has not travelled to the Northeast, although more intrepid upper middle-class Indians are starting to do so.
For some, this “Northeast” tag, and its implications of a homogenised region, is what irks. “I realised I was from the Northeast when I came to Delhi,” Naga writer Monalisa Changkija said, in reference to this label, to an audience at a recent Northeast festival at Delhi’s Habitat Centre.
However, many Northeasterners do band together regardless of which part of the Northeast they are from; the affinity stems from a common situation in Delhi as much as it does from cultural overlaps. “In addition to cultural similarities we share regional issues such as the threat of militancy back home,” says Getem Apang, a 30-year-old Arunachali businessman who has made Delhi his home. ‘‘We have the same issues in Delhi, in terms of language barriers we have to adapt to. We speak English with each other, for example, within a crowd speaking in Hindi; so, even though each state has its own language, even in broken English Northeasterners find commonality. Also, we are all judged by our similar appearances. The common sentiment is that we feel alienated from the mainstream community. We [all] come from smaller places, smaller cities and towns, so we feel comfortable with people who are from similar backgrounds.”
In the words of a government employee from Manipur, who asked to remain anonymous, “People who have no options can’t come out. But there are some young boys and girls who are staying here [in Delhi] because they have no other options than to come here.” The employee, like many fellow Kukis – an ethnic group spread throughout the Northeast without a defined homeland – moved to Delhi when life back home was impacted by conflict. “And if you have a place where you are mostly at peace, why would you leave?”
But today, for many young people, Delhi has become the primary experience, one they choose and engage in, and not the life they have because they can’t find any other. “Delhi has become the site of many desires,” McDuie-Ra says.
“Delhi is a site for opportunities. Difficult as the city may be, one is challenged at all levels and this can afford its own kind of stimulation. All your senses are alive here, negotiating the city and carving out your own space,” says Lalsawmliani Tochhawng, in her 40s and a cultural programme officer who works at the India International Centre. Originally from Mizoram, her family moved to Delhi in the 1980s and she has been living in Delhi ever since. But even someone as well adjusted as Tochhawng faces discrimination in her line of work.
“The assumption that you are less than capable is still very prevalent and in the cultural field where I work, for most of our clients, it is much easier to approach the other who has a familiar face than someone like me,” she says. “But you learn to cope and a thick skin always helps. And I think the effort has to come from both sides.” Women in cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore benefit from a cosmopolitan culture, she goes on to add. “What Delhi still needs to understand is that although women from the Northeast may appear free, dress in certain fashions, are seen with men, we still have and are bound by a very strict unwritten code of moral conduct,” she says. “Our moral codes may be a little different but they are equally strict and binding.”
Mary Therese Kurkalang, 33, who works in publishing, moved here 13 years ago from Shillong and is one of the most settled Northeasterners I know, yet, there is still that tug of home. “Having been away from Shillong for such a long time, my relationship with it has changed with time over different stages; [from] relief from having made it out, to a very deep yearning to go back to the familiar, [but] feeling like a stranger when I visited, to where I am now, a more comfortable stranger.”
“I know,” says Kurkalang, “that I will always understand my homeland [Shillong] in a different way than those who have not lived and grown up in it, in the same way that I understand Delhi now in a way that only one who lives on the borders, who sometimes belongs and at other times does not belong, can.”
For anyone who has ever not belonged, here is both a familiar and a new refrain.
Byline: Rajni George