Being a Northeasterner! (3 of 12)
I have observed over the years that whenever the subject of 'Northeast' India comes up people begin by saying that they don't really like the term but…
I don't either. Nor can I claim any mastery over the Northeast. I have only ever lived in Shillong – a small, rather privileged and perhaps not entirely representative part of this region. I increasingly realize,as I travel through these lands and the rest of the world, that, like with any other diverse and contested borderland, this is a place that needs to be constantly discovered, re-discovered and re-imagined. So for me part of the meaning of belonging here is a self-imposed agenda of discovery, of researching and writing about the history, the migrations, the confluences, and the stories as I experience and see them unfold.
I think having grown up in Shillong has given me a personality and perspective that is unique to this place or perhaps to the events that took place during my formative years in the 1980s and through the following decade until the early 2000s. Shillong existed then, as it does on a much larger scale now, as a microcosm of what is known as the rest of India. We had them all – apart from a majority Khasi population there were Bengalis, Punjabis, Assamese, Mizo, Naga, Meitei, and many, many more ethnicities. These people made the town tick as they filled in the many available educational, public and service sector jobs. Their children went to Shillong's varied schools and encountered difference even as the educational system tried to homogenize them all.
Lots of different people thrown together in this way made for a heady 'cocktail' of different tongues and cultural eccentricities. At one level it made day-to-day life highly amusing. Exchanges in 'Bazaar Hindi' could often result in hilarious and memorable linguistic accidents. I had friends from many races in school and these were intense friendships even though racism coloured my interaction with 'the other'. This racism (as I see it now) stemmed from insecurities – a small indigenous hill 'tribe' being overwhelmed by 'outsiders' that included economic migrants from what was seen as 'the mainland'. As kids we interpreted this divide in our own petty ways creating boundaries over which I craved to trespass and sometimes did. I longed to be indigenous – more authentic, more the real thing – not a gawky 'outsider' – always tentative, so unhappy in her skin.
The To-Let House(Tara Books, 2010) my debut novel has tried to capture some of that experience through the story of four children – Clemmie, Kulay, Addy and Di –as they come of age in Shillongof the 1980s and 1990s deciphering a world of "adults and adulteries".
In the mid-1990s I encountered the 'mainland' in a big way when I moved to New Delhi to do a Masters. Coming from a small town that too in a 'remote' part of the country, I was adrift in a way I doubt far more self-assured young people from small towns in the Northeast going to study in Indian metro cities would be today. I was often told I was too formal and polite. My friends indulgently noted my 'Northeastern' ways. I am not sure what that meant – perhaps a combination of mannerisms, accent and worldview; a love for beef chutney and cosy chulas, for what they called 'guitar-baazi,' pop songs, killer fashion and connival conversations.
Yet my own feeling is that because I wasn't 'indigenous' to the region I have always remained an 'outsider' within it and in the world. At the same time I'll always be a Shillong girl. To rephrase a slogan on a T-shirt – "You can take the girl out of Shillong, but you can't take Shillong out of the girl." I don't feel uncomfortable in my skin anymore. What remains and grows old with me are friendships forged across boundaries – their flame illuminating my understanding of how what we call 'the Northeast' works, its drawbacks, its strengths, and its future.
I will probably need a lot more space than I have here to fully articulate how my history and context has formed my personality and perspective. One of the ways it has shaped me is by making me a more tolerant person, accepting of differences in a bemused sort of way. What I experience in Shillong resonates with what I see and who I meet elsewhere in the world. People I encounter from places as far apart as Wales and Thimphu can have a whiff of Shillong about them – be just like our "small town heroes", just like our "Shillong guys". I'm alert to grace and dignity that reminds me of how many long-admired 'Kongs' conduct themselves. At all times I carry with me a talisman; I carry both memories and an on-going conversation with 'back home'.