I romanticise the North East as much as anyone. I take pride when people talk of its beauty, it's culture, it's liberal values, the music and the food. I peddle the exotic romanticism of growing up in a progressive society, surrounded by creativity, lying on green hills on idyllic summer days gazing at the bluest sky… Or driving through clouds on the way to Cherrapunji. Yes I love the brand that the North East is developing in the Indian mind and I play my role in perpetuating it.
But inside, I hold a secret. Because every silver lining has a cloud, because the deep forests cast dark shadows. It is a secret we all know. But that we never tell outsiders.
We are a people in conflict with our own potential. A house divided into itself. Riven apart by micro identities of tribe and religion and appearance and clan. Of casual everyday xenophobia. Of the fear of violence being a part of the childhood experience.
I had a wonderful childhood in the North East and a lot of my experiences shaped me and made me the person I am, but my memories aren't all rose tinted.
I remember being a tall 11 year old and being assaulted by 4 teenage boys because I look more like my Assamese father than my Khasi mother, only to be rescued when someone shouted out and told my assailants about my Khasi roots.
I remember being 9 years old and seeing a man being pushed off his scooter and being lynched.
I remember years of curfew, of people being beaten, burnt, lynched because of their appearance or surnames or religion.
I remember the ULFA and the SULFA
I remember my father being threatened by the underground in Kohima
I remember myself as a teenager… Never leaving home unless I had a knife or a chain to protect myself in a fight.
The North East also meant all of this to me.
But I am still thankful. I am Assamese and I am Khasi. I am neither. I am both. And somewhere in that process of trying to fit in, to belong, to find roots, of being both an insider and an outsider, a tribal and a non tribal, I discovered myself. I discovered that these definitions are not labels, they are cages that restrain us and hold us back and keep us from being the best version of ourselves.
The soil of the North East is rich and fertile. At its best it helps a person realise and learn many things. I often find that young people in big cities live in such a self-sustained cocoon that they fail to realise there is a life beyond Mumbai or Delhi. That there is a bigger world waiting to be explored and discovered. They often lack a worldview that goes beyond career and entertainment and the consumption driven lifestyle of modern India. To me however, a worldview is a byproduct of curiosity. Something about growing up in Shillong and that search for identity, the search for answers imbibed in me a lifelong curiosity to know more and experience more.
Shillong taught me to ask questions and seek answers. It also taught me that life is complex…that even green and blue have shades of grey. It taught me that life can be unfair but it is the duty of all of us who have faced any form of persecution to fight against it all our lives whenever we see it in society and not only when it affects ourselves.
But more than just Shillong, it is the complexity of my North Eastern identity and my childhood journey to understand my roots that taught me that I can be whoever I choose to be. I am a proud North Easterner but I refused to be labeled and boxed and defined. We all want the same things… To pursue our dreams, to find happiness… And my roots taught me that can only come from finding acceptance within yourself and towards others, not by trying to define yourself through others eyes!
(By Anirban Blah)
Founder and Managing Director of KWAN and CAA KWAN.