A North Eastern Ranting About Racism

By Devahuti Pathak (ILS Pune graduate)

My little sister, after months of saving finally ordered a gadget she has been lusting about from Flipkart; exactly a week back from today. And for the past couple of days she would just be glued to their delivery tracking page every morning. Today was no different and I woke up to a face looking with a particular sadness at the screen of the computer. “Emaan deri logaise” she softly says. They are taking so long.

This reminds me of something that happened exactly a year back. I had ordered a phone from the same website, and they took twenty days to get it to me, and this was after some irate emails I sent, liberally sprinkled with newly acquired legalese and consumer distress.

The distress wasn’t displaced, I was leaving the city in the next week, and the desperation was real. Having gone to college in Pune, I know for a fact my phone would have reached me in four days. And my sister would be ignoring the rest of the world far more than usual buried in her new toy, in three.

College has been a phenomenal experience. I am grateful to my parents for having taken the risk of sending their daughter so far away. Literally. And the five years of college have been a melting pot of growing, not only academically, but culturally, making friends, meeting wonderful people and generally taking in the whole being-on-your-own experience.

The first months of college were obviously full of introductions. And exclamations. By the end of it, I was almost confused about why I “don’t look Assamese”, and felt like a bird of paradise in a flock of geese. Because apparently, I am quite exotic.

The sisters in the convent I went to school really should not have given me the average behaviour they did. And suddenly, smelly humid Guwahati was the ire of all my friends. They all wanted to come home, they were mesmerised.

Then it was time to go home for the holidays, and to book tickets. Unlike, other batchmates, who were availing student offers and spot crazy discounts on flights between ‘major cities’, I would be nagged from a month ahead by my father to tell me dates so he could find cheap tickets, most of which would never be below 7000 to 8000 INR.

This nag would then be soothed by coos from friends sympathising over the long hours of travel that I had to do, usually spanning 6-7 hours with at least 1-2 hours of layover. It’s okay, I would think, I am going to the mysterious North- East after all.

Coming back to college, I would be greeted by banters of welcome back to India, queries of any VISA trouble and laughter. I would laugh too, because hey, it was funny. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and if we cannot laugh at ourselves, then life would be a humourless dry bitch. If I am different or new to them, they are to me too, and it was about celebration of culture and I took it in all good spirit.

But what wasn’t funny, were the phone calls from a school friend studying in places in North India telling me how her Professor asked her if there were lions roaming our streets, how she had to constantly face racism because unlike me, she did ‘look like an Assamese’.

The numerous winter holidays I would spend alone in Pune because tickets were too expensive to go home, and unaffordable for a mere ten days were also not exactly funny either. Neither was losing innumerable words of love sent to and from Assam in the Indian Postal Service. Then shit got worse.

I was in the middle of writing an academic paper, racing to finish a deadline when my Tata Photon data card randomly stopped working. I groaned and cursed the device and called customer service.

They told me “We have stopped services in the North- east”. What about replacement and customer compensation and relief from this abrupt commercially devious move? And came a load of vague sugar coated faff about how I am a prized customer and all of that would be taken care of.

The following month I spent arguing with the Tata Photon people at Pune, doing a bunch of utterly pointless paperwork to ultimately switch to a different service. The price of being exotic had started to pay.

Anywhere (except the North-East?)

Anywhere (except the North-East?)

The University I went to wasn’t particularly sensitive to its outstation students, either. It had the knack of changing exam dates and schedules as much as a nervous teenager would of changing clothes for her first date.

And this, of course came with a price. If my father could encash all the money he spent on rescheduling tickets for me, he would have probably bought his own personal university where he would NEVER allow them to change exam dates.

I also met a variety of characters during my internships, all expressing some opinion on my geographical origin in manners ranging from ridiculous to downright deranged. This included a bunch of lawyers nervously trying to recall the names and capitals of all the north-eastern states to awkward ice breaking about how everyone seems to have A Friend from the North- East.

Assam is so beautiful I would love to come there. And they probably would have, had it not been for the Oolfa killing people there all the time. Best was one girl who said that we ought to preserve our tribal heritage, and if people prefer to live on trees and do fire dance rituals, we should have the RIGHT and FREEDOM to do that. Amen to you, sister.

Then happened the violent attacks on students from the North- East in Pune in 2012. My college and the University held meetings on Protection of our North- Eastern Students and there was a sense of panic in the otherwise peaceful city. My sense of dread was placated by reassurances of “ you don’t look Assamese, so chill”. What a save.

The five years of college flashed past in a wink and it was time to go home, for good. All of us were busy packing our years of possession into taped brown cartons and finding the biggest student concessions to courier them home. The discounts were good, though I couldn’t help but flinch at how I had to spend nearly double because of DISTANCE.

Batch mates were going for holidays before starting work later, while I, as was pointed out to me, was going home to a holiday destination. That perhaps took me longer and cost me more than their holiday to Thailand. True story.

And then there were goodbyes, bittersweet. But, saying goodbye and going back to Assam somehow felt a little more permanent than it probably should have…

…Which brings me to think: What is discrimination? What is ostracism? Who am I to decide what should or could offend me? My friends may poke fun at how far I stay away from college. But they are also the ones who made the lonely days less dreary, made me cookies when I was sad, got me medicines and soup when I was sick, salvaged my research paper with their functioning Tata Photon which had bitchslapped me in my moment of need, stood by me as strong pillars of support through the angst of finding myself in college.

They may make ‘international student’ jokes about me, but guess who would always want to come with me to the airport to catch odd houred flights and even odder flight landings?

The problem isn’t about petty name calling and getting offended by questions. The new government is launching big big Action Plans to increase tourism and development of the North- East India, to reduce Strife and Violence in the region, to bring us our Acche Din. But what about the daily nags?

How about making the region commercially accessible so we can at least have the smartphones the year they come out instead of five years later? What about the shitty post and telecom situation?

What about increasing travelling viability to the region instead of just enabling greater white skinned tourism to Kaziranga? What about saving the fucking one horned rhino FIRST? And I am not even getting into controlling the incessant flood situation YEAR after YEAR. Or the goat that keeps straying on to the runway at the Borjhar Airport dammnit.

Discrimination isn’t always about black and white ostracism. It isn’t always meted out in insults and comments. Sometimes it is faced in more daily activities like not being able to send a letter, not being able to watch satellite TV, not being able to get my sister the Thin Mints she loves so much which you get only in Pune.

I don’t mean to trivialise the issue, but I am helplessly middle class. My mother tries to make me emotional about coming back to Oxom and working in the state. All you children go to study at Delhi- Bombay and never come back. Who will take care of the state? My question is why. WHY do we need taking care of?

Because we, as a people are OKAY with being cast aside, as long as it doesn’t disturb our plates full of rice and afternoon naps. We are OKAY being ostracised from development, from growth, from getting good internet. And we need our children to live with us to not break this diseased cycle of complacency.

We don’t want to question what is wrong in the devious insinuated ways, we don’t seem to care. And I am weak willed, I slip into being complacent faster than the butter glides down the chicken cheese grilled you get at Good Luck in Pune. 30th October 2008 saw three blasts across Assam, but no one remembers.

Did we do anything to keep it memorable? I’ll let the Assamese in you answer it. If I raise a voice or question twice about what I am doing or what we are doing as a people, I am quipped down to mind my language and let the government do its work.

But it is OKAY to sit in the dark through hours of power cut and buy drinking water in black. It is fine to give saah-paani money to traffic police, to government officials, to the errant cows disrupting traffic, as long my work is done. It is all OKAY.

So perhaps, before we raise cries about being segregated from mainstream India, it might be useful to question ourselves about what we are doing to not let that happen. If it is too difficult to think about it, then maybe just ask, are we doing just about ANYTHING?

And this is just my complacent attempt to rid myself of the guilt from not wanting to stay on in Assam. Such hypocrisy you might say. But in my defence I am extremely Assamese. May not look it, but you get the point.

And if college has given me anything, it would be the fear to not be complacent, to question and NOT BE OKAY. This, apart from wisecracking lovely people I call friends who have always had my back, and whose I shall have (only if it doesn’t interrupt my nap, but don’t tell them).

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  1. Hi. I haven’t read through the whole thing yet but looking forward to continuing to read it, you have written it so beautifully, and will after this small detour. You have used the word “ire” in one of your earlier paragraphs to attempt to describe how your friends found what you thought to be ordinary Guwahati an exotic space, as can be inferred from that and the previous sentence. I have never encountered the word being used in that kind of context, it is usually used to connote anger or irritation, and kudos to you if why you used it so was a creative way to communicate envy, otherwise the word is used incorrectly, and perhaps you can find a better one to articulate it? This doesn’t take away from the larger point of the article or how well it’s been written, I’m just a little obsessive about words being used right, and thought I should point it out to you. Now I read on in excitement the rest of your post!

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