Chinky, or that was the name that described anyone who sported typical East Asian features. Chinkies were folks who lived in the hills. To the plains dwellers, they warranted curious ridicule and muffled snickering behind their backs. Come winter, and people in the north Indian cities rushed to the cheap Tibetan sweater market – a regular sight post Diwali. Their hawking voices, loud, and hardly comprehensible filled the vicinity with the din of hagglers.
As a kid, I was fascinated by the North-easterners. Their clothes, and their tanned cheeks, the oriental eyes, and their manner of speaking. But my attempts at befriending any of the Chinks were discouraged – they were supposedly pariahs, who could kidnap kids and the women were sluts
by night. This went for all Chinkies, one did not bother to care where they belonged to or who they were.
Years later, it was classroom Geography, and a little History that drilled some truth into my oh-so-prissy preconceptions. I learnt of the area designated as North East, how it came to be India, and how turmoil rocks the Seven Sisters. I learnt to discern between Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet as being very distinct from the eastern arm of our country.
Still, the North East to us was only a picture of terrorism, ULFA, and Naxalites. It was a dichotomy of sorts, because on one hand we had the incredibly beautiful imagery of the region, and on the other, we often heard news of extremism. The closest we got to the glimpse of North East was through national handicrafts expos, organized every year. And we figured that people of that area survived on bamboo and colorful shawls. It was still a backward area, in desperate need of economic development. An area of tribes, weird dances, and even weirder customs and lores.
Hate and Dust
It wasn’t until the incorporation of the Ministry of Development of Northeastern Region (DONER) in 1995 that people from North East ventured out. Delhi’s North campus became the North East adda. You had momo corners everywhere, and one saw a lot more of ‘Chinky’ faces around. Yet, people still called them Chinky. And still made fun of them.
The curious ridicule still loomed large. To find a decent accommodation in Delhi, if you were a Chinky, was a Herculean task, with the holier than thou land lords not wishing to ‘soil their property’. To the sleazy Delhi road romeos, the Chinky girls became an obsession – an easy target to eve tease, and possibly even a chance to rape them if they refused to comply. Delhi was shocked by an incident of rape that happened when two students were out for a stroll late at night. They was pulled into a Maruti Omni, and brutally raped and tossed off later.
Another grave example of the hatred that people from the North-east face was the stabbing of two Manipuri girls in broad daylight at the Gateway of India in Mumbai in 2005. Allegedly, these stabbings were considered the handiwork of a maniac, but investigations did not rule out the stabber’s deliberate intentions.
The usual excuse for considering women from North East as easy was their attire – their easy, casual sense of style was certainly more fashionable, and a little less inhibited than your average behenji in Delhi. So, if our friends from North East went out in spaghetti tops, cat calls were inevitable. One often wondered how anybody could stand so much nonsense. Yet, they managed to keep their cool, and ignore the peering eyes and hanging tongues of the wolves on street.
On one occasion, a girl I spoke to at that time mentioned how badly it bothered her, and how she distressed she felt. I’d hung my head in shame that day, overwhelmed by her composure in the face of derision. That was the attitude nearly all that I met carried. Determined, I-couldn’t-care-less, and focused on what they were there for.
Earlier, at an NGO that I worked for, two summer trainees from IIM Kozhikode, both North Eastern men, joined us. They spoke almost flawless Hindi, and showed great promise with their work. And both seemed to enjoy life to the hilt. Yet, their aspirations were firmly rooted in the ground. And they were hilarious. If they could laugh at themselves, they could also pull your pants down in public! They were instrumental in driving the last nail in the coffin of my childhood misinformation. For that, I am forever indebted to them. Since then, my original fascination with the North Eastern ilk came over with a vengeance, and I found myself befriending people in an attempt to absolve myself over years of ignorance.
The New Faces of North East
Could these two have been representative of a change that was taking place on a larger scale? I think so. People from North East have been trying hard to excel in all walks of life. Almost all rock bands in Delhi have a distinct North Eastern flavor, and have found favor among the die hard rocksters of the city. You see them in campuses – engineering, medical, management, in flights, at hotel reception desk, at restaurants – everywhere. And they are willing to take on any challenge – one reason why they have done well in the mushrooming BPO business in places like Gurgaon. They not only spout fluent English, many can give your Hindi a run for its rupiah and paisa.
The latest example of how Northeasterners have been carving an identity of their own in the mainstream could be Indian Idol. Last week, when they announced the top five finalists of the show, it was a pleasant surprise to find that three out of the five belonged to east of Bihar. Meyiang Chang, a dentist of Chinese origin from Dhanbad, sings in Hindi as flawlessly as it gets. He has already won many women over with his naughty-and-nice demeanor.
Prashant Tamang, a policeman by profession, and an amateur singer at that, has managed to stick despite his wavering vocals at times.
Amit Paul, the hottest contender for the title, who quit studies to pursue music as a career, hails from Sikkim. Since Indian Idol contestants depend on people voting for them, it’s a reflection of how the country’s long neglected North East India is poised to take the nation by storm. Not only are the people from the region voting for their favorite contestant, the entire country is taken by these three men’s talent and determination.
And perhaps for the first time, an apt tribute to the girls from North East came via Chak De. Two of the hockey players – Mary (Lalhming Kimi) and Molly (Chonchon Zimik) – readily take on the dirty Harries of Delhi streets in the movie with panache, sass, and hockey sticks. It was a treat to watch the two girls in action against all the discrimination and ridicule they face from folks who believe girls from North East can either be found at Discos or streets for an extra buck. I cheered as the two girls bash up the baddies, along with their team mates in a “Give-Em-One-and-Give-Em-Good” brawl.
This new attitude with which Northeast Indians have forged ahead lately deserves admiration, and maybe, just maybe, the country is bowing in respect. It is payback time, and we would only be too happy to pay back the credit where it had been due for so long.