It was a usual humid Delhi evening when I was boarding a bus for North Campus. As I got into the bus I heard someone from the back row yelling, ‘Hey, Bahadur’ Oh, my God! Not again! I didn’t look back. I didn’t care. After all, I’m not a ‘Bahadur’. However, a slight feeling of embarrassment and anger began to creep into my psyche. Such insulting words being flung at us – we, the north-eastern tribals – have become quite a common experience. And by now, I’m beginning to get used to it. My take here is that it’s all part of a modern city life.
Racism is a bit too endemic here in New Delhi. Themes like ‘democracy’, ‘secularism’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘unity-in-diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ don’t seem to find their place in the common man’s world. You maybe holding a MotoRizr phone, a Nokia N70, or sporting the latest in fashion trends, and you maybe far better off in every way, but you just can’t escape these age-old racial stereotypes – as long as you are a ‘chinky’. The mindset of the mainland Indians are transfixed on the belief that we, north-easterners, are inferior to them in every way which has a deep psychological root from generations past and would continue through generations to come. I often ask myself, why don’t they call us Japanese or Korean instead? Why Nepali? Why Bahadur?
As I rode on the bus, painful memories of all my past experiences began to flood my mind. From the moment I stepped down at the New Delhi railway station in early 2004 – the sneaky auto-driver, the brutal bus conductor, the first day at my college where I was ragged thrice, the cunning landlord, the constant glaring at the market places, et seq. – to this day I have been going through numerous stresses. Why do we have to be targeted and humiliated and abused simply because we ‘look’ so different? All these reminiscences made the blood in me boil. I wanted to scream out loud, ‘I too am an Indian, stupid!’ Well, I’ve got to keep my cool. There’s nothing I could do.
The man who sat right next to me seemed quite a gentleman. He was well dressed and had a friendly, cheerful face. His eyes told me that he genuinely had an interest in me for some reasons unknown to me. The man introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Ravish,” and I responded, “I’m Lun.” After spelling out and teaching him how to pronounce my name, we began to converse intimately.
At some point he said, “You must be from Manipur?”
“How could you say that?” I asked.
“Oh!” he grinned, “I’m just guessing,”
I still wonder how the hell did he guess!
“I’m not from Manipur,” I told him point-blank. You don’t know how I hate to be called a Manipuri, and that I am from Manipur. When people asked me what my native place was, I usually told them that it’s, rather, Mizoram or Nagaland. To be a Manipuri here is a huge liability, what with landlords refusing anyone who they know hails from the god-forsaken state. And Manipur is being associated with all the ills afflicting the whole north-eastern states.
“Then where are you from?” came the next question.
“I’m from Zoland, the land of the Zo people.”
I’m tired by now and thought that, with this he would stop bothering me. I was wrong. He seemed to be more and more enthusiastic about our new topic of discussion, and even told me that Regionalism and Linguistics had once been his chosen preoccupation.
“Where is that place?” I now felt sorry that I talked to him in the first place.
“Well, it’s a long story. You would never know where I come from. Nobody would know that. I too don’t know where I belong. And I’m still working on it.”
He was completely amazed.
“I had never heard of such a place. Is it somewhere in Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, or somewhere else?”
To me this guy was still a mystery. He was innocent, polite, friendly, humble and truthful. And yes, quite curious.
For the sake of the intimacy we had just created, I began to narrate who I am and where I belong. “We are a people, independent from time immemorial. We lived peacefully in our own land, far away from the bustling world. We had our own chiefs who looked after our welfare. However, our legacy began to fall apart with the advent of western imperialism, like you had faced a couple of centuries ago. By the middle of the past century, when the Queen of England left India our land got demarcated into separate nations. And as of the present day, we are being cut across by three countries – India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Her Majesty, the Queen had done a terrible mistake for leaving us to our own fate. And worse, she never knew that.”
Ravish listened attentively. I was too engrossed in my own discourse that I didn’t even give him a chance to speak anymore. Whether he was interested in all that I had said or not, didn’t matter, my own enthusiasm let me go on and on. And, thanks to his curiosity, he didn’t lose his interest either.
I said, “Actually, I’m coming from the state of Manipur. But you can’t call me a Manipuri. Our place is called ‘Outer Manipur’ and we are alienated from the real state.”
He seemed a bit surprised.
“See, the mainland Indians treat people from the north-east as if they are foreigners and that too with pure humiliation, we are being oppressed and treated as different people in our own tiny state. All channels of growth have been barred for us. Our interests, traditions and cultures are different from those of the plain people.”
I awaited some questions from him, but he was rather looking for an answer on my face. So, I continued, “The condition of our land and our people is pathetic. Our future looks bleak. The systems of local government run by corrupt politician chain our people, while the rest of the country is shining. And though small, secluded and marginalized, we fight and kill amongst ourselves due to identity crises.”
“This is why I told you I don’t know where I belong. I do know that I’m a Zomi. But the land I referred to as the place I’m from, called Zoland, is just a romanticized aspiration for our dreamland. A dream that someday we would have our own land and live freely.”
He tried to say something, but rather stopped mid-way.
I paused for a moment, and said, “Rest assured, one thing is for sure. I come from a place somewhere I belong.”
Time seemed to grind into slow motion as I went on unveiling layer by layer the intricacies of identity consciousness in Manipur. The snarling traffic got a sigh and our bus speeded up for a moment. Now we were nearing my stop. We exchanged some more friendly words and then, bidding goodbye I stood up from my seat and rushed off into the busy traffic.