What does it say when the death of rhinos in Assam’s floods makes it to national news, but not the plight of lakhs of Assamese people? The media seems to be a willing partner in perpetrating the idea that the people of the Northeast are not important. Keeping people from the Northeast invisible, whether it’s in the news or mass media, is probably why the rest of India thinks they are either Chinese or Korean or Japanese. Anything but Indian.
Go back to China, a cab driver told me in a rage in his broken English after I had a tiff with him for refusing to drop me at the doorstep. I came to this city to pursue my passion for journalism from my hometown Darjeeling, a small town cradled in the foothills of Himalayas, bordering Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.
And it’s not just this driver in Chennai. It started in my school days, when I was too tender to understand the racial differences. I used to wonder why people in other cities I visited during my vacations called me “Chinese”. I sang the Jana-gana-mana in my school every day and pledged that all Indian are my brothers and sisters too. One of my friends from Manipur who studied in a top fashion institute in Chennai was asked if he eats dog meat.
“Are you from China?” asked a colleague recently. When I gently replied that I was an Indian, I got a wide-eyed stare with raised eyebrows and a smirk that gestured “are you sure?”
Though this was not an uncommon experience and I’ve been facing this every time I venture to a new city, this did not feel right. I could not ignore their ignorance anymore.
Besides China, I am identified with Korea, Nepal and Japan.
Coming to the new city I was nervous if I would be accepted by people socially and culturally. I am not an idli-dosa person, but more of a rice and noodle kind. I knew I would have to compromise on food and that language would be a herculean barrier.
“People in Chennai will only speak Tamil even if they know English, they abhor Hindi,” I was warned by my cousins who had lived here for a while.
That made me anxious, especially because I am in the field of journalism and interacting with people is my part of day-to-day duty.
But within a month’s time I had developed great fondness for pongal and dosa. I even started enjoying the Tamil language and music though I am still not able to string together a sentence properly. I was relieved to find restaurants that served food from my hometown like momo, thukpa and shyapta.
“Chennai is better than what you told me” I told my cousin over the phone. “Well but aren’t they racist?” she counteracted.
To be honest, I have made a few friends in the city. I don’t necessarily blame them for introducing me to their friends as Korean or Chinese. I even saw a text message on my friend’s phone that read, “Bring your Chinese friend along.”
I have small eyes that droop at the edges, my nose is tiny and I am told that I am “marble white”. I guess I can’t blame them for thinking I am Chinese or Korean. One of my Malayali friends in college, who had mistaken me for Japanese on the first day, told me how it annoys her when people think she is Tamilian. When I made friends with Tamilians, they told me how it annoys them to be identified as Malayalis.
To be honest, I clearly cannot distinguish between Tamilian or Malayali because the two states share so much in common and these two states belong to the same country. At the end of the day, you are identified as an Indian.
I am not pointing this out to share the likeness, but rather a difference. The eight Northeastern states are completely ignored as a part of India and Northeasterners are addressed as Chinese, Japanese, Nepalese or Korean, and are not confused between the people of the states Assamese, Arunachali or Sikkimese.
I wonder how the textbook that displays India’s map is perceived by young children who theoretically learn that India is a diverse country but have no idea how Indians of the Northeast look. Maybe that could be the reason why after almost 69 years of Indian Independence, people still fail to recognise us as Indians.
Another curious question I often encounter is about what language I speak at home? I reply that I speak Nepali. “Oh! So you are from Nepal?” Nepal is one of the 150 major languages of India, and the Nepali I speak is slightly different from that spoken in Nepal — much like the difference between American and British English.
As much as I enjoy going places and meeting people, I do not like to battle my identity on a daily basis. Sometimes I think hard about why there Northeasterner have to face an identity crises en masse. India boasts that of its unity in diversity but the under-representation of over 40 million Indians of the Northeast exposes the authenticity of the claim.
As a journalist, I feel even the media must share the blame. Though I felt the floods in Assam on July 29 that killed 26 and affected over 18 lakh people got a fair share of coverage, I find my Northeast Facebook friends protesting that the media ignored many aspects of the flood and simply reported the death tolls of people and rhinos. A popular meme circulating on social media says a traffic jam in Gurgaon makes it to national news while floods in Assam that displaced over 20 lakh people doesn’t even register as a blip.
The kind of racism I face on a daily basis is based more than on just how I look. Little kids used the word “chinky” and “ching-chang” to address me when I was at a book fair on Island Grounds in the city two months ago. One was about 12 and the other two appeared younger. Their usage of racist slurs makes me believe there is a flaw in the system, as racism seems to be preached from one generation to another.