As a compulsive traveller the author had always at the back of his mind a commitment to write Travelogues with a small ‘t’. The sort Pico Iyer wrote. During the days we sowed our wild oats, that was the only Indian sounding name that made appearance in the credits in the Time magazine. That makes him the only tourer of Indian origin, for Alberuni, Vasco etc. were tourees,he,he,he! Pico Iyer who wrote “ I hadn't realized 'til that day that you travel to stumble into the unvisited corners of yourself.” And:
“we travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate....”
Another favourite travelquote of ours is of course “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” (T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland)
Thanks to Chabiwala Bank we were air- dropped in ‘arguably’ the most fertile tourist theatre of our vast land. ‘Arguably’ is used by Arnab Goswami and his tribe when he /it is pretty certain that the object of their adulation doesn’t really deserves that superlative. Gives credibility. But then we are pretty confident about OUR claim and are just making a sporting concession to the reader, he,he,he!
No prizes for guessing, we are talking about the North East. Our captive readership, which has exploded by 25%, i.e. gone up from four to five, is expecting our despatch, esp. as our present stint is already 8 months old. However as has been felt in the past, the blogs are getting a shade too long and with the disclosures to be made, it has to be a serieeeee...s of travelogues, sorry pals!
There is a lot to write and the challenge is not to sound like a text book. Or sound like a culture-vulture, to borrow ₭’s expression. But where to begin, because the melting pot of humanity that the country here is, the threads are in a delicious tangle without an end in sight, an end with which to tug at, and unravel the ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. The obvious way is to “Begin at the beginning and go on till you to come to the end: then stop” (King of Hearts to Alice in ‘Wonderland’) mince- to proceed chronologically. But then that would sound like the ‘Holiday Home-work’, middle-school vintage.
We’ll launch by musing about the most fascinating subject- the people- outward appearance, to begin with.
Dad in one of his avatars, the Professor of Econometrics, had absent-mindedly asked one of his freshers “are you from Burma?” to which he received the most deserving rebuke “ no Sir, I am Manipuri, and you people want us to believe we are Indians!” Dad not only apologised ‘profusely’ one supposes, but also thoughtfully warned us against such crass insensitivity, a lesson remembered by us to this day.
Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Mori Gate, Delhi 110006, and not Chowdhary or Choudhuri or Chaudhury, was on the curriculum of Liberty Cinema adda, cited as an example of what cheez an Anglicised Bengali could be, displaying tendencies steadfastly to be avoided by the liberal and progressive Bengali. “How much learning and how little wisdom” Ashok Mitra had remarked about NC. Well, poor chap, he had written extensively about the North Eastern People. There were only three ethnic types in India, Blacks, Browns and Yellows, he had said. He rued the ‘fact’ that the Bengalis had brought the Ahoms, kindred of the Shans of Burma, into the folds of civilisation, and then they turned against the Bengali. “Had they remained the primitives that they were when they came, like the Garos, Nagas, Khasis or Kukis, there certainly would not have been massacres.” (Continent of Circe). Fortunately few now remember NC, but unfortunately the tendency persists in the minds of you-know-who-s. As we have no axe to grind against the North-Easterners, no patronising past, we continue to enjoy our stay here, enjoying the hospitality, and consider ourselves lucky to have become part of the North East, if only briefly.
Nature has been most generous to the North-East and the people have reciprocated. Nowhere else in India have we found stretches of dense teak forests, running hundreds of kilometres. Of course most NE tribes including their educated members, are integrated into living food-chains (mince..ahem..some hunt crows, some hunt sparrows, some pangolins, some dogs etc.) but how can you blame them for that? One man’s meat is another’s poison.... or something.
Apart from the Assamese tribes, we became familiar earliest with the Khasis and the Mizos. We proudly say that we can recognise the Khasis, the Mizos and the Manipuris with ease, but the Assamese flummox us. This is so because the umpteen Assamese tribes have inter-married- amongst themselves and with Bengalis- to a greater extent than the tribes in other parts of NE. Their society is rather like a palimpsest, a papyrus which has been erased and over-written many a time (Pandit Nehru’s idea, not ours). Of course amongst others also there has been lot of ‘fusion’, and the North East seems to be a cauldron of ethnicities. Add to this the fact that any number of non Easterners like Sikhs, Malayalees, Kashmiris have married into matriarchic societies like Khasis and Mizos and have settled in their sasural. Among many tribes like the Khasis, property goes to the youngest daughter. Property in the tribal areas cannot be transferred to non-tribals and if a company incorporated under the Companies Act has to lease it in, there has to be a tribal share-holding.
We along with or missus travel a lot especially in Meghalaya, Mizoram and to some extent in Manipur, law and order permitting. The Mizos and the Khasis practise Christianity and are highly educated, which you can always expect in areas with Missionary presence. In fact Shillong, heart of Khasi Hills, boasts of some of the finest schooling in India. And then the Mizos are remarkably law abiding, to the letter, to the extent possible. You’ll rarely hear a honking vehicle in Aizawl however the traffic jam, and even the CM’s convoy patiently waits in the traffic without the repulsive sirens whining. Hornless society. And no overtaking at all. Mizos will be very tech-savvy and musical. Lot of guitar carry-ers you see on the streets. Happy-go-lucky, of course. They use the Roman script to write their eponymous language. In fact only three scripts exist in the NE, Bengali (Assamese), Manipuri (Manipuris or Meitei) and for the remaining, Roman. North Easterners are an artistic lot. Handicrafts bring in more than 25% of the States’ Income. Only in Assam have we seen house-maids named Deepanjali or Kalashree. It’s called ‘saundaryabodh’ in Marathi.
The Mizos will always address men as ‘Pu’ so-and-so, and women as ‘Pui’ so-and-so. These are the equivalents of ‘Sri’ or ‘Srimati’ and it is considered impolite to pronounce a bald name. Mizoram is the cleanest state one has seen and there are clean loos even in dense forests- mince for people! They are extremely cohesive and reticent to begin with, but will readily open up, and after you have earned their confidence, they will bare their minds and emblazoned on it is the bitter truth that in 1966 Mrs. Gandhi had Aizawl bombed! Imagine, bombing your own country! No one else’s! One feels immensely sad. But then take heart, she was a semi-literate who screwed the whole country and some of her near relatives as well, and bumped-off a number of close colleagues and friends. She answered faithfully to the description of the despot by John Dryden : “In friendship false, implacable in hate/Resolved to ruin or to rule the state.”
In pairing, the Mizo youth are quite interesting. On a bike, you invariably see a heterosexual couple, while in Manipur you’ll always see pairs of girls wherever you go, no offence meant!
And the sights, are they glorious! We travelled from Aizawl, clouds beneath us, right to the south-most point, strode the highest peak of Mizoram, the Blue Mountain, and beheld the legendry river, Kolodyne which empties into the Bay of Bengal.
As you know, the seven states owe much of their legal set-up to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The Village Durbars and the District Councils do not have too many teeth, but at the informal level, custom favours settlement of disputes by compromise and consensus and people do not favour approaching the Courts.
But as has been noted widely, today you’ll find a sophisticated class of North Easterners, qualified and well-heeled, studying or serving and administering a growing number of establishments all over the country.
We keep watching for evidence, if any, of ‘sanskritisation’ in various walks of social life. One observation with which missus agreed, concerns the ‘mekhala’, the two piece women’s attire, the lower being a wrapper 4-5 feet long, the upper piece a kind of drape. The fabric of both is identical, but traditionally both pieces had different patterns. The wrapper will invariably have horizontal stripes in Manipur. However naturally, if both the pieces have the same pattern, it gives the illusion of being a saree. Increasingly, you will find women adopting the common-pattern style, and now they look like any other saree-wearer on the sub-continent.
About feminine beauty and fashions, on the oh-ther side!
A verse by Charwak, the heretical philosopher-sage, easy to understand:
Yawat jeewet, sukham jeewet, runam krutwa ghrutam (*) peewet,
Bhawati bhasma bhutaani, punaragamanam kuta?!
"Live merrily, so long as you live, borrow to savour ghee (not liquour haan!). For, it’s all going to end up in ashes, and there is no coming back!"