SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY on how she learnt to handle her northeastern identity in Delhi.

On January 29, a day before the nation marked Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom with a litany of memorial programmes, an 18-year-old boy from the northeast became the victim of a hate crime in New Delhi. A hapless ‘other’ who didn’t find mercy at the hands of a mob that drew its killer energy apparently from being ‘local’. Unfortunate for the diversity of the country that once led the Mahatma to fast at Noakhali. 

The murder of Nido Taniam from Arunachal Pradesh brought back memories of my move to Delhi two decades ago; of how I have evolved to handle my northeastern identity to become a part of this sprawling city.

For someone from the northeast, life in the capital — walking on the streets, hailing an auto, stepping into a public bus, and finding accommodation — was as tough as it is now. Today, the problem is amplified not because the ‘locals’ have become more racist but because the number of people from the northeast streaming into the city has increased. Given the neglect of the region, youngsters from almost every house have been forced to leave home in search of a better life. 

Though new in the city, I was not looking for a ghetto. I remember feeling lonely though. Typically, when you become the distinct ‘other’, your first attempt is to find the ‘sameness’. My 20-year-old mind — certainly not wanting parents to call me back because I had ‘adjustment’ problems — was more willing to look the ‘same’.

I cringe now to admit that I often found myself talking about doing what ‘they’ did — typically engaging in small talk with the landlady in Green Park about restrictions back home for girls (yes, there were!) to ‘show’ that I was a ‘good girl’; telling the domestic help that I was actually a vegetarian (an utter lie!); using kajal to make my eyes look big; avoiding bringing friends home who looked ‘Northeast’; never playing western music; remembering to pronounce my name as ‘Sangeeta’ and not ‘Xongeeta’ as it was back home.

I struggled hard to pick up the local lingo ; wore saris and salwar-kameez ; visited the nearby temple and waited for an opportunity to tell people that there was an almost 100-year-old Shiva temple at home; that my mother fasts every Monday for my father’s well being…

I don’t recall being called a ‘ chinki ’ though. The first time was when a journalist colleague reminded me — apparently in a good-humoured way — that “People from your region are called chinkis in the Delhi University area.” He didn’t seem to realise that repeating a word might add credence to it. I have been asked if my family was originally from China. The questioner, however, didn’t like my pointing out that his family originally came from Pakistan. Thanks to my inadequacies, I still have a problem pronouncing his second name. But I’ve never told him that, though he pointed out, “Your name is actually Sangeeta but you people have a problem pronouncing the ‘s’ and so you are called ‘xongeeta’.”

I have also been called ‘broad-minded’. Apparently we all are, the girls from the northeast. Realising what they meant, I never asked them to define it. 

Over the years, I have had many conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances — some informed, many not — about the region in general. About our hills and dales, traditional clothes, food, gods, kings, religious and social transformations, dances and songs, rituals and their significance in our lives….

And every time I think how easy it would have been if there had been even a sliver of the region in their school books. Just like how schoolchildren in the northeast read about ‘their’ history. 

Some historical facts are worth knowing: How the Ahoms had a continuous 600-year rule in Assam — the only one in Indian history; how Bahadur Shah Zafar was not the only king who was exiled by the British; how the Manipuri kings had an exclusive history writing wing, which is alive even today, thanks to which Manipur has written history dating back to 33 A.D.; how not all regions in India had been under British rule for 200 years….

Sadly, bad news has been good for the northeast. It keeps it alive in the national news. Floods, bombings, ethnic disturbances, violent street protests over statehood, human rights violations by the security forces… we have quite a few options to show up on the national radar.  

At a personal level, I don’t know when the kajal rings around my eyes narrowed, my saris retreated to the back of my wardrobe, my ‘show-off’ trips to the temple ceased, my consciousness about speaking Hindi correctly left me. Instead my pride in my festivals, my literature, my history is now out in the open. What I do know is that this shift has left me a shade aggressive when it comes to talking about the northeast.

Each time I find myself baffled at how ‘people just don’t know about their own country’, those ‘people’ are also baffled about ‘why should we know.’ Young Nido’s death is an opportunity to build that non-existent bridge, both outside and within the northeast, to ‘know’.