Yoga Day: Test of body or faith

A version of this article first appeared in The Dawnlit Post on 21 June 2015.

Rajaque Rahman has been a yoga practitioner with The Art of Living centre here in the Arunachal Pradesh capital since 2008. He is also a Muslim.

While some Christian groups in Mizoram and Nagaland oppose the idea of International Yoga Day, the mood here in Itanagar, and indeed in most parts of the state, seems to be positively gung-ho.

The Art of Living, along with six other organisations will be hosting a yoga camp here at the Indira Gandhi Park beginning 7 AM on Sunday, apart from various other smaller camps all over the state in conjunction with the state Ayush department. Rahman says he expects around 2000 people to participate in the main camp alone which will be attended by governor JP Rajkhowa. The state governor today issued a press statement saying that “Yoga is the only ray of hope when stress and health related problems are increasing”.

Aside from his enthusiasm, Rahman also sees no irony in him being a Muslim who practices yoga.

Rahman calls criticism by some groups “a clear case of prejudice”. He says that yoga is a “life skill that has no conflicts but compliments all religions”.

The former journalist who turned to yoga after battling migraine for several years says that there has been a shift in the demographic of yoga practitioners since the organisation first began operating here.

“Back then”, he says “90 percent of attendees were people from outside the state living here and now it is the reverse”.

Gichik Taaza, vice-president of the Indigenous Faith and Cultural Society of Arunachal Pradesh which is one of the seven organisations hosting tomorrow’s event, though is unsure about Rahman’s claim.

“Participation of tribal people is limited to students and those who have learnt of the benefits of yoga by attending Art of Living courses here”, he says.

Whether the event will witness the participation of a large number of indigenous tribal people will only become clear tomorrow but for now, even Taaza says that yoga is “not part of any religion”.

Birendra Dubey of the Arunachal Vikas Parishad, another one of the organisers, says that yoga has “gained popularity in the state due to Baba Ramdev’s televised sessions and the Art of Living’s regular courses”.

Dubey says that it is “wrong to make a connection with religion alone”. He also adds that “there is no compulsion on anyone to be part of it”. However, he is critical of calls for modified yoga asanas stating that “doing the Surya namaskar facing west may not be beneficial”.

Unlike in Mizoram and Nagaland, the biggest Christian organisation here, the Arunachal Christian Forum, has not voiced its opinion on the matter yet.

Toko Teki, the ACF secretary-general informed that no meetings were held to discuss the matter and that he does not expect Christians to partake in it either. He is, however, critical of what he calls the “control of yoga by religious groups”.

“Yoga should be maintained as a form of physical exercise and be universal like kung-fu or taekwondo”, he dryly adds.

Rahaman tries to douse doubts by quoting the Art of Living’s founder Ravi Shankar: By eating pizza one does not become Italian, neither does eating chow mien make one Chinese. So how can yoga change someone’s religion?

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Silver screen memories: How the reopening of a theatre is much more than that

Kipa Takum and his friends had just won the inter-class cricket tournament in 1999 when he made his last visit to National Cinema Hall here.

“My friends and I had come to see Baadshah,” he says. Having walked more than 10km to watch the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer back then, it was only natural that Takum, who is now a councillor in Itanagar municipality, was excited to be present at the reopening of the hall on Friday that incidentally was showing Khan’s latest, Fan.

National Cinema Hall first opened four decades ago in 1974. It was the first, and for a long time, the only movie theatre in Arunachal Pradesh. The cinema hall was built by Yimar Riba and premiered its first film on December 27, 1974. Earning his education in Basar, then Shillong (St Edmund’s) and later Jawaharlal Nehru College in Pasighat, Riba (who passed away in 2001) was a visionary and a notable figure in his community.

Not only did he open the first cinema hall in the capital, then called Youth Cine Enterprise, he was also secretary of the first Mopin celebration committee in the capital in 1975. “The hall was made from bamboo back then,” said his daughter and present director of the hall, Marbom Mai. There are 332 seats for different ticket prices and even 3D films can be shown, she added. A far cry from when it first opened its doors.

Filmmaker Taro Chatung fondly recalls that he would often frequent the hall and that he wasn’t alone as the highest dignitaries kept him company back then. “I remember (lieutenant governor) K.A.A. Raja and (chief minister) P.K. Thungon coming to the hall to watch films back then,” he said.

Another noted filmmaker, Moji Riba, remembers visiting the place countless times and that the last film he saw at National was Roja. “That song…tum miley…,” he recalls.

Once the go-to place for young and old in the capital, the hall slowly fell into disuse as it became difficult for it to compete with the growth of video halls and the advent of DVDs. “There were times when the hall would be practically empty,” says Dominic Tok, a college professor here. A regular cinephile, Tok lived through the highs and lows of the hall.

“We went every time relatives from the village came to town,” he says, adding that he had seen countless films, not just Bollywood movies but Hollywood ones as well, dubbed in Hindi of course.

In fact, Tok saw the last film that was screened in the hall on that fateful day in August 2007. “It was some B-grade English film,” he says and that the last “good film” he saw there was Anaconda, again, dubbed in Hindi.

“The seats were mostly empty during those last days,” he says.

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Cine-goers queue outside during the reopening.

Mai says she was unable to look after its upkeep since she was still in college back then and could only direct her attention to it when she returned for her holidays. “It became difficult to look after it, especially since new digital technology had affected the markets even in Lakhimpur and Tezpur in Assam by then,” she says. The old projector which played 35mm reel films had become obsolete.

Filmmakers are naturally delighted with the reopening. Chatung says local filmmakers can benefit greatly from it. “What is the use of making films if there is no place to show them?” he asks. Moji hopes that slots can be provided to show films by filmmakers from the state. “Profits may be less but the contribution to society and to art will be immense,” he says.

The Rolex Award winner is also delighted on a personal front. “It’s heartwarming to see an icon from a bygone time coming back to life bringing with it fond memories of a time and town that was far less complicated,” he says, adding that “It’s wonderful that some things will remain constant”.

Echoing that sentiment, at the entrance of the now refurbished hall stands the old projector, an exhibit of an uncomplicated era.

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The old 35 mm projector stands as an exhibit and reminder of a bygone era.

Last of the rickshawallahs

Unsure about his age, Abdul Monan says he is around 45 or 48.

Grey-haired and bearded, the cycle-rickshaw puller’s appearance belies his assumed age. He is among the last lot of surviving cycle rickshaw-pullers in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital.

In the hilly terrains of the state in India’s northeast region, rickshaws that operate on muscle power rather than horsepower do not make much sense. Even so, such rickshaws have been a defining the character of Naharlagun, the old capital of the state which is now considered the other half of the state capital Itanagar.

Given its mostly flat topography, rickshaws thrived in the town. With time though, these rickshaws began to fade as cars and auto-rickshaws began to invade the congested roads.

Earlier, the rickshaws could be seen plying across the town, they have now been restricted to the 2km stretch between the Hathi Matha and Pachin areas.

Long since the heyday of the rickshaws in Naharlagun, only 15 now remain. The administration has on several occasions in the past tried to phase out the rickshaws.

Arif Ali, originally from Lakhimpur district in Assam, has been a rickshaw-puller for more than 15 years. He earns anything between Rs 200 and Rs 250 on most days, especially in the summer months.

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Arif Ali has been a rickshaw puller for over 15 years.

“During winter, most people walk,” he says, and so business usually is good on warmer sunny days. Arif adds that “it’s difficult to make an earning because most people have their own cars.” Apart from the house rent that he has to pay, his earnings also go towards paying Rs 100 as the road tax each month. He also pays Rs 900 as rent to the owner of the rickshaw.

Arif and all the other rickshaw-pullers all happen to be  migrant Muslim men from neighbouring Assam who came to Itanagar for a better life.

Shomuir Ali, also from neighbouring Assam, said very few of the rickshaw-pullers actually own their vehicle. “Maybe some of the older ones do,” he says.

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A total of 15 rickshaws now remain.

While Arif had been plying rickshaws for over a decade, Abdul had been doing this for a living only for the past two years.

Earlier, he worked as a manual labourer before switching over to pulling the rickshaw. The Rs 8,000 that he earns each month is used in paying rent for his rickshaw (Rs 1,000), house (Rs 1,200) and the school fees of his two sons who are in class I and IX. “My two daughters study the Koran,” he said before whisking off to Pachin with a passenger as the dusk set in.

A version of this story appeared in The Telegraph:

http://www.telegraphindia.com/1160405/jsp/northeast/story_78393.jsp#.VxIipfl97IU

 

 

 

 

Mithun: Arunachal’s Holy Cow

In Arunachal Pradesh’s capital, Itanagar, a kilo of mithun meat can be purchased for 400 rupees. For the same sum, one can get more than three kilos of beef. The difference though, doesn’t end there.

Much screen time and space has been accorded to Arunachal Pradesh in the past few weeks, and surprisingly this time it has nothing to do with China’s claims over the Indian state in the far north-east!

Ever since the political crisis in the state began close to a year ago, it has snowballed into a right mess that eventually culminated in the imposition of President’s Rule; on Republic Day no less.

From TV debates to newspaper articles discussing and dissecting topics as varied as the merits and demerits of the arguments placed by the governor and the Centre for imposing President’s Rule down to the Congress high command’s failure to curb in-fighting, nothing, it seem is off the table, including the meat of bovines, beef or otherwise.

Last week when it was widely reported that governor JP Rajkhowa had cited the ‘slaughter of a cow’ in front of the Raj Bhavan gates as an example of the volatile law and order situation in the state, many chaffed at the argument. While some pointed to the fact that it was a mithun, and not a cow that was ‘sacrificed and not slaughtered’, others argued that the species of the animal in question was irrelevant and that the act itself was meant to serve as an act of defiance against the constitutional head and his handling of affairs.

As the Supreme Court continues to hear both sides of the argument leading to the imposition of President’s Rule, the cow-mithun debate rages goes on.

Anyone who has chanced upon a mithun or even an image of one can instantly tell that a mithun is a mithun and not a cow. Although the two animals may be scientifically classified as belonging to the same family, to those of whom it matters- the people of the state- they are two very distinct animals.

The mithun, a semi-domesticated animal, can be found roaming freely in most parts of the state with the same amount of impunity that cows in the streets of Delhi enjoy.

Now, it is common knowledge that shooing cows away in the busy streets of our metropolises is paramount to committing the gravest of sins. Entire streets come to a standstill when a cow decides to soak in the view of incoming traffic by parking herself on a zebra crossing.

The human-mithun interaction though, is a little different.

In Arunachal Pradesh, urbanization has not permeated to the natural world to the same extent that it has in other parts of the country. Mithuns can be seen on the lower reaches of hills that envelop most urban centres in the state but for most parts, the animal steers clear of traffic and is left to its own devices.

Traffic-related difference aside, there are other more important distinction between the two animals.

Unlike how one is treated in parts of the country as holy, the other is not. While it is milked by some communities in certain places, the mithun is accorded importance for two reasons- its meat and as an indicator of personal wealth.

Created with Nokia Refocus

A mithun’s primary role is to serve as an animal of sacrifice and have its meat be served.

During wedding ceremonies, mithuns are the preferred choice of gift and so naturally the more mithun a man can give the more indicative it is of his personal wealth. As archaic and chauvinistic as it may sound, its a tradition dating as far back as mankind.

Mithuns are also sacrificed as part of various rituals including those performed during celebrations of festivals. Consumption of its meat has always been considered essential to conduction of certain rituals. It is in this aspect that the mithun differs from the cow; not those relating to species or appearance but with regards to how it is perceived by the people.

There is of course the matter of the governor recently claiming that he had never mentioned mithun in his report to the Supreme Court. The problem here is that that report has not been made public and in fact, it has been shielded from everyone besides the court.

If a document is permissible in court as evidence, surely it can be made available to those who are affected the most by it- the people. While the governor may have denied mentioning mithun in the report, it was his own counsel (as per media reports) who disclosed this fact. Unfortunately, the secrecy surrounding the report means that until the report is disclosed, we will have to accept that there is a contradiction between the statements given to the court and one given to the media.

The problem is not necessarily in the contradiction but in the fact that information that flows from power corridors is often shrouded in such mystery in an attempt to save face. For example, on the evening of February 2, news was trickling in that YS Dadwal had quit his role as the Centre’s advisor to the governor. By later that night it was more or less confirmed. However, sources within and close to the Raj Bhavan maintained that he was merely going on leave for health reasons and that he would be back. By the next day the story had become clear and Dadwal’s resignation hit national headlines.

Officials in the Raj Bhavan cannot be blamed; after all that is the nature of the beast. Speaking of beasts.

One of the arguments that has been doing the rounds is that the animal in question is a non-issue; that the very act of slaughtering/sacrificing any animal, cow or otherwise, is an act of blatant disregard for law and order.

Does the crime that a person commits have less of an impact on the victims by the nature of the crime? Well, yes and no.

India is home to crimes of different kinds that occur with far too much frequency then anyone would like. However, even in cases where accused persons are found guilty, they are not always convicted with death sentences. It is only on rare occasions that the court awards death penalties to criminals for the harshest of crimes while in most cases it awards life imprisonment sentences to the guilty. While life imprisonments do ‘kill’ a large part of a person’s life, they are not the same as the death penalty. In our present case, the nature of the beast really is irrelevant compared to the nature of the act. But, what is relevant is the interpretation of the act and its presentation thereof.

Until the governor’s report is made public, we will have to accept what was told to the court- that a ‘cow’ was ‘slaughtered’. The reason that the wording is so important is that it can viewed as an attempt to appeal to the sentiments of those who uphold the cow with sanctity. It is, some may argue, an attempt to pull at the strings of an emotion that may skew someone’s logical view.

There is of course, no doubt that the mithun has a special place amongst most people in Arunachal almost the same way that the cow in certain communities in parts of the country is held in high regard.

The mithun though, not only enjoys a position of high esteem here, it is also enjoyed steamed.

—–

 

Got God?

God for sale

At a time when Arunachal Pradesh finds itself the primary subject of debates and discussions on prime time television, for many people, life goes on. Here, at a busy market in the state capital, Itanagar, Papon from Silchar from the neighbouring state of Assam sells his wares- portraits of gods of different religions- as people await the fate of the state’s political future which will be decided by the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Seeing Papon sitting quietly, surrounded by pictures of Jesus and Shiva seemed both natural and strange because, well, this is India. A narrative of India that is frequently lost in the politics of hate and bigotry. On the reflection of the mirrors can be seen the sculpture of a head of a mithun, the bovine animal that finds itself the subject of an unnecessary controversy.  (Taken on January 31, 2016 at Ganga Market, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh)

The many joys of Ziro

An idea is born

Five years ago, an idea was born from a chance visit to the Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district when Delhi-based musicians Menwhopause had their show delayed after a students’ union had called a bandh on the day of their performance in the state capital, Itanagar. With nothing to do to kill time, concert organiser Bobby Hano decided to take the band members to his hometown.

Taken in by the view, Bobby and Anup Kutty, the band’s bassist, began to flirt with the idea of organising an outdoor music festival at Ziro.

One year later, with the help of the state tourism department and the Itanagar-based Living Dreams Trust, the Ziro Festival of Music was born. Since that chance visit and a few bumps along the way, the festival has become a must-attend event for music lovers and folk artists and independent bands from across the country and has propelled its way to India’s ever-expanding festival scene.

This is the story of why.

 

Journey of your life

It had rained the night before the festival began and the venue was bound to be squishy and muddy just like it had been in the years past. Traversing through the ‘highway’ to reach Ziro can be an arduous task for even the most skilled of drivers.

It is important to mention that there are two main arteries through which travellers can visit Ziro.

After having made your way to Guwahati from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata or wherever, one can either take the route from Kimin or enter Naharlagun via road or through the daily train from Guwahati. Now comes the part about the road to Ziro.

This is the ‘highway’ that we had to drive on.

Road

This is the ‘highway’ we had to drive on.

 

Conventional wisdom says that travelling from Kimin will lead to better road conditions than taking the road from Naharlagun, the state’s twin capital town. However, it is also longer by at least an hour and a half. That shorter ‘road’ however, is one that comes with conditions applied; conditions such as landslides, rock-filled, mud-slid and the likes. So unless you are really confident in your skills as a driver, leave it to the experts.

In fact, a landslide the night before had brought considerable damage to a section of the road and falling rocks had squashed the front end of a car.

Along the way is a stopgap place called Potin where there are some small eateries where travellers can have some chai and parathas. For those looking for a hearty meal, the establishments here offer something called ‘pressure cooker rice’.

What that means is that the rice cooked in pressure cookers is not burnt at the bottom and tastier as opposed to rice cooked in large saucepans where the quality can be sacrificed for quantity.

Pressure cooker

These are just some of the joys one can encounter on the way to Ziro.

The road to Ziro has, in fact, become the buzz amongst festival regulars and virgins alike. While anywhere else the decrepit conditions of the roads would have played spoilsport, the organisers of Ziro fest have given it a positive spin by calling the trip to Ziro the ‘Journey of your life’. And indeed it is because after we checked into our hotel and headed over to the venue ground, the view of yellow-green hued paddy fields overwhelms you every time you see it.

 

View

A view to kill for.

On ground Ziro

Although overnight showers had left the venue ground pretty messy, not one person present appeared to have had their spirits dampened the least bit. First-time visitors were busy making rounds of the many food stalls that were also selling the now famous varieties of rice beer called apong, while returning festival goers were busy hugging other returnees and ‘spreading the love’, so to speak. The crew were mostly pacing back and forth getting ready for the show to begin, constantly talking between the crackle of their walkie-talkies.

Like last year, this time around too there were two stages- Danyii and Piilo. The names of the stages corresponded to words for the sun and the moon in the language of the Apatani tribal folk who call Ziro Valley home. With 28 acts, the performances were divided between the two stages with the folk and (mostly) acoustic acts playing at the daytime Danyii stage while the heavier acts followed in the Piilo stage during the night. Kicking off at around four, the first day skipped the daytime performances and jumped to night’s acts after the mandatory ‘Welcome to Ziro’ speech by the local legislator.

Only three acts performed the first night beginning with an acoustic performance by Assam artist Dayglocrazie. Followed next were festival regulars and crowd favourites from Arunachal, alt-punk rockers Yesterdrive and Omak Komut Collective.

Yesterdrive had made their gig debut at the festival’s second edition in 2013 and returned last year to launch their self-titled debut album. Based out of Delhi, they returned this year for what lead guitarist Haggai Rongmei said is a “homecoming”.

Since their debut, the band has performed across the country and are a regular feature in the Delhi live gig scene. Their success continues to grow as MTV Indies, one of the sponsors of the festival, recently released a video of their song called ‘Sleep Song’.

After lighting the crowd on fire, up next were the Omak Komut Collective- a fusion band juxtaposing the sounds of the Blues with the rhapsodies of the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.

The band has been performing in Ziro ever since it began in 2012 and has been a mainstay. Their songs have become sing-alongs for local audiences and each year their legion of fans keeps growing. This year too was no different as they ended the night leaving many high on their music.

The next day the skies had cleared and people had turned up in large numbers and seated themselves lazily waiting for crowd favourites and crowd pullers Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland.

Most people were swooning even before the sisters began performing as both men and women were falling in love with the two sisters who had come, Mercy and Kuvelu aka Kuku.

Before the start of each song, people who had travelled far and wide from across the globe listened intently to Mercy (the eldest among five siblings) as she explained the meaning and context of each song before performing them in the Chokri dialect of Nagaland’s Chakesang tribe to which they belong.

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The infectious sounds and smiles of the Tetseo Sisters.

Perhaps governments can only hope to bring about the kind of cultural exchanges the way musicians are able to through such festivals. For example, in the far corner of not just the country but even of the region, who would have ever thought one would get the chance to experience the musical stylings of Rajasthani folk musicians Barmer Boys?

Dressed in their traditional attire, complete with the colourful turban, these talented artists had the crowd go absolutely ape over their music.

Playing the morchang (a type of jaw harp) and the khartal (a wooden percussion instrument), front-man Rais Khan had everyone believe that a horse was running amok in the lush green meadows.

Khan would later also go on to perform with Manipur-based singer Guru Rewben Mashangva on the last day.

Mashangva has been performing and fine tuning his craft for over thirty years and now deep into his fifties, is considered a true legend and is rightfully known as the King of Naga Folk Blues.

Mixing his love for blues music with the Tangkhul tribal beats, Mashangva is more than just a musician. Always jovial and almost always up for that one final shot of whisky (or apong), the 54-year old is never low or down in spirits. Through his music, he is keeping the Hao form of music alive and constantly creating new interesting music all the while.

With Khan

Rais Khan (left) and Guru Rewben Mashangva bridging the cross-cultural and generational gap.

Having performed across the country and winning numerous honours, Mashangva has collaborated with the Raghu Dixit Project for The Dewarist and is always up for impromptu collaborations. This year, as part of his performance at the Danyii stage, the Guru performed with Rais Khan and told the audience that the two had first met each other some years ago at an event in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan when he was with his son and Khan was with his father. Many amongst us felt it was something special to witness two generations of musicians from different parts of the country coming together to make something beautiful.

 

Visitors galore

Aside from music, the festival has done wonders for the local economy with an ever-increasing number in tourists inflow over the past few years.

Festival director Bobby said that in one year the number of foreign visitors and domestic tourists (aside from those from the state) has doubled.

He said that forty foreign visitors came to the festival this year while the domestic visitors from other states numbered around 1,800. Contrast that to the official figures from the tourism department that says that 19 foreign tourists visited Ziro last year in the entire month of September while the number of domestic visitors for the entire month last year was 1,416.

While Ziro and its beauty has always been a favourite for many people, the festival has helped enhance its visibility.

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Yesterdrive ‘pose’ for the camera.

Hage Kano, the general secretary of the Apatani Students Union feels that the festival has made Ziro an international destination.

The Pechi Putu ground where the festival is hosted each year was once a burial ground. Naturally it wasn’t a place that people were too eager to visit but ever since the festival began, the venue has become a favourite of sorts of youngsters.

Social sciences teacher and a member of a local NGO called Ngunu Ziro, Punyu Chada, helps home-stay owners of the area connect with tourists throughout the year. He too said that the festival has certainly helped with the tourist inflow and collaterally helped the economy.

 

Making it work

Stray incidents of booze-induced temper flaring activities aside, the Ziro Festival of Music just…works.

Mashangva says that the combination of “people, place and culture is what makes Ziro so great”. Being his third straight year at the festival, the Guru clearly loves the place. But even a first-timer like Rais Khan says that the place is “badiya (wonderful)” and “kya jegah hain (what a place)” when describing Ziro.

Such is the enchantment of the place that Darko C and Tser Htoo of Myanmar’s post-punk band Side Effect had only words of praise despite having had to travel for 54 hours through six airports and one railway station.

Performing in India for the first time, the band were almost at a loss of words when describing their experience of being in Ziro, managing to only mumble words like “beautiful”, “amazing” and “great to be here”.

Daniel from Digital Suicide, who is never short of words during his performances keeps it short and says, “the only reason Ziro works is because of Ziro”.

Bobby attributes the festival’s ‘organic growth’ over the years which has led to its success.

Standing next to the bamboo-made merchandise stall, he said that it is because of this ‘organic growth’ is why so many people are willing to repeatedly endure the long and painful journey.

Strangers striking up conversations, musicians collaborating on stage, smiling faces everywhere, the festival truly does live up to its motto of ‘Eat. Drink. Merry.’

Perhaps it was only apt that the festival came to a close with the oldest performer of the event, Mashangva, bringing down the house with his rendition of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.

 

A version of this story first appeared in the recently-launched December issue of the travel magazine, The Himalayan Pulse. 

 

Defying the odds

Toku Mary wants to practise law when she grows up. But her friend Gangte Yama is unsure.

“I dream about the possibilities, but don’t know if I will be able to achieve them,” Yama said.

Both Mary and Yama are students at Donyi-Polo Mission School for the hearing and visually impaired.

Established on October 15, 1990 by former  chief minister of the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Gegong Apang, with three deaf students at a rented accommodation here, the school has since grown and relocated to a 5.91-acre plot of land and currently houses 87 students.

In the past two decades, the school has been educating differently-abled children of lower income families of the state for free.

Official estimates said there are 33,315 people in Arunachal with various disabilities. Among them is Bullo Tadi, who works as a lower division clerk at the civil secretariat here. Communicating with a pen and notepad, Tadi, an alumnus of the school, was at his alma mater on Wednesday to observe International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Tadi completed his secondary education in 2004 before transferring to a different school, as Donyi-Polo Mission does not offer higher secondary education.

Now pursuing his graduation, Tadi said he faces “no problems” when it comes to his work and life in general.

Having celebrated his 29th birthday a day earlier, Tadi is looking forward to settling down and getting married to his girlfriend Insim who operates a beauty parlour in Dimapur, Nagaland. Like Tadi, Insim, too, is hearing impaired.

Arunachal Pradesh governor Lt Gen. (retd) Nirbhay Sharma was scheduled to be at the school but a last-minute cancellation meant that the school authority had to postpone the celebrations by a day. While the governor did send across his message, he missed out on cultural programmes performed by the students.

Among them was a Bihu performance by young girls who could not hear music. As they sashayed their hips and intricately turned and twisted their wrists, they never missed a beat. One of the dancers, Class VIII student Kipa Sumpa, appeared most excited. Asked if she enjoyed dancing, she jumped in joy and mouthed the words “very much”.

Deaf students of the school dance to a Bihu song.

Deaf students of the school dance to a Bihu song.

After initially admitting only deaf children, the school began admitting visually impaired children from December 2008. The school’s principal, H. Sharma, who has been with the institute since its inception, said visually impaired children face a greater hurdle than the ones who cannot hear. “They are often unable to get the right amount of exercise because it is difficult for them to move about freely.”

A blind student, Rie Koyu, said he was is “unable to fulfil many of his wishes because of his dependence on others”. That, however, he said, will not stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming either a teacher or a singer.

A Class VIII student, Rie has been training in Indian classical music since 2011. While he desperately wishes to become a singer and receives a grant of Rs 1,000 every month from the centre, he says he still has much vocal training to pursue. “Unfortunately, there are financial constraints to consider,” he added.

That the institute faces financial constraints is evident from the cramped dormitories the children have to stay in.

Sharma said the corpus fund of Rs 5 crore just about covers the school’s expenses but leaves no room for improvement of infrastructure.

Students like Dindo Oku, however, do not complain.

Oku, who is partially blind, was among the first six visually impaired students the school admitted. On Thursday, she had led a group dance with nine hearing impaired girls.

Sharma said the institute has asked the state government for an increase in corpus and hopes that more funds will help address some of the infrastructure issues. Pointing to the unguarded gates, he said, “God is our security”.

First published in The Telegraph in December 2014. Link to original story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141207/jsp/northeast/story_2432.jsp#.VexWCPmqqkp

Battling HIV and its stigma

Having been at the receiving end of society and his own family ever since he tested positive for HIV, a man from India’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the Northeast has sent a message on World AIDS Day — to live life positively.

Yumrik Nokpa fights the odds stacked against him.

Yumrik Nokpa fights the odds stacked against him.

Around three years ago, 28-year-old Yumrik Nokpa tested positive for HIV after his wife was also found to be HIV positive during a pregnancy test. After being evicted from his house and ostracised by family members, he now works with the Arunachal Network of Positive People (ArNP+) helping spread awareness about the disease and stigma.

The ArNP+, an organisation comprising 14 HIV-positive individuals, was formed in 2012 with the help and encouragement of the National AIDS Control Organisation and AP State AIDS Control Society.

Its primary work focuses on providing counselling and helping HIV-positive individuals live healthy lives with the virus.

Nokpa, who is the general secretary of the ArNP+, says unlike before, people in the state are beginning to understand the disease and slowly letting go of the stigma associated with it.

But that was not the case three years ago.

When Nokpa and his wife made their HIV status public in 2011, the landlord evacuated them from their rented house.

At that time, Nokpa was an auto-rickshaw driver and when news of his condition reached his fellow auto-rickshaw drivers, he was assaulted by two of them. “They were my friends,” he says. Even his own family disowned him. “How can someone live without a livelihood?”

Now, sitting in his cosy office, Nokpa says HIV-positive people face immense challenges to find a livelihood. “If HIV-positive people tell potential employers about their condition, we risk not getting jobs. If we hide the fact, we may lose our jobs if employers find out later,” he says.

However, he says attitudes are changing and people often approach them to enquire about HIV and AIDS. His friends who had assaulted him have since apologised.

Living in a kutcha house, Nokpa says he believes people should abide by the live and let live policy. While both his wife and he are HIV-positive, their two sons are not and that helps him stay optimistic. He continues to maintain a “positive” outlook on life and says, “Let the virus die with me.”

This story was first published in December 2014. Link to original story: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1141202/jsp/northeast/story_19119124.jsp#.VexUmfmqqkp