Safdarjung soirée

The air feels different now than it does in the heat of the day when it is crisp, dusty, and the lanes littered with locals while the night owls from my neck of the woods choose to laze around in their small apartment buildings cramped against each other in the colony occupied by victims of The Partition who now make a healthy living thanks to the first wave of students who came looking for better education, some for a better life, some just bored and stay on working night shifts and odd hours that ideally should not make biological sense but here in the chaos of the city, the metropolis, it works,

and many others stay on long after they’ve got their degrees and now hang on pursuing trivial vocational courses in institutes with the word ‘International’ ‘American’ prefixed or suffixed to their names because home beckons, but the heart is not quite there yet and an excuse is needed to linger on here otherwise daddy dearest will stop sending money that has not been earned, and some of those faces that still linger on working strange hours have a hint of familiarity to them while others seem unfamiliarly familiar as the question: “do I know that person” quickly zips by, and then there are those visionaries who saw that possibilities to conquer a market filled with people who yearned for the taste of home without actually returning home and quickly set up shop selling shoots, stems, and cigarettes, and others followed suit opening restaurants cooking and selling food that not too many years ago was prohibited from even being cooked at our homes, I remember and now, this,

This change that has come to this small part of this large racist city where being Black or someone with East Asian features can get you killed for nothing other than being you, in this same large city in this small part there is a change while the lanes remain the same- small -and overhead electrical wiring that is a major safety hazard and an accident waiting to happen and yet, there is a change as,

The taunts and the judgemental looks have gone away and some of them even dress like us now, wearing the kind of clothes I never would have imagined ‘them’ a decade back, and some eating at restaurants that do not serve naan and tandoor but most still play safe and stick to Tibetan food, perhaps rolled up flat noodles is still more palatable to many than fermented soybeans will ever be as it was always bound to be the first introduction to food that wasn’t deep fried but was adventurous enough to claim bragging rights for the next time they are there with other uninitiated to act like they ‘know their stuff’ and

Probably have that one friend who introduced the group to this food that can never be cooked under the watchful eyes of their mammi and pappa who will end up having a heart attack to see pork, beef, and food that is all manners of strong odour being cooked in the same kitchen and kadhai where the palak paneer is cooked for nani ma

“But why are you so angry?”, I am asked a few nights later, and I say “I am not holding onto personal anger but only angry over the things that I should not be” and then I tell her I am angry about things this country should not give me reasons to be angry about but almost on a daily basis it does, whether

I am lazing comfortably back in Arunachal on the worn out faux leather sofa in my TV room watching journalists morph into high-paid pseudo-intellectual pundits praising the prime minister or

A prime minister turn into an actor while an actor turns into a journalist, and hence, I say,

“I will be angry about all these things,” and I turn away to way back to my night through the dark alleys that don’t remember well so I jerk out my phone and ask for directions which lead me through ways that are unfamiliar because they end in dead ends until a sense of familiarity sinks in again and I

Remember the road wherence I should be treading and I am back on the path and no sooner does the foul odour of the garbage basket(?) calls me home telling me that I am close and as I turn I see a brother, a homeboy, a tribal from that part of the woods agitated as his friends try to calm him down when by this time I am near an autorickshaw and a bunch of local smart alecks are telling another of their kinds to calm down asking him if he really wished to fight him and trying to make him understand that he would be beaten black and blue to which even he admits that “yes, that is true” but by now I see another bunch of locals who aren’t smart alecks as much as they are smart asses, I know because one of them asks if the others want to get in on the action and pick a fight with “those chinkies”- “THOSE CHINKIES”-

I am not angered or agitated because it is well past bedtime and I am intoxicated, as are the five of them, and to express my anger over that racist comment which I had grown so accustomed to in seven eight years ago taught me to be on guard rather than be on the offence, and as I climb up the godforsaken four flights of stairs I wonder if this place has changed at all…

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Rising from death, debris, and destruction

We are all familiar with the narrative of how as a collective population, us Arunachalis are perhaps the most patriotic lot in the entire country. Any and every time politicians from New Delhi come calling, it has become mandatory for them to invoke the same repeated line that Arunachalis are so patriotic that they greet each other with calls of ‘Jai Hind’.

Whether that is true or not is beside the point. While the ‘Jai Hind’ rhetoric may simply be just rhetoric (and an example of jingoism), the fact is that Arunachalis really are a patriotic lot. In a region of the country where ethnic and tribal divisions mark out clear cut interests, and where sub-nationalism is a strong defining character and occupies much space in the public discourse, Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat of an anomaly.

So famous is the proverbial patriotic Arunachali that even the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, cited it in a recent meeting.

The how and why this distinctive characteristic came into being require a discussion for another day. In light of the recent events that brought the state capital to a standstill, what is needed now is an explanation and introspection on how even the ever-patriotic Arunchali turned against the state.

THE IDEA OF IDENTITY

Where and how does an individual, a group, or a community draw its identity from? How do we distinguish the ‘us’ from the ‘them’? Is identity fluid? Are we members of a tribe for most parts of the year and don the suit of the collective anonymous Arunachali when we require it?

The issue of giving permanent residence certificates (PRC) to non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (APST) is hardly a new one. It is a demand and a topic of debate and opposition that has lasted for decades.

The recent protests, violence, deaths, and excessive display of force by security personnel were played out amidst growing concerns that the state government was seriously mulling awarding PRCs to the six non-APST communities in question.

Although the Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) was to submit its report and recommendation that PRC should be awarded but with certain riders, there was never a Bill that was listed for passing in the Legislative Assembly. The chief minister later did say that the report was listed for discussion only.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the JHPC had recommended issuing PRCs (with or without terms and conditions) did not sit well with not just organised unions and bodies but also with the general tribal populace of the state.

For tribal communities, the idea of identity is one that is drawn from the land that they belong to. Without getting into the philosophical aspect of whether we belong to the land or the land belongs to us, suffice to say that as a collection of tribes, we are of the land, for the land, and from the land. It is the land that gives us a sense of who we are.

For communities like ours where even stretches of rivers and entire mountains can belong to an individual or a clan, the connection to the land and the people are inseparable. Is it really surprising then that the idea that we may have to share this land and its resources with those perceived as not being indigenous to the land ignited the kind of reaction that it did?

THE ‘OTHERS’

Much of the anger that fuelled the protests came from the perception that the six communities in question are ‘others’; that they do not fit into our idea of who is indigenous to the land.

The question that we must ask here is what factors go into deciding what makes someone indigenous to the land and someone else, not.

Representatives of those communities argue that they have been living in certain parts of present-day Arunachal Pradesh for generations and that all that they are asking for is a proof of address that they are domiciles of the state. That they have been living inside the political boundary of the state of Arunachal Pradesh when it was a union territory, separate from Assam.

Of course, the issue is not as simple as that and that PRCs will simply make it easier for members of the communities to apply for central government jobs (since they are already issued temporary residence certificates).

Acquiring PRCs will also bring with it other benefits and ease businesses for the communities in question. The JHPC on its part did say that awarding PRCs will not equate to extending tribal rights. The Committee even went further to add in a clause that the communities will not make any demands seeking APST status or seek benefits meant solely for APST persons such as reservations in state government jobs and educational institutions in the future.

One of the arguments from the other side has been that there is no guarantee that the communities now seeking PRCs will not demand APST status in the future. Indeed, one of the communities- the Deoris -did temporarily hold APST status until large-scale protests led to a retraction two decades back.

Perhaps it is ironic that some of the same people who argued against awarding APST status for the community are part of the JHPC that recommended awarding PRCs.

Another oft-cited argument is that awarding PRCs will lead to an influx of members of those communities who are living on the Assam side of the interstate boundary.

A state where large swathes of uninhabited fertile land exist, the idea of migrating here is an enticing one. While the JHPC recommended adequate checks to ensure that it does not happen, every true-blue Arunachali and anyone familiar with the astronomical levels of corruption that exists in the state knows that such measures will be compromised at the slightest of chances to the highest bidder.

WHAT NOW?

The violence that took place in Itanagar and Naharlagun has certainly left citizens shell-shocked. Perhaps only once before in recent history has such violence taken place that left the capital paralyzed the way it did. That protest too ended in death, as has this.

Whether the protests were sustained by motives other than those of pure emotions is something that may perhaps be revealed at a later date. What is undeniable, however, is that the anger was palpable. There is no doubt that anger had been fermenting for quite a while now and that anger spilled over to the streets.

As people took to the streets and damages were brought to several government and commercial buildings, security forces indulged in excesses and actions that should have been avoided. As of now, it is unclear what laws were invoked to incite such military action and as to who ordered the firing on the crowd of protestors in several places.

Amidst the protests that left at least three young men dead and several others injured, a number of people saw the chaos as an opportunity to update their wardrobe and electronic appliances. Cartful of clothes were being rolled away from one shopping centre while some made good with LED TVs and refrigerators.

On the other end of the two towns, the families of those who had died mourned.

So, where do we go from here? Is the outright rejection of the JHPC recommendation a permanent solution to the decades-old question? For now, the issue may have been diffused and the capital may be limping back to normalcy but it is bound to dominate discussion and debate come election season. And it is an issue that will be raised sporadically.

Can the issue be wished away? Or is greater debate, not destruction, required lest we want to see more young lives laying waste to the barrel of the gun?

Also Basar: Life in monochrome

From the fag end of October, five artists from various fields and I spent four weeks in the small town of Basar in Lepa Rada district in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Artists Residency of the Basar Confluence.

While we all worked on different projects (mine will be uploaded shortly), this was a small side project that I wanted to work on due to my interest in photography despite a complete lack of skills.

Home to the indigenous Galo tribe, Basar and its adjoining areas isn’t exactly a thriving metropolis. However, as in elsewhere in this state, much (if not the entirety) of its commercial life is operated and dependent on a large number of migrants from different parts of the country.

Businesses aside, there is also a high proportion of migrants who are also employed in several organisations, government offices, and/or working with religious organisations.

As it often happens with those of us who identify as being ‘indigenous’ to the land, many of the people I met held a singular identity for me, although in reality each of them has a story to tell.

Some of the subjects were born and lived their entire lives in Basar alone, while many have even married into Galo families. The images I captured don’t do justice to their lives and is perhaps a reflection of my myopic view: That the migrant among us lives his life in monochrome.

(Camera: OnePlus 6)

Disclosure: Basic editing done in Google Snapseed.

 

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PoV: Hornbill, Nagaland

 

Held for ten days beginning on December 1 that marks Nagaland’s Statehood Day, the annual Hornbill Festival is an extravaganza that showcases the culture of the 16 tribes that call the state home. While the festival has put the state on the global map, attracting tourists from near and far, the realities of the state marred with crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption has left many local residents giving the festival a miss. (Photo locations: Kisama, Kohima and Dimapur.)

 

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A view of Kohima town.

 

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Monpa Yak Dance performers from Arunachal Pradesh alongside the Zeliang of Nagaland perform in sync at the Hornbill Festival.

 

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Young Naga men watch cultural performances at the amphitheatre in Kisama Heritage Village, the site of the annual extravaganza.

 

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A man from the Konyak tribe stands guard outside the representational Morung- dormitories traditionally meant for bachelors- at Kisama.

 

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Konyak Naga warriors.

 

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A traditional rice milling apparatus of the Kuki tribe made from wood.

 

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Women of the Pochury Naga tribe from Meluri Village weaving clothes at the Craftscape section of the Hornbill Festival. The cotton processing system is called Akükhie Ngunü Küto.

 

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A photo exhibition providing a glimpse of the contents of ‘The Konyaks- Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’, a book by Phejin Konyak and Peter Bos chronicling the last batch of Konyak Headhunters and women from the community who would tattoo their bodies in the days of yore. A practice that was abandoned after the introduction of Christianity.

 

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The Kohima War Cemetery honours the memory of over 2000 men who laid their lives in the Battle of Kohima, fending off Japanese forces during the Second World War. The Battle of Kohima is often termed as Stalingrad of the East and lasted from 4 April to 22 June 1944 and saw heavy casualties from both sides as Naga tribesmen fought alongside British-Indian forces. Had the battle fallen favourably for the Japanese forces, the global map as we know it, may have looked very different. This, along with the Battle of Imphal fought in Manipur, has been recognised as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ by the British National Army Museum.

 

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Some graves at the Cemetery are unmarked and unnamed but not forgotten. Most died when they were barely into their twenties.

 

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A woman selling hens and roosters beside a street in Nagaland’s capital Kohima. As with most tribal and indigenous societies across India’s Northeast, it is the women who keep the local economy running through their hard work.

 

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While the Hornbill Festival dazzles tourists with colourful cultural displays, signs that not all is glorious with the state of affairs of Nagaland are also visible. Student bodies have been at loggerheads with the state government since last year over delays in disbursement of students’ scholarships. The state government has cited lack of funds as causing the delay and has begun rolling out stipends in instalments.

 

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A poster on a monolith in Kohima reads (written in the lingua franca- Nagamese): Directorate of Higher Education, Students are suffering. Where is our stipend? – Eastern Nagaland College Students’ Union.

 

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Road conditions in the state leave much to be desired and the annual layering work done before Hornbill Festival hasn’t impressed citizens. Many young people call it ‘applying lipstick on the road’.

 

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Apart from the condition of the road, traffic is a perennial problem in Kohima and traffic jams can sometimes last for hours and stretch for more than three kilometres.

 

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Rains had left large stretches of the Dimapur-Kohima road muddy leading to many taxi drivers hiking up rates for passengers or simply refusing to go at all. While the road was reportedly ‘repaired’ just days before the festival began, construction work meant that it was bound to be prone to slush.

 

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Along the Dimapur-Kohima highway are several basic restaurants that serve some of the best food one can find. The menus of some places even list ‘rural meat’- code for game meat that can include anything from wild boar to venison.

 

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As in other states of the Northeast, the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants (whether real or perceived) is seen as a major threat to indigenous communities in Nagaland too. Referred to as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs), calls for deportation of the alleged illegal immigrants have been gaining momentum of late. However, proving the nationality of those perceived to be illegals is easier said than done and is made more complex by the large population of Bengali-speaking Muslims who work in Nagaland’s commercial hub of Dimapur where citizens from outside the state do not require inner line permits.

 

Tattooed Tales: Behind the Apatani tattoo

In the kitchen of the home-stay that she and her husband run, Narang Yamyang said that the woman who tattooed her face refused to continue if she showed any signs of experiencing pain. Left with no choice, she remained motionless through the entire process.

Until the early 1970s, it was common practice for Apatani girls of Ziro Valley to get their faces tattooed and sport nose-plugs. The process was conducted in the winter to quicken the drying process, was often long and always painful.

The tattoos, called tiipe in the Apatani language, on a woman usually run from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, complemented by five strips starting from the edge of the bottom lip to the end of the chin. Some also pierced their noses and over the course of time larger nose-plugs made of cane called yaping huto would be placed. The ink that was used is basically soot (called chinyu) collected from the bottom of heavily-used cooking utensils. And no fancy tattoo needles here; what was used as a ‘needle’ was made by tying together a bunch of three-headed thorns called iimo-tre. A small stick hammer called empiia yakho helped produce the necessary pressure to pierce the skin and hammer in the ink.

Once a defining character of the Apatani people, the practice was banned by a tribal youth organisation in 1972; the penalty for which was almost equivalent to the price of an adult mithun at that time.

Yamyang said she got herself tattooed sometime after that but was not fined because her father had passed away and the implementing organisation spared her the penalty.

Narang Yamyang with her husband Tam at their paddy field.

Having been socially abolished over four decades back, getting a glimpse of the tattooed women of Ziro is becoming a rare sight. Everyone who sports them is at least over 50 years old. It has completely disappeared among young Apatani women.

Tattooing has existed in different cultures throughout the world. From the Polynesians to the yantra tattoos of the Tai people, tattoos have been always part of human civilisation and have survived till the 21st century with varying degrees of prevalence. Closer home, tattooing was common among the Baiga people of Chota Nagpur Plateau. In the Northeast, among the Naga tribes, it was a matter of pride for men to sport certain tattoos as it was an indicator of their martial skills. Unlike most modern-day tattoos, in the lives of indigenous communities, tattoos usually signified a rite of passage and a coming age for young men and women. So why did the Apatani women get them done?

At the very outset, it is important to note that it is not just the women but also the men who once got facial tattoos made, although the men only drew one thick line down the middle of their chin. Regardless, both men and women only got tattooed after they had reached puberty. It is when trying to unearth the reason why the practice started is where things get interesting.

Images of smiling women with blue-hued tattoos and nose-plugs abound the internet. The most repeated (and most believed) story of why the women had them made was because the Apatani women were so beautiful that the men of the ‘neighbouring tribe’ would repeatedly raid their villages and kidnap them. While this does not explain why the men got tattoos, many people, including those of the aforementioned ‘neighbouring tribe’, still believe there is credence to the story.

Yamyang’s husband, Tam, said that the story probably began once young Apatani people began to move out of the Valley and felt “awkward” when people, especially the plainsmen of Assam, would stare at them.

In the absence of any documented evidence of mass kidnappings of Apatani women ever having had taken place, the story is apocryphal at best and what anthropologist may describe as a type of cultural cringe where people are made to feel that certain aspects of their cultural practices are inferior and must be discarded.

Tam said that earlier it was essential for an Apatani to have a tattoo as it was a mark of their identity. “People would not even get married if their faces were not tattooed in the old days,” he said.

There are other explanations offered by the older Apatanis and the women who have the tattoos.

Tilling Rilung, an agriculturalist and wife of a gaon bura (village headman), said that the tattoos were made to distinguish between the Apatani people and the neighbouring Nyishis, indicating that it acted as a marker of tribal identity.

Like most other women who spoke of their experiences, Rilung too had to be held down on the floor when she was getting her tattoo made.

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Duyu Dinsung got her tattoo at her father’s behest who told her that it was an important marker of the Apatani identity.

Duyu Dinsung is another woman who said it was a painful experience and resonated Rilung’s explanation that they were made so as to distinguish between the Apatani and Nyishi people.

Hage Tado Nanya, a progressive farmer and a pioneering face of women’s engagement in Apatani society who also happens to be the reigning Mrs Arunachal, said that she was among one of the last batches of girls who got tattooed after the ban was imposed.

As with those who actually had had their faces tattooed, she too dismissed the kidnapping story and even claimed that the practice existed among the Apatani before they migrated to present-day Ziro centuries ago. In fact, she claims that the seeds of the iimo-tre plant were brought during the migration period.

The story behind the Apatani tattoo may have gotten lost in recent years and replaced with another. While there is no consensus over the origins of the practice, what everyone- tattooed or not- does agree on is that it is good that the practice has stopped.

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