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They have a problem if you have narrow eyes and call you 'chinky'. They also have a problem if you are from the northeast and do not have small eyes and say, "How come you are from the northeast and look normal?" When they hear my name they say, "…but you are a Hindu? Thakur in northeast?"
When I say I am flying home, they look bewildered to know that the northeast has not one but many airports. When I upload pictures from the northeast on Facebook, they say "Arre? Your place is really beautiful... But Guwahati looks like any other big city?" And they are astonished when I say one of India's first rockstars, Lou Majaw, is from the region.
All I can say is that in my 14 years outside Guwahati, though I have never encountered any form of violence or abuse - courtesy, my "mainland looks", as they say - the moment I name my native place, I have been bombarded with questions, some out of curiosity, some in amaze and many them sarcastic and mocking in nature. Questions like "What do you eat? What language do you speak in the northeast? Do you often go to China? How far is Japan from there? Do you need a passport to come to India? Any militants in the family? How many colleges are there? Heard you get drugs in shops?"
Every time, I take pain to explain that the northeast is not one state with one language, religion and culture but eight states with numerous languages, dialects, sub-dialects, cultures, religions and governments. And that the region is very much a part of India and we are all very much Indians and humans like the rest. I am not amazed if the question comes from an illiterate man selling tea on the streets of Delhi or the nearby kirana store owner who has never been out of his colony his entire life. It troubles me when such queries come from the educated, from certain people of my profession, HR managers, techies, lawyers and even ministers.
Some years ago when I landed in the Maximum City and joined a leading media brand, the HR manager asked me with curiosity when she was scanning through my files - "So, you have done MA in English from Gauhati University...where is Guwahati?" Didn't really expect it from an HR manager, especially when they had an office in Guwahati. I replied, "Near Japan." She looked at me, puzzled. I clarified, "Assam". Then came another gem. "Oh, Assam... they have a university there?" I retorted, "Well, No. I forged my certificate." I complained to her senior, who understood my anger.
During one of my visits to the Taj, I couldn't help but argue with two constables who asked two youngsters from Manipur to show their passports and insisted they pay the entrance fee meant for foreigners. This after they showed their ID cards. When I intervened, the cops asked me "Aap kyon beech mein par rahe hain bhaisaab...yeh log to Japan se aakar bhi paisa nehi dena chahte. (why are you intervening, these people from Japan do not pay up the requisite fee". When I explained I too belonged to the north-east and they were not Japanese, the cops said: "Kyon majaak kar rahe hain bhai (you are joking)". The boys, who were obviously used to such obnoxious queries, told me to ignore the cops.
I remember my days when I came to take admissions in Delhi University and was staying with friends near North Campus. It was a cultural shock for me to hear expletives from the landlord who warned us not to impose "our culture on his kids". "Tum logon ki culture main hoga raat ko ghoomna, hamare bacchon ko bigaro mat." More recently, a colleague from Tripura shared her experience with a senior government functionary, who referred her to as the girl from Japan. Then, there was this group of people near DDU Hospital in Hari Nagar who showed me the way to the colony where the 'people from Japan' lived. (The people from Japan were my doctor friends from Assam). And who can forget this classic from a police officer in Bangalore, who said: "Northeast people from look similar."
Ignorance is bliss, as they say. But in this case, ignorance is crime, I say. Over the years, I have become used to such ignorance but when I see someone losing his life just because he protested a snide remark, my blood boils. "You people remain aloof and cannot assimilate with the mainstream," they argue. "How can we assimilate when you call us names, make fun of our looks, snap at our culture and share jokes about our food habits," I counter.
I stay in Ghaziabad, eat rajma and chole chawal, relish on butter chicken and biryani, and my son speaks Hindi. How much more assimilation do you want? I am sure majority of people from the northeast living outside would have similar stories to share.
In these past 14 years, I have made a lot of friends - and very close ones - most of who are from north India and speak Hindi. One obviously cannot hold an entire city responsible for the action of a select few but there is also no denial that intolerance is present, if not prevalent, in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai or, for that matter, even in the northeast, against 'outsiders'. Sometimes it is against Africans, this time it was against a northeastern student. The next time, it could be somebody else.
There are many like me who have learnt to ignore, but there was this boy who protested. And paid with his life.