Recently, I found myself part of a captive audience watching a documentary on the Totos, a people belonging to an Indo-Bhutanese tribe living in the predictably named enclave of Totopara in the northern West Bengal district of Jalpaiguri. (I saw that yawn, you reader, you!) The narrator in the film barotinically kept describing the Totos as a ‘primitive tribe’ whose numbers didn’t exceed 1,300. A total population less than the number of tigers in India and slightly less than the number of members of the Mayurvihar Durga Puja Association can be a scary thought even if you’re a firm believer in birth control.
Quite clearly, because of this empirically driven fact, the local culture strongly disapproves of outsiders coming and settling in Totopara — of which there is no fear, considering no one in their right mind (anthropologists and patronising documentary filmmakers not counted) would want to move into a back and beyond underdeveloped spot under the sun like Totopara. But with more practical consequences, Toto society considers moving out of Totopara to be an extremely wrong thing to do. The taboo against a Toto leaving Totopara is palpable.
Added to the diminished numbers is the fact that there is a cultural tussle going on to capture the ‘hearts and tongues’ of the Totos. On one hand, the West Bengal government wants children in Toto schools to learn Bengali. On the other, the Government of India is pushing for Hindi. This is the ‘Tibetan’ question in a much smaller, quieter, Richard Gere-less sub-Himalayan context. The fact that the Toto language has no script makes the cultural tussle even more tug-of-war-ish.
But I am no anthropologist, nor was I meant to be. In fact, even while writing this, I have yawned at least two times more than you already have. But while the documentary droned on, I latched on to one aspect of the Toto story. So what happens if a rebellious Toto youngster wants to leave Totopara? What if he’s tired and bored of the same bloody pigs, the same bloody bucolic surroundings, the same bloody fellow Totos? Will he have to face the wrath of the elders if he shouts, “I want to get out of this hellhole! I want to live in the big city!’? Will his ‘crime against society’ overwhelm his drive to break out and be the James Dean of Totopara? Can the Totos ever have a Salman Rushdie? In other words, are Totos individuals or just fragments of an endangered community?
Migrating and being part of a diaspora have been celebrated enough. A whole genre of literature rests on the shoulders of millions of Indians leaving their very own ‘Totoparas’ and settling down in their new homelands. But do remember a time when crossing the ‘kala paani’ — the black waters — meant losing your caste (at a time when losing one’s caste was as big as not having enough credit rating to book a Nano today). Even as the ‘diminishing numbers’ logic that makes Totos — or, for that matter, Tibetans — hold on to each other for dear communal life, I can’t help but be thankful that no member of my
17-member tribe (haters of Rabindrasangeet and Karan Johar movies, and lovers of science fiction writer Philip K Dick and pointless, frivolous, yawn-inducing writings) ever hunted me down for leaving my ‘Totopara’. Well, unlike the migratory Toto, my absence wasn’t that palpably felt, I guess.
So while the bhatija in Mumbai rails against the bhaiyyas, I wonder what the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena cartoon has to say about Maharashtrians leaving Maharashtra and settling outside. He may not have a problem with numbers like the Totos do, but he also feels the fear of a culture that is rapidly fading. The old Shiv Sena culture, after all, isn’t as pervasive as it used to be in the good old days. Maybe it’s time for Raj Thackeray to go to Totopara and pick up a few solid tips — which includes the Toto elders setting their pigs on him.