‘Show so much love that you can’t be ignored’
Until I went to Delhi from Guwahati to pursue my graduation in history from St. Stephens College (DU) in 2012, I didn’t really have any first-hand experience of racism. But I was aware of discrimination against people from the North-East. When I was 16, we heard that a school friend had been beaten to death in Bengaluru over something trivial, like changing the TV channel. Though the incident troubled me, I had to move to Delhi when I was 18 to study.
The St. Stephen’s campus was a safe space. But the 15-minute journey from my accommodation in Hudson Lane to the college saw people randomly spitting at us and worse, pelting us with stones. My female friends faced the worst of it. Cat-calling and ‘being asked their price’ is common even today.
It feels worse when people above the age of 45 engage in such behaviour while their children are there. This encourages a whole new generation to mirror their ignorance. Once, a friend from Nagaland and I were travelling in the Delhi Metro and a man travelling with his child pointed to us and told the five-year-old, “See? They are from China.” Before we deboarded the train, we turned to him and said, “Hume yahin India se hi hain (We are from India).” Another time, an elderly man got annoyed because we were carrying guitars. When my band members and I tried to pacify him, he started yelling, “Tum toh yahan se ho bhi nahi (You are not even from here). Go back where you came from.”
Even worse, his wife pacified him with, “No point telling them. Battar log hain yeh (They are bad people).” These were all well-dressed people who seemed educated.
One kind of Hero
I was lucky to get a house in Delhi. The lady who ran the PG where I stayed during my second year seemed sweet. One day she told me, “I don’t want to rent to tribal log. (This was her way of referring to those from the North-East.) I don’t know what they eat.”
That’s when I realised that something was seriously wrong with our education system and we had to nip this in the bud. So, I decided to teach history as a profession as well as be a recording artist.
I moved to Mumbai last year and the racism here works in different ways. It’s subtle, but there nonetheless. Then there’s Bollywood. You will never see a North-Eastern character playing the lead role. When I tried acting, I was told that the audition had gone well but “India isn’t ready for a lead character with your features in mainstream cinema.” The only roles available to us are house help, driver, delivery boy and chowkidar, which is highly annoying. Even the role I landed in Bewakoofiyaan (Ayushmann Khurrana and Sonam Kapoor Ahuja) in 2013 was that of a waiter Ayushmann works with. In Kapoor and Sons, Alia Bhatt’s house help’s only dialogues are, “Haanji madam, nahin madam (Yes madam, no madam).” That isn’t acting.
But now things seem to be improving because I’ve just been cast as a lead in a movie.
We are One
What I have realised from all my experiences is that racism against the people from the Seven Sisters of India mostly stems from ignorance. You hate what you don’t understand. So, I decided to bring together my musician friends from around the country to play a song (titled Rockstars Against Racism) that also serves as a geography lesson.
The video has 12 guitarists from around the country, including those from the North-East, playing parts of the same song one by one. They pass the pick from one frame to another. We made sure each person’s frame has the name of the state, plus its capital, displayed on screen. We wanted to overcome negativity at a time when nurses from Delhi and Kolkata have had to quit and go back to Manipur because patients believe they are “Chinese” and will infect them with coronavirus. I wanted to include people from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, etc., because we want to abolish the idea of mainland India and North-East India. It’s just India. Racism will only end when people from other parts of India join the discourse and speak up with us.
The video packs positivity and good vibes. I’m done fighting negativity with aggression because it honestly doesn’t work. My mantra is to fill the world with so much contagious positivity and love that you cannot be ignored anymore.
(As told to Karishma Kuenzang)
Follow @KKuenzang on Twitter
From HT Brunch, July 12, 2020
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