On June 25, Tailin Lyngdoh was asked to leave the upper crust Delhi Golf Club (DGC) where she had gone for lunch with her employer, Dr Nivedita Barthakur Sondhi and family. They were all guests of octogenarian Pam Goyal, a club member. Tailin, a Khasi, was wearing the only dress that Khasi ladies know – the Jainsem.
By now everyone knows this story. They know that the Jainsem is made of two pieces of silk fabric, the length of which depends on the wearer’s height while the breadth is 36 cm. The two pieces of fabric are embroidered (festooned) at the bottom and made to size. The Jainsem is worn over a skirt/petticoat and blouse. Some women wear it ankle length; others wear it just below their knees. The two pieces are fastened by a pin on each side of the shoulder (near the collar bone region). It’s one of the most comfortable and modest dresses allowing free movement, and unlike other so-called ‘formal’ Indian dresses does not expose the midriff, the back or allow for cleavage.
Now those who run the DGC would hardly be aware of the above niceties. They try and fit people into slots of “Indian” or “Western”. For them “Indian” is — sari, salwar kameez, lehenga, while “Western” clothing is trousers, skirts and dresses for women. It’s a strictly cut-and-dried label.
Tailin in her Jainsem was incongruous. She stood out. Her looks didn’t fit the ‘Aryan’ profile, but are more Tibeto-Burman or Mon Khmer if you like. That’s the racial genesis of the people of North East India. And no apologies for looking the way we do!
But no, we are not all “Nepali.” We are Khasi, Jaintia, Garo, Naga, Mizo, Hmar, Darlong, Karbi, Dimasa, Kuki and many more. For the information of fellow Indians, the North Eastern periphery of India comprises 238 ethnic groups and counting. BG Verghese’s book, “India’s North East Resurgent,” would be a good primer for the educated illiterate. In fact, this book should be kept in all these elite club libraries, but of course that would only help provided these people have time to read such gems.
Tailin failed to qualify for sitting at the high table of the DGC on two counts. She was wearing an unknown dress. She looked Nepali, hence she was a maid servant – a term that tribals abhor. Hence she had to leave! Thankfully, Nivedita Barthakur stood her ground! She insisted that Tailin be served lunch along with them or they would all leave in protest. The Club’s lackeys were insistent that Tailin could not be served lunch at that table!
Much has happened since that ignominious Sunday of June 25. Tailin herself has spoken out against the discrimination on national television; others have joined in the chorus. Nivedita Barthakur has been garnering support for this case and refuses to accept the faux apology which the Club tendered, mainly to save face. The enquiry committee set up by the Club and headed by a retired judge is also a vain attempt at whitewashing its gross misdemeanor.
Neither Tailin nor Nivedita are ready to consider these half-hearted attempts at appeasement. It’s just the kind of tactic adopted by the powerful to mollify the underdog! And Nivedita is no underdog. She is a doctor-entrepreneur who has lived and worked in the UK and Tailin has been her son Raghav’s governess for over nine years. At least in the West governesses are not maid servants, excuse me!
Recently Tailin and a visibly upset Nivedita were in Shillong to seek the intervention of the Meghalaya State Commission for Women, State Chief Minister Mukul Sangma and other activists like Roshmi Goswami, founder-member of North East Network and previously with Ford Foundation, and this writer-editor. We are soon filing a PIL in the Delhi High Court. The case brief is being prepared by leading lawyer and women’s rights activist Vrinda Grover.
The plea would be to dismantle these club structures that are poor remnants of an oppressive, bigoted and snooty colonial culture that reeks of apartheid. This culture is antithetical to all that Mahatma Gandhi stood for. It was the British who threw out Gandhi out of a first class compartment of a train at Pietermaritzburg, South Africa on account of his colour! And now Indians are throwing out other Indians in a country which Gandhi delivered from the colonialists!
What’s shocking is that the Delhi Golf Club is run on 220 acres of prime real estate leased from the government, for a measly sum of Rs 5.82 lakh per year for a property that is valued at Rs 47,000 crores. Like someone right said, “The powerful club is full of strutting peacocks and patriots nestled amidst 15th Century monuments.”
India is going through a churn, what with lynching of targeted groups that ostensibly eat beef and now the discriminatory attitudes by the well-heeled. Well, the tribals of the North East are beef eaters and have been so, much before their ancestors signed the Instrument of Accession to India in 1948.
Suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding that engulfs us in the region. We wonder why our palate is invaded and why ‘nationalism’ is now equated to worship of the cow. These are issues we are fast learning, need to be questioned and challenged. After all tribals of the region have the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution so that their culture and tradition is protected.
But it seems as if we are stepping into an era where a certain kind of conformism is expected from a country whose people and customs are so hugely diverse. Will this idea of India really hold? Is our diversity now our fatal flaw and our Achilles Heel?