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Knowing us,knowing them

‘Northeasterner’ is a sweeping description for countless identities. There is a world to explore beyond it

Written by Kabir Firaque |
August 24, 2012 3:22:25 am

A random selection of any Indian who has never been to the Northeast. Then take him through a pronunciation test. Three simple words,very much in the news and therefore very familiar,even to a non-northeasterner: Assam,Bodo,Guwahati. You can bet he will pronounce every word wrong.

Poor thing! How can we expect him to pronounce Assam right when it includes a sound alien to him? The correct consonant sound between the two vowels is,after all,unique to the Assamese language. The British chose to represent that sound with the pair “ss”,and the misleading spelling has stuck,along with the implied pronunciation. A phonetically more appropriate spelling would possibly have been Oxom — where “x” stands for an unknown — for want of a suitable consonant from the English alphabet.

As for Bodo,the pronunciation test candidate will be able to correct himself at the second attempt. Just spell it out for him in Hindi. Once he realises that the “d” in Bodo is not the same as the “d” of dal-roti but equivalent to the “d” in the Hindi word pakad,meaning catch,he may even pronounce Bodo better than many Assamese do. The Hindi-speaking population makes a distinction between the “d” sound in pakad and the “r” sound in,say,rath as in yatra. The Assamese,who use a variant of the same script,are aware of this distinction but most of us find it convenient to use the “r” sound uniformly for all such words. So many Bodos actually spell their surname Boro.

The inevitable mistake with Guwahati will hurt,though the candidate wouldn’t have meant to. There it is,spelt out clearly before him,Gu-wa-ha-ti. Yet he will call it Gau-hati,although we shed that spelling decades ago. This mistake is common not just to people who have never been to the Northeast,but also to people who have lived in Guwahati. Guwa is tamul,areca-nut in its tastiest form,a delicacy the non-northeasterner hasn’t yet learnt to savour.

Unfortunately,his innocence about us runs deeper than his inability to pronounce. Those who sought to create fears among us clubbed us into one group that is purportedly identified by typical features. Those rallying behind us,too,define us in one sweep as “people from the Northeast”,unaware of the individual identities that set us apart. Those caught in the wave of fear are Bodos,working too far from home to have had anything to do with the clashes with migrant Muslims. There are Khasis and possibly Garos and Jaintias from Meghalaya; Mizos and Manipuris; members of any or all of the various Naga tribes. Assamese,who are distinct from the Bodos of Assam. And the Assamese include Muslims.

That creates an identity crisis,doesn’t it? The attacker on the prowl,real or imaginary,has purportedly taken up the cause of the Muslim (who may be an Assamese) against the generalised northeasterner (who may be a Muslim). So how will he classify someone who is both? He will probably conclude one can be either northeastern or Muslim,but not both; he will have never heard of the collective Assamese identity.

Unlike the non-northeasterner who thinks we are all the same,the Assamese are conscious of non-northeastern variety. We have no trouble identifying the Bengali of Kolkata,who speaks a more ear-pleasing version of the language the migrants use at home. We know someone from the southern states is always a Madrasi. He is different from the desuwali,who speaks Hindi and goes on vacation to his des at the end of every 11 months. A desuwali may be either a Bihari or a Hindustani,but we are not very specific about the dividing line. Loosely,I guess,we set the Bihari’s limit till Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; anyone north and west of there is a Hindustani. Except the Marwari,who is so much part of our culture. And the Punjabi,who always wears a turban. For example,at home the Asamiya Punjabi,whose mother tongue is Assamese,wears a turban.

Such distinct classifications,and yet the non-northeasterner fusses. These descriptions may work at home,but the moment you step out,he expects you to identify each southerner by his state,restrict the Bihari within Bihar,and be able to tell a Marathi from a Gujarati,knocking the Hindustani out of your vocabulary altogether. And the Punjabi may or may not wear a turban,you are told,while someone who wears a turban may or may not be a Punjabi.

How confusing.

Yet what harm can there be in calling a Punjabi a Punjabi and a Sikh a Sikh? It’s all about give-and-take. If someone described a Sema as an Ao,and an Ao as a Sema,wouldn’t both Nagas want to correct him?

Nevertheless,there remain certain things about the non-northeasterner that we cannot understand. We have heard about it at home,but those of us who have stepped out have actually seen it happen: an election can be decided on the basis of whether one is a Patel or a Yadav or a Thakur. Now this has always seemed strange to many of us,even quirky,but those showing such quirkiness are still our compatriots. And if we don’t accept our fellow countrymen for what they are,who in the outside world will?

Give-and-take probably comes easier to those who have stepped out than to those still at home. If only our various races were more mobile (though who would have thought over four lakh northeasterners were working in Karnataka alone). The more we see of non-northeasterners,the faster will we learn to appreciate the strange little things that matter to the rather sweet people who are part of our country. And the more he sees of us,the faster will the non-northeasterner appreciate the variety of cultures that thrive in the region that makes his country worth its salt.

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