Nov 30, 2013

Samples from seven sisters

I remember reading an article by Nepali writer Saurabh, where he cautioned the haphazard use of the word “Khas.” The word Khas derives from Kashgarh, an area to the north of Kashmir, he said, and peoples who had wandered through this area in their history took their name from it. Brahmin and Chhetris did, but so did groups as far apart as Rais and Limbus, who divided their Gotras into “Kashi” and “Lhasa.” Saurabh’s point was that the word “Khas” must be used with a proper understanding of what it means, because it does not exclusively denote elite Aryans of Nepal as we believe. So when I encountered a race called Khasi in Meghalaya of India, a people with chinky eyes, glamorous high cheekbones, and dark complexion, I assumed they were one of the numerous groups that had wandered through Kashgarh.
However, my assumption was soon proven wrong. “The Khasi people have come in from the east, probably from Cambodia, though their origins have not been explained satisfactorily” said Mitra Phukan, an Assamese writer. That would mean that they had never been as far west as Kashmir. As I contemplated this coincidence of the same name across incongruent places (a mystery that I am yet to unravel, by the way), Mitra told me more about the multicultural salad bowl that was northeast India. We have grown up with stories of western invasions on India. From Alexander who reached Kashmir, to Prithviraj who defended the region, and from Mughals to the British, all have caught popular imagination. But we have no idea of the Ahoms who invaded (possibly from Thailand) the east and actually ruled for 600 years, making significant difference to the area’s history as well as subsequent demography. And that is just the most visible race, there were many more that emigrated quietly as peoples often do. I had never even heard of the existence of ethnic groups like Assamese, Khasis, Mizos, Boros, Garos, and many others who inhabited vast swathes of these parts. It’s like the entire history of the northeast is somehow overshadowed because India’s cultural and political center is in its western parts.
The resultant diversity was evident in their dresses. As elsewhere, it was the women who were the bearers of culture, and men went around in ubiquitous trousers and shirts. In Guwahati, Assamese women wore Mekhla-chador, which consisted of a lungi-like wraparound skirt with a couple pleats and a matching shawl. When the shawl was wrapped around the skirt, it gave the impression of a sari. And in Shillong the Khasi women were resplendent in their Jainsem: a dress which consisted of two pieces worn on each shoulder. For lack of better comparison (and I am sure the Khasi people would not like the description) it looked one toga worn over another. They seemed very attached to their dress, they wore the one-shoulder outer shawl even with kurtha-salwars, skirts, and pants.For photo shoots, their silver crowns and bracelets could be found on hire, though nobody wore these in real life. 
me in khasi dress

Manipuri women wore tube-like skirts with distinct parallel stripes. Pictures showed exotic headdresses with multicolored feathers, though again, nobody was wearing them. A lady from Arunachal Pradesh wore a dress I could neither classify nor figure out how to wear, though I saw that it was filled with distinctive geometrical patterns. It was a treat to watch this wide variety, each with their unique ethnic weaving patterns. It made me think of the latest television sensation Game of Thrones, which has been garnering quite a lot of praise for its varied costume and jewelry. Art seemed to fade in comparison to real life, a feeling I have had many times in Nepal’s multicultural environment as well. Game of Thrones guys need to get over here for inspirations.  
Shillong was multicultural in many other ways. It was the first time I saw the pig and cow carcasses displayed openly. Place names were in local languages, like Hangne Die Ja. And in the middle of one such place was a Muslim eatery with "beaf" on the menu. The old bazaar was an interesting place, with different sections like Bhutia section, Punjabi section, etc clearly differentiable. 
And among this diversity were many permutations of our very own Nepalis. I met one gentleman with a Muslim name who surprised me by saying "ma ghar ma nepali bolchhu." Later he revealed that he had a Nepali mother and a father from UP, but identified as Assamese. Sadly, we never got around to hearing the story of how he got his Muslim name. There were Nepalis from Darjeeling and Sikkim who spoke with the sweetest eastern accents. A lady who gave a presentation on Mizo culture later spoke to me in fluent Nepali, revealing that she was half Nepali. One Nepali gentleman’s family had settled in India in the 1860s. It made me reflect on how flimsy our political borders are. The “roti-beti” relationship of Madhesh is famous because it is so immediate and visible. But what about these Nepalis who are scattered all over northeast India? They speak Nepali and identify as Indian Nepali. But the question again is, as one scholar put it, “which comes first, Indian or Nepali?” What if we did not have to worry about this? People migrate for various reasons, and then some lines drawn on a piece of paper alienate them from those closest to them. Especially in South Asia, these lines dividing us from our kin seem much imposed. I also got the chance to meet Lil Bahadur Chhetri, writer of Basai. To me he was a spiritual link to many other Indian writers like Parijat and Indra Bahadur Rai who made significant contributions to Nepali literature. What if we did not have to worry about beloved artists being from a different country?

I envied these Nepalis who grew up in such multicultural environment. When I was in the US, people were impressed when I said I knew three and a half languages. “That’s two and a half more than I know” said one lady. I don’t know what she would say to Khagen Sharma, who knows half a dozen more languages, from Assamese, Boro, and Bengali to Baganiya, a language spoken by some groups that worked in tea plantations. And his two daughters could sing and dance in all these languages.
Being in Assam during Tihar was a happy coincidence, a chance to learn about the interesting local variations of Hindu festivals. Assamese people do not celebrate Laxmi Pooja in Tihar, but celebrate Kali Pooja instead. As for Laxmi, they worship her during the last day of Dashain, on Kojagrat Purnima. 
kaalis

Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, believed to be the most powerful of Shakti Peethas, was another point of interest. Strangely, this temple is supposed to be the place where Sati Devi's genitals fell when Shiva was carrying her body around. Strange because we claim the same of Guhyeshwari here. Now, the same body part cannot fall at two different places. I googled for a bit, but could find no reconciliation (though the Indian sites will try to circumvent the problem by saying that it is Sati Devi’s groin that fell in Guhyeshwari). Maybe the information is available in local languages and with local experts than online in English. Another mystery I am yet to unravel.
kamakhya

            One of the interesting people I met was Mesbah kamal, a scholar from Bangladesh. He informed me that following the example of Nepal, the Bangladeshi parliament had created a caucus to give constitutional recognition to its ethnic minorities. That made me think that perhaps we Nepalis are too hard on ourselves. We only look at the negatives of our political situation: how unstable it is, how unreliable the leaders are. But we do not register the fact the despite these problems, in the last decade or so awareness has increased by leaps and bounds in Nepali society. The issues of identity have entered all strata, and though federalism may or not solve the problem, the consciousness is here to stay. Every street urchin can speak knowledgeably on identity and federalism today, and demand their rights.
ranga ride across mechi

This may have given rise to conflicts (in our return journey, we were cornered by a Purvanchal banda called by Limbuwan. We were forced to cross the Mechi is buffalo cart, and from then on to the airport in a rickshaw.) But even as the buffalo cart threw my already exhausted body here and there in a bumpy ride, I mused that conflict is the way to growth, while the peaceful parts of the world stagnate. We are discussing subjects that are still taboo for a large part of the world, and though we may not be anywhere near the conclusion, we are making progress with each step. Our steps have already inspired a neighboring country, and set a model for the rest of the world, and yet our inborn inferiority complex does not allow us to even acknowledge this as an achievement. It’s about time we took pride in our achievements, and looked upon our sudden but unique consciousness more positively.  

Note: The Seven Sisters are the seven north-eastern states of India: Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Tripura.
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