“Backsliders”

What makes these buggers tick?

You’d think they’d be a little more grateful;

Us, giving it to them.

Why go there, when they’d lose all this?

The electricity, quinine and Handel.

 

The jungles aren’t any safer than our jails,

Plus the cholera, humidity and snakes.

But they’re ultimately savages, the rational doesn’t hold.

I suppose they like it out there… makes them feel something;  

 

Anyway send the garrisons more guns;

Bibles and cheap booze to the civil stations.

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On the Chinkyness of Saif Ali Khan

Been meaning to write something about the recent Nike “all female” ad which ad pundits have been trolling on and on about. When I first saw the ad on TV, my speculation was that the production team must have just given up on any new ideas and decided instead to go down the old safe road of celeb endorsement. Throw in a little “feminism by consumption” and you have yourselves something that can hobble along as a national campaign. Why the hell was Deepika Padukone featured in an ad with athletes? She’s a fucking model! Models (please don’t believe Bollywood) are not athletes. No one cares if she played badminton once upon a time (she was quite good at it apparently). The point is these are professional sportswomen and it is selling them short (and cheap) by glamming up what they do with models. Do not even get me started on the fact that two of the athletes are not even Indian citizens.

Let me ask a question: Where was Mary Kom in the ad? You remember her, right: India’s North East sweetheart, the same one who won shiny medals and brought so much honour to the country? The same country that refuses to lift the oppression of AFSPA from her home state, the same country that remains mute on issues of human rights abuse in Manipur. Why was she not in the ad? Did she decline or was it something else? Maybe she was busy, I don’t have the means to tell you. However, what is clear is that it is becoming very common to airbrush away (nuanced) representations of the North East. The hue and cry over Priyanka Chopra playing Mary Kom is justified. Sure, Mary is not an actress but neither was Chopra before becoming a beauty queen. The point is Chopra was given ample opportunity to develop her craft when she became a spotlight fixture. So why not for Mary or for that matter any Manipuri actress?

Part of the answer for the neglect lies in understanding someone else’s rise to stardom: Arnab Goswami. Ostensibly, Goswami is from Guwahati, Assam. I am not sure if he is Assamese or Bengali but he is without doubt from the North Eastern city. For someone with such a background, Goswami is remarkably silent on news coming out of the North East. That is because he realised something on his way up the ladder. One has to sell away one’s background in order to be bankable. Imagine if Goswami had decided to opt instead for a career covering news coming out of the North East and not Delhi or Bombay. No one would have noticed or bothered with him. That is the bitter truth. That in order to be bankable one must put one’s lot in with the majority. That what the majority wants must be given; this is the logic of profit. The rest of the country doesn’t care about what goes on in the North East. For the most part, this is fine but when people from other cultures start having stupid biases and stereotypes against North Eastern people then it becomes a problem. Isn’t the media supposed to inform us instead of ‘disinform’? Isn’t the media supposed to sensitize people about other cultures and places? It seems that in order to become a success, one must ‘whitewash’, no ‘brownwash’, no ‘de-chinkyfy’ one’s self. Goswami is the highest exemplar of this selling of one’s self for profit.

Popular ideas about the national image and national identity are often ludicrous. Most of them are premised on numbers. The larger (or economically powerful) groups decide what the smaller ones should believe in or follow. This is hardly a desirable state of affairs. In this country, in particular, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in the field of representation and developing sensitivity towards others. Even larger minority groupings like those in the category of ‘Muslim’ still face much discrimination and hounding, so what chance do small tribal communities have? It is worse for North East tribal groups because they do not look “Indian”, they look “Chinese” or “Nepali” or something along those lines. They apparently look like “momo” or “chowmein” if racial slurs are to be believed.

Occasionally, the national news has to pick up on stories of racial and/or cultural discrimination experienced by people from the North East in the big cities. These are very infrequent but those “libtards” get somethings right once in a while. Much of the reports always come down to one thing: faces. In particular, how someone is discriminated against because they happen to look chinky. I find this very interesting. Why would someone looking chinky warrant such actions? Is there some sort of a value judgement passed on chinky people? Maybe it has to do with their food, maybe religion, maybe their language or their much-defended sense of individualism? I think the main reason why one people might discriminate against another might be owing to a misplaced sense of worth, a pride in being better than others. But if one is so much better than others, why be so insecure? If you are so much better than others, why would you even bother to do such things? It can’t possibly be because of a fear – like many Right-wing Hindus have – of the perpetually Mating Muslim™ who they believe will overcome Hindu control of India through ‘womb and scrotum’ tactics. North Eastern people can’t keep up with that sort of ‘mass reproduction’. The real reason would most probably lie in the truth of insecurity, a fear of the unknown. Maybe this misguided fear is actually a fear of the Big Chinky Mama™, China; and NE tribals just have to bear the brunt of it. Or maybe it is a fear of the mysterious newcomer whose face we do not recognise nor accept. We fear that they will disturb our sense of order. Except if they’re ‘white’, of course.

So who’s a chinky anyway? Personally I think Saif Ali Khan is very chinky. Did he get that from his Afghani (fairly chinky people) forefathers or from his Bengali mother? And yes, Bengalis are quite chinky. Especially those from the East, which is why the Bengalis won’t discriminate against you based on your facial features. They will do it because of religion, language, culture but never on what sort of face you have. That’s just crude! What would Bollywood be today without the chinky RD Burman and his even more chinky father, SD Burman? What about the half-Burmese chinky, Helen ‘’Golden Girl’’ Richardson? This is a country of diversity we are told but to watch the nonsense of Bollywood today one would think otherwise. Take the horrible, recently released film, Mohenjodaro; why is the entire city, in the film, populated by ‘’Aryans’’, where are the “black”, sorry Dravidian, people? Hell, while we’re at it, that famous Mohenjodaro ‘priest’ statuette looks sort of chinky, I reckon. I mean his eyes are slits, for god’s sake! The ‘negrito’ dancing girl might have been his girlfriend. So yes, it was probably a society, in ancient times, where a chinky man had a “black” girlfriend; that sounds more modern than anything we have today. The Bollywood set (this includes Times Now) seems happy to overlook important facts like origin, culture, distinctiveness in their pursuit of an “Indian” identity. We see that it often spills over into the curation of an actual physical appearance i.e. how an “Indian” ought to look like. They do this, not because of patriotism, but because it can be sold for great profit. The simpler it is, the more it will sell. That is the logic of the Market. When you create a simplistic, unilateral identity, you are, in effect, creating a brand. And that is priceless.

The Minority Question in Khasi Jaintia Hills

The water seems to have cleared up a bit and so maybe it is the right moment to dip one’s feet in the pond – unsettle things. There has been a large amount of correspondence in the Shillong Times – back and forth – around the issue of whether our local “indigenous faiths” (and those following them) should qualify for “minority” status. If they attain the desired outcome, possibly through reservation, then the perks and advantages attached to “minority” would be open to them (more so than before). So there have been various quarters that have taken this up as an issue for debate. There are some who have straight away rubbished such claims, and there are others who have taken to defending them. Few have said that there is no need for ‘reservation’ because there is no such discrimination against the NiamTre or Niam Tynrai followers. This is hardly correct (more on this later). Still others have got around to philosophizing and discussing the nature of religion, definitions of faith and other stuff. Of them, I ask: whether they are religions or faiths or whatever, do we simply belittle the sentiments of a people who feel slighted? Do people care about the definitions or the real material conditions that they encounter in their day-to-day life?

So the key word here is “discrimination”. This main point of contention is very fascinating for our particular context. We have always, supposedly, been at the receiving end of the stick and our entire political discourse is premised on the presumption of “defense” except for this case in question. In January, I along with a researcher friend, Bhogtoram Mawroh, travelled to Mawsynram, in the company of some pastors. As we made our way along the Lyngiong- Tyrsad road, one of them turned to the other and said “Ithuh phi mo, ki jaka bym pat long Kristan” (you can recognize, places which are non-Christian, by the way they look). My friend looked at me, smirked and shook his head. He did this because we had actually talked about something along those lines much before that moment. Much of our respective works involve travelling to and visiting villages in Khasi, Jaintia Hills. Therefore, it quickly dawned on us that development patterns (roads, electricity, sanitation) within these parts of the state seemed more inclined towards one particular demographic than others (namely Khasi Christians). We are currently pursuing means to validate this supposition. This is not in any way a mission to ‘politicize’ “inclusion/exclusion,” it is for the sake of knowledge.

There are many reasons why the ‘indigenous faith’ followers might be sidelined. The major and most obvious one is because they are fewer in number than the Christians. A political representative such as an MLA would sadly be more inclined to help realize the aspirations and ambitions of the majority. Even if she/he belonged to the minority group, ultimately the majority would have to be satisfied if she/he were interested in being re-elected for the next term. To change this would be far and away an extremely arduous but necessary task. However, even if a more “representative” representation were achieved, the systemic discrimination would be harder still to overcome. How would one begin to confront the privileges accumulated over decades that have been enjoyed by the Christians? How would one begin to unwind the ‘power’ cliques and political “spaces” that have become their prerogative? Would a form of reservation really do anything to uplift the plight of the ‘indigenous faith’ followers? Would it be constructive in the long run, or would it tear our community asunder?

The conclusion I surmise is that this is essentially a critique on the very idea of “reservation” itself. I am not against the idea, I think it is absolutely essential for a more just and egalitarian society. However, even as we ‘rejoice’ in the status of being a Scheduled Tribe (ST) we must acknowledge the bitter reality that most of the benefits and advantages of being ST are enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. I doubt that the poorer sections of our society, and especially those in the villages, can claim to have gained much from an ST/SC certificate. This is the danger too with the current plea by the Sein Raij and co. I am sure they would have thought hard upon this as well. If the minority benefits all go to a Niam Tynrai businessman’s family in Shillong and not villagers like those in Lyngiong-Tyrsad then it would have failed in its objective, in my opinion.

I think that the way forward is to reach out to one another, calling out progressive Christians and non-Christians alike to come together and attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. Orthodoxy, on all sides, is the enemy. In this regard, we have to grow bonds stronger than the religious ones. Pressure and lobbying groups that can bring people together rather than pull them apart should be encouraged. For this to happen, we need dialogue. It might be painful, embarrassing even but it must be initiated. We do not need “outsider” organizations to come and perform charity puja. In our need for political allies and powerful friends we seem to forget that we have more in common with each other (Christian and non-Christian) than Right wing nut-jobs who seek to further widen the schism. This is as true for the Hindutva as it is for the Evangelical Fundamentalists. The tragedy could be that these characters might actually come together to vilify and demonize Muslims (the “dreaded” Bangladeshis) O what a big joke that would be! That cannot be allowed to transpire without resistance.

Frankly speaking, the Niam Tre/Tynrai already have a trump card. On the cultural front, they have won and politics and culture are intertwined. Unless they approach the matter with open-mindedness and self-criticism, Christian Khasis can never truly be “Khasi” again. There are many who would raise objections to this statement and they have interesting points to make regarding definitions of identity, language, customs etc. My point, however, is that from within a conservative or orthodox Christianity (which is most of our Christianity!) we cannot ever (through fear or censure) really know what it is like to be “Khasi.” I realize that many might have problems with my investing so much authority with the Niam Tre et al. After all, are they not also modern? Have they, also, not been changed by the times? How could they survive if they were static all this while? The Niam Tre et al have undoubtedly altered as well but in terms of cultural luggage (the folktales, the beliefs, the songs, dances) they are probably our best custodians. They could be actively teaching the Christians a few things about our common past and maybe with that our collective futures would be clearer, brighter. There would be no need for “defense” or preservation then. They can be the initiators of real ‘growth’, but it must be inclusive.

Lal Bahadur Chattri, Khasi

Ha jingiap ki kam Khasi ia me:
Namar ha ka jingiap dam lut khait kito kiba pynpher ia ngi –
Kawei ka met ka iasyriem bad kawei pat, ki dak ba ngi ioh nangne nangthe kim don jingmut shuh;
Kam don shuh kata ka Pyrkhat Pyrdain kaban pynshai, kam don shuh ka Rukom kynnoh ktien shnong kaban sakhi.
Ngi kam ia me – uba na kiwei – kum u jong ngi:
Namar ngi ia tur lang, ia tyllun lang bad ia iap lang:
Tmang ka iing, ka sem, ki khun ki kti.

Me jah jlang – jngai na iing, sha ri nongwei – lem bad ki para Khas:
Ki para nongbylla, ki nongkit sahep, nongtihsurok ia ki atiar thma,
Ki nongtbeh dongmusa ha ki por ba iong ngain ka bneng:
Ym don jingiapher kyrdan, ym don ba tam, ym don ba duna;
Haba ia kyllon ia kyllon lang, haba ia thiah, ia thiah lang –
Jngai na iing, sha ri nongwei.

A Very Brief Foreword on the Shillong Writing Scene

This article was first published in the blog “Cultural Cartographies of Media” on 3rd October 2013.

We are now at a stage when we should earnestly talk about a Shillong canon. Enough time and creativity has passed through (and from) this hill-station. From the outset though, precautions must be raised because our goal should not be to make this canon “exclusivist” or to establish one standard for writing from this place. One problem with many canons – Western or otherwise – is that they tend towards discrimination between high and low, between popular and elite art forms. A canon can be used to formalise personal bias, thereby making it seem authoritative and definitive. The goal of this foreword is merely to muse upon those writers belonging to, coming from Shillong (or Meghalaya, more correctly); those writings either about our cultures or experiences (whether reflecting or fracturing them). In this instance, I seek to analyse, not to rate.

There is a change in the atmosphere of Shillong. There is no denying the social aims of this new batch of young potentials. What characterizes this generation are the numbers. Never before, have we witnessed such large numbers of Shillong youth venturing outwards to carve niches for themselves. In so many ways, they are a brave set because they refuse to let a not-so-small matter of ‘where you’re from’ stand in the way. One feels they would be as comfortable in Shillong as in Delhi or London. This, perhaps, is their strength in this age – their ability to take indigenous sensibility and couple it with the westernised worldview that they grew into. A worldview taught and strengthened first in the non-vernacular schools (which now are the rule), and later engendered and personalised by American films and culture.

In the world of our parents, knowing how to read and speak English was a symbol of prestige; it denoted your education and afforded mobility up the social stairway. Nor can I claim otherwise, even today. Outside the middle and upper class, English is still a much sought-after hope. English, after all, means power. Once it was the language of the British bureaucrats and was then handed over to the Indian babus. Amidst the chaos of Partition, accession, insurrections, English has been constant. Within the Shillong upper-middle class, it has become customary, mandatory even, to use English with proficiency and wit for a range of situations, it has become second-nature for many tribal people residing in urban places.

For our parents, self wholly constituted of global parts was a remote idea. The internet and cable TV have helped speed up the globalising process. And after all, our own relations were from the older ways of being, i.e. from and of the village, so the posturing in European garb and mien were not entirely convincing. Change was slow and resistance quick to keep pace with it. A delicate reconciliation with tradition, with old people was necessary. Now, the old folks are dead or dying and the posturing-programming is imposed upon the children completely, who often take it in uncritically.

Above all else, the younger people are thoroughly professional. They know what they must do to attain what they want. They desire. And, perhaps, it is not unhealthy, not at the moment anyway, not at this start. With increasing interest, I have noticed a small Renaissance flower here in these hills. In the last two years, we have had a bevy of films, have had considerable musical success as our bands and choirs spread out, we have also had a resurgent visual arts culture and emerging autuers committed to writing. And it is to this that we now turn.

Many people, I am sure, would not make too much of an issue if I point to the breakthrough success of Lunatic in my Head by Anjum Hassan as a major touchstone in the recognition of a Shillong canon. Let us not forget though, that there have always been people writing in this culture since the introduction of the Roman script here (some 200 odd hundred years ago). Perhaps, it is better put in this way, that Anjum Hassan was the first writer in English, to breakthrough to mainstream success, hailing from Shillong. She has managed to capture the imagination of both the reading and writing public. She is important because she ignited the imaginations of the current generation about the possibility of self-expression. For all our English loving ways, we had to wait for a fairly long time for a writer of this criterion to be heard. Considering our ‘privileged’ status as Scotland of the East, we’ve had to wait for a while for someone to show the difference between syntax and story. To enter into “polite” society, correct syntax is somewhat of a prerequisite for admission. Often the English might make no sense at all, it might be mundane, boring but if the tenses are observed and grammar proper, all the rest can be forgiven. The repetition of the rules rather than originality of thought have a strong hold on expression. It is like we have an invisible ‘White’ schoolmaster, looking over our shoulders, whose approval we long for.

Since Anjum Hassan, we have witnessed a slew of promising energetic writers come out. Apart from the many poets, some of the prose writers that come to mind as I write this are Mimlu Sen, Janice Pariat, Ankush Saikia. Each one of these writers is nuanced, writing in markedly different styles. They are all united, however, in that they write of the urban Shillong and that they all write in English. These two features are indicative of their class perspective. The danger of recollecting memories into writings is if we tend to think they are devoid of class considerations. Places, tales, happenings are seen through such lenses. The medium too denotes a certain privilege. These new writers point to a healthy creativity in our society but it is a problematic creativity. It runs the risk of becoming irrelevant to anyone but a certain group of people. In relating tales of a Shillong to an outside audience, longing to glimpse ways of being from here, writers run the risk of being exploitative even – perpetuating a pseudo-tribalism, exaggerating false anxieties, expressing a Romantic “noble savage” existence which might not even exist in the lives of people. Writing about the North East along the lines of the “girl, gun, guitar” stereotype is to belittle its multiple complexity and complex multiplicities.

One cannot really blame these writers for writing in this manner because they grew up with it, they were taught it from infancy. The callousness of various governmental and social organizations has led to this privileging of English over the vernaculars in the state. Some might argue that many of the writers in Shillong are non-tribals, or from other places, but a quick look at the history of Khasi writing shows us that non-tribals (eg. BK Sarma, Amjad Ali) were at the forefront of many literary and literacy projects initiated in the past. Perhaps along with fiction, more socially relevant genres like journalism should also be pursued with equal enthusiasm. Outside of the various Churches, most of whose works are non-secular, hardly anyone translates into vernacular. A person who translates well (or transliterates) is as good a creator, at times, as a novelist or poet. Many vernacular writers are instead keen to have their works translated into English in order to share their work with the world. This can, however, create a dependency on the outside audience which might be to the disadvantage of the vernacular at home.

I lament the quiescence of the indigenous art scene. The wonderful artisans have been sidelined for the most part, because they are too “local”, too specific, difficult to market outside. The government is quick to foot Shillong Chamber Choir’s bills and to promote them but what about Garo, Pnar, War, Bhoi, Tiwa, Maram art forms? These for the most part have been left to their own devices, left to become “modern” through the efforts of individuals only. Even in our overwhelmingly (callow) Romantic writing scene, Bevan Swer attempted a Khasi poetry with a Modern sensibility, years before anyone else. I remember when, back in 2001, being a young boy of 13 or so, I was “forced” to attend my grandfather’s (I M Simon) book release ceremony. I was sceptical, even back then, about any events involving large hall spaces, because they seemed to have a nasty ability of attracting the most long-winded and lob-sided speeches within a 10 kilometre radius. My grandfather’s book was a collection of short stories in Khasi and he had been working on it for a while. When it was finally completed, he was delighted, the publisher was delighted, the Khasi authors were delighted. These along with few family members and few friends made up the audience at the book launch. It was small because the readership was small.

I understood the problem then as I do now. Tribal authors usually find themselves in a tight spot because, on the one hand, English-writing is en vogue and readily sought after by publishing houses (major or minor); and secondly, their popularity is dealt a reeling blow by the fact that most Khasi authors usually find themselves consigned to educational institutions. We are taught to learn them by rote but not how to appreciate them. They are not experienced, enjoyed in real life and that is the real tragedy. They are no longer in the public eye but have been relegated to the too oft-hidden places of study. Couple this with poor distribution and you have, in effect, another instance of exclusivity. Works become available only to those who can afford to pay or are lucky enough to get a chance to study. In this age of globalisation, to consecrate a literature, to frame it, is to kill it. Many tribal languages are moribund because they cannot breathe, because we do not experiment with them, because we don’t enjoy them. Khasi has the other disadvantage of having custodians who fascistically dictate diction, survey syntax.

The new Shillong canon is not in want nor afraid of limelight. Unlike their predecessors who wrote and were relegated, this new breed is trying desperately not to follow suit, but to trail blaze. These authors know how to pursue and spear their targets. Aesthetic judgement aside, they are dedicated to their cause because this is now considered legitimate, albeit still thankless, work. In that way, they are quite professional. This is a source of strength as well as a source of worry. On the positive side, these writers are now determined to write, which is no mean accomplishment. When one decides to be a full-fledged writer one forsakes many things crucial for, well, being a ‘’normal’’ person. Writing is a cruel taskmaster, who lords over its unfortunate vassal and whips them occasionally to inspire them; but when it refuses to talk to us, we beg for the whip. This is true both for the old school and the new. But the new, does gets paid better and is more likely to be appreciated, if not in the local place, outside. The negative side of the new Shillong canon is that the writers might very well be too professional. In the bid for outside recognition – that glorious term that brings to mind many English students fluttering their eyelids, grimacing and making swinging gestures with their arms – they run the risk of being irrelevant to the people of the very place that created them.