'So, you are from Assam? Do you need a visa to come to India?' The Admin Officer at my college in Pune asked me solicitously, as he stamped my admission form. I had heard about it but this was the first time I actually encountered what I'd like to term as 'Northeasternitis' - a condition where someone is suffering from complete or partial lack of awareness about the northeastern states of India. We might as well as be from Cambodia or China. Heck, in fact, we are Chinese or Nepali as far as mainstream India was concerned. This particular ‘visa’ incident was one of many that occurred in the 90's when I left Guwahati for my graduation studies in Pune.
Amongst the northeastern region, one place was recognized by almost everybody - it was Guwahati. This was mainly due to the fact that the city acted as a venue for several one-day cricket matches. But, yes, Guwahati could very well have been the capital of Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Tripura or Sikkim.
Initially, I felt bad. I knew the difference between a Malayali and a Tamilian, a Maharashtrian and a Gujarati. So, was it so wrong of me to expect the same geographical familiarity from my fellow Indians? I went blue in the face explaining to classmates and assorted youngsters suffering from Northeasternitis that there was an India beyond West Bengal. 'Oh...it's nothing like that...it's just that all of you speak and look the same.' A friend explained helpfully when I was venting out my frustration of constantly explaining where I came from. I then gave him a lesson in four-letter semantics.
My college mates were mostly from Manipur. Some were from Nagaland and Meghalaya. A couple of us were from Assam. But we were all lumped under the group 'chinkies' a term which now apparently carries a hefty fine with the added incentive of a jail term. In a college with a predominantly Maharashtrian ‘crowd’ we stuck out like, well, chicken lollipops in a basket of vada pavs.
At the start of my second year, thanks to a part-time job in the evening and a growing indifference to institutional academic studies, I started to bunk my morning classes that used to start at the unearthly hour of 7 am. This continued throughout the term and I ended up with the distinction of being a 'blacklisted' student. It meant I wasn't allowed to appear for my term exams. It also meant I had to request the Principal of the college, Mr. J, for special permission to appear in the exams. As I entered his cabin, I realised that I didn't really have any great excuse other than stating the absolute truth. But that would have been so out of character. I then started rambling about floods in Assam, the depleting population of rhinos, the influx of Bangladeshis, etc. etc. and because of all these reasons I couldn't attend classes that term.
Till date, I couldn’t figure out what Mr. J was thinking, or smoking. What connection did he make out of floods in Assam and I not being able to attend classes in Pune, a place approximately 3000 km away. My excuse was so full of holes that it would have sent a sieve scurrying to the friendly neighborhood psychiatrist’s couch. But all Mr. J did was pat my shoulder in a benign manner while stamping his approval on my application. As I was about to walk out, he gave an appraising look at me and asked.
‘Where is Assam?’
‘It’s in northeastern India, Sir.’
‘Where’s northeast India?’
I just couldn’t resist.
‘Well, Sir, it’s right next to the Middle East.’
‘Oh, yes.’ He muttered as he shook my hand.
I controlled myself from yelling out loud - Learned doctors: I present before you a full-blown case of Northeasternitis with a touch of Earthitis (same as Northeasternitis but with a global footprint).
That was the day I realized I could take advantage of my region and spin any tale around it. And of course, I was not the only one doing that. Many of my friends indulged in it merrily. It was a rich vein waiting to be mined. Here are some prized examples circulated amongst some acute cases of Northeasternitis whom I encountered in college, bus and train journeys from Pune to Mumbai, tapdis (tea stalls), advertising agencies, production houses, editing studios, shooting floors. The list is quite long. Most of these were swallowed hook, line and sinker.
'You guys are so lucky. You wake up and come to college on your Bajaj M80s. Back at home; our first job after waking up was to go the back yard and chase grazing rhinos back into the jungle. Only then, the tame elephants will come out and take us to our schools. You see, elephants are scared of rhinos. It’s the law of the jungle.’
‘Tigers in Assam are like cats. In the freezing cold of winter, they sometimes come inside homes and curl up on the beds with the thickest mattresses and quilts. During those days, we'd shift to a relative's house. We’d always pray to the mattress afterwards and burn it during Durga Puja. You see the Goddess Durga always rides a tiger. Only by doing that we ensure the tiger won’t come back next winter. We make curtains out of the quilt. It's for good luck.’
‘How far is Bangladesh from Guwahati? Oh, it’s just just about a mile away from my home. Every evening, I used to cycle there and buy rice. Bangladeshi rice is much cheaper. Because the rupee is much stronger than the taka.’
‘During floods, we fold our wooden homes and haul them up the tallest trees in the vicinity. We then live like that till winter arrives. That’s why we are called tree-people. We used to make guitars out of the branches to while away the boredom.’
These tales were often accompanied with lots of drawings to ensure their authenticity. Some of the cases, in the manner of patients being told they are afflicted with some particular disease, that switched their eyeballs, rejected them straightaway. But with repeated narrations, slowly came around. But I ensured treatment (doses of actual information) was always very gradual. Why ruin a good pastime after all?
Northeasternitis is also followed closely by Earthitis. But these are cases that I tend to overlook a bit. After all, if I don’t really know, say, the different provinces of Sweden, I can’t really expect a Swede to know much about Assam. Though the words, Assam Tea, have pleasantly surprised me on many an occasion. Here are a couple of tales spun for people who just couldn’t figure out my pan-Asian good looks and didn’t believe I was Indian.
(Pointing to a map) ‘You see, Mongolia is way up here. And look where is Assam…straight down. One really severe winter, there was a massive avalanche that swept down my Mongolian village through China, through Tibet and the Himalayas, down through to Assam. This was the channel that also created the mighty Brahmaputra. So, thanks to my Mongolian heritage, I don’t look like a proper Indian.’
‘My grandfather fled Vietnam in a boat during the war. You have heard about the Vietnamese boat people, yes? That’s who I am actually. We landed in Kolkata and got political asylum. I don’t do the Indian headshake because in Vietnam it is considered insulting one’s grandfather. No, I cannot make pho.’
Thankfully, in this social media era, people are a bit more aware. Take for example, the Mary Kom instance. Indians across the country celebrated Mary Kom’s win in the Olympics enthusiastically. We even started seeing her endorsing several products. However, when it came to her state, mild to strong cases of Northeasternitis were detected. But now thanks to the film on Mary Kom and its casting controversies, most of India (hopefully) now know that Mary Kom is from Manipur. That she’s Manipuri, and not Assamese, Sikkimese, Tripuri, Arunachali, Khasi, Naga or Mizo. It’s an exponential improvement from whether she’s Chinese or Nepali.
Hopefully, the day is not too far when some big production house will end up making a film on one of Assam’s greatest warriors, Lachit Borphukan. I really don’t care who will play the lead role as long as the film gets made and enough noise is made about it. And people start getting familiar with the region. Maybe that’s the only way to treat Northeasternitis.
I will have to stop spinning my tall tales. But then, compared to the cure, it is really such a small sacrifice.