Jainsem tourism

Photos of male Indian tourists wearing the Dhara, a Khasi attire traditionally worn by women, are doing the rounds on social media. The photos were allegedly taken by the locals who actually rent out these costumes to tourists in various tourist destinations. Khasi folks are now salivating on these images and clapping their hands shouting, “jahbang!” (Badly translates into ‘serves you right’). Pitted ever so strongly on the patriarchal matrilineal social order, the Khasis’ laughter and perceived victory over the fooled Indian tourist is drawn from their own rigid sense of sex and gender and their representation. The honoured jainsem, of course, when displaced onto the male body now deserves insult and its value as a cultural artefact is diminished, if not lost entirely. This shouts out the age-old Khasi worldview that a man is a man is man and a woman can never be anything else than a woman. Where, then, is the joke in this entire spectacle? Perhaps a discussion in the exclusively male Dorbars would give us the answer- oh hold on, if I remember correctly, men without beards or effeminate men are also amongst the excluded herd in Khasi Dorbars.

There is though, an uncomfortable sense of jubilation in this episode which I find interesting; it speaks of a weird sense of anticolonial power derived from duping the Indian into literally and metaphorically ‘buying’ a signifier of Khasi tribal culture removed from its supposed signified- the Khasi female body. In some ways, the tables have turned- the subject of the photograph is no longer a perpetually-smiling chinky Khasi woman but an Indian man in the same exuberant, alienatingly alluring ethnic costume. Strangely, even now, I can’t really say whether this is the Khasis’ nightmare or wet-dream.

The feminization of the Indian man via the Khasi garment (traditionally worn by women) is used as a tool to ridicule and shame the ‘outsider.’ Yet, it is also a matter of the local tribal folks manipulating and exploiting the tourism industry, and the commodification of cultures and cultural materials, because hey, we can sell whatever the Indian tourist is willing to buy, and trust us, he would buy anything which exudes the aura of exotic tribalism. Often, this comes with a complete lack of knowledge or the complete lack of a desire to acquire knowledge of the various people and places he visits in Meghalaya. But wait, isn’t this just a probably unprecedented but almost natural repercussion of the grand endeavour called Meghalaya tourism?

We are all too well aware of how the tourism machine (with State and non-State actors) greatly relies on the power of imagined authenticity in their vile, yet economically successful representation of Khasi tribal living. When the gates of the North-East, particularly our state, were opened more generously about twenty years ago to ‘outsiders’ (Indians, non-Indians, Chinese goods, BSNL and such things), there emerged this newfound thirst to venture into the wild East and taste some greens (of course I also mean marijuana!), away from the dreadful comfort of dirty cities. Because, finally, the “disturbed” ungrateful child of the Indian nation could be the next LTC destination of central government employees from other parts of the country. The untamed and undigestible cow-eating belt could at last be consumed, visually, experientially and politically.

And so, lo and behold! A thousand and one resorts selling bad Chinese and aspiringly good Punjabi dishes are planted all over Meghalaya highways. Lays potato chips and Britannia biscuits are now almost organic parts of the state’s tourist experience. And why not? I suppose, American Onion goes well with a bottle of Bira, a lake-view and the fleeting soundscape of tribal tongues calling out to each other on some hill in the distance. Always, in the distance. And let’s not forget the transferring of this spiritually-cleansing immersion into savage realities onto screens. While the British put in letters to loved ones and the Crown the colourful human and natural landscape of the oriental hills, the Indian tourist in the 21st century floods Facebook and Instagram with the same, and in this case, showing the world how he has generously dared to allow the strange and beautiful tribal clothes to actually touch his skin. But let us not be too judgemental; after all, Khasi locals are tourists in their own home state too! The new high-resolution pictures of Khasis in ethnic attire on billboards, travel websites and magazines have inspired them so much that wedding videos from Jowai and Shillong are confused with tourism videos of Meghalaya Government; while we showcase to the world our aspiringly regal but sadly just ‘legal’ love, we also present the rapidly-disappearing green hills of the “Scotland of the East.”

So there you have it! Mission possible. The grip of the tourism machinery cannot be undermined. ‘Outsiders’ and ‘Insiders’ are both glued to the paradisical orgasmic notion of what and who Meghalaya is- not so much “the abode of clouds” as it is “the pristine abode of the mysterious, yet palatable tribal people”, now, with the addition of the aspiringly-Khasi Indian tourist.

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Gertrude Lamare Written by:

Gertrude Lamare, scholar, pedagogue and a member of Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR),

One Comment

  1. Nathan Shadap
    March 20, 2018
    Reply

    I didn’t get what Gertrude wanted to convey in her article.
    Maybe I am dumb!!

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