As I navigate my way through the substance of the everyday in Delhi, I become a specimen of strangeness, a piece of curiosity and sometimes, a trigger for disdain. While some sections formulate ideas of sub-oriental and exotic fantasies, some would try desperately to figure out my existence using theory, and the rest, through the sexiness of political love. Many times, I also find myself engaging with theorization whenever I aspire to weave an understanding of the relationships that I have with people and how I interact with certain physical spaces here.
I was really conscious of the ascribed “North-East identity” only when I left Shillong and arrived here. When I was growing up, the Northeast discourse would hardly feature anywhere in the mundane lived-experience in Meghalaya. Cultures, languages and realities in other parts of the region were as alien to me as those from other parts of the world. Maybe I was one of those lazy adolescents who wouldn’t care much about the world outside my own, who had lost faith in the holy act of learning, maybe not. Nonetheless, from my vantage point then, the Northeast did not exist, let alone India.
The first few years of my life in Delhi were more or less confined to the elite and protected spaces of colleges and universities and I hardly had any direct immersion in whatever fucked-up beauty this city had to offer. I also didn’t learn much Hindi, in fact, I consciously avoided it as a marker of protest against the university’s potential linguistic tyranny.
“You speak really good English for a North-Easterner,” said a few friends in Delhi. “Gertrude, what is your hometown like? Green and all?” asked a teacher in college. During Master’s, a renowned professor was suspicious of my effort and capability to produce a fairly good term paper and asked, “Did you really write it?” Sometimes I took pride in these statements,sometimes not. Most times though, I would be left with a very uneasy sour feeling; was that racism? This pattern would continue as I started teaching in Delhi University colleges. Colleagues would graciously send students from the North-East to me, expecting me to tutor them because they assume we’d magically connect even though none of us understood each others’ native languages. Colleagues would also expect me to throw some “tribal” ideas for their gratuitous North East festivals in college. I would agree with disgruntled amusement, mostly because of my livelihood dependency on such establishments.
Almost ten years in this city and yes, I admit and declare that in academic spaces, I have been a constant victim of benevolent racism, like many also have. Of course there have been times when people on the streets have attributed the way I look to a foreign identity, and by virtue of that assumption, have uttered mean and de-humanizing things. However, I don’t know what I find more disturbing- a racism which emerges often unnoticed through acts of goodwill and coated with an intelligent usage of the English language in academic arenas or one which arrives in the form of stupid and brutal statements on the streets, mostly fueled by an uninformed sensibility?
This brings me to the question of national identity. I have read and heard many protest statements and articles addressing the discrimination of people from North-East India. Yes, I empathize with the rage and pain produced by this phenomenon, but I’m still trying to understand the significance of the reasoning often provided, that being, “We are Indians too.” I understand the technical validity of such a declaration but it seems to be dangerously insinuating an agreement with and justification for discrimination and violence materializing on experiences of people who do not bear the name “Indian.” By taking refuge in the Indian identity, are you not then, if not comfortable, at least indifferent to the racist attacks by Indians on people with other nationalities or other worldviews of nationalism per se? Also, what makes a person Indian, in the first place? Everybody is aware that the imagined community of the Indian nation is fragmented and incoherent; some Indians have more rights (even to life) than others.
I speak here, not as a person from the space that most people identify as the North-East, but from the spaces I have occupied in the past twenty-eight years of my life in Shillong and in Delhi. Indeed, I have at times utilized the privileges that state-institutions have given me as an individual but does that make me a slave of this Indian State? Does it make sense for people to defensively ask me what I would have been without India, how a woman from Shillong would have experienced and understood the world without the education Indian universities have given me?
I’m honestly exhausted of ruminating over questions of identity and trying to unpack the North-east epistemic crisis. Moreover, I find limiting politics to that axis very problematic. Sadly though, I can never get away from confronting these questions, especially when everywhere I go in Delhi, and with whomever I interact with, be it friends, colleagues, peers, lovers, my strangeness sticks out and operates in varied ways with different people and places. Silently inside me, these questions echo- What is the North-East? Am I a North-Eastern? Am I Indian? What is India?
A few months ago I had gone for an interview in a Delhi University college and the panel asked me, “What do you prefer, the British rule over the North-East or the Indian State’s?” As I froze to this question, I realized that yes, I am on alien territory and they are occupying me. The casualness of the question, posed by a Professor, renders a chilling revelation of how many people in Indian think, that even as they chastise us with draconian laws and aggressive governance as modes of cudgeling us into becoming good Indian citizens, they nevertheless see us as colonized beings inhabiting a territory which only adds beautified perfection to the hungry map of the great Indian Nation. We are perhaps nothing more than props which enrich their celebrated claim to diversity.
But seriously, that’s not my cup-of-tea.