There was a time when people from the Northeast, settled and studying in different cities of the country would call home for one reason only, to talk about their cravings for home food. Home was then, a place tucked very far away, and a chance of visiting home was awfully hard to come by. However, things have been slightly different in the past few years with the growth of the Northeast stores in Delhi.
When localities like Kishangarh, Safdarjung, Masoodpur, Mehrauli, to name a few, became home to a lot of Northeasterners, certain unsung heroes brought a little slice of home for everybody. These heroes were women, mostly from Manipur, some from Nagaland and Mizoram- they were women of the hills, connected by cultures that are closely interwoven. With them, they brought basically anything you would find in a typical Naga, Mizo or a Manipuri kitchen, like the malodourous infamous ‘Akhuni’ (fermented soya beans) and a variety of fermented fish; more generally accepted ingredients like Bamboo Shoot and Raja Mircha; locally grown seasonal vegetables like ‘Squash’ (chayote), and Naga lasung (spring onion) ; and varieties of packaged food that are otherwise not sold outside the NE region. Ever since the pungent aroma of these familiar food ingredients filled the galis of these Delhi localities, home has never felt too far away.
‘Varieties of northeast basic needs under one roof’ reads under a huge bold ‘Asha Tangkhul Store,’ on the banner of the biggest and the most popular NE store in Delhi. The store owned by Asha Makunshang was the first one in Humayunpur, Safdarjung Enclave, remembers Hannah Jajo of Imphal Manipur, who has been in Delhi for 8 years now. Hannah, a regular customer and a patron to all the NE stores in Humayunpur talks about how the locality has changed from the time when she first came to Delhi in 2009. Emphasizing the customer point of view she adds that parents back at home no longer ‘need’ to send them food stuff from home.
But there is a bigger story that goes well beyond food and Delhi.
You could say it all began when northeasterners arrived in droves year after year to bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore etc; or maybe it dates back to the 1820s when the region became politically a part of British India as per the peace treaty signed to end the first Anglo-Burmese war; you could even say it goes back to antiquity when their ancestors decided to settle in the hilly regions of Northeast (which is most of it). But the question we want to arrive to is- What made them travel to these bigger parts of the country and what does it all signify in the bigger framework of our ever-changing country?
What most are not aware of is that although Northeast is a comparatively small region of India, it is greatly heterogeneous in nature. And, there is and has always been a common aspiration among the people of NE- the longing for better infrastructure in their region, for urbanization, better employment opportunities and more career options in their own states (and maybe even lingering aspirations for independence).
In most cases, the moment to leave one’s own hometown is when it fails to deliver satisfactory facilities for better living. Out of the multitudes who leave, very few people come back home. Most choose to continue living in the cities so they can lead a lifestyle that is modern which gives them a sense of freedom, and opportunities which otherwise can never be had back home. Adjusting to life in the cities is not always easy because of the difference in cultures. The NE stores help to bridge that gap by bringing in the flavors of home in these cities. This is the main reason why in the past few years have seen a growth in the number of NE stores in Delhi.
From the women of the NE stores I spoke to, I understood that it’s not just the young people with a drive for academic excellence or people with career-oriented minds who seek the perks of living in developed cities. There’s the homemaker with three kids in college, the newly married couple with an infant, the ex-employee of Republic of Chicken, the ex-beautician in a women’s parlor, the supposedly broken and the adventurous alike who all share the same grievances of their hometown as they sleep late, wake late, eat late, and work late in a city they wish they could call their own.
As the 2018 State Assembly elections in Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Tripura unfolded, it was evident that maybe the people of the NE were ready to lean towards the centre in hopes for a better future. It is also evident that the increase of the Northeast people settling or studying in these busy centres of the country much like the existence of the NE stores, are products of the common aspirations of the people. Maybe, this very journey had even affected the outcome of the elections. Maybe it is all about outgrowing one’s hometown.