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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How can you sing the Lord's Song in a strange land?

     “I was in Class III during the war. It was fought ‘bahar’ (outside of the city) but we saw the planes flying overhead all the time. All day we were made to stay indoors and the adults only talked about the war… I never went to school again. Now I cook and clean for tourists…I am happy to be in India but different people have different thinking…” says Abdul, my new-found elderly friend. We sat sipping hot Kahwa by the Bukhari in the living room, listening to the celebratory fireworks after Pakistan had won against India in the Asian Cup cricket. When I mentioned my surprise at how everyone I’d met that day admitted to cheering for Pakistan, young Shaheer sitting on the floor said he’d been cheering for India. I smiled.

     My father’s often said the measure of our affinity with India lies in the fact that we no longer cheer for Pakistan when they play against India. I've personally partied with the Tiranga in the streets of Delhi when India won the Cricket World Cup, and no one had cared that I was a Chinky that night. And here I found myself among an older generation, in a land far away from mine, cheering for Public Enemy Number One, even before the anger over Delhi's cruelty to my 'kin' had died down. I felt strangely drawn to side with them, and not with the one person among us closer to me in age and experience. I'd never felt mal-adapted in all the years of living away from home, or in my travels. Neither have I ever felt the burden of adjusting to the standards expected of a place by its people-be it dress, food or manners. I was, after all a guest in a land that had standards different from mine.

     Coming to Delhi in the wake of a 'North Eastern' activism, sitting down and talking with those who had been there, who are still there and are determined to be there throughout the process of 'I cant quite say what exactly is expected to happen', I felt strange. All these years we have been taught and have tried to teach others to adapt, to 'adjust' because we are naturally different from our countrymen and our ways appear strange to them as theirs does to us. This time it felt strange because the events and circumstancesances forced my eyes open to the situation where so many still fail to realise the value of adaptability while so many also fail to appreciate the efforts that go into the process. We were, or are, after all, living in a strange land.

     Born and brought up in a world that no longer requires one to sweat over the land to earn a living, the concept of freedom and its association with the land have never been easy to understand. Collecting stories over the years, hearing recollections and recording rememberances, a faint light has been shed on the connection between a man (of both the male and female kind) and his (as a pronoun for the humankind) land. It is this idea of freedom, of feeling the earth, breathing the air and drinking the water of one's own land that has prompted many young women and men to carry guns instead of pens, to choose dislocation over the warmth of the home, hunger over the chance to earn their daily bread. And then there are those who never did have a choice. When War comes home, one cannot just lock the door and jump into bed hoping It will go away on its own. Even if your door was locked, even if you were asleep and never heard It knocking, you cannot run away for It is already upon you. 

      At times you could be so close to where it all started, it could have been your land, your space where it took root, yet you remained unaware.  "I never even thought about politics. When the movement broke out,  we were still very chhangchhia (with small children)...they must have fixed the Zero Hour( for the simultaneous attacks and declaration of independence on February 28/March 1, 1966) long before but I did not know anything about it. He (husband) told me he had a Committee meeting and left the house...but he did not come back that night. The next we heard was there was an accidental bomb blast, Rokima died...firing... They sent a jeep to take me and my children to meet my husband at Lunglei."   

     When War comes home and invades your land, it changes the way you and your people have always lived. The collection of firewood and water for the house was so much the traditional task of a woman that a Mizo girl's chronological age was measured by how many bamboo staves of water she could carry. An alien power which forced itself upon the people in their own land found ways to turn this chore into a tool of oppression. "The army in the camp always told us to fetch water for them, it was our assigned task."  

      When the man of the house could not sleep in his own bed because of fear, of false accusations and very real threats to his life, how was he to provide for the family he had built. Here was the alienation, here the usurpation of the protector and provider, de-manning him who had grown up on stories of warriors who always went where others feared to tread. "The village men did not dare to stay in the house. My husband went to stay the night at the bank of Tamdil lake. At night our dog pounced up and I heard only vai language. Our place was at the edge of the locality. One Sikh man was calling "Ka pu Ka pu"...came again and again...the last time he pulled me forcefully even though I was carrying the baby on my back. So I screamed out hard...he let go and ran out." 

        "My husband could not move out because they might mistake him for "volunteer". So I travelled...with a paper ream to exchange for rice." And what of him who had dreamed of coming home? Those braver souls who'd dared to explore and then answered the call of the land. "my father invested his savings from a lifetime of government employment (in a foreign country) into the opening of a shop in Aizawl. He never recovered after the shop was burnt down by the fire of the bombings on March 5...he died a poor man."   

      The land could not even be kind to its own. Therefore many bid her farewell. It was not that they were abandoning her, but how could they stay alive while she bled. The physical movement did not cut off the fondness and longing of the heart for those who knew the land. For those who never had the chance to, the distance became a given. "we only carried with us as much as we needed, clothes, money, food items, and left the rest in the house. We kept all the money we did not carry in steel boxes in our room...we saw the bombs fall on Aizawl and the city going up in flames...we were very poor when we started living in Shillong...we came back to Aizawl and started from scratch...our children continued their education there."   

Riding in a crowded bus on my first day in a strange land, I feel inexplicably safe among a people so different, speaking a tongue I have never heard before. Free from cat calls and racial slurs on the streets, comfortable in the knowledge that I attracted attention because I looked different, not necessarily because I have smaller eyes or a flatter nose. The differences between us were obvious, for they were one of the best looking people I’d ever seen. Its like a joke one of my friends loves to tell- you could almost literally pick one of the many touts trying to sell you a ride, a coffee, anything, dress him up in branded clothes and you’d be proud to walk into a party with him.

       But here was a people who spoke of a place called Azad Kashmir, (not AJ& K, but the idea of a ‘free’ Kashmir). Showket, a new friend picked up on the Sumo ride between Srinagar and Tangmarg gave me a poem he’d written on Kashmir, telling me how their stirrings for freedom had been suppressed. “They only want the land, not the people. We have no jobs, its very hard. But this is our land. We have to stay here.” Now Shaheer tells me young people are moving out for employment. If not for tourism, the place has nothing to offer young educated people who want more out of life. Old bearded Manzoor chips in, "we have been blinded by the  powers. Kashmiris know the land is rich but they (the powers) dont want to explore because nobody knows to whom it will finally belong- India, Pakistan, China...?"

        Another Shoket, my friend for the day at Gulmarg says, “We produce so much electricity but it all goes to India. Its very expensive for us…when there were no tourists, I was weaving carpets for very small wages. Some people worked in orchards for rich people.” This he tells me amidst contributions from his friends over a cup of tea in a place created for tourists, a place which had no ‘locals’. So here was a people who admitted to living off their land. And I can understand how this could be, for the land is beautiful. No wonder then that Indira Gandhi's biographer took pages to describe her love for this place, while not a line was written about how she'd dropped 'supplies' to troops in Aizawl from fighter jets. Perhaps she would have said something to Laldenga had they met like they were supposed to, on the day she was killed.

      “Those who live outside come back once a year or twice a year. They send money also.” And they tell me I could learn more about politics of the 'other' Kashmir in England than in Mirpur because the diaspora there is the life force of the land. Then I am reminded of Tibet, of 'Free Tibet' but thats another story, perhaps for another day.

     And they ask me their questions. I answer honestly but consciously. I dont tell them that the Mizo diaspora doesnt actually contribute to the economy. I dont tell them that many young people living outside still either depend or rely on families back home to see them through financially. I dont tell them that online communities and social networks are more public platforms for personal lives, vendettas and veiled messages than tools for constructive identity formations. And no, I dont tell them that for many of us, being away from our land no longer necessarily means being away from home.

        But yes I do tell them we consider ourselves to be a people group, that the Mizo, the Vai and the Sap populate the earth; that we are kinder to the ‘Sap’ probably because of the assumed Christian connection. This time its Bangladesh and Pakistan playing in the Asian Cup and they say their support for both teams is “same same”. I tell them  that Greater Mizoram was a dream to erase virtual political lines that contain us. That the dream that was crushed a lifetime back may never again be resurrected...that it is no phoenix that would rise from its flames. That now we're happy cheering for India because it is our country even though it took a brutal murder and a rape to wake up a sleeping nation to realise that.  And then I say that the brightest among us dream of working for the same government that used bombs against us. Then they smile their wise old smiles and say, "you can be happy but you can dream too, it is hard if young people cannot love your land. Always living in a strange land will kill your land also.


zakk sangkima said...

It's aways a joy to read ur blog, you should write more :-)

Rini Tochhawng said...

Awwww thank you...this one I'm as yet afraid to read :-)