Friday, 24 September 2010

Autumn update

I'm off to India next month on a field trip and will be back only just before Easter next year. Hope to have many more stories about the Tangsas to tell after I get back. I'm rather sorry to have to have to leave at a time when the trees and forests look glorious in their autumn colours. Also sad to be missing Christmas in Germany this year, but that can't be helped. I'm also not sure whether internet will work there -- so don't expect anything new for the next few months.

These last couple of months have been full of out-of-term-activity. We've had guests (Mamoni Baidew and Paban Bhindew), travelled around a bit (in the Hohenlohe and Rhon area), and have also had some quiet days at home, ruffled only by a wisdom-teeth extraction. Last weekend I went off with Petra to Speyer and Worms -- two of the oldest cities in Germany. We had a great time and I loved watching the sheep-shearing at the Bauern-markt in Speyer on the Saturday and visiting the Niebelungen Museum in Worms, just to mention two of the many special things we did there.

And there are trips to Bremen, Goettingen and Nijmegen planned for the coming weeks for me, and a trip to Afghanistan for Stephan. Sometimes it begins to seem a bit too much. But we seem to not know when to stop. Anyway, I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that everything goes well.

And now, as thoughts of India come closer, I am not sure what to think about the news filtering in about the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Some of the comments one hears makes one head hang down in shame. It makes a joke of slogans like 'India Shining' and 'Hamara Bharat Mahan'. Are we not good at anything else?


Thursday, 12 August 2010

Asamiya Get-together in Volkach

A short description of the recent Asamiya get-together that Stephan and I hosted in our home in Volkach on the weekend of the 31st July-1st August 2010.

After months of talking about it, weeks of preparation and quite a few dozens of e-mail messages and phone calls in all directions, 21 people converged to our house in Volkach (14 of them Asamiya, with their families/spouses/partners) in the last weekend of July for a first Asamiya get-together of sorts in this part of Germany. We were expecting quite a few more, but given that it was the very first time, and there was very little contact before, I think it was quite a success.

I want to begin by saying thank you once again to all those who came for coming, for the very kind words you had to say about the get-together and for sharing your photos with the rest of us, and, to share a bit of the fun with those who could not come, to make sure that next time we have a bigger gathering. A special thanks to Ellie Bou and Nirode da (the celebrated historian Dr. Nirode Barooah from Koeln) for coming and for bestowing dignity and grace to the whole event.

The four of us at Volkach (Hans, Magdalena, Stephan and I) felt very happy to have managed to keep to our rough plan and although it took some organising, it made us feel very satisfied and happy in the end. This was the first time we had as many as a dozen people at one time spending the night as guests in our house, and it was a really nice feeling. Thanks also for the larroos and pithas, the singing, music and dancing, the map with the flags, and for the friendliness that imbued everything with a sense of fun. The patch of parched grass in our garden reminds me constantly of the lovely bonfire we had going in our garden that night.

For those who did not come, a brief description: people started arriving around lunch time on Saturday and we started with a round of introductions around 4 p.m. that lasted till a little after dinner after which we all settled around a bonfire for some music and singing, ending with a Husuri and Bihu dance around 2 a.m. the next morning. On Sunday our guests did some sightseeing in and around Volkach. Some had to leave during the course of the day but those left met for lunch and again around dinner-time in our house for another round of talking and laughing ending again in the wee hours of the morning.

Most importantly, the weather was perfect all through Saturday and Sunday -- it started to rain from early on Monday morning but by then nobody was complaining. But the time we had together was just not enough -- wish we could have prolonged it for at least another day. I hope we can keep meeting informally like this, at least every 1-2 years. And there was a sort of informal agreement that the next meeting will be during the Autumn school break of 2011 in Mr. Yaso Mahanta's Dorfpark Hotel in a beautiful corner of Austria.

And you can be assured of amongst all other things, culinary delights like laroos and pithas made by Rita, music by Sushanta (trumpet) and Kakoli (violin) and some real authentic Husuri from Mr. Mahanta. And if Thunu can be persuaded to join Mr. Mahanta and Wolfgang can be persuaded to bring his guitar along, then you can be assured of a very long and enjoyable night...

For me personally, it was a huge occasion to come to terms with my personal home-sickness, and it made me feel happy again about being an Asomiya and at peace again with the big wide world. There is another reason for me to feel very happy -- when I had first started planning this meet, I found it hard to explain to Stephan how I was so sure that this would work, even though I did not know most of the people personally. But he went along, never-the-less, and helped in every single way he could. In the end, not only did everything work beautifully but in turn our guests were quite amazed at how hard Hans and Magdalena worked to make the whole thing a success and how well they gelled into the predominantly Asamiya atmosphere, given the fact that they were the only non-Asamiya couple in the gathering.

At the end of it all everyone left with a few more friends than they had before they arrived here, and to know that is a wonderfully good feeling.


Sunday, 11 July 2010

Half-way down 2010 already

About the experience of going on a hot-air balloon ride, about trips to Prague and Vienna, and how different they were, and finally a few thoughts related to the Football World Cup currently taking place in South Africa.

Time just goes by -- can't believe that I haven't updated my blog for so long. For the first few months of the year I kept grumbling about the incredibly long and hard winter, and now, without half a chance to change gear, we are plump in the middle of summer -- with temperatures that can well compete with the summer heat in India. Only difference being that here there are no fans, no air conditioning and no coconut water to be found. But enough of grumbling... to other things...

The high point, by far, of these last months, happened at the beginning of June when we went on a hot-air balloon ride from Volkach. High time too, for we had been trying to find a date when the weather would be right to go on the ride for more than a year; we had already had to cancel three times. But June 4th was a perfect choice. And it was a great experience -- one that I would highly recommend to all of you.

It was simply strange and also wonderful to find the three of us high up in the sky, literally in a basket, with only the wind and the warm air inside the balloon to keep us afloat. The only control Klaus, our pilot, had was the switch to the gas cylinders, with which he could adjust the height of the balloon -- for moving horizontally he had to depend solely on the wind (which differed in strength and direction at different heights).

The funny thing was that after the huge amount of time we spent before take-off helping to set things up and being told what to do in case of various eventualities, I hardly noticed when we actually took off -- it was only when I saw people waving at us from below that I realised that we were off the ground. I felt a little cheated at first but soon the spectacular views of the area around us, the initial excitement of trying to float right over our house, of trying to identify the various little villages around Volkach and of being amazed at the sheer beauty of the many little loops and bends of the river Main around this area kept me completely spell-bound till it was almost time to land. I had not realised how pretty the area around here is till we actually got high enough to get a panoramic view -- and believe me, Google Earth is no match for what one sees from a balloon up there -- I heard me telling myself -- By Jove, our earth is really beautiful.

We had been told that we had to steer clear of the vineyards -- they were too dangerous to try to land in. That took us almost all the way to Iphofen. We finally landed in a field of baby cauliflowers and it was amazing to see the skill with which Klaus Bernhardt tried to steer clear of the plants and direct the balloon in order to land precisely at the crossroads. His wife Edith and son Alexander had in the meanwhile followed us the whole way in their big and sturdy station wagon, and were right there to receive us, at the crossroads, in the middle of a field of cauli-flower plants, next to nowhere we had ever been before.

But nothing had prepared us for what was to come after we landed -- but I will not tell you more about that here, in order not to spoil the fun for those who plan to go on a balloon ride -- the only hint, we were treated like royalty in the end!

In the last three months I've also been to two of the prettiest cities of Europe, Prague (end May) and Vienna (end June); both are spectacularly beautiful but I don't want to go into the details as there is nothing I can add to what you can find out easily from elsewhere -- just two old lessons based on my actual experience of the two cities -- first never visit such a city as a tourist during a weekend during the tourist season -- you will see nothing but other tourists and never want to go back there again, and second, it is much nicer if you can find someone, who actually lives in such a city (and has nothing to do with the tourist industry), to show you around -- then you will seen what not many tourists have seen and will come away having a real feel for the life of the city.

Two cultural tips however: while at Prague, do go to see a show of the 'Black Light Theatre' -- it is something very different, very aesthetic and very creative. I enjoyed every minute of our "Yellow Submarine Show" in a tiny and quaint little room filled with dozens of puppets, that served as the theatre. And in Vienna, there is a huge screen set up outside the State Opera House which screens every performance that is going on inside, live, for free. There is easily space for at least a couple of hundred people to be seated in front of the giant screen. Of course you have to bring your own chairs or towels to sit on, but you don't need to dress up, nor do you have to abstain from eating,drinking or talking, during the performance -- highly recommended!

Another thing also happened, or at least started to happen in the first half of this year -- the Football World Cup. The football mania gripping Germany, and perhaps other nations too, is to be seen to be believed. I have often wondered at how the normally sane and self-controlled Germans can become so loud and boisterous when it comes to football... But maybe that is precisely why -- for the first time in a long while, the Germans have something to celebrate, to be happy about -- football seems to have given this nation a new and positive sense of identity.

Good for them, and also for South Africa! And almost automatically, without any big effort,I find myself happily sharing in their excitement. It is a very good feeling. I caught the contagion only gradually though, understanding very little about football. At first, it meant little more than trying to locate the 32 countries on the map. But soon I found myself worrying about the outcome of the matches, and empathising with the heart-break of the losers, as well as with the jublation of the winners, that I saw on the faces of complete strangers at the end of a match.

I can't imagine what will happen afterwards,though. I wonder if the beautiful stadiums that have been built there will ever be made available for use by the local people. Reminds me in a sense of the National Games that were held in Guwahati a couple of years ago -- wonder what has happened to all those stadiums and the other facilities that had been created for the Games -- are they being put to any real use to encourage sports in the region -- I am not sure. I guess, Indians on the whole, don't think sport to be really important -- if they did we wouldn't do so miserably in almost every international event. Of course, cricket is important for many Indians, but more for the glamour, less as a sport, I guess. Cricket in recent times has become more like Bollywood Cinema -- all about money and beautiful people -- I don't quite understand it anymore.

But, to end on a happy note, if it weren't for the terribly annoying Wuvuzelas and the fact that India does not figure anywhere in the scheme of things as far as football is concerned, I couldn't have hoped for anything more from this World Cup. If one believes what one sees on TV then it has brought all South Africans together, and the rest of the world closer to Africa and also to one another. It has been the only good news we have had for a long while, in a world where only disasters can make it to the news -- for example all that oil that is gushing out in the Gulf of Mexico, to name just one. Let me not get started on that, else this wish to end on a happy note will get choked too...

Tonight is the final between Spain and the Netherlands, the oracle octopus Paul has already predicted who will win, let me try to be stupidly unoriginal and say, that doesn't matter at all as long as it is good football...


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Eating cham and drinking phelap with the Tangsas

Some observations about the food habits and life-style of the Tangsas

I have always stayed with my Tangsa consultants during my field-trips in the last years. Although the Tangsas live not far away from big towns like Margherita, Ledo and Jairampur, their style of living and their food habits are very distinctive. I am rather cross with myself for not having really bothered so far to learn to cook a few typically Tangsa dishes. But, as often happens in the field, there always seems to be something more important to do, and later, it is just too late.

The Tangsas are a small hill tribe who have migrated to India from Myanmar probably within the last couple of centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam (mainly in the Margherita area of Tinsukia district) and Arunachal Pradesh (in the Changlang and Tirap districts). Most Tangsas today regard themselves as Nagas, but as a distinct group within them. The Tangsas in India comprise over 30 different sub-tribes , with considerable linguistic diversity, and although the cultural or linguistic difference between some groups may not be very large, there is a large amount of variation, allowing for further re-grouping of the Tangsa sub-tribes into Pangwas and Tangwas. Most of what I describe below is based on my observations and documentation of the food and life-styles of three Pangwa subtribes – namely Cholim, Lochhang and Rera, using the names they use for themselves – or alternatively, Tonglum, Langching and Ronrang, using the names others use for them.

I have been working with the Tangsas since 2008 and have spent a few months in the field, both as part of a team with the other project-members and also on my own. What struck me most about Tangsa food when I first arrived in ‘Tangsa-land’ were the timings and the menu -- huge mounds of plain boiled rice (cham) formed the major part of every meal; and there were two main meals per day – the first rice meal was served around 7 a.m. – rice with a bland and very watery ┼Ťak-soup , sometimes with a very hot and spicy chutney (basically a paste of tomatoes and chilles), sometimes with a spicy vegetable item and every few days a few pieces of roast or fried meat (mostly pork). My colleague Stephen, who is an egg-etarian, sometimes got a couple of boiled eggs instead. Another meal, with roughly the same items but even less elaborate, was repeated at dusk, around 4 p.m.

In the morning we got milk tea sometimes with a few biscuits when we got up which was usually early, say around 5:30 a.m.; then in between the two main rice meals separated by nearly 10 hours, we got almost nothing -- sometimes at around noon we got black tea (see more about it below) with a piece of boiled ‘simon-alu’ (a sweet potato-like tuber), or a couple of cookies, or a slice of bread, if we were lucky. For anything more than this, we needed to go visiting other people’s homes (where we could be sure of being offered a cup of black tea at least) or were at the mercy of the occasional guest: for we would also get a cup of tea if we happened to be around when the guests were being served their tea. But otherwise that was it. It took me a few days to get used to this new regime – I was not used to eating so much rice at a time, that too so early in the morning, was not used to the very long gap in between, and the food was either too bland or extremely spicy for me. But I quickly adjusted...

The first Tangsa word I learnt almost automatically, out of sheer necessity, because I am somebody who cannot survive for long without tea, was phelap. Phelap is the black and bitter tea that the Tangsas left ‘cooking’ (more appropriately ‘smoking’) in a black and sooty kettle on a tripod over the hearth (not the inner kitchen hearth but the one in the adjoining outer area where the men usually sat) most of the time. Except for the one cup of milk-tea served in the morning (which was usually served sweet), the rest of the day one got mostly phelap. I was completely fascinated by the self-made and much-used bamboo mug which our host used to drink his tea from. Home-made wooden ladles, spoons etc. were also regularly used in the kitchen.

They rarely used sugar in their tea, and even otherwise they had no idea of a dessert, did not cook anything sweet in all the time I was there, and also very rarely used milk or milk-products. Even the one cup of milk-tea we got in the morning was usually made with milk powder. I wondered about the children, but never saw a child being given milk to drink, probably a consequence of the fact that traditionally Tangsas did not rear cows. After mother’s milk, they moved straight on to drinking phelap, I guess. And their diet did not include fruits either, apart from a few, like bananas and papayas, that grew locally.

Another omission was potatoes, simply because they did not grow it in the hills – Tangsas seldom eat potatoes even today. They eat cho (arum; kasu in Assamese) instead. The food is mostly boiled and roasted, they use hardly any oil for their normal cooking , nor our normal spices. But they did use chillies and some other herbs that made certain items of the menu really eye-wateringly spicy.

One special vegetable that I encountered was called ‘khi-mo-jak’, which is a kind of vegetable they got from the jungles (called ‘nefa-phool’ in Assamese, I was told); although they ate it in the winter it turns very bitter in summer. Another herb which was commonly used at least in Balinong was called ‘nge-tang-pe’ (see picture above). Another vegetable, that I encountered for the first time in Balinong, was called, not surprisingly, 'sari-kona-sabji' or 'four-cornered-vegetable' (see picture below). It can also be eaten raw.

Rice and arum were the staples, and there were various things that they made out of these two basic ingredients. Of course rice was used also to make rice-beer (chhai, lao-pani in Assamese), while various some types of arum served as fodder for pigs. For ceremonial and festive occasions, the rice would be wrapped in koupat(a kind of big flat and thick leaf, that grew wild and abundantly in the jungles) in the form of rice-balls, and this not only kept the rice warm for longer and facilitated distribution but also when opened the koupat served as a plate to eat from. Bamboo sungas (containers) would normally be used for serving water or for rice-beer. A very good lesson in environmental-friendliness to be learnt there...

While women did most of the usual cooking at home, at big festive occasions, it was usual to see the women in charge of making the rice, wrapping them in koupat and brewing the rice-beer (and also cutting tomatoes, onions and cucumber to make a sort of salad, which I assume is a modern addition) while the men were in charge of cutting, cleaning and cooking the meat – be it pork, beef, or of any other sort. I have often wondered about the reason for this obvious division of labour, but don’t have any clear notions yet.

In the picture is a locally-made container for storing and serving rice-beer.
What surprised me very much in the beginning was the amount of rice-beer the Tangsa women could drink – although they did not drink regularly, on festive occasions they did not lag behind the men at all as far as drinking and making merry were concerned. Equality, I guess, even in such quaint forms...

And as one dug deeper, there were amazing facts that one discovered related to food: for example that in the Hakhun language the verbs for preparation of different foods are different: so for example: the verb ‘to make’ in English can take different forms in Hakhun: to make vegetables (phom) the Hakhuns would use the verb ‘abbi’, but to make tea (phelap) they would use the verb ’lomlo’ for rice (cham), the verb ‘poilo’ and ‘limlo’ for meat (gnam) and so on. Stephen, our linguist, told me that among the Pangwas there are three words for the verb ‘ingest’. One, sah means ‘to eat rice, bananas, fish, eggs’, a second phak means ‘to eat meats and vegetables and other solids’ and a third nying or something like it means ‘to drink’ but would also be used for smoking. Our Cholim host often said mitha (sweet) to me in Assamese when he actually meant ‘salty’ – it took me a long time to figure out how salt could taste so sweet ...

Soon it was clear to me why the meal times were the obviously natural ones – the Tangsa villagers, who are predominantly farmers, try to work and sleep according to the sun (and that, given the very erratic and unreliable power situation in most villages, is a very sensible thing to do in any case). They get up almost before dawn, and the women start cooking the morning meal while the men tend to the pigs, the poultry and other animals. Soon after the morning meal, almost every able adult member of the house – men and women alike – leave for their tea-gardens , paddy fields or their vegetable patches where they work during the day. Some older member of family – usually a grandfather or a widowed grandaunt -- remain at home and took care of the kids, if any, left at home.

The women return home only around 3 p.m. often carrying loads of fire-wood on their heads, while the men follow a little later, carrying leafy arum stems for pig fodder from the forests. Then the women begin with cooking the evening meal in the main kitchen, while the men cut up the arum stems and put them to cook in the outer hearth. By the time the animals are fed, the meal is eaten and the dishes done, it is well past 6 p.m. – and soon after it is normally bed-time for the Tangsas.

Despite the over-consumption of rice at the price of under-consumption of almost everything else, the Tangsas are remarkably healthy and strong and hardy. And they have incredible stamina – especially the women, who never sit idle for a minute, and do not wait for their men to do the heavy work – I have often seen young Tangsa women running up the narrow wooden ladder of their chang-ghars carrying a full sack of rice (mostly half quintal sacks but often heavier too) on their backs, after having carried it from the fields on their bicycles for several kilometres.

When I marvelled about this many Tangsas told me that the secret lay in their preference for boiled and bland food. Many older Tangsa men told me that the fish, water and rice from the hills were tastier and healthier, and the air was purer there. But times were changing. Mr. H.K. Morang from Nampong maintained that the earlier way of life and food habits of the Tangsas was much healthier and better – for example, earlier they used to drink the juice of raw fish called ‘psa’ which was very good for health – now they eat unhealthy fried fish instead . Today they don’t drink home-made rice-beer which never did anybody much harm but drink cheap rum and brandy instead! And of course there is still the problem of opium addiction – the British introduced opium in the hills with the hope of keeping the hill people quiet – but the Tangsas seem to have adopted it for their very own now and show no sign of letting go...

Of the various other facets related to food I tried to find out more about the use of food items for other purposes – such as for performing rituals, for doing augury and even for sending messages. In the village of Jengpathar in Arunachal Pradesh I was shown how messages were sent in olden times. As people were illiterate, the Tangsas would normally send little packets (called ‘gyeng-fit’) through messengers. Chillies and coal would mean bad news (usually war, in which case the fellow-tribe-members would make haste to come armed with guns and rifles ready to go and fight the enemy), rice for good news (like a birth or a marriage) and tea-leaves to express anger or unhappiness (as it was bitter).

It will take me much longer to figure out in detail the ritual use of food, but one thing that was very clear to me at the end of already my first field trip was that rice is not just the staple food of the Tangsas, it is also an essential element of a lot of other activities that define Tangsa life and culture. But to be able to say more a lot more work will have to be done... not just in this one aspect but in many other aspects as well. For besides their very healthy food-habits and egalitarian lifestyles, besides their almost involuntary environmental friendliness, besides their ability to live much closer and yet in complete harmony with nature, I believe there is a lot more about the Tangsa way of life that we would do well to emulate...

Volkach, 15th May 2010


Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Tangsas and the Asamiyas

Some instances of cultural misunderstandings, some illustrations of Tangsa simplicity and integrity, and some reasons why the Tangsas can’t like the Asamiyas

I have been working with the Tangsas since 2008 and have been spending a lot of time in the field, both in a team with the other project-members and also on my own. And in this time, I have discovered a whole new world of wonderful people, living right around the corner from where I have lived most of my life but with whom I had had absolutely no contact with before. Did I say I learnt a lot about the Tangsas, I think I learnt as much if not more about us Asamiyas as well.

The Tangsas are a small hill tribe who have migrated to India from Myanmar and China probably within the last couple of centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam (mainly in the Margherita area of Tinsukia district) and Arunachal Pradesh (in the Changlang and Tirap districts). Although probably of the same stock as the Nagas, most Tangsas consider themselves to be a distinct and separate ethnic group.

I am an Assamese living in Germany and although I have visited Tinsukia and Dibrugarh and have also been to Margherita in the past, as is most often the case, I have only visited my own relatives and friends in those places and have never had much to do with people from other ethnic communities who also live there. Therefore I wanted to work with a minority community in Assam to get to know at least one such group a little better. That chance came my way when I was offered a job in a DOBES -project documenting the music, song and dance of three communities (including the Tangsas) of Upper Assam.

And even as I got to know the people better, I realised how easy it was for me to make mistakes, to misunderstand and to misinterpret, all the more because we Assamese tend to look at things through our own coloured lenses. A good example of this was the time when a senior Asamiya journalist, when called upon to speak at a meeting held to celebrate the Wihu-kuq festival of the Tangsas declared with great elan that the word ‘Wihu’ was derived from our Assamese ‘Bihu’, without giving any reason whatsoever why it should be so (and why, for example and using the same logic, it could not be the other way around). He even went so far as to question the sense of celebrating the festival already on the 5th Jan. when our Bihu was still 10 days away! Why do we Assamese believe that we always know better? It seems that even after having paid the price so many times over for our patronising attitude, we have still not learnt our lessons. And I wouldn’t mind so much if we at least had our facts right.

In that sense it can be even better to be a complete outsider and arrive with an unprejudiced and neutral mind and take it from there. In that sense I did envy my foreign project-colleagues, as they did me, because I could start talking to everyone almost immediately as most of the Tangsas can speak Asamiya. But the mistakes were not all in one direction. All through my long stay last year, I had noticed that my informants were always careful and very polite whenever they mentioned the Ahoms. I wondered why, but could not find any plausible reason. It was not until almost the very end of my trip that I could get to the end of that – we were talking about languages and the Tangsa gentleman I was talking to accused me of having forgotten my own language and adopting Asamiya instead – suddenly it dawned on me that for some unknown reason the Tangsas seemed to believe that because I was Assamese, I must be Ahom, and hence had made every effort not to offend my Ahom sentiments!

The funniest incident happened however, when I arrived in Nampong. Our host while politely welcoming me, kept looking behind me, as if expecting someone else to come too. Later he told me that he was a bit puzzled when he first saw me because he was expecting a German guest! The cloud cleared much later when I asked the person who had made the arrangements for me at Nampong – for him it was clear that I was German since I was married to one! Such are the rules of the Tangsa world. And of the rest of the world as well, he claimed. For according to him, Benazir Bhutto who was allowed to rule over Pakistan, since she was married to a Pakistani and hence one herself. But the same did not apply to the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she was married to an American. So much for our naive assumption that the tribal people are ignorant and completely unaware of the big wide world!

They are not only well-informed, they are also incredibly knowledgeable and wise. Since their languages are oral, and most of the older people are completely illiterate, they simply had to ‘remember’ everything. But it was mind-boggling to realise just how much they could remember. Just to illustrate my point, let me tell you a story: Phulim Hakhun, completely illiterate, aged about 75 years, is our principal informant in Malopahar near Ledo town. One time when I was there, we arranged that he would come for a chat with me at 3 p.m. one afternoon. He came around that time but looked rather troubled and disappeared quickly, telling me that he had to go to the village first. When he came back a couple of hours later, I was really annoyed and asked him why he had kept me waiting for so long. It took me a while to understand that the problem was that he had forgotten a line from the song he wanted to sing to me that afternoon – so he went to ask if anyone in the village could tell him the missing line! But nobody knew it (which was not surprising given the fact that he was the eldest in the village), so he had come back, only to tell me that he would have to go all the way to Burma to find some old man who could fill in the missing line!

Since I do not know the Hakhun language, I would certainly not have noticed anything missing – and I told him so. But that didn’t matter to him – he told me that if he was singing something he had to sing it right – whether I understood it or not was not his problem. After a lot of coaxing he finally agreed to sing the song for me (and hum the line he didn’t know) – he went on to sing, from memory, for a full 45 minutes! It was not only his powers of memory but Phulim Hakhun’s pride, his honesty and his integrity that shone through that evening and made me feel lucky to be there. To have the strength to speak the truth and to be able to say it simply, without fuss, is something that we probably need to learn from the Tangsas.

And there were times when one just couldn’t help loving and feeling sorry for them – like the other time when I was working with another old gentleman, Mohen Ronrang, nearly 90 years old but still fit and active. We had worked out a pattern of starting work early every morning. One morning, Mohen Adu came looking very crestfallen and unhappy. He kept muttering ‘Kot je herai gol’ (don’t know where it is lost) to himself. I was still not quite awake and not quite ready with my equipment and didn’t pay much attention at first. But I asked him what he had lost when he continued distractedly, ‘bisari to powa nai’ (have not found it) ‘kot bisarim’ (where should I look)… Without replying to my question he kept muttering to himself ‘sabate salu, katu nai’ (I have looked everywhere, it is nowhere to be found) and looked really upset. My first thought was that probably his cow or pig or hen had gone astray overnight, but he shook his head when I asked. The real story was nothing that I could have figured out by myself: while going home the previous evening Mohen Adu had remembered a very nice story. He decided he would tell me the story the next morning, and went to bed happily after having thanked Jesus for having reminded him of the story – he was sure it would make me very happy when he told it to me. But the next morning, he could not remember the story anymore and he did not know where to look for it, and where it had hidden itself again!

Before we left Phulbari, Mohen Adu pestered me to arrange some way for him to record the story, should he happen to remember it again between now and our next visit, because he was terrified he could lose it again. It made me sad to see how helpless he felt. But his sweet child-like simplicity and innocence was simply out-of-the-world. I tried to make sure that someone would write it down, next time he remembered. For, he had told me some wonderful stories already, ancient stories about where they came from, from the time of the beginning of creation, full of beauty and wisdom. I was constantly amazed at how willingly and how ungrudgingly they shared their knowledge with me, and I took it as a sign of their trust and their incredible generosity.

There were many times, however,when they were not sure what to do with me because even though I was not quite a Tangsa, I was not a complete outsider either; what is more, I was a woman, that too, a woman, apparently claiming to have a husband but one that none of them had ever met, roaming around all by myself, or with a bunch of men, none of whom was my husband! Of course I got adopted as a daughter and a sister into many households very quickly but still I am sure many of them must have wondered, if I was not a government spy or some undercover agent, at least in the beginning. I did take pains to explain what we were doing to everyone who asked, but I am not entirely sure they believed me – after all, why should Germany pay for an Assamese woman to go and hang around with the Tangsas for months on end, with apparently no other job but to just chat with people and make free video recordings of village events for them.

That much suspicion is unavoidable, and even understandable, under the circumstances. But it was the reaction and the conclusions drawn by other Asamiya men, who did not know me and who happened to run into me accidentally in Tangsa-land, that were much more annoying. Most of them never bothered to come up to me and ask me who I was and what I was doing – they already ‘knew’, it was absolutely clear to them that I was a journalist, especially if I happened to be filming with my video-camera at that time. After looking around in vain for a heavy-duty vehicle of the sort normally used by media-personnel, the only question they deemed fit to ask was which television channel I worked for! And if I happened to be with any of the foreign project-members, then I was equally clear that I was their interpreter! I am not sure what it is about us Assamese that makes our minds work in this fashion, and why we are so incapable of coping with anything more than a few standard categories – I wonder if it is simply a lack of imagination, or if it is just a complete disregard for womenkind beyond a certain level. Not very complimentary, in either case.

But many of even those who knew me and also knew what I was doing, among them quite a few of my high-flying and modern convent-educated friends in Guwahati and elsewhere, did not lag behind in making clear their incredible ignorance of and their complete disdain for their tribal neighbours – do they still eat snakes? do they wear any clothes at all? Many would beg me to tell them more only to scream and squeal to express their utter inability to cope with any of that; many of them were ready to swoon when I described a Tangsa toilet to them – how can they live like that, and how can you call them human when they live like that? None of them asked me to tell them the ancient stories (full of beauty and wisdom) that I had heard from the old men in the villages, nor was anyone interested in finding out the secret behind how the incredibly hardy but beautiful Tangsa women could work so hard all day in the fields and then come home to do all the house-hold chores, and then find time to sing to their children or weave intricately beautiful patterns on their looms. We were such a pathetic lot, I was beginning to lose my self-respect. Did I also behave like this a few years ago? I wondered. Who was more human? I asked myself.

What was it about us that made us so blind, so lacking in curiosity, so lacking in respect... It did seem to me that we had deliberately built a wall between us and them – a wall that kept them out, a wall that only spoke of our insecurity. And it was not only the rich and spoilt Asamiya lot living in cities that behaved like this, even those who lived nearby, who were forced to come in contact with the tribals on a daily basis, wanted to pretend that the tribals did not exist, that at best they were unavoidable nuisances which one should not suffer a moment longer than absolutely necessary. In the field, I often witnessed the absolute arrogance and total disregard for the local people demonstrated by many of the Assamese bureaucrats, police officers and civil servants posted in that area . The very hospitable tribal people on the other hand treated them like royalty. I will never forget the time when a young Asamiya SDO, gracing a public function organised by the Tangsas as the honoured Chief Guest, spent all the time that he was not speaking into the mike to deliver his lecture , talking into his mobile phone, paying scant attention to what was going on around him. I was very ashamed and did not dare to think what the dignified tribal people themselves must have thought of such outrageously bad behaviour. I never could understand why the Asamiya officers behaved the way they did – to think that these people had this wonderful opportunity to get to know the tribal people better and that they just couldn’t be bothered...

Nor will I forget the occasion in the last field season when after a long wait, the local BDO and SDPO arrived at a cultural event organised by one of these groups, more than an hour later than promised – nevertheless they were given an incredible welcome and a ceremonial guard of honour accompanied by the beating of gongs and drums and the showering of flower petals. There were many older and distinguished guests (like the much-liked Singpho veteran leader Bisa Raja and the highly respected Tangsa leader Lukam Tonglung) in attendance (who were the real VIPs if you ask me) who got barely a namaskar as greeting

It was already well past noon then but since the organisers had arranged for tea to be provided on arrival to the VIPs, the two officers (and their attendants) were first treated to a lavish round of tea and a large assortment of home-made snacks typical of the host community, while the Bisa Raja who had arrived much earlier had to do with a little cup of tea. After this the VIPs did a round of the stalls, inaugurated the exhibitions and and stayed maybe in all for about half an hour. Then they declared they had to leave – this made the programme go hay-wire as the organisers felt obliged to offer lunch to the VIPs (and their huge security entourage) before they left, as a result of which the open session, in which the VIPS were supposed to participate, got postponed by more than a couple of hours. The ones who came and stayed on to participate in the Open Session had to either wait on an empty stomach or wait till the VIPs had left and hope that someone would let them partake of the left-overs. I have never felt so outraged by the behaviour of my fellow-Asamiyas and so ashamed at being Asamiya myself ever before in my life.

Mercifully, there were a few redeeming exceptions – like the old retired Asamiya school-teacher who had spent all his life trying to educate Tangsa children, and who knew no other way to refer to the Tangsas but in terms of equality and respect. And I tried to learn from that humble but great teacher and made an extra effort to behave properly with my Tangsa hosts, hoping that I could make up in some small way for the offence and hurt that the arrogant Asamiya officers must cause to these proud but helpless people.

For I felt very lucky to have the love and affection of these wonderful people, despite the fact that I was also a wretched Asamiya. Proof that they had accepted me as their own came on the very last day of my last field trip: I was doing my final rounds of farewells when an old Tangsa lady, who lived in the village but with whom I had not had much to do came up to me and asked me whether I had been there ‘all the while’ – yes, I said. You mean, since that time a few months ago when you first came here? Yes, I said again, since then. She went away but came back a few minutes later looking very troubled, didn’t you say you were just recently married? she asked. Yes, I said a third time. Where is your husband? At home, I said. Who is cooking for him? I’m not sure, perhaps he is cooking himself, I replied. Will he be angry with you for being away for so long? I hope not, I said. The other women tried to reassure her that there would probably be no problem. But she cut them short saying, with men, you never know; if you are lucky well and good but if not then it can be bad. Then turning towards me she said, in case your husband is cross with you and misbehaves with you then you come right back here – you can stay with me in my house, you are my daughter. Saying this she gave me a hug and walked off.

I came away happy and secure in the knowledge that the ice had been broken – that although I had begun with a disadvantage – the disadvantage of being an Asamiya – I had managed to make it to level ground, and that next time, it will be much easier for me, not only to go deeper into the amazing world of the Tangsas but also to not get so worked up and hassled about the outrageous misbehaviour of my fellow Asamiyas... next time I promise to tell you more about the Tangsas and not just about why it is important to work with the Tangsas in order to find out why they cannot like the Asamiyas...


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The first two months of 2010

Some thoughts on the recent quakes in Haiti and Chile and on the just concluded Winter Olympics in Vancouver

It is March already and I thought I had to write down somewhere a few thoughts about the big events of the last two months. For me, there were three things that stand out -- first the Haiti earthquake that shook the whole world and filled us with guilt and shock -- to find out that there could be a country so close to the mighty US of A where conditions are as bad as they are in Africa. (Aside: Stupid, isn't it, how we tend to talk of Africa as if it was just one big bad thing, beyond hope or redemption).

And then, before one had quite learnt to cope with the daily dose of terrible images from Haiti, came the news of the massive earthquake in Chile last week. For us it struck closer and harder as we have friends in Chile, and we were actually supposed to have flown into Santiago, in fact, yesterday! Well, we cancelled. Our friends there are safe. There is still no water and no electricity in Vina, but people are managing. The people of Chile are quite used to earthquakes, they had been expecting a big one for quite a while now. The last big one was more than 20 years ago. So this was long overdue. Still...

Initially it did seem that Chileans had got away with minimal damage, compared to Haiti. Also things looked much better organised there -- there was a functioning government in place, and local rescue teams who had the equipment and the training and who knew what they were supposed to be doing... But then one saw pictures of Concepcion and the real damage and the looting and the vandalism ... it made me realise how thin and brittle our veneer of civilisation really is ... it takes so little for people to fall apart, to behave like predators... give us just two days of being without food and shelter, and we proud humans will revert back to a state where the law of the jungle prevails -- survival of the fittest. In that sense, it does not make much difference whether we live in Haiti, in Chile, in Africa or anywhere else...

Enough of bad news, let's move on to the good. For these last two months also showed me one of the most beautiful faces of humanity, of respect and of peaceful co-existence, that one had come to expect, but had not quite seen enough of to be convinced about, from us 'civilised' humans. Finally there is proof -- I am talking of the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and the manner in which it was conducted.

The incredibly beautiful and moving Opening Ceremony was already enough to completely bowl me over. They got it just right -- the way they let each individual remain an individual, the way they managed to make everything look so friendly, soft, graceful and aesthetic, the way they managed to endow even technical perfection with emotion and feeling, the way they subtly but firmly made clear their 'green' intentions. And above all the way they did not forget to honour and give due respect to the six host first nations. Hats off to all Canadians!

Maybe I am over-reacting, because my memory of the Summer Olympics in China is so unhappy -- in their perfection I only saw oppression, in their clone-like vast numbers I could only imagine the death of little flowers, looking at their hi-tech-inaugural-show I could only read the word Frankenstein. Seeing the even more hi-tech inaugural show at Vancouver, I don't know why it was that I could see clear blue skies and singing birds and dancing clouds... And do you know what I liked best in that entire show? It was the last bit when one of the four columns refused to rise! That made my happiness perfect -- I was so happy that the show had not gone off like clockwork as in Beijing. Proved that some humans are still human...

Thinking about the huge problems many nations of the western world are facing over immigration, I had imagined that there were no obvious solutions, that no country had managed to get it right so far. But to see Canada stand united as one, as they did during these games, even though there are as many as six first nations in the Vancouver area alone, even though Canada has two main languages, even though there are people from every possible part of the world who have gone and settled in Canada, was a very good lesson. A lesson that not only gave hope, but which also showed what it can mean to be really civilised -- to be able to recognise what matters and what doesn't, to use this knowledge to set one's priorities and then to have the courage to stick to them even while being graceful, friendly, and having the ability to laugh at one's own little mistakes and cry at someone else's sorrow ...


Sunday, 10 January 2010

My father, Munin Barkotoki

Munin Barkotoki (1915-1993)

Excerpts from the 'Foreword' written by Ranjit Kumar Dev Goswami to A Munin Barkotoki Miscellany (1998, Guwahati: Book Hive).

A distinguished mind of our times, Munin Barkotoki was a man of wide-ranging curiosity and exceptionally varied interests. His passions included literature, journalism, theatre, film, music, painting, sports and - of course - politics. Though his literary output was sparse - comprising almost wholly of just twelve stories and sketches, five poems or pastiches, a one-act play, sundry essays, notes, belles-lettres, reviews, letters to the editor and a book of biographical studies(Bismrita Byatikram) all publishd over a long span of six decades -- Barkotoki exerted a quiet but effective influence on the literary scene in Assam in his role as a conscientious man of letters open to new ideas and experiments. Deeply contemplative, yet warm-hearted and convivial he lived a rich inner life untainted by any mundane quest for glory, power or profit. ....

Munin Barkotoki was born at Jorhat on the Kati Bihu day (October 16-17) of the year 1915, the younger son of Raisaheb Durgadhar Barkotoki, then Divisional Inspector of Schools, and Kamalini Devi, daughter of Padmavati Devi Phukanani (1853-1927) whose Sudharmar Upakhyan (1884) marks an early phase of the development of Assamese prose fiction in the nineteenth century. From his mother's side, his great grandfather was Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-59), pioneer of the nineteenth century Assamese renaissance, and his great great grandfather Haliram Dhekial Phukan (1802-32), an important custom official at Hadira Choky during the Ahom rule who rose in the esteem of the East India Company officials by virtue of his intimate knowledge of revenue administration and socio-political history of Assam. [End of Excerpt]

A few other sundry facts worthy of note:

Munin Barkotoki's elder brother was Satyen Barkotoki, whose Escapades of a Magistrate (1961), is perhaps the first book of its kind in English written by an Assamese.

In 1959, Munin Barkotoki married Renuka Devi Barkataki, who was elected to Parliament in 1962 and again in 1977, when she became the Minister of State for Education, Culture and Social Welfare in the Janata party ministry headed by Sri Morarji Desai.


My favourite artist

Neelpawan Barua

For me, Neelda is the absolute 'top' Assamese artist, and I am putting him into my blog because I would really like him to be much better known. Also because he and Dipali Baidew are the sweetest couple I know. You cannot help loving them. Although his absolute inability to take care of his own paintings drives me nuts everytime I meet him, thinking about it later invariably makes me cry. More about all that later, first a little more to help you place Neelda ...

For those of you who know the region a little, Neelda is
(a) son of eminent Asamiya poet Binanda Chandra Baruah,
(b) a graduate of Kala Bhawan, Vishwa Bharati University in Shanti Niketan, and
(c) husband of well-known Asamiya singer of yesteryears Dipali Borthakur.

He founded the Assam Fine Arts and Craft Society, Guwahati, and still runs a Sunday morning art school for little children in his house.

Though originally from Jorhat, his present co-ordinates are: Saurabh Nagar, Beltola, Guwahati -- 781028, India.

Rather than talk about this art, his technique and his work, I'm posting a few of his paintings -- let them speak for themselves.

The one above right is called 'Lora-Roja' -- the boy-prince, the second one on the left clearly depicts the ten-headed king of Lanka 'Ravan' (Curtesy: Helena Pihko) and the one below is titled simply 'Three Birds'. All three are done in 'mixed media', and have a special 3-D effect. He also paints on canvas and believe it or not, on newspaper, matchboxes, what have you... Do let me know if you would like to see a few more of his paintings.

Now back to what I had started to tell you: Neelda and Dipali Baidew are both lovely people. They are also very well-known and much admired in Assam. So much so, that between them they have probably won every possible award that they could have possibly won in Assam. But that is not even half the story...

But let that be... I want you to judge Neelda on his merits, and give him his due. So, if you happen to like his work, have some space on your wall, and some money to spare, then do please pamper yourself and gift yourself one of his creations. Your best chance would be to visit him when you are in Guwahati next -- I would strongly recommend a visit to his beautiful ashram-like home in any case, I can assure you you will come away with more than you had gone in with.

But let me warn you, it will not be easy to get a painting from him -- first he will tell you that he has no paintings at all (don't believe him, he is plainly trying to fend you off), and if you did manage to get to the point when you have coaxed him to show you a few, he will refuse to quote a price for any. But please don't give up -- he usually gives in once he is convinced that you will take good care of his 'daughter' (Hope you begin to see now why he can be so difficult :-)

Finally, and please treat this as an absolute last option, if you want me to intervene at any point, especially if your chances of being able to visit him in Guwahati are not very high, then let me know. I go home to Assam at least once every year and will be happy to help in whatever way I can.


Monday, 4 January 2010

The Tangsas in Assam – in quest of a new identity in an altered world


The Tangsas are a small hill tribe who have migrated to India from Myanmar and China mostly probably within the last three centuries and have settled in the north-east Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Although probably of the same stock as the Nagas, the Tangsas have over time evolved into a distinct and separate ethnic group.

According to a recent count, the total Tangsa adult population in Assam is not more than 15,000. However, they do not have a common language, but speak the language of the sub-tribe to which they belong. Furthermore, since none of the Tangsa languages have a written form, most Tangsas learn to read and write in Assamese, Hindi or English.

The old Tangsa communities living in temporary settlements in remote hilly areas in earlier times were mostly hunters and agriculturalists doing shifting cultivation. But many have since moved down to the plains, hence have been forced to give up hunting altogether and have starting breeding pigs and poultry instead, and have taken to permanent wet-rice cultivation. This has brought about a drastic change in their life-styles.

The old Tangsa hill communities were mostly self-sufficient and had very little contact with the outside world. Recent governmental efforts towards development of infrastructure, mainly in the form of better roads and a better communication network, have made these remote areas more accessible. Better facilities for education, increasing exposure to the pan-Indian culture through cinema and television, better prospects for employment and better connectivity with the outside world has meant that the younger generation of Tangsas are slowly opting for the new ways over their own traditional life-styles. This has resulted in a massive loss of cultural and traditional knowledge in the past 3-4 decades.

Finally as a result of intense missionary activity in north-east India, many Tangsas have converted to Christianity in recent times . This has, in many cases, implied giving up almost completely their old cultural traditions, and this has further aggravated the loss of traditional knowledge.

However, many of the educated Tangsas are now slowly waking up to the realisation that in trying to become modern and Christian they have also endangered their own distinct identity as an ethnic group. The past two decades have seen intense efforts, in some of these sub-tribes at least, to recover or reinvent their own traditions and culture – with some surprising and unexpected consequences.

In this paper I wish to investigate some of these consequences in the light of the social, cultural, linguistic and environmental background of the Tangsas on the one hand, and the rapid changes – economic, cultural and structural – taking place all around them on the other. Language, more explicitly, multilingualism, will be shown to be the thread of continuity and the crucial factor which could unite the old and the new worlds of the Tangsas and secure their identity in the future.