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...


  1. When I sent this article to a friend Nazrul in Guwahati, he commented about the Tangsas as follows "they are what we can't dare to be' where by 'we' he meant people like him and me... that was a great comment, Nazrul. Very true too. Wish we could learn a few things from them...

  2. Wonderful report! :-))) Thank you so much for your insights!

  3. upasana bora sinha13 May 2010 at 18:59

    It's great to have people like you around..... people who respect 'lesser' humans too. You always done that. For example, remember the time you helped the slum child (near IITG's city office) who had tried to protect herself from a torrential downpour by crawling into a dirty sack ......incidentally, I don't know if you remember that a 'dear friend' of yours had come rushing and had asked you to hold his umbrella while he took a photo of the child in that state. He told us about how sensitive he is and how he always notices the fate of 'those' children

  4. Aiyushman told me about your article on Tangsa food habits and I was looking into it and glad that I did! Thanks for putting my line as your comment. Made my day :)

    And about the comment of Upasana Bora Sinha ;well the world is full of people who 'notice' the plight of lesser common gods but very few have the courage to actually do something to make their lives better. Recently there was a big fire in our neighborhood. While we were busy controlling it and doing whatever is possible, there were many enthusiastic 'photographers' who were clicking their cell phone cameras and recording the 'fun'! Don't they need something to boast about, later on ?