Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Another season with the Tangsa

I had planned to spend half a year with the Tangsa this time, in order to get all that I needed to start writing my dissertation. Well... in the end I did stay for six months, and I did collect a lot of material; I also made many new experiences, met many new people, visited many new places -- for what it will all be good for is yet to be seen, but being with them for so long has changed my attitude towards the Tangsa -- I'm not sure any longer that I'm qualified to talk about them. And even if I could persuade myself to do so, I don't know what I should be talking about. I guess it will take a while for me to be able to put everything into perspective -- for now let me just write up the high points and the lows during my time in the field in the last season.

I set off on Diwali evening by train from Guwahati in order to be in Malugaon in good time for the Hakhun Festival scheduled for the 8th November. The festival was a bigger affair than last time, stage-managed almost entirely by the shrewd Gaonbura, Tehon Hakhun, and his band of loyal villagers. And although their star performer, the one and only Phulim Hakhun, was not present, nobody seemed to bother too much and it did not make too much of a difference in the end. What really annoyed me was the attitude of some of the VIP guests, in this case a couple of Assamese AGP politicians, who came from Digboi to attend the festival. Their main reason for coming was of course the forthcoming elections and not any real concern for the Tangsa. But then if they had a hidden agenda, the Gaonbura was also not totally innocent either. I'll tell you why I think so before I end.

From Malugaon I went to spend some time in Chamro basti in Arunachal to talk to the amazing Gaonbura Phanglim Kimching. The grand old man is very impressive, not only because of what he has achieved in his life (and still wants to do), but also because of all that he knows, his wisdom and good sense shining through in every sentence he uttered. It was just great to have had the chance to spend a few days with him and to get him to tell me a little bit of his thoughts and views about different things. I learnt a lot about what it means to be truly brave and to take pride in being a proud Tangsa from him.

My next stop was Mokukchung in Nagaland where I met yet another larger-than-life old man, the Sema Gaonbura of Lumami village, where the campus of Nagaland University is located. This Naga gentleman was also close to a hundred, had suffered unimaginable hardships during his lifetime, but had gone on to become one of the richest people in the area. But none of all that had not touched him, it had only taught him to be generous and modest -- he told me amazing stories of what he had actually witnessed and experienced first hand during the troubled Naga years. And when one day I asked him why he trusted me, why he was telling me so much without bothering to first find out if I was a government spy, he looked straight at me and said 'I haven't grown so old for nothing, you know.' That was that. When I left he made me promise that next time I came to Mokukchung, I would stay at least three days in his house -- that will never be, for he is dead. He died after being taken ill soon after I met him and if eye-witnesses are to be believed, his funeral was the biggest anyone had ever seen in that area.

I also visited Impur where the very serene and beautifully maintained headquarters of the Baptist Mission in Nagaland is located. That was where I learnt how the British administrators (who were keen that the Nagas kept their indigneous culture even while trying to civilise them) came into conflict with the American Baptist missionaries (who wanted the Nagas to give up everything of their old ways of life when they converted to Christianity). The Baptists had started the Tangsa mission in 1972. I was surprised at how openly and easily Reverend Walling admitted that Baptist pastors in the 70s and 80s were responsible for misguiding the people to give up their own culture when they converted -- he also spoke of how the view of the church has changed in recent years and how the church was now actively playing a role in preservation of the indigenous culture of the tribal people.

At the Nagaland University I met many Naga teachers and also a few activists and leaders, and I was most impressed by their knowledge, their commitment to their own people, and also their rationality and pragmatism -- they were not just sitting there building castles in the air or blaming the central government for all that went wrong, they were actually thinking of constructive ways to go forward and of concrete steps to get out of the present impasse between the two NSCN factions. Those few days in Lumami and the week in December in Kohima were enough to assure me that Nagaland was indeed in good hands and that ther Nagas were completely able and competent to take charge of their own affairs. Of course I could sense that the Naga tribes are still pretty much divided and this big hype about Naga unity etc. is still a myth. I also did not get much of a clue about the connection between the Naga and the Tangsa more than what I already knew -- that the closest amongst the Naga tribes related to the Tangsa would be the Konyaks in the continuum via the Noctes, the Wanchos and now also the Tutsas living in the Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh.

My next trip was to the heart of Tangsaland -- to the village of Phulbari close to the Assam-Arunachal border where I planned to spend Christmas and New Year. It was very nice to be among friends again and it felt like coming home. The Rera Tangsa in Phulbari are almost all Baptists and I tried to participate in the celebrations as much as I could. I thoroughly enjoyed going carol singing with the village youth on the evenings of the 23rd and the 24th December. I also attended the services, which were solemn occasions and longer than usual, with a lot of singing both of hymns during the service and newly-composed ones at the end. The village was nicely decorated with the church as the focal centre for all the activities. A true sense of community and brotherhood could be felt among the village people at that time with community feasts organised both on Christmas day (sponsored by the most politically active Rera in Phulbari, Molu Rera) as well as on New Year's Day with sports and games for everyone thrown in. What was remarkable was the big role played by the village youth and the womenfolk in the organisation. Feasting, praying and singing were what Christmas at Phulbari was mainly about. While there I could also really start the process of getting ready for publication a book of Rera history and stories. Sadly though, Shimo Rera, one of the village leaders who was so supportive of this project, will not be there to see the printed book -- he died suddenly early in April.

Between Christmas and New year I made a quick trip to Kharangkong, my other home in Tangsaland, to be present when Lukam Tonglum's 5th daughter, who had recently eloped with and married a Christian Tangsa youth, came home for the first time with her husband. Lukam Tonglum, the self-styled chief of the Tangsa Nagas in Assam, is perhaps one of the last upholders of the old order. It was almost tragic to see this fiercely proud old man brought to his knees by this act of defiance of his most-loved daughter. He had pinned great hopes on her and had secretly hoped that she would take on the mantle of leadership of the Tangsa at least as far as upholding Tangsa culture went. Her reason for running away was that her father would have never agreed to her marrying a Christian otherwise. He seemed to suffer not only under the hurt that his daughter had inflicted to his pride by running away but also with the worry that some harm may come to his new son-in-law who worked in the army and was posted in strife-torn Kashmir.

After attending the Wihukuh festival once again in Kharangkong I went off on a long and complicated 15 day tour of some remote areas of the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh -- there I learnt about the old and new forms of the Rangfrah religion, there I visited a house in which the walls of the open sitting area in front was lined with hundreds of skulls of animals of various kinds. Talking to people living in the hills beyond Manmau one could begin to imagine how life for the Tangsa could have been in the days when they still lived in the hills, with no contact with the outside world. This trip opened my eyes to all that I did not know about the Tangsa and made me realise how incomplete my analysis would be if I did not include the Tangsa from Arunachal, and perhaps by the same logic, also those Tangsa who still live across the border in Burma. To have spent three seasons in the field only to find out that one had actually got the address wrong was a feeling that I could have done well without. Anyway, it told me that I had no time to waste. The Tangsa in the more remote areas of Arunachal are more 'tribal' and their lifestyle is still quite a lot different from that of the modernised Tangsa living in the plains of Assam. But what was I was really looking for?

I was supposed to be working on Tangsa festivals -- and to that end I had already attended three different festivals plus Christmas and New Year by that stage. The state-sponsored three-day Dihing Patkai Festival that happened in mid-January was the third and biggest of them all. It was supposed to showcase the culture of all the people living in that area of Assam, and the Tangsa were only one of the several groups represented. But what culture could one hope to find in an event of that scale? Well... everything and nothing, I guess; it all depended on what one thought of as culture. For instance, our Nocte taxi driver came running up to me when he saw a group of Nocte dancers performing on stage, and exclaimed excitedly,'Baidew, look, look, that is our Nocte culture!'

And what of rituals in such a newly-concocted and multi-ethnic festival -- there was a Tipam pooja conducted in the morning of the first day of the festival to propitiate the gods of that area. I tried hard to ask around what Tipam meant, and also to figure out why that particular ritual was selected to get things going for that festival. But as is with many such questions, most of the people who were involved with it did not know very much. All I got were vague and tentative answers with nobody wanting to take responsibility but nobody wanting to appear ignorant either. I thought this reaction was quite typical of many such events that an anthropologist could want to explore in the course of one's work. But when a dreadful storm blew off the huge pandal of the festival area and wrecked havoc on all the stalls later in the day, everyone (and that included many Christian people as well) very happily claimed that there was some fault in the performance of the Tipam pooja in the morning that had angered the gods who had justifiably shown their wrath by destroying everything!

The much-hyped 'authentic' demostration of indigenous culture and way of life at that festival only left me with more questions than answers. Was I missing something? Why did it all seem not to fit? Wanting a break to figure out a few things for myself first I went to attend the NEILS conference at Tezpur, with the hope that talking to others working in the region might help me cope with my own worries better. My paper there as well as in Kohima (at the Indian Folklore Congress) earlier received a lot of response but it didn't help me sort the bigger picture. I understood that research is essentially a lonely journey, be it in mathematics, be it in anthropology. I would have to sort out by myself what to do with my festivals and what they might be good for.

From Tezpur I went on to Itanagar, the capital of Arunchal. Talking to people there I realised that though Itanagar was the capital of the state where most Tangsa lived, the two eastern-most districts of Tirap and Changlang were somewhat neglected despite being the most troubled, infested as they were with NSCN camps spilling over from neighbouring Nagaland. Being so far away from Itanagar and being so numerically weak, the Tangsa as well as the other tribes living in those two districts did not really have much say in the government of that state. But there are a couple of very high-powered Tangsa in place in Itanagar -- the state finance minister is a Kimching gentleman and he is perhaps one of the most dynamic people I met on this trip. The Chairman of the State Women's Commission is also a Tangsa -- a very outspoken and down-to-earth Mossang lady from Jairampur. Both of them cared deeply about the Tangsa and were very keen on preservation and revival of Tangsa language and culture. They were very happy to have our team join that effort and assured me of every possible help. They were also very keen that the Tangsa get better educated (for instance, the facts that there wasn't a single science graduate, nor an IAS officer from amongst the Tanga so far bothered them) and claim their place in the national mainstream.

For me, it was very good to have a chance to see how far the Tangsa have made it on the one hand while also observing how the ones who had made it still retained their strong sense of belonging and responsibility for their own community. I also understood that for the Tangsa there was only one way forward from here -- education, development, progress, modernisation,... -- they had come too far already, soon they would become like the rest of us, their difference lying only in their mostly unrecorded and soon to be forgotten past. Well... a pity maybe in some respects, but then it was their choice, and would have to be respected. After all, haven't we all made the same choice too at some point in our past. Mulling over those thoughts in Itanagar, and also while interacting first with the teachers and students at the Tribal Studies Institute of the Rajiv Gandhi University and later with many well-to-do and educated Tangsa at the residence of the Finance Minister, I realised that my attitude towards the Tangsa had changed -- that within these six months I had somehow stopped thinking of them as objects of study, they had become my friends. That I could no longer just be a neutral observer while talking to them, I had become part of their families, as much as they had become part of my life.

How that will impact on my work and my understanding of the data I have collected so far will have to be seen. But it does not worry me too much, for by that point I had come to an important realisation -- that one must not try to find additional meaning in things simply because one had originally hoped them to be more important than what they turned out to be. If festivals are nothing more than simply occasions to come together, to eat, drink, dance, sing and be merry, then I will have to be happy with that. If culture is just song, dance and dress for the people themselves then I would have to accept that. And if in the end, being honest about what I found in the field implies that my dissertation does not have anything profound to say about the Tangsa or their festivals, then I would have to live with that.

Towards the end of March came the big news that a Development Council had been awarded to the Tangsa, the Singpho and a few other tribal groups. While it was seen by many as just an election stunt by the outgoing government, the tribal groups were jubilant. Lukam Tonglung was elected the Deputy Chairman of the Council while Tehon Hakhun and Molu Rera were inducted as the Tangsa members of the Council. While one could have guessed Lukam Tonglung and Molu Rera to be part of any Tangsa leadership, the fact that Tehon Hakhun was also in showed how well he had played his cards, and what his own personal agenda was in organising those annual festivals in Malugaon.

As such I gave up my plans to go back to Tangsaland (as many of my Tangsa consultants had become totally preoccupied with their plans for the Council) and spent the rest of my time working in libraries, archives and with books, attending conferences, interviewing people, many of them Tangsa, many of them people who had worked on the Tangsa. Most of that time I was in Guwahati but I also used the opportunities to go to Shillong (to attend the Interim Conference of International Society for Folk Narrative Research) and to Delhi (to speak at the newly started Ambedkar University) to get some important interviews.

But it was just after I had finished my presentation at a seminar hosted by the Indian Council for Historical Research in Guwahati that I was put to the hardest test -- when a young man stood up and asked me 'So what is so special about your Tangsa that we need to know about them at all?' If I wasn't so stumped by his brazenness I could have thrown a glass of water at him and replied, 'What is so special about you that I have to bother to reply?' But later when I thought about it I realised that I had no honest answer. Given what I know so far, I do not know if there is anything so very special about the Tangsa that might have convinced the young researcher to lend me his ear. But why do they have to be special -- is it not special enough to be ordinary yet perhaps just a wee bit different?


Thursday, 21 April 2011

My time in Guwahati

This time I was in India for long enough to be able to do a little more than I have been able to in the preceding few years. And since I could plan my time, I could also make sure I was able to attend a few events in Guwahati, even though I was away from Guwahati on work for long stretches at a time.

The first event of that kind was Confluence, the South-east Asian Literary Festival, hosted by the North-east Writers Forum (NEWF) in Guwahati early in December. As I have been a NEWF member from day one, the event was like a huge reunion of old friends for me, besides giving me the chance to meet greats like Mark Tully and Mahesh Dattani. And since I have been away from the Forum for many years now, I got treated like a guest, so much so that I did not have to do any of the organising and could just sit back and enjoy myself. In any case, it was really great to be back in that world again. Pity that I didn't really manage to be present at any of the Forum meetings after that, and in the process missed meeting Mitra baidew, for example, again. But I did meet Mamang again in Itanganar, that too, after she had been awarded the Padma Shri, and was thrilled to find her as unassuming and as friendly as ever.

Even before Confluence was over I had begun to wonder about Upasana's idea of starting a community college in Guwahati. Not knowing how else to go about making it happen I wrote a 'letter to the editor' and sent it to both the Assam Tribune and the Sentinel. You wouldn't believe the response we got to that letter! At least 20 people responded over phone, maybe an equal number over e-mail, and as a result of all of that, Upasana managed to put together a group of like-minded people to get a programme to train domestic workers started already by mid January! And though their group Xahai is a long way from setting up a community college in the form we had originally envisaged, still a beginning has been made. The fact that neither she, nor I, nor Smita, the very enterprising young lady based in the US who has done a lot of work with domestic workers in Assam, actually live in Guwahati is probably part of the problem. But I am hopeful that there will be better things to report on that front in the days to come.

One event that I couldn't attend, despite wanting desperately to do so was the going on-line of the Saurav Kumar Chaliha website on New Year's Day in Guwahati (more about this in a previous blog). I have been associated with that effort right from the very beginning but just could not be in Guwahati on that day as my work and job demanded I be with my Tangsa people. However, there was a sense of real achievement as the website actually took shape and we were all very happy to have been able to put on record our admiration and respect for the great master of the Asamiya short story through this little gesture. I've brought back a few more stories to translate, but translating SKC can be quite a challenge, as you all know.

Between my field trips I was also desperately trying to get ready for publication, two books in English, that were already in the pipe-line and would be good to have released in the next award meeting of the Munin Barkotoki Memorial Trust scheduled for early March. The first was a book of short biographies of some important Assamese men of letters. This book had been more than 10 years in the making and was still not ready. The second was a book of selected short-stories and poems, in translation, written by the Munin Barkotoki Awardees 1995-2004. While I was not directly involved with the production of the first book (except for helping with expediting things wherever I could) I had translated all the prose pieces for the second book and was also responsible for getting it ready for publication. To cut the long story short, both books appeared in time for the Award Meeting; but the first one was so full of mistakes that it will have to be re-done, and due to some misunderstanding with the publisher the second one is still not really published (at the last moment we had to get a few copies printed so as to be able to release it at the meeting) though we are hopeful it will happen soon. But I have learnt one simple lesson from this major exercise which cost me a lot of time, energy and money -- that one cannot really push things beyond a certain point -- things will happen in their own good time; if you push too hard -- things will just fall through.

The award meeting was fixed for 5th March 2011 and we did manage to put up a reasonably good show (read my earlier blog). But I could see that the strain of organising this event was beginning to become a bit too much for Ma. I tried to do what I could to help, however, I am not sure how we will keep this going in the years to come especially with the centenary around the corner in 2015.

There were other jobs like doing tax returns, renovating the two bathrooms in my flat, redoing the furniture and curtains in Ma's living room, and so on which can only happen when one is in Guwahati for long enough. I also took Ma for a medical check-up to Delhi. Of course there were many other things that I did not manage to do despite being there for so long -- visiting Khura, Arindam and Misiki in Nagaon and, Mimli's parents and Shishugram in Guwahati among them. I hope to be forgiven for it was not intentional -- I kept meaning to visit but kept postponing till it was too late. Since I have been away for many years now people have stopped inviting me for weddings, birthdays and the like. And I am not exactly sorry about that. But I was happy that I could attend one very nice Asamiya wedding partially and it was really good to find that the old Assamese traditions still live on.

That wedding also took me to Rangiya and I was pleasantly surprised to find how nicely village life has adapted to modern conveniences without losing its wholesome and thriving character. That feeling was reinforced in my trips to Adabari and Barpeta Road. From Barpeta Road, our friend Monica took us to visit the Satra at Barpeta. And that was perhaps the most beautiful and most impressive of all the places I have been to this time. Of course the fact that women are still not allowed in seems more like an anachronism than anything else to me and I tried not to allow my irritation over that prohibition mar my appreciation of the serene beauty of the place.

Besides all that Stephan and I had a wonderful holiday in Dharamshala in March -- it was nice to see a new part of India and also nice to get away from the daily grind for a bit. It was amazing to discover that Macleodganj near Dharamshala, where the Dalai Lama lives, is so overrun by Tibetan refugees, north-Indian businessmen and foreign tourists that one only rarely sees any Himachalis around. Nature in the Kangra hills and valley is simply breath-taking although the towns and cities are nothing to write home about. Work also took me to Mokukchung, Kohima, Itanagar and Shillong this time and I can say this in all sincerity -- the hills and people of the north-east are as wonderful, if not better, than anywhere else in India.

One of the nicest things that happened during my long stay in India this time was getting back in contact with my school and college friends both in Guwahati and in Delhi. It started right on the very first day on my arrival in Delhi with a really big reunion of my Carmel school friends after 28 years! That was really a very happy occasion and I tried to do the same in Guwahati with my St. Mary's, Cotton College and University friends. Miraculously things worked and it was just wonderful to have had the chance this time to reconnect with so many of my old friends from school and college with whom I share so many unforgettable memories. As I look back on those wonderfully happy get-togethers I can only feel blessed and be grateful for having been given the chance to meet them all again.

While on friends, there were a few old friends, Roshini and Liza amongst them, who I could not reach or find despite repeated efforts, and I kept wondering what the matter could be. I still don't know but maybe it is just that as time goes by people change and with it change their preferences for friends. To make up for the ones I have lost, I also made a few new ones, and that made me very happy -- Lisa from Itanagar, Bhaskar in Margherita, Altafda and Nazrul in Guwahati to name just a few. I also had a few amazing experiences and also met and got to know some incredibly nice and impressive people. More about all of that, in my note on the Tangsa that is to follow. And as I now begin the process of figuring out which of my friends in Europe I have lost, and which ones I still have left after so many months of no contact, I can only tell myself that no matter what the outcome is, these were six months in India well spent.


Back again in Volkach

Just to say that I am back home again in Volkach, after almost six months away. Most of the time I was in Upper Assam working with the Tangsas. I also spent a lot of time in Guwahati and got involved in many things -- some new and some old. But about all that later -- just wanted to record a few things I noticed immediately after getting back before I forget them.

Almost the first thing that Stephan did as we tried to board a taxi at the train station was to open the driver's door to sit down! Even he, although he had been away for just a month, had forgotten that cars are left-hand-drive in Germany. I chuckled and teased him about it but the next morning when Inez, Stephan's sister, called and started listing all the flowers that were blooming in her garden and describing how lovely the weather was, and I found it all a little unusual, I realised that even I had got a little out of sync. For when was it, if at all, during the last six months in India that anyone had spoken about flowers and weather and garden in the same vein? Okay some people in India also had pretty gardens but flowers and lovely weather were never so crucial to a person's general well-being there as it is here. But we don't need to continue this discussion any further -- in a few days I will also be chattering away about the flowers and the weather like Inez, I am sure.

We had timed our return to be in time for Easter in Germany. And it was lovely to have an invitation -- but coming back to find a world decked up in yellow and orange with Easter eggs everywhere, and the impossible attempts to find the right presents to take along, were not easy to take in one's stride. It was Bihu in Guwahati just before we left and even there we had had to worry no end about presents for everyone around us. There were also japis and gamochas to be seen on many shop-windows in Guwahati and loud Bihu music everywhere -- come to think of it, Bihu there and Easter here were not all that different, and we seemed to have inadvertently landed up having to do the same things twice -- no wonder it was beginning to pale.

Well... in any case I shouldn't be complaining for even after being away for six months I found this world here, as well as our house and garden, more or less as I had left it. That is one of the nicest things about Germany -- nothing changes, or at least, not very quickly. In six months certain streets in Guwahati can change beyond recognition, but not here. The friendly shopkeepers were all still in place and acknowledged my presence after so long in their usual friendly and polite way -- if they were surprised to see me back after so long, they did not show it. Our housekeeper was there looking very much the same as ever, her usual efficient self -- she was the one who had kept this house going all this while. The kitchen, the sofas, my table, the bed-side lamp, my little gosain-ghar, the owl at the front-door,...looked very much the same -- it was all very comforting.

Of course the huge stack of letters (and Christmas cards) waiting to be opened did tell a story of their own. Also the plants in our garden had lived through another very severe winter since I was here last -- not all of them have survived, but still... Now that that spring is in the air and I am back, I have to make sure the garden looks good again... it gives me something I enjoy doing to do, something familiar to hold on to, as I try to find my feet again in this world, so different from the one I have left behind in India. The telephone does not ring all the time here, friends do not keep dropping in all the time, the neighbours don't come to smother you with affection and food the moment they see you arrive, even the silences are longer here, but still I do feel very welcome. I could not but be grateful for the happy chatter of the birds in our garden as I woke up in the morning to the soft chiming of the church bells and told myself that I had really come home.