by MITRA PHUKAN*
There is this thing that many people have in our State, about wanting to know where one is “from”. And this “from” question goes back so very far that sometimes there is the danger of regressing to the times when we are all apes together, swinging from tree to tree and munching happily on, one presumes, bananas.
So here’s the scenario. You are introduced to a perfectly nice person, a fellow Oxomiya. After a few preliminaries, the conversation goes like this:
“So where are you from?” he asks, in a friendly way. But make no mistake, this is not a casual question, not a conversational stop gap, in any way. For the true Oxomiya, the importance of these words is supreme, marked by the intense look in the questioner’s eyes, and the stillness of his facial muscles as he waits for your answer.
You give him your current address in Guwahati, a place you have been living in for decades. But apparently, that is not nearly enough.
“No no,” he says, waving his free hand around impatiently, “I mean where is your Real Home, where are you from?”
You pause and consider. You were born in another Indian city, but you don’t remember it at all, since the family moved within months to another. Your childhood was peripatetic, since your father’s job took him and his family around the globe. You have studied in schools around the world, but ended up, like many, in Shillong where you completed your schooling. But it was never really “home”, just a rented house for a few years. It was only after you got married and got this house, where you now live, that you felt that this was home, this was where you were “from”.
“Shillong?” you ask tentatively. The man rolls his eyes at this naivete.
“No what I mean is where is your father from? His home?”
Ah. Now that is also complicated . He was born in one place, but raised in another by his uncle. Diffidently, you tell him that, and also add that this is probably the story of many people these days. Movements, migrations, temporary and permanent, make it very difficult to answer where one is “From”.
But the man, bless him, is having none of that. With the expression of a detective on the verge of uncovering Great Truths, he says triumphantly, “No, I mean where he was born?”
You feel a sense of relief. At least this is easy. “Nalbari,” you say.
The gentleman’s reaction, though, changes quickly from triumph to disbelief. “Nalbari? No, No, there must be some mistake. How can you be from Nalbari?”
“As much as I am from anyplace other than Guwahati, I am from Nalbari,” you tell him, with finality.
“I would never have thought …I mean …”
You leave him, stammering and trying to come to grips with this, for him, unbelievable fact. But you are by now fuming, a bit, having come across, once more on the deep seated prejudices that prevail among even educated and otherwise well informed people. The gentleman is no doubt nice, but quite unaware of the fact that his mind is teeming with all kinds of prejudices and pre suppositions.
For some reason, for many years now, people living in Western Assam have been perceived, and often portrayed, as being, in many ways, “lesser” than the people of Eastern Assam. Even the terms used in general parlance, “Upper” and “Lower” Assam, have an inbuilt hierarchy in them, when the directional adjectives Eastern and Western convey the meaning far better.
Mostly, it’s been the language, the tongues of the places to the West of Guwahati, that have been the butt of much ridicule. Leaving aside questions of what is Standard Assamese, or about educational standards, or even about contributions made by stalwarts from Nalbari and Barpeta and other places in the West of Assam; these tongues have been the subject of much lampooning and derision. Yes of course, always from people who consider Jorhat or Dibrugarh to be their home. By extension, the people who speak these tongues of Western Assam are portrayed to be buffoons and yokels who do not possess any degree of sophistication.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that when workers come out of these places, to Guwahati to work as factory hands, say, they quickly adopt the Standard Assamese spoken in the city for the workplace. It is perhaps a defence mechanism that they do so, for nobody likes to be ridiculed because of one’s accent. So, while the Home Language remains the muscular, sinewy tongue of the villages they have left behind, they learn to express themselves very fluidly in these accents in a surprisingly short time.
Of course the tongues of Eastern Assam too, can be lampooned. Many people from the villages tend to focus so much on the vowels that they quite forget to put in the “r” sound in words that require them. So Jorhat itself becomes “Jowhaat”. But then one does not hear as many jokes about this phenomenon as one does about the Nalbariya or Barpetiya accents.
But this equating of a particular region with unsophisticated behaviour and crude manners is demeaning and unrealistic. It also shows how prone we are, as a people, to stereotype. And yes, it certainly shows our mental laziness in no uncertain terms.
In this world where the question “Where are you from?” takes on so much importance, these stereotypes we build in our minds get in the way of understanding that the back story of every individual is unique. And no, just because a person is at home in the modern world, and speaks Standard Assamese, it does not mean that she is not proud of her Western Assam ancestry.
The surprise, even amazement with which a person from Western Assam is greeted when she answers that she is from Nalbari takes various forms. After the initial “What! How can that be!” moment, there is a kind of denial from the person concerned. “No, no, you are not, you cannot be, from Nalbari. After all you were brought up in such and such a place, you went to this upscale Convent School, no you have no trace of Nalbari in you.”
This, of course is so insulting that you can barely remain in his company for a moment more. But the guy is so into his mental stereotyping, that he cannot even imagine how very offensive what he has just said, is.
Another response is for the guy …it’s almost always a guy, please notice …to step back a bit, and say, “Oh, but how long have you actually stayed in Nalbari?” Hardly any time at all, you tell him, only for a few days every winter when your grandfather was alive. “So you are not from that place, then,” he says. You are too tired by then of the whole thing to point out that it was he who started this “Where are you from?” business. But since it’s come up, you do tell him that no, you are a Proud Nalbariya, happy to have that blood running through your veins, though you are not “from” the place.
The man looks at you in astonishment. He cannot believe his ears. How can anybody be proud of being a Nalbariya, his look seems to say, when all people from that region deserve only mockery and, at best pity?
In the Eastern Assamese perception, the region that lies on the Western borders of the State, the districts of Goalpara and Dhubri, with their own tongues, is even more of a Dark Area. There seems to be some confusion about the tongue, the Deshi Bhasha which predominates here, and which, by these Eastern Assam people, is assumed to be Bangla. One can only imagine the angst of those Assamese who live in these regions, who speak this tongue, but who are routinely called “Bengali” by their fellow Assamese from the East of the State.
*Mitra Phukan is one of most prominent literary voices in English from North-East. She is also a translator, columist and a trained classical vocalist. A Collector’s Wife, A Monsoon of Music and A Full Night’s Thievery are some of her selected works.