Sunday, 2 October 2016

The watery Assamese

Assamese people are like water -- we are very adaptable, flexible, accommodative, we can take the shape of whatever vessel we are put into... Mahanta da said at the recently concluded 'Prabasi Asamiya' meet at Hamburg, Germany. That might very well be true...but...

Mahantada was right to a very large extent -- seeing the bright young people who had come for the Asamiya meet this time, how well they seemed to have adjusted to this foreign world, how well they seem to have fitted in, one could not but agree. We are malleable, we do not have sharp edges and spikes, hence it is easier for us to fit in; and because we are so mild -- we do not insist that others speak in Assamese with us (like the Bengalis do), we don't begin to show withdrawal symptoms if we don't get to eat our khar and masor tenga at regular intervals, we don't get manic if there is no Durga Pooja near us to go to, we don't have (strong) opinions about most things (including ourseleves) and hence we are not insufferable; in sum, we are so mild and so short of strong wishes and desires, and so vague about who we are and what we should be insisting about that we do not raise our voices most of the time and hence manage not to rub too many people in the wrong way;  And of course we have perfected the art of  'when in Rome act like the Romans' -- so we blend in perfectly with the background --transparent as water -- and are happy that nobody notices us or asks us any awkward questions (such as what is the population of Guwahati, or when the British came to Assam).

So far so good. But should we really be celebrating this? Is the fact that we are like water all good? Does it also not mean that we lack form and character, that when we are mixed with other things, we lose ourselves completely -- we are no longer water, but blood or juice or mud? Does it also not mean that when there is no container to hold us, then we just flow away and lose ourselves -- we have nothing to hold on to and hence are doomed to drift away... and the worst is, because we are so transparent, nobody, not even the other Asamiyas will see us getting washed away and come to our rescue...   

Another problem, since we are all like water, as long as there is somebody or something else to lend us form, colour and character, we are fine, but there is quickly a problem in a room full of Assamese. First of all, what language should one speak in? Since most of us cannot speak Assamese properly, and it hurts to hear every second word replaced with English, we finally settle for English. When the lyrics of a famous Bhupen Hazarika song are put up on the screen in Asamiya, we complain that we can't keep pace to sing along while reading -- after all we are not used to reading Asamiya since we live in Europe. But even when we lived in India, we went to English medium schools and spoke only in English, except occasionally with Aita and Koka. Of course, at the Asamiya get-together, some of us did make an effort to wear the mekhela sador (that we had brought all the way from home but had never worn even once before), but then we needed someone to help us make the pleats etc. and put the pins -- and it got so hot after a while that we had to change back into T-Shirts and jeans. 

Then when it comes to eating, we hated those pithas and khars even at home when we were forced to eat them -- (of course there was no question that we would know how to make/cook them); we much preferred Domino Pizzas and takeaways from Kentucky Fried Chicken. If it had to be Indian, then we would grudgingly settle for a pan-Indian tandoori menu version with biriyani or fried rice (fish is really out because we don't know how to negotiate the fishbones); of course here in Europe, the German grill menu version is not bad, laced with bottles of cold beer -- we have picked that up quite quickly; And one last thing, while back home, we wouldn't have been seen dead dancing the Bihu -- that is not for smart modern Asamiya young people, but know what, Panchi, Srimanta and Mahantada's enthusiasm was so infectious that one had to just let go and join in...after all it was a lot of fun and of course so far away from home, it even seemed like the right thing to do... I now have a formula to work out whether a given young man or woman can dance the Bihu or not -- if his/her mother knows how to dance then so will her/his children, otherwise not.

But then Mahantada was right -- we are a jati that has nothing of its own that it is proud of -- no language (we have it but we can't speak it properly), no typical dance (we have it but we don't know how to dance it), no typical food items (ditto), no dress (ditto), no history (it must be there but we can't be bothered to find out). We are a nation who can't keep Sankardev and Sukapha apart, we get confused when Lakshinath Bezboroa and Gopinath Bordoloi are mentioned together -- which one was the politician? We also have no sense of what is special about us being Assamese -- yes, as Mahanta da rightly said, Assam has amazing pat-muga-eri stuff and loads of tea gardens and also those  rhinos in Kaziranga, but we are more interested in the newest cars coming to India and the new Adidas showroom that has just opened on GS Road (and the promotional offers) and spending time hanging out in the newest Shopping Mall...

I must be careful not to make sweeping generalisations, so most of what I have said before refers upper middle class, english private school educated city dwellers (mostly from lower Assam) like me who have led very sheltered lives all through school and college -- our only care in life being to study hard and do well in the exams and hence do our doting parents proud. We have been good kids and have adopted our parents dreams for our own -- since we did not have any strong opinions either ways. So much so that we are now studying in Germany or England today mainly because they wanted us to. Everything they could do to make that possible, to help us achieve that, they did. As a result, we grew up looking only at those who were more successful than us -- those living in Bangalore, London and New York, we knew more about the British royal family than about Sankardev or Mahatma Gandhi, we could read and write English better than Asamiya, we knew all the Enid Blyton books but had given Burhi Air Sadhu a pass, and very recently we began to prefer to drink coffee in posh Cafes rather than our home-made 'sah' till yoga and wellness gave new respectability to chai...

So what is so Assamese about us -- our only quality is that we have no quality, not as individuals but as a jati -- no form, no shape, no colour, no taste -- much like water. We, the set of watery Assamese, what will happen to us? While we would have made the whole world our home, we would soon have no home to go back to -- since we would have given up our language, our culture, and all sense of our history in our efforts to live up to our watery image and in our efforts to fit in with the rest of the world. Weigh that against the other option -- of not being so much like water, of having some sense of why we are Asamiya, of feeling that there is a place where one still belongs -- not just our parents posh home back home but a larger society with whom we can identify -- what then? Perhaps then we would have more trouble adjusting to beer and bratwurst in foreign lands, but is that not the smaller price to pay?


  1. Hi Meenaxi,

    In many ways those could be words I might have said....years ago. But as my hairs grow grey I realise that people join in - on anything - when there is an element of celebration. You have shown it yourself in your article: "Panchi, Srimanta and Mahantada's enthusiasm was so infectious that one had to just let go and join in..." That is the secret. Make people excited about being Oxomiya, excited about the parts of it that you like and they will follow. . .

    And you are great at this. Many years ago you started the 'Prabasi Asamiya' get-together in your place and today see where it has reached. Celebrate that - and the many young people who came for it. As you celebrate, more will come. As more come, the stronger we'll make our individual bonds with our Oxomiyaness...and the more we'll have to celebrate.

    And like you, and I, and everyone else, we have all left behind certain family traditions, modified a few and strongly held on to others. It will always be the same with culture - It. Will. Morph. For those who remember the earlier version - it will be sad. For those living the change - it will be confusing. And for those who will look back at it - it will be nostalgic.

    Thanks for the honesty of putting your thoughts into words. ~kumar

  2. Bidushi Barua, who came to the Hamburg meet and who is currently doing her Ph.d. in Finland had this to say after reading my blog: I love her spirited resposne.
    Dear Meenaxi Ba, I just read your blog today. It was indeed very thought provoking. Thank you for putting into words your perspective. But somewhere in the blog, I felt there was a clear mention that was directed at me or one of my actions (though I didn’t mean to take it personally, I couldn’t help it). Therefore, it was my responsibility to let you know (without offending you) why I had to change my mekhela chadar the other day. Honestly speaking, I truly dont know to wear a mekhela chadar properly. My mother will be really annoyed that I am saying this to someone I hardly know, but that is a reality. And I dont want to hide anything. But in spite of that I had made efforts to wear the mekhela for the bihu dance. Let me tell you Meenaxi Ba, I could have easily enjoyed eating and interacting all day during the get together. But when I had the chance of dancing bihu at the cost of losing few events here and there (especially the morning presentations) to learn and coordinate the dance I thought it was worth the effort (I was the only one who had to learn the dance in just a couple of hours). And lastly, about changing my dress to T shirt and jeans for whatever reasons, possibly it was from the cold region I am a currently a resident of, but it was indeed too hot and suffocating for me to stay there with my mekhela on. Moreover, after staying for that long with Finnish people who are shy and in need of space, maybe I have also imbibed that trait in me somehow. I think I have that much of right to make my own choices about what makes me comfortable, as long as my clothes are not offensive to others. For me at least I can say, the respect for my culture is not necessarily about exerting my cultural traits, but it is all about the intention, about what is in my heart. If I didn’t have that love for my culture, I would not have travelled that far to attend this gathering. And after staying away from home, this respect and love has increased manifold, whether it shows up or not.

    And I beg to differ from you about assamese people being like water, as a disadvantage. I feel we all can respect and mingle with all our cultures and yet keep our uniqueness alive and intact. I don’t feel we need to shout and exert about our culture to keep it alive. Deep down we know where we have come from. Although I interact with friends from different countries (like many of us do), I make it a point to celebrate bihu in my place every year, no matter what happens. Moreover I am glad, that in spite of staying here for some time, I have been the same person that I was, and I don’t intend to change anything in me, however I am (with respect to my culture and traditions).

    In this age, we see too many people fighting up for their land, their religion and their culture. Why do we have to do that I have no clue? Its time people just respected every culture around them and yet remembered their own roots and kept them alive by living up to them. And I am very happy and proud, that being an Assamese I can do that much more easily.
    Sorry Meenaxi ba, I can’t express my thoughts very well or creatively. But I felt it was important to tell you my side of the story. Of course, I have my deepest respect for you and don’t intend to offend you in any way. But sorry, mur olop beya lagil so I felt like sharing it with you like you were an elder sister and just try to have a dialogue. Please don’t mind, if I hurt you in any way.
    Love, Bidushi