Even as the Mumbai makes room for diverse people from North-East India, it needs to learn how not to stigmatize and stereotype them.
Text by Aditi Saraswat
When identities and histories of an entire people are ignored, and their geography and rich culture conveniently gets relegated to the margins of our books and memories – as is the case of the North Eastern states of India – then stories of exclusion and racial discrimination spring everywhere. Naga youth Nido Tania’s murder in Delhi in 2014 because he was ‘dressed differently‘ and the mass exodus of North-Eastern people residing in Karnataka and Maharashtra in 2012 fearing attacks on themselves are stories screaming of intolerance and irrationality exhibited by ‘mainland Indians’. Though Mumbai has largely been untouched from such a taint, and young people from North-East India are thankful for this city’s welcoming embrace, finding a place to call home here is still not the easiest task for them.
Church and Region/Tribe based associations like Assam Association Mumbai and the North East Catholic Association do their bit to let the newly arrived take root in the new city. Many find Mumbai much better than their experiences in other cities like Delhi. Padmaja Swargiary, is an Assamese housewife living in Navi Mumbai. She and her husband bought their home in an apartment complex seven years ago, and have not had a single complaint since. “I think Delhi makes you aware that you are an outsider like no other city does. Mumbai on the other hand has been an easy ride, but I do not think we can rule out the fact that I am a married woman. The respectability that having a family brings you makes the brokers/landowners view you differently. We also now do not have to deal with the monthly rent-hounding by landlords and our neighbours aren’t too nosy.”
Mercy Kamkra, 23, stays with her working professional brother in Kalina, and has a happy picture to paint about Kalina, the Santacruz-East locality now ironically famous as ‘China Town’ because of the many North-Easterners who make it home. Even as Kalina boasts of a predominant Naga presence, this Manipuri girl cannot stop gushing about the warm experience that the city of Mumbai has proved to be after her experience in Shillong. “The landlord here has been extremely considerate; my landlord in Shillong was extremely strict. He did not allow boys to enter the apartment and was against partying too.”
Real estate brokers in Kalina vouchsafe for the easy exchanges and mostly peaceful environment there. Maybe it is the strength in numbers which makes the youth confident, or the long history of them living here which makes the locals more receptive to them. According to Santosh Shahane, who has been running Raien Real Estate since 2007, “I have never faced any issue in this business and many of my clients have kept in touch because their friends or cousins from the North-East keep pouring in year after year.”
“I think Delhi makes you aware that you are an outsider like no other city does. Mumbai on the other hand has been an easy ride, but I do not think we can rule out the fact that I am a married woman. The respectability that having a family brings you makes the brokers/landowners view you differently.”
Mercy’s thankfulness to the accepting culture of the city does have a rationale with respect to the young from the North-East who like to let their hair down at the end of a hard day’s work. Niglun Hanghal, a young journalist from Manipur who has written about the discrimination faced by North-Easterners on many platforms, has an interesting insight to share. “Boys and girls from our region are politically more aware, so when there is a problem, they rise and make a noise. So when they have parties, landlords might have a problem with it, though this is an issue with young people from all ages,” he says. “Additionally, while boys get beaten up or get into brawls, the nature of discrimination against women is more sexually charged.”
While young people from states like Manipur and Nagaland run away from insurgency and unstable conditions, there are also states that do not see a lot of people move to bigger cities. Lalrinmuana Ralte, a Masters student from Mizoram studying Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, testifies to this observation, “My state is peaceful and there are opportunities, hence you will not find many people from my state in these big cities. So I do not have the same extended network of people that an average Naga or Assamese person will have, and hence my support systems have to be my mainland India friends, who have never let me down.”
While young people from states like Manipur and Nagaland run away from insurgency and unstable conditions, there are also states that do not see a lot of people move to bigger cities.
Single women struggling to make a name for themselves in the big city usually find themselves facing the wind from all sides, including when trying to find a home. Nika Chhetri, a BPO employee from the small district of Geyzing in Sikkim who now lives in Khar, says, “I did not settle on this space, I jumped at it because it’s owner was the only person who did not look at me suspiciously when I insisted on living alone. True, they would not expect such a thing back home but I had imagined a different treatment from Mumbai when I first arrived here.” When asked about why she did not take up accommodation in a friendlier place like Kalina, she rues that her office is close by, and her salary allows her only so much that she can pay for her two room shelter in Khar.
Rents are notoriously heavy on the pocket in metro cities, and Mumbai tops the charts in this department. Students and young professionals make up most of those migrating to the city from this region, apart from skilled and unskilled labour who end up becoming the backbones of the numerous ‘Chinese’ Beauty parlours’ and ‘Chinese’ food joints. This racist stereotyping perpetuates due to resembling facial features and it manifests itself in certain racial slurs and abuse.
David, aged 24, ran away from home in Nagaland seven years ago. Having worked as a glue paster, a battery mechanic and now as an employee in a small catering service in Santa Cruz East, he has developed a perspective on the city, “I have slept under the buses on the station and inside abandoned toilets. I now live in a chawl and I am not proud to give you that address. But I can tell you that not many days go by before I am called ‘Chinky’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘red nosed’. On those nights I miss home the most.”
(Cover photograph courtesy Chyan Chyi Naw)