After two weeks here in Northeast India, I am feeling the exhaustion of the roller coaster ride – or perhaps it’s a collision – of extremes, of joy and sadness, of gratitude and anger, of confusion and clarity, of beauty and ugliness.
This part of India is an odd place, isolated out here, at the end of the ‘chicken neck’ piece of land left over following the independence of Bangladesh, its indigenous peoples ethnically Mongolian and divided amongst 450 tribes and countless dialects. Until recently, it was difficult-to-impossible to get into Nagaland, given decades of internecine violence. The century-long movement from head-hunters to an anomalous Christian majority up here has been rocky.
Insurgency movements proliferated following Nehru’s reneging on a promise of autonomy for the Nagas. Conflicts between tribal groups continue to produce tens-to-hundreds of thousands of internally displaced, razed villages, killings. Migration across porous borders from Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh add to the tensions – whose base is, as is virtually always true, about scarce resources, economic policies and funding distribution driven by nepotism. The increasing wealth in this country is not making its way to the base – with heart-breaking poverty and crumbling infrastructure still marring the beauty of this land.
Narendra Modi, the first serving Prime Minister in ten years to visit here, toured several states of the north east, including Nagaland, failing to make much-anticipated and hoped-for announcements – of funding, of agreement reached in peace talks. The usual complement of police, security and military was inflated with the addition of navy and specialised escorts. His colossal convoy stuck to prescribed routes whitewashed for the occasion.
I am grateful for both the troughs and peaks of this journey. The breathtaking scenery of the Kaziranga Wildlife Reserve – encounters with elephants, rhinoceros and monkeys; strolls through the tea gardens of Assam, dotted with migrant harvesters; teak forests and hot springs; visits to the markets, ebullient and brilliant with human commerce and colour, sights and smells. Two weeks of working with 74 students in two colleges on conflict transformation and peace-building, learning so much from them, entranced by their discovery of their capacity to be agents of peace. Their music. Watching them build a Christmas tree out of a banana trunk, stuck with small piece of bamboo and then decorated – accompanying their work with singing, sweet, sweet singing.
Sitting waiting outside of the train station in Dimapur, I watch a tapestry of human drama unfold before me. A man in a state of advanced inebriation, with a delicacy belied by his apparent state of consciousness, lays out his scarf of indigenous weave on the raised piece of pavement that divides the car-park into sections, removes his flip flops, stretches out his body and places his head on what was the base of a lightstand, making of it a pillow. No place to lay his head. I am immobilised. I have a pillow with me, two actually, if I count the ring-around-the-neck one. I could go over there and give him one; or both. An apparent acquaintance in a similar state of intoxication, stops to give him a kick or two, poking around for who knows what. I sit, as if impotent.
Three young boys, perhaps as old as my grandson, Owen, perhaps not, each carrying gigantic, woven plastic bags over one shoulder, stoop every few metres to add something to their haul – a plastic bottle, pieces of tinfoil from someone’s lunch, pieces of discarded cloth – which they will sell at the end of the day to merchants of rags or scrap metal or recycling dealers who will haul it to Assam where there is a nascent industry. They are dressed in clothing that is both ragged and thick with the dry-season dust that coats the landscape and turns their brown skin grey, shod in barely-holding-together flip-flops.
These hours of back-breaking, childhood-destroying work is likely to bring them something like 15 rupees or about a quarter of a dollar. School fees would have cost their parents about $7.00 per month – not including the purchase of a uniform each year. But these little ones are not in school. And the 25 cents they will bring home will go a long ways to purchasing a kilo of rice. Health care is equally beyond their reach.
Later, inside the train station, it is women who are trawling the train tracks for refuse. After my arrival in Guwahati, I watch as three tiny children, two boys and a girl, dash into one carriage after another in search of treasures to add to sacs half their size, only steps ahead of the conductors and their brooms. One of the boys is dressed in just a shirt, long enough to cover his knees; the little girl’s dress hangs short exposing thin, dust-streaked legs. Out they tear from Carriage C-2 shooed away like so many flies.