The ‘migratory birds of Assam’

AJANTA GOSWAMI 

A good friend told me once “Assam gets an influx of migratory birds from the USA and Europe every winter”. Allegedly these beautiful birds come to reconnect and bask in the “warm loving spirit” of their extended family and friends, and to enjoy the many social celebrations taking place in their former homeland, during the winter months. Come early spring, satiated in spirits, they return to their “foren homes” and await in much anticipation, for the next winter.

Thus, I, too have returned each year, in the past couple of years to reconnect and rejuvenate. It is a blessing, to be able to emotionally re-bond with all the relatives and friends, yet at the same time, it has been quite the vexing experience, to witness the many changes engulfing the psychological and physical fabric of Assam.

In all honesty, I am embedded in a state of nostalgic frozen-ness, yearning for what I had left behind in my beloved Assam, several moons back. At an intellectual level I understand that changes are imminent. Time and tide waits for no man! Right? However, at an emotional level these changes are quite hard for me to accept!

Of the many changes I, witnessed, a sizeable number, as is to be expected were quite mind boggling-heralding the progress of a global world. Whereas, a few others, I looked at in amused amazement. Really are these truly necessary?

Let me start with the positives. This time around… hallelujah!
I found the streets of Guwahati to be a tad cleaner with better enforced waste pickup, by the local municipality.
A tad better policing of cars and traffic.
The weekend implementation of quite the enjoyable walking zone in the riverfront. Beautification of parks.
Improved lighting of monuments.
What ever be the reasons and how ever minuscule the progress, these changes were noticeable to my outsider eyes.
Thank heavens for the small mercies I told myself!

The various drivers who chauffeured me around, and with whom I spend considerable time in traffic, appeared much more positive about their future. The partial digitization of government services, political policing and easy access to knowledge of a bigger world, (controversial as it may sound! Thanks social media) has given them a sense of confidence. A sense of optimism. They agreed unanimously, that the new government is working in their favor, maybe partially, but certainly far better than the previous one. Surprisingly, I could actually feel their enthusiasm about the progress made by the Modi government. They were not too concerned about the Hindutva movement, which has been a significant bone of contention for the progressive intellectual left. Possibly such political leanings of the ruling party does not grossly affect the daily grind of the working lower middle class! Instead they spoke about the curbing of corruption by government officials, SAB ka SAATH, Make in India, SWACHH Bharat policies of the present government, perceived as targeting in improving the plight of the underprivileged masses.

This positive pulse of the working middle class, was what I picked on during the drives. It maybe a skewed reflection, but in many cases the pulse of the working class is what determines the successes of any governmental policies implemented, and possibly the win or loss of future elections. Ahem! to my politically aspiring friends.

The unbridled entrepreneurial spirit of the young, was another positive I, witnessed and appreciated greatly. From music to movies to business and or technological advances, the strides made by our Axomia youth in their early thirties, is certainly worth a mention. Like their western brethren, pursuing ones passions and creative potential has provided a decent lifestyle for many modern Axomia youths. The new lingo on the street is of “start-ups, pop-ups, harnessing creative talents, managerial positions, viable skill sets etc.”
Money to eat out.
Money for Uber.
Money to buy personal items.

Money to indulge in a few luxuries of life, is becoming a reality, for a sizable number of youths, whose “parents were deemed the working poor, living from hand to mouth’. The push to obtain a 9-5 government job and or to enter a career-oriented pathway to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer etc, though prevalent, is no longer deemed necessary. “If one looks long enough, irrespective of educational status, one can find some kind of a job or start a small business to sustain oneself,” a friend in his thirties, who started a video editing/ advertising firm, and appears to be doing fairly decent monetarily, told me.

Intermingled with optimism one however can however feel the pinch of a new kind of stress. “Eiat aji kali belag digdar baideu” one young ‘Uber driver’ confided in me. From what I gathered, he felt powerless yet at the same time compelled to showcase his entrance into the lower rungs of middle class. He and his wife appear to be caught in a vicious cycle of earning more to spend more, mainly on the non-essentials. “Nohola Baideu mok failure buli kobo.”

Indeed, like him, many others from the exponentially expanding middle class, with no second thoughts, is hedonistically pursuing, the so-called “American-Indian dream” of material acquisition, to the maximum. The new mantra, advertised aggressively but enticingly, by the corporate world: “Buy buy, acquire acquire, more more. Happiness is just a Rupee away” is being swallowed hook line and sinker, by the hungering nouveau rich. (The same can be said of the upper middle class entering the world of the ultra rich).

From shopping trips for luxury items to meals in fancy hotels, to endless travels, to memberships in prestigious clubs, “Showcasing” of one’s worth and that too in no subtle ways, has caught on big. Copy-cat behaviors from the West or from cultures outside of Assam, often portrayed as signs of progress and inclusivity.

Emphasis of shallow mediocrity, on borrowed ideas considered class!
They eat in these restaurants, so do we
They wear these clothes, so do we.
They buy these furniture, so do we.
They go on this fancy tours, so do we.

A naive group of wannabes chomping down on a tasteless fusion feast provided by the mesmerizing/tantalizing corporate moguls. From bragging rights, name dropping to downright vulgarity, the underlying message: “Look at us y’all. We have arrived”
Identity-wise in a similar fashion, as access to social media and easy riches make its entry into the hearts and homes of my beloved Assam, the younger to middle age generation appears to be caught in a perplexing web of identity diffusion.
The spiritual, soft spoken, lage lage Axomia being sacrificed “too readily” at the altar of material success.
The existential crossroad that plagues many developing economies, has finally reached us in Assam.
What do we stand for?
What defines us?
Who are we?
What do we value?

Well….
We are not the boring, simple deprived Axomias of the past.
That much is true and definitely positive.
We are the upcoming upstart natun Axomia representing progress and success.
Certainly, a moment of pride.
At the same time a tremendous sense of loss.
The loss of the authentic Axomia spirit.
The loss of our authentic Axomia soul.
The loss of our authentic Axomia creative self

When I first arrived in the USA, I was shocked by the frivolous, hedonistic goals of my new countrymen. With time and life experiences, I eventually understood that all what glitters in the USA is not all gold. I learned to separate the chafe from the grain, to find like-minded / grounded people who despite being materialistically superior, remained secure and proud of their cultural identity. Proud of their spiritual self. Proud to be called ‘humane’ beings! Materialistic affluence did not diminished and or dilute their definition of what constitutes ‘a tolerant, considerate, compassionate human’. The life energy of these folks, came not by sponging off and from copying of folks around them, but from within their own spiritual and creative loci. A core group that provided and continues to provide the much needed depth and rootedness to their rich and progressive society.

Looking at this new emerging Assam, I realize that in the foreseeable future, one will have to actively seek and promote the simple authentic Axomias from the copycat materialistically hungering savvy Axomias! Empower them to provide that sense of much need social stability. A sense of depth /gravity. A sense of rootedness. Make sure, the fierce winds of change blowing through our lands, does not destroy our authentic Axomia humane spirit, blow us asunder like “dhooli caught in the Posuwa Botah.”

On this visit, I heard from several family members and read in the newspapers of…..the increasing use of violence by youngsters, escalating cases of sexual abuse of children (one such sickening case was the rape of a baby by a 28 year old cousin), the drug and alcohol hazed parties of the jet set crowd where” boundary violations ” are being touted and promoted in the name of modernism, the increasingly unstable family unit, the non-committal open personal relationships etc, resulting in increasing levels of violence, stress, anxiety, depression etc. Many of these societal conundrums were present, during my time in India, but the numbers definitely were fewer. Moreover, nobody vocalized about being stressed, or irritable etc on a daily basis, as readily, as I heard in this recent visit. Possibly, on an ironic note — the stress levels in earlier times were managed better, because of the extensive family support system and attribution of misfortune to “karma!”

I also witnessed quite the disconnect between the elders and the modern generation, the elders no longer revered as caring and wise but seen more to be restrictive and cumbersome. Anymore, conformity is considered humdrum, old fashioned and or repressive. Societal shackles are meant to be a broken … so on and so forth.

Driving a powerful car without brakes, you will agree is reckless and hazardous. So is riding this wave of wanton superficiality, with no safety valves to prevent crashes.

Why do I say this? For I have witnessed first-hand, the best and worst of a developed nation. The benefits and the evils of a progressive society. As a resident I have reaped the benefits at the personal level of this rich nation. At the same time in my role as a Child Psychiatrist, I have seen the many evils and the conundrums of the same society. It is not a rosy picture. Indeed, in many of my community forums, here, in my new country, I often describe the stable and loving Axomia extended family unit, our uncomplicated simple lifestyle, our rather passive acceptance of our fate, of our inner comforting spiritual self, the fostering of positive interdependent kinship……..the protective emotional and psychological factors of the underdeveloped countries. Rich social assets one should think twice about squandering.

Changes are imminent. But of course. However, in my humble opinion, the changes coming to Assam has been very swift. Changes thrust down our throats at lightening speed with no time to process, chew, savor and or to spit out The pendulum appear to be swinging far out. But I also know the pendulum will have to return to the middle. I only pray the resting place will be an authentic caring one — one we can leave behind with no worries, no fears, to the future generations of Axomias.

Most likely I will be deemed a pessimist.
Very likely nostalgia has blinded my sight and dampened my enthusiasm
But I am leaving Assam this time around, satiated emotionally, but with a sense of foreboding.

Oh Assam my beloved…Go slow. Be steady. Choose wisely.

Ajanta Goswami

Ajanta Goswami

Ajanta Goswami MD, has been living in Muncie, Indiana for the past 16 years. She, and her husband Gautam and son Sujoy consider themselves to be "Hoosiers with an Assamese heart". A Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist by profession, Ajanta is actively involved in many community projects pertaining to prevention of Child Abuse, and in promotion and acceptance of diversity population living in the heartlands. She has received numerous community and citizenship awards in the past several years for her work in these fields. Of late she has started a column called "Middle age and restless" in capturing the angst of an middle-aged immigrant living in the States.