BY MEENAXI BARKOTOKI
Coming back to Guwahati and being here for more than a month this time helped me gain a little more clarity about what it is that I find strange about some people’s reactions here every time I come back. A few instances:
One day we were driving on the crowded road in front of the Nehru stadium joining GNB Road with GS Road. Suddenly the shrill siren of a VIP escort vehicle forced us to slow down and the incessant and aggressive honking of the pilot car forced us to seek safety on the extreme margins of the road. As we waited for the VIP’s convoy to go past, my usual annoyance at the politicians who think nothing about disrupting traffic at peak hours surfaced. The last vehicle of the convoy was an ambulance. Seeing it I told myself that the VIP going by this time must be really a big shot to have an ambulance as part of his entourage. My driver smartly managed to join the end of the VIP tail and happily told me that now we would not have any further trouble reaching Dispur. That is the only way one can get anywhere in this blessed city, I told myself — find a VIP to hang on to, after having cursed his very existence. But as we drove on, I realised that there were people inside the ambulance and that someone was fanning the patient who was probably being taken to the Gauhati Medical College. That realisation made me see red — what a world this was: so much attention for the VIP, but no priority whatsoever for an ambulance carrying a sick person!
Reaching my destination I told my friend about what I had just seen. His reaction was striking — that sick man was lucky, otherwise he would have never made it to the GMC! I was not sure how to react to that — for it did not strike him that the VIP should not have had precedence over the Ambulance in the first place! That is what I mean by missing the point — I have found many people this time in Guwahati who have talked to me about some serious issues, but only about some of the unimportant side issues of it, and not the real point. That we ramble on for long about this, that and the other before we get to the point when we talk to someone is besides the point here (pun intended). The point I am trying to make here is that even when we eventually get to the point, we somehow miss it.
Take the issue of the huge influx of migrants to Germany and Europe just now. The most common reaction has been — ‘Ask your Angela to take all our Bangladeshis too, then we will be left in peace here!’ Not one bothered to discuss why it is that so many people are fleeing their homes in the first place, about the situation in Syria, about how this issue has become a threat to European unity — this tendency of many Assamese to trivialise issues, to joke about them, to immediately compare them with the situation here without pausing to think — this is what worries me no end.
But even when you talk about local issues, the reactions are often weird. Talk about the open manholes for example and the bad drainage situation in the city. I bet that all except a couple will immediately start recounting horror stories of what happened to him or her or someone he knows as a result of that rather than contribute their bit to discussing why it is so bad and what the solutions could be and how one could go about tackling the problem. Same about other issues facing our city — electricity cuts (even my inverter was down and I missed my favourite TV serial) garbage collection and littering (how dirty ones mekhelas get etc.), pot-holed roads (how one gets spondylitis driving on them), and so on. the point is that these problems can be solved by concerted citizen action — but for that we would need to get our act together and think about more than just our TV serials, our mekhelas and our backs.
I wonder what it is that is being discussed in the many talk shows in the many TV channels in the city. I can’t comment since I don’t watch TV but even in the few alochana chakras and discussions I have attended this time nothing of great content was discussed. For example, on Saturday, at a well-attended event in the city, a lady editor of one of leading Assamese periodicals was asked what she, as one of the front-ranking and senior lady journalists in the city was doing to change the attitude our society has towards its women. In her reply she said with great pride that her office has now got separate toilets for her women staff! Other speakers also showed the same tendency — the moment a question is asked, to immediately try to find something from their very personal individual life-stories to boast about, without trying to open up the discussion to the wider issues involved, to the problems, to the possible ways of handling it.
There are extreme examples as well of missing the point — at the same event mentioned above, three panelists spent an hour discussing the ‘Challenges of Ethnicity’ in the region with no more than passing mention to the tribal population that live here — instead the discussion veered solely around the ILP and what its imposition or non-imposition might do to the demographic situation of the states of Assam and Manipur! Of course the fact that not one of the three panelists was a tribal in the real sense seemed to bother no one. After all, we non-tribals know everything better, don’t we?
Having spent years trying to understand what it is that our tribal neighbours resent about us, I told myself it would have been much quicker if I had asked my Assamese friends for an answer. That they don’t seem to even realise how offensive their behaviour can be, that they don’t seem to understand that the tribals don’t need us to speak for them anymore, that they don’t see the writing on the wall — that while they sit in seminar halls in Guwahati making emotionally charged predictions about the future of the Assamese people, the others have got their act together and have moved on leaving us behind. And that if we continue to miss the point so repeatedly, then some day soon it will be too late to even feel sorry for ourselves. And nobody else will be to blame for that but our own inability to see the point.
(Besides being a writer and translator, Meenaxi is currently working with some small ethnic communities in NE India. She divides her time between the NE and Germany.)