Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Far from home

Tea for three

It seems Manipur leaps into the nation’s consciousness only when a bomb goes off just ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit, as it did earlier this month, or when Anna Hazare says he intends to visit Irom Sharmila, who has been fasting for the repeal of the AFSPA for more than a decade now. Slowly, however, the state is making its way into the Indian mainstream. Much of this shift has to do with the large population of Manipuris who now live outside the state.

30-year-old Kevin Paochinthan Simte is one of the Manipuris who has chosen to make Gurgaon his home. “I was told that a senior executive with a large public sector organisation wanted someone to work for him in Gurgaon so I came here in 2002,” he says. The money was better than what he made working at a company guesthouse in Shillong and so he took a chance. But things didn’t go according to plan. The job was at the executive’s home, he had to sleep on the living room floor and the lady of the house wouldn’t permit him to turn on the fan in the height of summer.

“I didn’t sleep properly for months and felt bad about being treated like a domestic servant so I decided to leave,” he said. A cousin talked him out of returning to Manipur where employment is scarce and soon he was assisting her in her flower-selling business. Now, he works at a store that sells jewellery and showpieces for the home at the Galleria Market.

Kevin is part of the small but very visible population of Manipuris in Gurgaon who man counters at shopping centres, are receptionists at clinics and guide diners to the best seats at restaurants. “There are people from different tribes here. There are Nagas, Kuki, Paite, Hmar, Mizos and Simtes, among others,” reveals Kevin as he watches music videos of Manipuri pop singer Mami Varte in his immaculately maintained single-room home in Chakkarpur village. Each tribe has its own organisation and though all the Manipuris have strong bonds formed mainly at church and prayer meetings, they don’t have a single representative body.

“I know that there are 1200 people from the Simte tribe in Delhi and Gurgaon because I’m a member of the Simte Youth Organisation (SYO) but I couldn’t tell you how many Manipuris there are here,” says Kevin who adds that most live in Chakkarpur, Sun city and Sikandarpur where rents are lower.

His friend Thomas Maram (28) who lives down the street with his wife Rose and two small children George and Phillip is an ex-serviceman from the Assam Rifles who opted for voluntary discharge before trying his hand at a series of jobs, including a stint at a detective agency in Hyderabad. Now the captain at the swanky K2 Korean restaurant in Plaza Mall, Thomas gives you a glimpse of how tough life is in the insurgency-ridden state when he talks about the frequent blockades there. “Petrol costs Rs 140 per litre and a single gas cylinder costs Rs 1000,” he says.

And though his father was with the BSF, the family had its share of troubles. Back in 1996, when he was still a boy and the family had settled in Churachandpur, a young soldier form the Paite tribe, who was going home on leave, was murdered by some Marams. The family soon heard that plans were afoot to carry out retaliatory killings and realised that since they were Maram and also happened to live where the crime had occurred they would be definite targets.

“My Bengali brother-in-law has a sharp brain and he immediately bundled us all into a jeep and drove us out of there. We left our property and belongings behind and started afresh in Senapati, which is where the Maram tribe is from originally,” he says adding that there are about 20 Marams living in Gurgaon today.

While violent ethnic strife isn’t a feature of life in the millennium city, both Kevin and Thomas have experienced discrimination. “The people here don’t know that we are Manipuris. They think we are Nepali and since we look similar, they look down upon us,” says Kevin who adds that north eastern girls bear the brunt as they are mistaken for women from Nepal who have been coerced into the flesh trade.

“Our girls also dress fashionably. It’s part of our culture. Nobody notices it at home but here everyone looks,” says Thomas who recounts how he had to intervene to protect a Manipuri girl who was being sexually harassed by her landlord. “The man had a daughter who was the same age but still he kept troubling her. He even said he wouldn’t charge her rent if she gave in!” says Thomas. The exasperated girl finally moved out.

24-year-old Leena Ching Suan Vung, who works at a toy store, prefers not to notice the negatives. “We have to live. It is difficult here but it is also nice,” says the soft-spoken Kuki girl from Churachandpur who perks up when she talks about attending services at the Free Church in Jantar Mantar and prayer meetings held every Tuesday by the Gurgaon Prayer Cell. “Each tribe speaks a different dialect. The pastor might deliver the message in Simte or Zhou but we all understand it and each other too,” she says.

Far from home and living amidst an alien culture, it would seem the Manipuris of Gurgaon prefer to forget the tribal differences that have made life insufferable in their native state.

“Actually, all the north easterners try to stick together here. Recently, when a young Naga man died in Sikandarpur, people from all over the NCR came to give their condolences to his family and left money for his wife and child,” says Kevin. And with the relaxation of the old taboos and more interaction with each other, there are more mixed marriages happening too.

Kevin, Thomas and Leena speak with affection of their homes in Churachandpur and Senapati and of their close bonds with fellow tribesmen but all of them seem to believe that their future lies in this city of gleaming towers that now attracts people from every state in the Indian union and beyond.

This article was first published in an edited form by local weekly, Friday Gurgaon

Picture courtesy Friday Gurgaon

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