Obscure towns, big cities and the mapping of identity
As a student, my decision to pursue higher studies was influenced by a desire to escape Dimapur, an obscure, hot, humid city of formless urban confusion. I enrolled in a university in Hyderabad, a place which fulfilled my sense of what a city should be. Coming from the vertiginous hills of my homeland in Nagaland thousands of kilometres away, Hyderabad was a dramatic change, in terms of language, food, people, and culture. However, I was not alone and I developed a sense of community with the other students, both Naga and mainland Indians, similarly placed in the new environment.
Dimapur has long been the bastion of frontiersmen; the launchpad for British colonists when the Naga Hills district was created in 1866, it was once the fort city of the Kachari tribes and a way-point for the Ahom Kings in the 13th century CE. The city asserts itself as a dynamic entity brimming with traders, commercial activities and travellers. My postal code is attached to a hundred-year-old village within Dimapur called Eralibill. This village was founded by the Garos, a tribe predominant in the neighbouring state of Meghalaya, but is now constituted by a history of migrations – various Naga tribes, people from Bihar, Orissa, Nepal, and Bengali-speaking Muslims from Assam known as Miyans. The very nature of this city imbues a sense of pluralism and hybridity that subverts the established Naga hegemonic identity. My parents belong to two different tribes, born in Littami and Wokha respectively; they shifted to the more cosmopolitan environs of Dimapur for a chance to strive forth on their own terms, removed from the demands of ethnic affiliation. This transitoriness and plurality are part of my identity. Mobility supplants as well as implants the notion of home and, as Paul Gilroy once wrote, it is in these intersections that a far more hospitable cosmopolitanism may be discovered.
I arrived at Hyderabad full of the confidence of youth. In the city, I steadily learned to look beyond language and culture, realising that these aspects of identity were not singular or set in stone. The communal balance between the city’s Hindu and Muslim residents has created a unique Hyderabadi identity with its own colloquial inflexions. I struggled to glean the local language, Telugu, and tried to assume the demure nuances of a girl about town, in a kurta, salwar and dupatta instead of my usual tops and jeans. However, I was still subject to pinches and jibes in the streets of the city, perhaps because of how different I looked, but I suspect it had more to do with my sex. The bogey of racial profiling and gender discrimination in Indian cities remains, despite their diversity. For the Nagas in particular, this idea of being different is further compounded by a turbulent history of conflict between successive Indian governments and Naga rebel groups, who are now in a fragile cease-fire agreement. These are the terrains on which the perpetual impasse of my identity is brokered. In Hyderabad, I found that food could be a means to negotiate these experiences.
When I left Dimapur, my suitcase had to be filled with the many preserved food items whose fermented aroma brought a piece of home with me. Packets of axone or fermented soybean; a jar of fermented bamboo shoots, both dry and wet; mani tong or sundried yam and taro stalks; sundried Naga Ghost chillies; fermented dried fish; sticky rice; smoked meats and innards; anishi or fermented taro leaves; dried michinga or zanthoxylum seeds; dried and hand-pounded sumac; gur from Wokha; dried wild berries and neem powder. Into the suitcase would also go the traditional Naga mekhala, beaded jewellery and a Naga bag, the quotidian markers of my tribal identity. My trusty wooden mortar and pestle, a small dao, and the inimitable Naga black clay pot completed my luggage. The fermented food of the Nagas has often been the ire of the culture police; at one time there was a controversial Delhi Police booklet produced for Northeast students cautioning against the preparation of food that might provoke a ‘ruckus in the neighbourhood’.
When preparing our food in the hostels, there was a sense of jubilation but also trepidation opening the odd array of containers, even as we tried to ensure there was enough ventilation while cooking. Despite complaints about the ‘unruly’ smells, the sharing of these meals was a celebration and a gathering of Naga people and other non-Naga friends, who also brought their food to be shared. Some friends from mainland India acquired a liking for the traditionally prepared Naga food, predominantly boiled, packed with vegetables and always accompanied with a blistering Ghost Chili chutney. Thus, food became an essential way to retain a sense of being Naga outside of Nagaland and to build a new community in Hyderabad. This is also how tribal Naga society builds and sustains relationships and reflects the ritual practice of resolving disputes through the sharing of food.
I have since returned to Dimapur and teach at a local college. I am rediscovering more fermented food recipes, re-learning the growing seasons of local produce and have resolved to support the community here. I am realising that there is much to learn from the elders regarding methods of working the land, and that there is a great need to preserve traditional knowledge. At the same time, my memories of sharing food, conversations, music and ideas in Hyderabad are re-lived when friends visit the North-East and I can again share in those moments. The culture of openness I found in the city is what I would like to pass down to my students. I am beginning to see that my venturing, as well as my return, are intrinsically tied to my notion of home. These experiences share a mutual intersection of history, culture, language, food, and memory. Strangely enough, I felt more at home in Hyderabad, perhaps because this was where my sense of family exceeded that which is defined by blood, place, or religion. It is this sense of boundlessness, shaped by friendships over food, that continues to guide my sense of place in the world.
Elika Assumi is from Nagaland, a small hill-state in the North-East of India. She teaches at a local college and her primary area of interest is in locating the unique and subjective experiences of people from the Northeastern region of India through their writings. She can be reached at .