Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Who Else Am I Not? Part Two- “Are you from India?”

A week later, I stood in front of a dilapidated building. My father said it was to be my new school.

In the 1970's, Nagaland had a lot of Christians, but surprisingly, not the kind of schools that the missionaries built in hill stations and other parts of India. The Indian government was hated, and therefore, not allowed to do much.

We had just arrived a few days ago to Mukokchung, and had settled into a nice big wooden house on stilts, in a little valley surrounded by hillocks.

We were to share it with another family from my father's organisation.

The road trip from Mariani to Mukokchung that usually took three hours, had taken us five, as just out of the town had occurred a mud slide. I have never again seen such a huge pile of soft silky light brown mud.

I distinctly remember how peaceful the long line of vehicles on both sides appeared. No honking, no gathering of irritable people desperate to get to the other side. Loved ones would simply assume the best, not the worst as is the case now.

Laden with memories of the vast expanse of my previous school, with its sunlit classrooms, manicured lawns, and pretty little flower beds, I looked with distaste at the structure my father now ushered us into.

My brother and I wrinkled our noses at the smell in the ‘office’ of the dishevelled ‘principal’, and giggled, silenced by the stern look on our father’s face.

Soon, both of us were escorted  to our respective classrooms.

I looked around for polished desks with small attached seats that I thought every classroom would have,  only to find rough long wooden tables, with one long bench shared by ten or twelve children. The ground was littered with pencil shavings and paper.

I noticed, many of the children were wrapped in red and black shawls, some of which were faded (I don’t think the school had a uniform).

They looked at me in my yellow frock curiously,and when the teacher read out my name haltingly from a slip my escort was carrying, there was much laughter and giggles. It was deja vu time.

The girl I sat down next to (I don't recall her name. In fact I don't remember a single person's name from that school) asked me, "Are you from India?"

I took my time to reply, as I wasn't sure. My concept of India was vague at the time.

"No, I'm from Kalimpong."

That broke the ice, and though I was very different in many respects ( I wore frilly, sometimes starched frocks to school, while many children wore either the tribal dress or jeans, which the missionaries got them),I was accepted very soon, as my English, Math and Science was the best in class, thanks to my three years with the scottish nuns.

Although I gained the respect of my classmates easily, there were many things about my new friends that invoked envy in me.

I noticed that the world (comprising, for me, of Kalimpong and here) was full of girls and boys with black straight silky hair, skin that was hairless and smooth, and eyes that were small and sparkling.

I spent many hours in front of the mirror pulling the corners of my eyes upwards in a slant, to see how I looked.

I felt like the ugliest creature in class, with my strange large eyes, hairy arms and legs, and curly long hair that my mother dutifully made into two long tight plaits every morning.

My prowess in class did assuage some of my feelings, but deep down I wanted to look like the rest so much!

The one thing that I was glad was different from ours was their food.

Once, on a holiday, I asked my father to drop me off at one of my school friend’s house to play. It was raining, and the evening air was full of little bugs flying all over, and crowding the streetlights.

My friend’s mother called out to her and gave her a little mug, with some instructions. She ran about with the mug in hand, trying to catch as many little bugs as possible.

"This was a great game", I thought, and joined in, collecting as many as I could till the mug was full.

We handed the mug over to her mother, who then, to my horror, proceeded to fry them in hot oil! All for my benefit!

My vegetarian mother, equally horrified at the ‘honour’ accorded to me, forbade me from visiting other friends’ houses, and didn’t wish to entertain them either.

The hillocks around our house had little huts on them belonging to the labourers who worked on the roads that my father’s organisation was building.

Every evening, they burnt their wood fires, and cooked rice and (I learnt later, after the loss of our Alsatian, Peter) sometimes, dog meat.  While waiting for it to cook, they strummed their guitars, and sang quaint songs I had never heard.

I noticed that every family for miles around, rich or poor, owned a guitar.

The sight of the beautifully burning fires lighting up the night sky is still fresh in my memory.

The knowledge of how different we were perceived to be was brought home in a rather unwelcome fashion one summer night.

That night, three or four men quietly broke into our house via the back bathroom door, with the intention of causing bloodshed.

The Naga insurgency was at its peak at the time, and my father's organisation was part of the Army, which was hated by the insurgents.

As children we were blissfully unaware of this fact. I just remember waking up that night by the screams and shouts coming from my parent’s bedroom.

On hearing the commotion, my father's colleague and another friend who was staying the night, rushed in to my parent’s bedroom, to find my mother, shaken and alone.

My father, not one to be scared easily, had momentarily overpowered one of  his assailants. When they all ran back, out from the bathroom door, he followed them in hot pursuit!

He managed to catch that one guy. After interrogation, in a week's time, the rest were caught too.

Post this incident, it was considered too dangerous for us all to stay in town, so as quickly as possible, some makeshift accommodation was constructed for us near the project office, and we were shifted there.

Childhood is a time of flexibility, and I had settled in beautifully in my strange new surroundings, but, my parents, it seems, couldn't quite adjust. So, in just a matter of ten months, we were all packed and on the move again.....

To be continued...


  1. So life was a long adventure, right? I remember the two plaits :)

  2. It was, Irene, and will continue to be, until the day my husband hangs up his travelling boots! Losing my two plaits was a huge relief! Envied your short crop!

  3. Wonderful, Ma'am! it was fun reading it.

    Am I seeing these as the first few steps towards writing of your book???!!

    keep it coming!!!

  4. Thanks Nitin, that was very encouraging!
    Well, I'm trying to warm up to the idea...until then, I'll try and "keep it coming", :-) (I'm hoping I have at least one assured reader!)

  5. hi meetu di, loved ur posts...childhood memories take you back to a time when life was so wonderful and free from pain and hardships...
    read some earlier posts too...u write really well..why dont u start a book? u'll have two readers...:)...

  6. Thanks Ranu, for sharing your thoughts...yes, childhood is a blissfull period, and if we have positive, happy memories, then we form the miniscule percentage of happy people on this planet!
    thanks for your encouragement dear, about writing a book...I live to write, and I get done in a few hundred words these days, maybe one day I'll go on and on, and suddenly realise, "Oh, I've written a book!" When that happens, one of the first copies shall be to you! Take care...

  7. Very well written. And you sure had an adventurous childhood. I always wanted to know more about NE. Hope you write more about your experience.

  8. Thank you Moulee, I'm glad you liked the piece.
    Looking back on my childhood, I agree, it could be considered adventurous. At the time, however, I thought that was how everyone lived their lives!
    I do plan to write more, and will keep meandering in the NE, with a foray or two in the plains. I look forward to your views on those too!

  9. I have now started knowing your child hood times & can figure it out what kept you all so far away from us. It is long trek down the memory lane which you have covered, so very well.
    You have the flair... I am loving it.. Time permits, I wud love to narrate my times too for you to pen.

  10. Yes, we were very far away, bhai, in a different world altogether!
    Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it:-)
    This way by the time we meet, 50 percent of the exchanging of notes would have been done!
    Please do narrate it all....I would love to write it down, for our children, and their children, to read!

  11. Thank you Navin bhai....yes, we were in a far away world for a long time....I would love to read what you pen down bhai, that way we could cover up so much ground before we actually meet...looking forward...!