I just finished reading On a Wing and a Prayer, by Arun Sarma. It’s a tragic story, but fascinating because it’s about Assamese people like me. I had never read a piece of fiction about Assamese people before I came across this book. Obviously, there is other literature about Assamese people, and the literature has existed for a long time, but for some reason it took 22 years for me to find. The work is translated from Assamese into English, which makes it even more fascinating. The English text still has the residue of Assamese speech. I can hear the quaint interjections and greetings being said in the language they came from. I can picture the green hills, the village life, and the river that I have seen myself when I read this book. I never thought I would read about that place in an English text. I didn’t know it could exist in English prose.
I have recently learned a lot about the region of the world where my parents are from. It turns out people from northeast India, or the Northeast, are treated in India much like minority populations are treated in the United States. Their level of education is often questioned. They are taunted about their accents, their slanted eyes, and their way of life. They are often denied access to public spaces, or their citizenship is questioned. In essence, they are treated like second-class citizens in their own country. (Sound familiar?)
I didn’t know this until just this past year. Suddenly, many of the encounters I had with other Indian Americans as a child make more sense now. I grew up in the United States, where Indians are often lumped together as a group. Americans are hardly sensitive to the level of discrimination and in-group/out-group dynamics that occur within minority populations. I assumed, before ever having any Indian friends, that I would be fully accepted as Indian if I were to ever to find any because that’s what I assumed I was.
It became very clear to me, upon meeting other Indians (at the age of 5, nonetheless), that I was not like them, at least they didn’t think so. Most Indians I came across didn’t know that Assam is a state in India, let alone being familiar with where it is. They often questioned the authenticity of my “Indianness”, commenting on how I “look more Hispanic”, my eyes are “so Asian”, my features “are not Indian at all”. They thought that because I didn’t speak Hindi (which I can now), or one of the languages they’d heard of, like Gujurati or Marathi, I was not Indian. The people who did know what and where Assam is tended to exotify me even more than the non-believers. They said the sorts of things you’d expect white men at a bar to say to me: “Oh, that’s so diverse!” or my personal favorite, “Wow, you’re so exotic.” To no surprise, I never felt I belonged to the very people who were supposed to claim me as their own.
I ought to explain, it is no mistake that I look more Southeast Asian than South Asian. The region of Assam is a mix of several cultures of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Assam is located in the Brahmaputra valley, on the border between India and China. A number of tribes populate the region, and several different languages are spoken. The culture of the area often more closely resembles those of Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries than that of the rest of north India (Hazarika, 1994). Some of the languages spoken in the Northeast belong in the Mon-Khmer language family, an Austro-Asiatic language family, though it should be noted that Assamese is an Indo-Aryan language (the easternmost Indo-Aryan language, according to the 2001 Indian Census).
Growing up, I never once felt inferior for being Assamese. My mother taught me the significance of my culture since the day I was born. She made sure I learned to speak Assamese. She taught me about Assamese homes, how they worship, what they eat, and what they wear. She taught me their music, she told me their stories. I spend a lot of my time being angry with her. I always wondered why my parents moved our little branch (more like, twig) of the family over here to the United States, and why I had to watch everything over there from afar. I always wondered why my mother never knew what I wanted, why she never understood when I had a problem, and never yielded when I wanted my way.
I have never thanked her for what she gave me. She taught me where I am from and instilled a sense of pride in who I am. She has given me enough knowledge for me to be a vessel for my culture, to be able to transmit it to another generation if I choose to do so. She has filled me with a love for that place that claims me as its own. She gave me somewhere to belong on this lonely planet.
For those of you who know who I am, I have never admitted how important being Assamese is to me. I would go so far as to say I consider my Assamese identity more salient than my Indian one. People have always acted like it doesn’t matter. They have told me it is such a trifling difference, such a confusing distinction, can’t I just be happy being Indian? I always went along with the suggestion because I did not have the tools to explain why it matters, and even if I did, it would be too exhausting to explain. I will not let that be the case any more. In a perfect world, it would not matter. Being Indian would encompass being Assamese. But knowing what I know now, knowing that this small place that claims me already does not have a voice, and has even less of one if I never do anything about it, is not fair. It is more than unfair, it is unjust. At the University of Florida, where there are 50,000 students, there were 5 Assamese people when I was a freshman. That’s 1 for every 10,000 students. By now, two have graduated. That means there is 1 for every 16,667. After I graduate, there will be 2. That is 1 for every 25,000 students. That is staggering. We are exceptionally rare.
And fine, I will concede that resources would be difficult to provide. Frankly, in my experience as part of the Assamese diaspora in Florida, we can usually provide our tiny community enough support without any external aid. That does not excuse your ignorance of us. That does not excuse your exclusion of us. That does not excuse your persecution of us.
I only ask that you remember me. Remember where I am from. Remember what I have said here. You will search a long, long time before you meet another person like me.
I recently watched this video, in which author Chimamanda Adichie talks about The Danger of A Single Story. It was very good, as TED talks tend to be, but what she said at the very beginning left me simultaneously intrigued and horror-struck. She said she was an early reader, and then an early writer, and when she started writing stories, she did not write about people who looked and lived like her. She wrote about little white girls with blue eyes, who ate apples and talked about the weather.
It was a hauntingly familiar story. I remember when I first began to write. For the longest time, I wrote about animals. I gave them human personalities and then wrote about their thoughts and feelings as creatures. They were easier to write about because I never had to go into great detail about the physical features of, say, a rabbit. Eventually, I started writing about people, but always in a stilted fashion. I could never give characters names. Even now, it feels especially burdensome to christen them with something elegant. I am tempted to just call them “Person A” and “Person B” for the entirety of some pieces. When I was younger, I censored myself to using the blandest, most common names. There were usually Katies, Davids, Megans and Erics in my writing. I never wanted to make it obvious that I was thinking of a brown person like me, but it sometimes showed when I gave somewhat mismatching characteristics like black hair and blue eyes. Characters often had dirty blonde hair, I remember, or brown. I had to imagine what it was like to live in a home that was not like mine, in a home where people did not eat rice every day, did not light incense sticks when they pray, did not take their shoes off at the door of the house. Not surprisingly, I was never too pleased with the result, which felt like a counterfeit of what I was really thinking about.
I realize now that I could have very easily shared the stories about unique experiences that only I have. I could have talked about India and my visits to my grandmother’s house, and my many relatives against a backdrop of northeast India in the heat of summer. I could have talked about my classical Indian dance lessons, where we told the stories of Indian epics through dance. I could have talked about the friends I had as a child and what we really did, playing together in one another’s houses and seeing them at Indian gatherings throughout the year. But I never felt I could share any of that. I refused. I always thought I would have to answer so many questions if I wrote about those things. People would ask me what I meant if I wrote about pujas, wearing salwars, eating mithai. It would mark me as different to write about these experiences. It would be an open declaration of my foreignness, so I thought. I had no desire for such attention, nor was I ready for it at that age.
The similarities between my story and Chimamanda’s are that our writing was both funny and sad. It was funny for us as children to think we could write about things we did not know, and sad for the same reason. My writing has since undergone a transformation that is not yet complete. In my teenage years, there was a time when I would not describe physical features at all. I would simply give a character a name and then drag them through a story. The writing circles (of mostly white people) where I shared these pieces begged me to give them something physical about the character to hold on to. I usually did not oblige them.
As of yet, I have not returned to prose. I am still wildly wary of using names like Namrata, Anjali, Shaam, and Preet. I still falter when it comes to describing things like height, facial hair, eye shapes, noses, and of course, skin color. At least I now know I can describe those features. There was a time I would not acknowledge them at all.
Still, there are now things that escape my precision that I never would have expressed before. Things like “grape-colored lips”, or “uncles and aunties”. Descriptions of tandoori chicken, curries with cumin and cardamom. Colorful pajamas and kurtas. Bangles on wrists, payal on ankles. Perhaps one day, my writing will reflect a second-generation Indian community in the flesh. It will convey Desi America in all its glory. Perhaps one day, these specks of color will become the story itself, my story. My entirely different story.