Ngalatim Hongray (or Atim, as she is fondly called) longs to have a nice home and a loving family. She steps out of Ukhrul, a remote district in the hilly tracts of Manipur in north-east India, to find work in ‘mainland’ India. It doesn’t matter what work she does as long as she can earn and send money back home.
Like Atim, her brother Yaokhalek, too, lands in Delhi to start earning as soon as possible, not only to support his family, but also to taste the freedom that comes with being financially independent. He wants to earn a living through music, which proves to be an uphill task.
In Nandita Haksar’s new book, The Exodus is Not Over: Migrations from the Ruptured Homelands of Northeast India, people like Atim and Yaokhalek find a rare mention, with stories that not only reveal their innermost feelings, but also the humiliation and helplessness they have to routinely face as ‘foreigners’ in their own country. This is probably the first time any migrant worker from the north-east has come on record to speak out against the discrimination they face, in intimate and harrowing detail.
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Equally courageous is the account of Mayori, Atim’s niece, who shows an indomitable spirit in trying to live in a society where she can feel safe and ‘accepted’. The other ‘protagonist’ in the book, Livingstone Shaiza, too, has a simple dream—to run a restaurant.
Although the narratives focus on only one community—the Tangkhul Nagas from Ukhrul (of which the writer’s husband is also a member)—the problems, difficulties, prejudices, racism, humiliation and oppression experienced by them are similar to what is faced by almost any other tribe or linguistic section of the north-east populace. Haksar—a familiar figure in the context of the north-east, as she has been engaged with the people of the region for over four decades now—does a commendable job in telling the stories of the first generation of these migrant workers, clarifying that there is a huge difference between migrants from the north-east and those from the remaining parts of the country. For instance, in the case of the former, unmarried men and women migrate in equal numbers, which is in contrast to the latter, where the profile seems to be typically male.
Also, the feeling of alienation seems to be more prominent in north-eastern migrant workers. Haksar lists out the factors responsible for this: difference in cultural practices, caste system, ignorance, etc.
Haksar also writes about the ‘ghettoisation’ that these communities are pushed into, the physical violence and verbal abuse they are forced to face on a daily basis, as well as the indifference of the media. She also talks about the need and the resultant efficacy of north-east associations and helplines that cater to the needs of the members of the community living outside the region.
In the end, Haksar’s documentation of the experiences of north-eastern migrant workers—whom she calls ‘survivors’—emerges as a celebration of the human spirit.