How I Beat “Northeasternitis” and Lived to Tell the Tale

Social Commentary

How I Beat “Northeasternitis” and Lived to Tell the Tale

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

“So, you are from Assam? Do you need a visa to come to India?” The admin officer at my college in Pune asked me solicitously, as he stamped my admission form. I had only heard about this deadly disease, but this was actually the first time I was encountering a severe case of Northeasternitis. You might have heard of it: It is a condition where someone is suffering from complete or partial lack of awareness about the northeastern states of India.  

When I arrived in Pune fresh from Guwahati, I found that nearly everyone suffered from Northeasternitis. It was a fucking epidemic. Only Guwahati was universally recognised by almost everybody, thanks to the fact that it was a venue for several one-day cricket matches. But, yes, Guwahati could very well have been the capital of Assam, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, or Sikkim. Or all of them.

In my early days, it would really piss me off. I mean if I could tell the difference between a Malayali and a Tamilian, a Maharashtrian and a Gujarati, was it too much to ask for the same geographical familiarity from everyone else? During my first year, I went blue in the face explaining the difference to my classmates and then by my second year, I gave up.

At the start of my second year, thanks to a part-time job in the evening and a growing indifference to institutional academia, I started to bunk my morning classes that would start at the unearthly hour of 7 am. This continued throughout the term and I ended up with the distinction of being a “blacklisted” student. It meant I wasn’t allowed to appear for my term exams. It also meant I had to request the principal of the college, Mr J, for special permission to take the exams.

I stepped out of the office and doubled up with laughter. This was not just a full-blown case of Northeasternitis but Earthitis.

As I entered his cabin, I realised that I didn’t really have any great excuse other than stating the absolute truth. But in these situations the truth seldom helps.

So I started, to my complete surprise, rambling about the floods in Assam, the depleting population of rhinos, the influx of Bangladeshis, and so on. And somehow, I magically connected all of these northeastern catastrophes to the reason I couldn’t attend classes in Pune, a city almost 3,000 kilometres away.

Until date, I haven’t been able to figure out what Mr J was thinking, or smoking because all he did was nod wisely. My excuse was so full of holes that it would have sent a sieve scurrying to the friendly neighborhood psychiatrist’s couch. After I was done, Mr J patted my shoulder in a benign manner while stamping his approval on my application.

As I was about to walk out, he gave me an appraising look and asked.

“Where is Assam?”

“It’s in northeastern India, sir.”

“Where’s Northeast India?’

I couldn’t resist.

“Well, sir, it’s right next to the Middle East.”

“Oh, yes,” he muttered as he shook my hand.

I stepped out of the office and doubled up with laughter. This was not just a full-blown case of Northeasternitis but Earthitis – not having any fucking clue about anything beyond your own nose.

That was the day I figured, if you can’t fight ’em, then beat ’em at their own game. The Northeast is such a vague and foreign place in the minds of people that I could pretty much spin any tale around it. I spread the good word among other “chinkies” (only we can call ourselves chinkies, not you ok?) and everyone joined it. It was, after all, a rich ground waiting to be mined.

These are the gems we collectively came up with and dished liberally to everyone who had Northeasternitis:

“You guys are so lucky. You wake up and come to college on your Bajaj M80s. Back home; our first job after waking up was to go the backyard and chase grazing rhinos back into the jungle. Only then, the tame elephants would come out and take us to school.”

“Tigers in Assam are like cats. In the freezing winter, they sometimes come inside homes and curl up on the beds with the thickest mattresses and quilts. During those days, we’d shift to a relative’s house. We’d always pray to the mattress afterward and burn it during Durga Puja so that the tiger wouldn’t come back next winter. Then we made curtains out of the quilt.”

“How far is Bangladesh from Guwahati? Oh, it’s just just about a mile away from my home. Every evening, I used to cycle there and buy rice. Bangladeshi rice is much cheaper. Because the rupee is much stronger than the taka.”

“During floods, we fold our wooden homes and haul them up the tallest trees in the vicinity. We then live like that until winter arrives. That’s why we are called tree-people. We used to make guitars out of the branches to while away the boredom. Now you know why there are so many guitarists from our neck of the woods.”

These tales were often accompanied by lots of drawings to ensure their authenticity. All the patients of Northeasterinitis bought it. Some of them widened their eyes in disbelief, in the manner of patients who are first told of the nature of their strange disease. But with repeated narrations, they slowly came around. Like a good doctor, I ensured treatment (doses of actual information) was always very gradual. Why ruin a good pastime after all?

One day when we have more Mary Kom kind of biopics that shed light on our world and people start getting familiar with the region, maybe Northeasternitis will be cured. Until then, if you see an article that talks most seriously about Northeasterners and their complicated relationship with tigers, quilts, and Durga Puja, don’t laugh.

Just spread the good word.