"Does the Rajdhani Express go to Assam?" I thought I had heard something wrong. When the question was repeated, I knew I heard it right. My blood came to a boil. But my conscience got the better of me as I realised that the person may genuinely not know much about Assam. I said instead:
"No, the Rajdhani goes only till New Jalpaiguri. On the Assam-Bengal border, we get off and take a bullock cart!"
So pleased was I with my own terrible joke that I almost rolled on the floor laughing!
I am from the northeast, from Assam, from Guwahati, but I am not Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli who was raised by wolves.
Now a migrant in Delhi, I came in 2008 after landing a job in a reputed media organisation.
I come from a respected and well-known family in Guwahati. My grandfather was a lawyer. My father was a gold medal-winning professor at a Guwahati college. My mother is from a family of businessmen which once traded with Bhutan's king and small Hindu princely areas of Bangladesh.
I was born and brought up in Guwahati, studied in a missionary school with origins in Italy, and finally in a reputed 60-year-old local college. I completed my Master's from a fledgeling but promising central university in Tezpur, a town linked to Lord Krishna.
The question posed to me about Rajdhani came from a Delhiite educated in Mumbai.
Ignorance about the northeast is indeed widespread. Some get stumped when I tell them I travel by air; do planes fly to remote, far-off northeast?
A woman Assamese colleague from Dibrugarh was asked by a Delhiite if rhinoceros roam in her backyard!
Once a man from Nainital asked me if I could "arrange" some "exotic" northeastern woman for him. Needless to say the man has never dared to speak to me again.
My colleagues often pull my leg about how they would help Assam get 'independence' -- provided I hand over all the rhinos, all oil fields, the mighty Brahmaputra, all the tea gardens plus all the timber! I reply by saying that after getting freedom, I will be the charge d'affaires of Assam in Delhi!
Jokes apart, my fellow northeasterners may hate me for what I am going to say now. I am an Assamese. Although my surname sounds Bengali, my original surname was "Majumder Baruah".
How the "Baruah" got dropped is another story.
I have not faced any discrimination through the six years I have been in Delhi. My colleagues give credit for that to my non-Mongoloid looks. I have lived for five years in South Extension in south Delhi where there is a literal flood of people from the northeast. I have seen a few scuffles over the years but none involving a northeasterner.
In fact, my landlord, from Haryana, goes to great lengths to make me feel at home and has helped me on several occasions.
It was indeed a cultural shock when I first arrived in Delhi. I found many people here were vegetarians, a fact difficult to digest for my fish, meat-eating persona. Hence my roommate (also from Assam but a Bengali) and I always choose a house whose owner is not a strict vegetarian.
I have seen some northeasterners lie to the landlords, then flout the house rules by cooking even pork and beef.
I don't drink. Northeasterners unfortunately have a bad reputation in Delhi. Some here think we are all alcohol guzzlers and sleep around. Yes, there are bad apples but they are in a minority.
You need two hands to clap. I think both the northeast community and the so-called Delhiites are to blame for the state of affairs in the capital vis-a-vis people from the northeast.
Many north Indians may lack knowledge about the northeast, but how many from the northeast can claim to know everything about the rest of India?
Then there is music. While the Constitution allows freedom of expression, can people (north Indians included) play loud music late into the night?
Northeasterners should remember that they are migrants in Delhi and are easily identifiable. While playing music is no crime, respect your neighbours.
While people in Delhi or so-called "mainstream India" have little exposure to the northeast, people from the "remote, far-flung" region also need to make adjustments to local realities.
While northeasterners have been hit by crime in Delhi, thousands of people like me are earning their livelihood in peace.
I agree that there are times northeasterners are targeted. But don't Punjabis and south Indians and Biharis also become victims of Delhi's notorious abrasiveness?
People from other regions may find it difficult to make friends among Delhiites. But instead of being cocooned within their own community, they should mingle with other people and educate them about their region.