How to best fight racial discrimination and ensure the safety of North-easterners in Indian metropolitan cities, where, because of their supposed “otherthan-Indian” looks and cultural practices, they experience frequent harassment and humiliation? According to a Delhi Police booklet titled Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi, published some years ago, the onus of this is on North-easterners themselves, who are thus directed not to cook and eat certain dishes that are considered delicacies such as bamboo shoots, axone (fermented soya beans), and fermented fish, for these are considered “smelly” by Delhiites and may therefore create a “ruckus in the neighbourhood.”
The booklet further instructs North-eastern women not to wear “revealing dresses” (whatever this may mean, as whether the exposed midriff of a traditional sari or the partially visible limbs of a sleeveless shirt or shorter pant is more or less revealing is not an object of measured fact but of cultural conviction), and if they still do, “not to use lonely roads or by-lanes.”
The title of this booklet, which equates North-easterners with visitors in Delhi instead of addressing them as rightbearing co-citizens, is as telling as the content, which, in a word, implies that for North-easterners to live freely and without fear in their own capital, they should not eat their traditional food, must adjust their clothing, and shed any other habit that is not considered “properly Indian” in the eyes of the local populace.
The booklet sparked outrage with several tribal, student and other Northeastern organisations condemning it as social profiling, victim-blaming, cultural imposition, and all-out insult for seemingly collating dress-style with “loose morals.” The most disconcerting aspect remained the one least discussed, however.
That is, the author himself was a North-easterner sanctioned in Delhi as a senior police officer. His undoubtedly noble intentions apart, a North-easterner preaching his own cultural erasure evidences the most destructive impact of structural racism — the internalisation of oppression on part of the victims by using the methods of the oppressing group against themselves. Here this translates into acts of blaming oneself (wearing “revealing dresses”, using “bylanes”), self-deprecation and affirming prejudices and biases (accepting that one’s traditional food is smelly, despite, as any anthropologist will tell you, smell being socially conditioned, not a culturally-neutral phenomena), and through the limiting, blocking and undermining of one’s own identity and culture (only do things considered “properly Indian”).
I was reminded of that booklet as I watched the much-discussed movie Axone, scripted and starred in nearly exclusively by actors and actresses from North-east India.
For this reason, in view of the routine underrepresentation and misrepresentation of North-easterners in Bollywood, and because it promised to highlight racial discrimination, the movie was anticipated by many in and from the region.
All the more was the disappointment viewing it. Axone is a traditional delicacy used especially in Naga cuisine, but which is so-called smelly to unaccustomed nostrils. The film is about a group of North-east residents in Delhi who wish to add axone in a special pork dish to celebrate their friend, Minam’s hastily planned wedding.
The movie depicts a stressful day as the friends encounter racial abuse, a hostile landlord and neighbours, and interpersonal drama as they struggle to cook the perfect axone-pork dish. An early dramatic scene shows the protagonist Chanbi being sexually harassed when she is buying tomatoes by a Delhiite who explicitly links her North-eastern looks to particular sexual dispositions.
This importantly highlights the way North-eastern female bodies are perceived locally, which seemingly evokes both “disgust” (as “misfits” in relation to purported “Indianness”) and “desire” (precisely because they appear “unIndian”).
When Chanbi confronts him, he is slapped. In all of this, Bendang, Chanbi’s boyfriend, fails to protect her. This makes Chanbi’s outrage shift from the abuser to her boyfriend. Bendang internalises his failure by declaring himself a coward and, deeply depressed, locks himself up in his basement apartment. Later we learn that, before he met Chanbi, Bendang was the victim of racial violence and beaten up to the extent that his life hung by a thread.
The character of Bendang is a clear reference to Nido Taniam, an Arunachali youth who was violently attacked by a racist mob in 2014. Unlike Taniam, Bendang recovered, although deeply traumatised, which speaks to the embodied anxiety victims of racial attacks and abuse carry with them. This permanent anxiety many North-easterners suffer is further depicted in the intense panic attack Chanbi experiences when her landlady racially stereotypes and insults her.
All ingredients assembled, the friends need a safe place to cook their “smelly” dish. They are assisted by the landlady’s grandson named Shiv, who explains his help with the contextually insulting phrase, “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai.”
His deeper motivation is more insulting still, which is his fetish for North-eastern girls.
Throughout the movie he expresses his desire for a North-eastern girlfriend, however – and here the simultaneous “disgust” reappears – with the brazenness of having some fun with her and to make his Delhi girlfriend jealous. To “cover up” for the smell of axone, Shiv tells his family that the building’s septic tank is leaking and is under repair – a traditional delicacy disguised as accumulated human excrement; it is a disturbing, self-deprecating comparison drawn by director Nicholas Kharkongor, who is himself from the North-east.
Their cooking is nevertheless discovered by the landlady, who throws an angry fit and issues a range of threats, including their expulsion from the building.
Searching, in vain, for several other places to cook in, they finally break open Bendang’s door and find him there in a dejected state. The wedding celebration is shifted to Bendang’s room, while axone is surreptitiously prepared on the rooftop of Shiv’s house. Shiv joins the celebration, and after uttering several more inappropriate remarks, Bendang blurts at him, “You f*****g Indian.”
An upset Shiv asks Zoram, another protagonist, “You guys don’t think you are Indians?” Instead of explaining to Shiv the recurring racism, trauma and suffering of Northeasterners in Delhi (and other metropolises), a guilty Zoram apologises and comforts him, thus shifting victimhood from Bendang to Shiv. Meanwhile, Chanbi berates Bendang, “All these years you have not made one single friend from here, how sad is that, ya. You said you wanna go back to the northeast but you have made your own northeast here. You only interact with people from the northeast, some of them might have problem with us but most of them are nice to us you know, and that is the reason you and I are living here (sic).”
This is perhaps the most problematic monologue of the movie. First, most North-easterners are not in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, or elsewhere, because its local people are exceptionally “nice” to them, but because of long decades of state violence, failed development, and malgovernance in the North-east, which leaves them with little security and prospects in their home states. It is further problematic as, akin to the writer of the police booklet cited above, Chanbi has internalised her own oppression and blames Bendang for not sufficiently mingling and integrating with Delhiites. The movie ends with Minam’s wedding feast of axone-pork, but not without a few final blows on Northeastern identity and victimhood. Bendang plays the guitar and sings in fluent Hindi, after an earlier scene showing him struggling in Hindi (thus suggesting that he is finally shedding his “parochialism”).
Shiv joins the merrymaking, appreciates Bendang’s Hindi, and forgives him for his earlier outburst (“It is okay brother, it happens”). Shiv apparently does not need to apologise for his continuously deprecating remarks about North-eastern females and culture.
In all of this, this movie flatly fails to take on racial discrimination, as it promised to do and ends up blaming the victims, rather than the perpetrators of racism. A better title, thence, of this movie would have been “apologetic axone”, but victims of racism apologising for their identity, culture and embodied experiences of oppression is not how structures of racism can be dismantled.
Axone represents a lopsided reading of deeply entrenched racial discrimination directed at North-easterners, and in whose perpetuation it now borders on being complicit.
The writer is a social anthropologist and teaches in the department of social sciences at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan.