FIFTH WALL - Tea and a tale of ethnic resurgence : Uddipana Goswami

The history of colonial expansion in India has been one of forced migration of labour populations to and from various parts of the British Empire. Of these migrant populations, many have now established themselves as integral parts of the host community. Some, like the Indian migrants to Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago, have even risen above their traumatic histories of death, displacement and dehumanisation, and gained prominence socially and politically in the host countries. A similar traumatic story of bonded labour, enforced slavery, death and deprivation brought the ‘tea tribals’ of Assam into the region from various places in British India. Unfortunately however, the socio-economic plight of a majority of the people within the community has not changed much since the days that they worked in the tea gardens owned by European planters.

After the Europeans withdrew, the plantations changed hands; even the reins of the country ostensibly returned to the people of the nation. But till today, there are reports of starvation deaths in the tea gardens of Assam and a large chunk of the population is still deprived of basic human rights. Over the last few decades, with the spread of education and the growth of a conscious middle class, however, awareness about various issues has been on the rise among the people of the community. Where political mobilisation and activism has increased on the one hand, on the other, a reshaping of identity, a quiet resurgence of ethnic pride and a search for indigenous roots has also been taking place simultaneously. Shedding the earlier derogatory nomenclatures – like ‘coolies’, ‘tea tribals’ and so on – imposed upon it, the community now defines itself as ‘Adivasi’. It is turning more and more to its roots in mainland India and trying to reclaim its lost ties. 

There is a long way to go of course, and problems persist within the community itself. For one, it is not a homogenous mass of people but a conglomerate of various small and big tribes. Ethnic hierarchies exist and may be exploited in the future. As it is, the fate of the entire community rests in a handful of ethnic elites. As poet Sameer Tanti points out in Point Blank, the entire establishment has to shoulder the blame for the deplorable conditions of his people. The angst that comes with belonging to this group of people often reflects in the literature being produced by members of the community. Tanti’s voice is only one of the most well-recognised of these. Younger, more politically aware, voices have also emerged in recent years, reflecting a new self-definition, a new ethnic pride. Kamal Kumar Tanti is the foremost among them. We carry some of his poems in translation in our Inkpot section. 

But, established or new, the writers of the community all write in the Assamese language – the language they adopted wholeheartedly after centuries of living in this land. In turn, those whose native language is Assamese have also written about the community in their own language. Acclaimed writer Nirode Choudhury, for instance, wrote the short story, ‘Chameli Memsaab’, which was later made into a motion picture. We carry a short excerpt from the story in translation in this issue of NELit review.

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