Tag Archives: Assam

Annaprasana Grab (Image provided by Rashmi Bora Das)

Assamese Birth Ritual Peeks Into a Child’s Future

Flashback 24 years ago: My mother-in-law was not too happy when my baby grabbed a lump of soil from the plate in front of him. She had hoped that he would instead reach out for a big, colorful book that she had placed among many other items. Rather than him bonding with the land, she nurtured the dream of him being an erudite scholar! For reference, it was my son’s Annaprasana. Of the many birth rituals followed in India, this is a ceremony that I have always seen being celebrated in a grand way in my home state of Assam. 

Understanding the tradition calls for a dive into etymology. “Annaprasana” is a Sanskrit word in which “anna” means boiled rice and “prasana” means feeding. So it is a ceremony where a baby is introduced to solid foods like rice for the first time. An auspicious date is selected for the event, and although the infant is obviously too tiny to enjoy the delicacies, friends and relatives are treated to a sumptuous feast. Annaprasana is usually carried out when the child is six to eight months old with an odd month being picked for a girl and an even one for a boy. 

A family in Atlanta gets ready for their baby’s Annaprasana ceremony. (Image provided by Rashmi Bora Das)
A family in Atlanta gets ready for their baby’s Annaprasana ceremony. (Image provided by Rashmi Bora Das)

Going back to the story where my little boy picked the brown dirt, the act was related to an interesting game that is played during an Annaprasana ceremony. Several objects are kept before the child, and it is believed that whichever item the baby first picks is an indication of his or her future career. 

It is up to the family members what items they place. But among the things that are commonly kept are a pen symbolizing wisdom, a book that stands for knowledge, soil which represents property, and gold which signifies wealth. This is a game that everyone enjoys watching.  So in recent times, in order to accelerate the fun and reflect the new age of technology, people have started adding even stuff like cell phones to see if the child is attracted to those gadgets!

There is obviously no sound logic behind this game. No way it can predict one’s profession in the future! It simply provides a few entertaining moments. Now, what is interesting is the fact that I happened to discover that quite a few nations do something very similar although it is done on the child’s first birthday!

The Birthday Grab Across the World

Prevalent since dynastic times, Zhuazhou is a first birthday coming-of-age ritual in China that foretells the future. In an interesting article titled “Chinese First Birthday Marks Cultural Rite of Passage”, Zhantao Yang makes a point that while some of the symbolic items are easy to understand, for others, it mandates a proper understanding of the Chinese language and culture to comprehend the emblematic significance. For instance, if a child grabs a stethoscope, it is visibly indicative of a medical career. If he or she picks a calculator, it could mean a career in the sciences.  However, to an outsider who is not knowledgeable about the Chinese ethos, it will not be easy to guess that if a child picks a celery stick, it will hint at a hardworking nature or that picking a green onion will speak about one’s intelligence.

Coming to Korea, the custom of picking an object to predict a child’s path in life takes on the name of Doljabi. On similar lines, the Japanese too take a peek into their child’s future with the first birthday tradition of Erabitori. Every family can have their own choice of objects that they use in their daily lives. 

The symbolic meaning of certain items like a book, a pen, or money is pretty obvious. If a baby in Japan lifts a chopstick, it signifies that he or she will be a chef or foodie. But certain interpretations go deeper. The Koreans sometimes keep a thread which, if picked, means that the baby will have a long life. Again, grabbing food means they will never be hungry. Over time, there has been a change in the items placed because society has become aware of many successful occupations that have evolved.

Tracking down a similar tradition beyond Asia

We are inclined to draw an inference that the fortune-telling custom exists in many Asian countries owing to cultural similarities in their way of life. However, this ritual is not confined to Asia alone. I was intrigued to find Armenia and the island country of Malta following similar traditions. I will not be surprised if there are others too that play this game!

Agra Hadig is a teething party that the Armenians celebrate. The child is made to sit on the floor, and objects symbolic of different fields are arranged for the grab. 

The Maltese tradition of Il-Quccija dates back to the eighteenth century and is still an integral part of the first birthday celebration. In the past, items placed before a child were gender-specific, assigning separate professions for boys and girls.

For a girl, the list entailed things like a pair of scissors representing a future seamstress. The choice of a ribbon meant that the girl would be a beauty. And if she picked an egg, it was believed she would have a big and prosperous home.

The items that were kept in front of a boy stood for totally different vocations. An inkstand could be identified with the career of a lawyer or a magistrate, or a geometry instrument meant that the boy would be a future architect or engineer. In present times, however, this differentiation is not made, and the same items are placed before girls and boys.

Looking for a reason to explain the commonality in traditions across the world.

What could be the reason that this fortune-telling tradition is followed by so many different nations? This can be explained by falling upon the concept of cultural universals. Anthropologist George Murdock, while researching systems of kinship around the world, arrived at the finding that cultural universals exist among mankind. There are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. Cultural universals revolve around the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter and also involve human experiences like birth and death or illness and healing. Murdock recognized the importance of humor too as a universal medium to ease tension and create camaraderie among people.

To quote Donald Brown from his book, Human Universals, human universals comprise “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions”. And this tradition of trying to predict a child’s future can be considered to fall under the idea of belief, which qualifies as a cultural universal.

All parents wish for their children to do well in life. It is this investment and interest in a child’s future that makes parents be so inquisitive — this is a universal trait that transcends culture.


Rashmi Bora Das is settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. She has written for various platforms including Women’s Web to which she regularly contributes. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com.


 

Endangered Greater Adjutants (Leptoptilos dubius)

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam. Read part 1 to the story HERE.

Contagious obsession

By the time the Women in Nature Network conference came to Purnima Devi Barman’s hometown in early 2019, she had transformed the greater adjutant’s prospects. Not only has the number of storks in the villages of Assam more than doubled since she began her work, from 400 birds to as many as 1,200 (of which 800 are mature), numbers of nests have grown nearly 10-fold, from 27 to 215 in the villages where she has focused her efforts. And there are signs of population growth to come. Not a single nesting tree has been cut down since 2010, Barman says. One colony is producing about 85 juvenile birds a year, half of which survive. And her conservation work has also expanded to include an assisted breeding program that is beginning to show results. After not producing any viable birds during its launch year in 2017, the program released one fledgling in 2019 and five in 2020.

As Barman’s successes have accumulated, she has been able to tell an ever-growing audience about what she has been up to, and Melvin isn’t the only person who has been captivated by the biologist and her work. Another enthusiast is Carla Rhodes, a longtime comedienne and ventriloquist from New York who had recently picked up wildlife photography and developed her own obsession with greater adjutants when she got an unexpected call from a friend in the summer of 2018. The friend was a producer working on a TV pilot for a show called “Rickshaw Run,” which sends people out to navigate some of the most dangerous roads in the world in motorized rickshaws. The next season would soon be filming in India, he told her, and a participant had dropped out of the show at the last minute. Would Rhodes consider going in his place? 

Rhodes said yes, if only to get to India where she planned to stay after the filming so she could take photographs. She flew out that September and after surviving the rickshaw adventure, she went to Manas National Park in Assam. It was the rainy season in India, and the park was one of the few in the country that was accessible. She had an incredible experience in the park, where she took pictures of elephants, rhinos, capped langurs, and more. Then, on the drive back to Guwahati, Assam’s hub town, she spotted a giant, blue-eyed, dinosaur-like bird standing by a rice field on the side of the road. She asked her driver to stop. He told her it was an endangered greater adjutant and offered to show her more on their way back to Guwahati.

Expecting to be taken to a wetland, Rhodes was surprised when the car pulled up at an enormous, sprawling garbage dump. Hargilas stood on mountains of trash alongside cows, soiled white egrets, and garbage-pickers—people who make money by rummaging through the landfill. The temperature was stiflingly hot, and the smell reminded Rhodes of New York City on garbage day in the summer—multiplied by 100. The scene was both post-apocalyptic and beautiful, and although she had to fly home the next day, she felt transformed. “I was only there for about 20 minutes, but it just moved me and shook me to the core of my being,” she says. “It was at that moment I decided I don’t want to be a wildlife photographer. I want to be a wildlife conservation photographer.”

A muster of endangered greater adjutant storks stands atop a landfill.
A muster of endangered greater adjutant storks stands atop a landfill. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

Determined to find a way back to India and the birds, Rhodes began researching as soon as she returned home to Brooklyn. She learned about Barman, who she contacted by email in early 2019, around the time of the WiNN meeting there. Drawn in by the contagious nature of Barman’s single-minded passion, she was soon offering to help out. With a small grant from WiNN, Rhodes returned to Assam for five weeks in February and March, 2020—just before the world shut down because of COVID-19.  

Even though Rhodes was a stranger, Barman invited her to stay in her home, where she lives with her biologist husband and two now-teenage daughters. Rhodes spent those weeks following Barman everywhere. They went to the market, where the conservationist stuffed her cloth bag to the brim with vegetables, refusing to use plastic. They went to schools and villages, where people treated Barman like a celebrity. Rhodes even attended a wedding with Barman, who somehow convinced the couple to adorn their ceremony with statues of hargilas and to paint images of the birds on guests’ hands with henna.

Rhodes repeatedly marveled at how much influence Barman had on just about everyone, including the police. If someone reports an injured hargila, officers help them transport the birds to zoos for rehab. “You call the police about an injured animal in my area, they’re like, ‘We can’t do anything,’” Rhodes says. Barman’s group is also working with government officials to build nets under trees to catch any nestlings that fall.

Watching Barman at work, it was clear to Rhodes that Barman was the reason why the storks were thriving in a community that had had once hated the birds. Rhodes took thousands of photos, some of them featured in this story. “I thought it would just be like, you’d see a hargila here, you’d see one there. But there are so many, it’s insane,” Rhodes says. “And she is responsible for bringing them back because she convinced people to take ownership of this bird—that it’s a privilege that this bird chose your tree to nest in, and to not cut these trees down.”

Purnima Devi Barman presents informational posters, coloring pages, and food to the people living and working in the sprawling landfill with the goal of raising awareness for the greater adjutants.
Purnima Devi Barman presents informational posters, coloring pages, and food to the people living and working in the sprawling landfill with the goal of raising awareness for the greater adjutants. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

Non-traditional habitats

Historically, greater adjutants thrived in the vast wetlands of India and beyond, where they fed on abandoned carcasses and nested in wild trees. As wetlands have disappeared and been paved over by development, the birds have shifted their habits, building nests in the village trees of Assam and eating in the nearby landfill. For Rhodes, the landfill offered striking imagery full of symbolism: birds scavenging alongside people on mountains of discarded items. For Barman, the garbage dump is just another place to spread the word about bird conservation. One day, Rhodes watched as Barman walked through the dump, talked with people, handed out posters, and gave sweets and coloring sheets to kids.

Biologists, too, have a growing interest in places like these—often overlooked habitats in urban landscapes, where wild animals are finding new ways to adapt. And dumps aren’t necessarily all bad, according to a 2017 review of 159 studies that looked at 98 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians found on garbage dumps all over the world, especially in Europe, North America, and Africa.

The analysis turned up plenty of negative effects, including elevated risks of infection, poisoning, and human-animal conflicts in the dumps. According to a 2016 study of white storks, birds that fed in landfills were more likely to stick around throughout the year, drastically reducing their migratory range. Living around landfills also increases a stork’s chances of picking up an E. coli infection, according to a study published in 2020. 

But dumps have also become important sources of food in changing environments. And compared to animals living in natural areas, the review found that polar bears, island foxes, bald eagles, and other creatures that fed in dumps did better than other individuals on a number of measures that included body condition, reproductive success, and survival. Among the effects that dumps had on various species, more than 70 percent were positive. In one study included in the review, dump-dwelling white storks produced more eggs compared to birds that didn’t have access to these food resources.

What rapid and urban development means for the future of any given species is still unclear. But acknowledging the hargila’s adaptability to a new kind of ecological landscape has the potential to highlight novel approaches to conservation into the 21st century, Tracy Melvin says, in part by helping people relate to species that live in their midst. “What’s so endearing about them is that they survived through habitat degradation, through illegal persecution, through everything. And they are just like, ‘Well, I’m going to eat in the dumps, and I’m fine with it.’ They’re a rugged, persistent thing,” she says, adding that there are parallels between the birds and the human garbage-pickers, who have also had to adapt to incredibly difficult circumstances. “They’re a remnant bird from this vast, once-functional landscape, and here they are. This is reality. This is what they’re dealing with now.”

Barman’s approach accepts the reality of the world as it is right now, Melvin says. Her work incorporates the idea that pristine wilderness is a false construct and that saving species requires involving the people who live alongside those species. It also illustrates how persistence and a focus on raising awareness can rapidly transform the way people think about animals: from reviled to adored in just a decade.

 Migrant “rag pickers” live and sort garbage in the Boragaon landfill where a large population of greater adjutants scavenges beside them.
Migrant “rag pickers” live and sort garbage in the Boragaon landfill where a large population of greater adjutants scavenges beside them. (Image by Carla Rhodes)

It’s hard to imagine ranchers in the American West adopting wolves as their mascots, but Barman’s work holds lessons for conservation projects around the world, Melvin adds. She made conservation mainstream from the bottom up—going door to door and person to person, hearing people out, helping people develop livelihoods, making it all happen without waiting for the government to take charge. Those are steps anyone could take anywhere. “It’s truly an example of how doing a small lift for people in their home countries can make conservation truly effective,” she says. “Maybe that’s what the world needs is people to just think less and do more.”

Enacting change doesn’t have to cost much, Flores says. With a clear objective and genuine connections, it is possible to do a lot with a little for any species. Barman has made great strides with limited resources. “As a conservationist, I used to visit fantastic, very high-level projects in Africa and other places,” Flores says. “This is a simple community project, but everyone in the community is engaged. You can see the commitment in women and the kids. Everybody is very, very proud of having that project in the community. To me, that is amazing.”

For Barman, saving hargilas by involving women has been a personal mission as much as a professional one. When her daughters were little, she used to take them into the field, where they would stay with an assistant and watch as she climbed 85-foot trees to study the nesting birds before coming back down to feed her own kids. As her daughters grew, they began to accompany her on community outreach efforts. In 2018, they watched her finally achieve her dream of earning a PhD. “I think they saw all the struggles. I think that helped them to know the life, to know in depth about wildlife,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Every day your heart should be an environmentalist. Every day you wake up, you should live like an environmentalist. It doesn’t mean you have to be a biologist by profession. But every work you do, it should be for nature.’ And they agree. They really love it.”


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

Hargila Stork, From Reviled to Adored: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 2 part series on the striking endangered stork known as hargilas, or ‘bone-swallowers’, in one of their last homes – Assam.

In January 2019, graduate student Tracy Melvin traveled from Michigan State University to India to attend an annual meeting of the Women in Nature Network, a loose collection of women conservationists from around the world. The trip required multiple flights and many hours of travel, but Melvin was eager to join in on conversations about the successes and struggles of conservation projects in a supportive environment.

As the conference began, Melvin says she was impressed to hear what women were accomplishing, especially in low-income countries. But she was particularly interested when the host of the meeting, Purnima Devi Barman, got up to speak about her work with a gangly and obscure stork called the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius).

Once close to extinction, the bird has rebounded in Barman’s home state of Assam in northeastern India. And that success, according to widespread consensus, is primarily because of Barman, who has single-handedly transformed the species from a reviled nuisance to a beloved cohabitant among a surprisingly broad cross-section of people, including government officials, mothers, and people who pick through garbage dumps for a living.

Hearing Barman talk made Melvin want to get involved—an effect Barman seems to have on people. More than a year later, the two women and several colleagues published a paper that looked at how community involvement has helped to advance the conservation of the striking storks. Among her most successful strategies, Barman has created an “army” of women who care for injured storks, throw celebratory baby showers for the birds, and weave stork-adorned fabrics for sale.

In contrast with decades of top-down and high-cost conservation efforts, experts say, the driving principle behind Barman’s work is deceptively simple: Saving species requires buy-in from people. Women, in particular, can be powerful partners, even—or especially—when they don’t hold traditional forms of power in their cultures. By including women in conservation projects that have simultaneously changed their own lives, Barman’s work may hold implications for similar efforts everywhere.

“She not only brought the species back from the brink, but she empowered women in a way that they probably hadn’t been empowered before,” Melvin says. “She’s not just helping the birds. She’s also helping the people. She’s giving them something to care about.”

Purnima Devi Barman, biologist and founder of the Hargila Army (an all-female grassroots volunteer conservation effort), educates and empowers the Assamese community on the importance of Greater Adjutants. Cultivating personal relationships with villagers and raising awareness are key components to Barman’s successful conservation model, especially since many residents have Greater Adjutant nesting trees in their backyards. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Gathering women

The greater adjutant is not a traditionally beautiful animal, and its lifestyle isn’t pretty either. A member of the stork family, it has skinny, knob-kneed legs, a relatively puny bald head, beady eyes, and an elongated orange pouch that hangs from its neck like a deflated balloon. It is awkward and large, standing about 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall. It is also notable for its smell. Traditionally called hargilas, which means “bone-swallowers,” greater adjutants drag dead carcasses into tree tops, where they eat the flesh and then drop stinky messes of poop onto the ground below. The birds also spend a lot of time in garbage dumps, where they scavenge for food.

In the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of greater adjutants lived in wetlands across much of Asia, from Pakistan to Cambodia. But habitat destruction, pollution, poaching, and the loss of their nesting trees pushed numbers sharply downward in the first half of the 20th century. A reputation as a bad omen in many places didn’t help them in the face of these threats. By the 1990s, there were an estimated 400 birds left. They have rebounded somewhat since but the International Union for Conservation of Nature still classifies them as Endangered, with only 1,200 to 1,800 birds confined to Cambodia and two regions of India—Bihar and Assam, where Barman lives.

An endangered Greater Adjutant is pictured amongst the garbage in the Boragaon landfill. The landfill has the largest year-round concentration of Greater Adjutant storks in the world. Attracting a variety of scavenger species and encroaching upon Deepor Beel wetland, the landfill causes pollution, habitat destruction, and wildlife deaths through toxic seepage. Once covering 4,000ha, the wetland has shrunk to an alarming 500ha. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

Despite the longstanding cultural disgust that surrounded the birds, Barman quickly began to appreciate the storks’ more appealing side. Raised for several years by her grandmother, who often took her outside and taught her songs and stories about birds, she developed a connection with nature that brought her solace during a period when her parents were away. Later, she studied zoology and wildlife biology at Gauhati University, where she earned an undergraduate degree and then a Masters in 2002. Eager to pursue a Ph.D., she gave in first to family pressures to get married and have children, giving birth to her twin daughters in 2005. She started her doctorate work in 2007, with a focus on greater adjutants.

Aware of the outsized conservation attention that goes to India’s charismatic megafauna like rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris), Barman had started thinking about studying hargilas when she saw them in a wetland while doing fieldwork for her Masters. Why, she wondered, had she never seen them in her own village? As she began to collect data, she visited the few villages where they did live. While there, she would leave her phone number so people could call her if they had anything to report about the birds. One day at the end of the hargila breeding season in 2007, she got a call. A villager in the Kamrup District had cut down a giant tree on his property. The tree contained nine nests, filled with hargila nestlings.

Once at the scene, people gathered around and laughed at her. They jeered and teased her about her concerns. They were angry and mean. “Why are you lecturing us?” they asked her. Why should we care about such an ugly bird?  Would she pay them to care? Would she come live with them and clean up after the birds? Would she eat the birds on her way home? 

Trembling with embarrassment and dismay, Barman thought about her daughters, then just 2 years old. On the way home, she made a decision to delay her Ph.D. work. “I thought, ‘No, I won’t do it now,’” she says. “‘First, I’ll rope in all the people. I’ll win the hearts and minds of the people. We will start a people’s movement. And then, only if I’m successful with the birds, I’ll pursue my dream.”

Her plan was to start with the basics: Meet people. Build friendships. Try to understand community concerns. Remembering the comments from men in the village, she cleaned temples to earn trust and show she was listening. Her compassion ran deep. She recognized that these weren’t bad people. They thought they were doing the right thing: ridding themselves and their properties of a messy bird that was a bad omen. It wasn’t their fault that they thought poorly of hargilas. They just hadn’t learned about the value of wildlife.

Soon, Barman’s work coalesced around a single, if improbable, goal: Get people in the villages of Assam to incorporate the greater adjutant into their local culture and traditions. Since the birds spent much of the year nesting in trees on private property, she knew they were untouchable by government protections. Her only hope was to make people care about the birds like they care about their own children. That way, they wouldn’t want to cut down the trees anymore.

In 2009, Barman organized the first of what would become many hargila “baby showers.” She invited about 30 women to the event, and she made the celebration as traditional as possible. It included prayer songs, a cooking competition, and games that incorporated lessons about wildlife. Barman talked to the women about the birds and how vulnerable they are during the breeding season. She appealed to their identities as mothers, comparing the birds to women when they give birth. Acceptance came quickly, Barman says, and the popularity of the baby showers snowballed into a coalition of women who rallied behind the storks. Barman started to think of them as a “hargila family.” In 2014, she dubbed them the “hargila army.”

Since then, the army has helped rehabilitate injured birds. Using looms and yarn distributed by Barman, women have also started to weave traditional fabrics adorned with storks, which they sell to help support their families. More than 400 women take part in the conservation work on a daily basis, Barman says. More than 10,000 women and their families have participated in hargila-related activities.

Jonali, a member of the Hargila Army, is pictured sewing a tote bag with an embroidered Greater Adjutant motif to combat plastic bag usage. Members of the Hargila Army take great pride in protecting this endangered species. Greater Adjutant motifs are now sewn and loomed into their traditional textiles such as mekhala chadar and gamosas. In 2018, eighty sewing machines were donated by the New Zealand High Commission, further boosting the women’s livelihoods and source of income while advancing the conservation of Greater Adjutants. (Photo by Carla Rhodes)

With Barman’s guidance over the past decade, the stork has become a symbol and way of life, says Ana Liz Flores, a conservationist and senior advisor for the LAC-Huairou Commission, a grassroots NGO in Argentina. Like Melvin, Flores attended the WiNN meeting in India in 2019. While she was there, she visited several villages, where it was clear to her that hargilas had become integral to the identity of the community. Women and children were leading the effort. “The schools and the women are the key pieces of the whole project,” she says. “It’s the first time I have seen a community that involved with one species. That, to me, is special.”

Barman has faced plenty of gender discrimination in her career, she says, and women in her culture are not usually included in decision-making. But women have power in their households, and by reaching them, she has been able to reach their children, relatives, and entire communities. “They are rural women. They are the homemakers,” Barman says. “I think the world should know about this huge force of women.”

Read Part 2 HERE!


Emily Sohn is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis whose stories have appeared in National Geographic, Outside, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Nature, NPR, and many other publications.

Carla Rhodes is a wildlife conservation photographer. Formerly a ventriloquist, she brings a plethora of unique skills to her new career. Photographing with passion and a sense of humor, her published work includes pieces for SmithsonianMag.com. Ultimately, she aspires for her photographs to educate viewers while inspiring positive change. You can see more of her work at carlarhodes.photography.


This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences. 

Ethnic Hostility Simmers In Axone Cookfest

With the world wide furore created by the Black Lives Matter movement and the soul searching about discrimination and xenophobia in countries around the globe, it’s time that Indians look themselves in the mirror and ask an honest question.

How racist are we as a culture?

The answer, conveyed subtly and with empathy in the movie Axone, is extremely. 

However – and there is a however – we’re also open to change, to understanding with exposure, to the fact that the principle that allowed our civilization to survive waves of invasions over the centuries – live and let live-  is  still alive, even if it sometimes appears to be on life support. 

Axone is a gentle satire – funny at times, and at other times, dark and  thoughtful on culture and cultural clashes, on unabashed bigotry towards people from the ‘Northeast of India’ (are they really Indian?) and on the meaning of neighborhood and the importance of acceptance.

It doesn’t try to make grand statements or indulge in preachy messages – it’s a simple, authentic recreation of the ugly reality of discrimination and stereotypes prevalent in Indian culture, and the personal and psychological cost paid by the minorities subjected to them.

The plot revolves around a single day of misadventures, as a group of friends from the northeast of India (Nepalis, Manipuris and Khasis are lumped together here, so much the better to make the movie’s point) try to cook a special, particularly pungent Naga dish called Axone,(pronounced Akhuni) for their friend’s wedding. Their Punjabi landlady is a terror who screams bloody murder whenever this noxious smelling (at least according to her ‘delicate’ Punjabi nostrils) concoction is prepared, and forbids the use of her kitchen.

The friends resort to all sorts of devices to prepare the dish and move it from location to location, revealing in the process how the young Northeasterners deal with daily slights and ethnic insults which are as commonplace as stray dogs on Delhi’s teeming streets.

There are hilarious moments, but also situations which make one angry that their Northeastern origin lets others automatically assume they can be pushed around. 

Sayani Gupta stands out as Upasana, a Nepali girl who forges on with the project even as Chanbi, her Manipuri friend (played by Lin Laishram) loses heart; all the young actors in this movie inhabit their roles as naturally as a second skin.

Director Nicholas Kharkongor handles the casual way Northeastern women experience daily doses of racism and sexism particularly well.  Having grown up on the streets of Delhi, I identified totally with the rage Chanbi experiences when local men talk dirty around her because she is perceived as Northeastern and therefore ‘loose.’

My heart bled for her friend, who was too cowardly to defend her honor against a bunch of goons (why should he have been put in that position in the first place?)

Dolly Ahluwahlia as the aggressive Punjabi landlady brings the same delightful ferocity to her role that we first saw in Vicky Donor, whether she’s berating her no-good son-in-law (played by Vinay Pathak), or rebuking the girls for trying to use her kitchen or, eventually joining forces with her grandson to help the girls finish the cumbersome process of cooking.  

In the end, the simplicity and  humor with which the movie tackles a disturbing everyday reality makes it an experience that stays with the viewer. 

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal