The North-East experience: Matunga-based organisation SEIL turns 50

Students’ Experience in Inter-State Living (SEIL) celebrates its golden anniversary, bringing North Easterners to a city which is growing in understanding and awareness about the region

The cricket World Cup to be played in Australia and New Zealand, is still a couple of days away, February 14 to be precise. Yet somebody has already knocked a dazzling half-century.

They have your attention at the Ravindra Natya Mandir in Mumbai. Pics/Sayed Sameer Abedi
They have your attention at the Ravindra Natya Mandir in Mumbai. Pics/Sayed Sameer Abedi

The Students’ Experience in Inter-State Living (SEIL) started in 1965, a Matunga-based organisation, marked its 50th year or Golden Anniversary with a programme at the Ravindra Natya Mandir in Prabhadevi, recently.

Youngsters are all about integration
Youngsters are all about integration

The SEIL’s aim is to foster a sense of integration and encourage educational and cultural exchange between youngsters of the North East and other parts of India. This, they do by taking a group of students from the remote region, to different states of India.

Teshi Umpo (r) and Yengshom Devi
Teshi Umpo (r) and Yengshom Devi

These students live with host families in order to learn about the culture of the Metro they are living in. The process is actually symbiotic. The youngster learns from the host family, but the host family too, absorbs about the North East (NE) from the guest.

A volcano gets a voice in Nava Sharma
A volcano gets a voice in Nava Sharma

The Ravindra Natya Mandir was a beehive of activity as participants of the SEIL programme from the Seven Sisters of India (comprising the North East), trooped in with the host families, with whom they had stayed for a couple of days in Mumbai.

Mipi (l) and Pooja Joshi
Mipi (l) and Pooja Joshi

Some of the youngsters were singers, others were going to dance on stage and yet others were there to watch the function unfold. Post the programme, the North Easterners were packed up, bag and baggage to return to their homes. Given their small stature, some of those bags dwarfed the owners themselves.

Th. Surbala Devi (r) and her daughter Dr Seni P
Th. Surbala Devi (r) and her daughter Dr Seni P

“It has been such a learning experience,” said Emisha Mipi (21) from Arunachal Pradesh. “Experiences have been overall good but people like everywhere, are a mixed bag. There have been some kind people here, and at other times, I have also seen people laughing at us.”

Kilmeny Beckering Vinckers, Deputy Consul-General, Australia was part of the audience
Kilmeny Beckering Vinckers, Deputy Consul-General, Australia was part of the audience

Mipi’s host for the Mumbai stay, Pooja Joshi from Andheri stated that she in turn has been enlightened by her young guest. Joshi said “I learnt that education is such a challenge in some of those regions. Mipi told me that in their college, they are functioning without a principal. They also do not have teachers in the senior section.”

The writer of this piece
The writer of this piece

Home Run
Shrikant Kejriwal, trustee, SEIL said that the logic behind home stays is that, “Students experience the culture first hand as opposed to living in a hotel. They are spanned across the city and the SEIL initiative has the Akhil Bharathi Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) as an umbrella organisation.”

Kejriwal added that students go to North and South of the country, “for a pan-India experience. This particular group has more than 60 students. The students in Mumbai, visited a number of schools and colleges, went to the Naval Dockyard, the Bombay Stock Exchange and of course, the tourist favourite, Gateway of India, just some of the spots on the must visit itinerary.”

While the aim of the visit was a cultural exchange there was a dash of political colour too, because the personal and the cultural is the political. Most students said that unlike earlier generations, they felt less 'alienated' from the rest of the country, though of course, there are challenges to be overcome and more awareness needed.

Manoj Nikhra, co-ordinator said that, “There is a growing feeling of unity in the NE. It is time also that we understood the pain of the NE. They are intensely patriotic. For instance, when China offered people from Arunachal Pradesh passports and Chinese visas, they refused and preferred to stick to India. They are rashtrabhakts,” he stated emphatically.

Even while Nikhra was talking, a ‘volcano’ nearby was spewing lava. The fact that nobody was singed, was because that lava was of the melodious kind. Showman Nava Sharma also known by his nickname of ‘Volcano’ is a product of the SEIL programme in the 1970s. Nava is now an Imphal (Manipur) based singer and composer.

He said talking about the transformation in the city, “Attitude change is at an intangible level. Tangibly, of course, the Mumbai skyline changes, every few years. I know there are some challenges for us in the metros but unlike the critics, I can say that overall, Mumbai is coooool,” he finished laughing. Cooooool and volcano? Well, the suave Mr. Nava was so much in lav(a) with Mumbai.

Care Share
For the ladies from Arunachal Pradesh, Teshi Umpo and Yengkhom Devi, Mumbai, never mind its no time to care or share reputation, has its share of “caring” people. They both say programmes like these are beneficial but it is people like Mary Kom, really, who are ambassadors of the region. Theirs was a sentiment shared by many, especially the girls who seemed hugely puffed and chuffed up about Kom.

The Olympian talks with her fists, it is a lingo they are all proud of, one that binds this region to others of the nation. Mary, you may not know this, but you have delivered a knockout punch for discrimination and insularity borne out of ignorance. Ask the girls why the North East produces so many sports champions and their answer is a succinct, “the people are very determined.”

Sport talk
Who better to talk about Mary Kom and sport than the wiry L Ajit Singh from Manipur, part of the first batch of 1966, who was back in Mumbai to mark the organisation’s golden anniversary. Said Singh, “All those years ago, it was Bombay not Mumbai.

With the name, the city seems to have gone a change with regards to understanding and awareness, which is still on the ascent, with reference to the NE. Singh, who is now the president of the Manipur Athletics Association when asked why the region has a cache full of sporting medals puts it down to natural aggression.

He explained, “For years, we had actively engaged with Burma (now Myanmar), militarily. In times of peace, we trained for the worst, for the enemy. We were trained to fight.” That training both mental and physical moved from the battlefield to the sportsfield, and the NE excelled. As they say, sport is war minus the shooting.

Getting better
Let the last words come from legal eagle, (retd) Dist and Sessions court judge of Manipur and the first lady to hold that position, Th. Surbala Devi, “I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Things are and can only get better.”

While the upbeat answers may be uplifting, the two big S’s, slurs and stereotypes have not been wiped clean off the slate. Yet, if the retorts and spirit of the day is a barometer, the feeling of alienation, clinging like hard crust to North Easterners, is falling off very slowly, piece by piece. Vive la difference, or long live the difference, as the French and now, Mumbaikars say.

Ignorance is not bliss

Vikram Phukan

In the sprawling melting pot that is Mumbai, it isn’t quite open season for discrimination although prevailing attitudes towards ‘outsiders’ leave much to be desired. The issues of alienation faced by North Easterners are certainly real. At a theatre event recently, a Manipuri dancer was asked point-blank if he considered himself Indian.

“I have an Indian passport,” is all that he could muster. Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism sometimes allows me to sidestep these issues. I don’t feel alienated nor do I attempt to emphasise my Indianness. What I do encounter is insularity. “Where are you from?” is the constant query, and appears to underline the notion that I can never be truly local in this city of immigrants.

I do sometimes marvel at the exhaustive knowledge of geography I am accosted with. Not one country in the Orient has been spared the ignominy of being the land of my origin. I was once asked, very specifically, if I came from Formosa (a country that perhaps no longer exists). And if they are aware of the North East, then it’s either a monolithic Manipur, or popularly, Darjeeling (which incidentally is in West Bengal).

Then there are those who claim that I am the spitting image of either Chow Yun-fat or Mao Tse-tung or Meiyang Chang (depending on how much they like me, I guess). I take it as a compliment since how many can boast of an action star, or the worse-ever dictator in history, or an Indian Idol runner-up as doppelgängers. We all look alike.

There are well-meaning friends who still insist on using ‘chinki’ as a term of endearment, and even pointing out the mythical governmental directive that can get them booked is no deterrent. At the end of the day, there are bigger battles to be fought than taking on kids in Bandra who mutter ‘Chandni Chowk to China’ as I pass them.

In fact, the typecasting that takes place in so-called enlightened circles is perhaps more perturbing. The editor of an upcoming anthology (and a Fulbright scholar at that), upon learning that my contribution was set in old Delhi, wanted me to transfer the locale, lock, stock and barrel, to somewhere exotic in the North East.

She ostensibly wanted her tome to be representative and they did not have any entries from ‘that part of the world’. Do I need to say it? I did not send my story in.

Seven Sisters
The Seven Sister States also called ‘Paradise Unexplored’ are the contiguous states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura in northeastern India. Although there is great ethnic and religious diversity within the seven states, they also have similarities in political, social and economic contexts.

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