For people who’ve never visited India before, there are many reasons why India should be misunderstood. You’ll probably find more than I would.
In India, a certain part of the country is misunderstood the most. It has its reasons, though.
Nagaland is unique, to say the least. It is the only place in India where I was referred to as “Indian tourist” by an acquaintance. It is far, remote and getting here is difficult. It also involvs getting a special permit to enter. Nestled deep on the North eastern slopes of the Himalayas, this state is exotic, breathtakingly beautiful and culturally diverse. Everything here feels genuine.
My trip to Kohima taught me a thing or two about being open minded.
Vincent Swedevi is 17. Just few months away from graduating school, he is deciding what he should do once he does. He wants to be a lawyer. I ask him about his family. He likes travelling. He’s been abroad many times but never to the cities of his own country. I seem as alien to him as he does to me. I ask him where he would like to study law. He says he wants to get into one of the many National law colleges of India. His exam will determine where he ends up eventually. I ask him if he’s excited about moving to one of India’s premium and modern Metropolitan or Cosmopolitan cities.
He says he’s not too excited.
We all know what happens there to people like Vincent.
This is when being diplomatic is compromised. The price we pay for diplomacy is the truth. In this case, there’s no escaping the truth.
I ask him why he thinks he is misunderstood. After all, misunderstandings are never one sided.
Just like in the neighboring north-eastern states, the cultures here are mostly mountain tribes, living off this land for centuries. They lead very modern and religious lives with strong roots and this reflects in their way of life. There is one thing here that stands out unlike most of other parts of India; Open mindedness. Open mindedness comes from values. Values are taught through religion or teaching. Vincent, like most people around here has Christian values which are strong. Like him, most people from these parts are innocently friendly and speak from their heart. They are frank in their opinion and find pettiness to be unimportant. This open mindedness makes them different. This reflects in the way they appear, the customs they follow and the food they eat. For most of us who are narrow minded, people like Vincent seem too different. Beyond understanding. What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we condemn.
I then ask him the Million Dollar question.
But before I say more, here’s something to consider:
To you and I, Food equals harmony. This is why I do what I do. Your’e reading this because reading about food somehow appeals to you.
Harmony in food, felt in correct ways can do many things.
Served alongside something, it amplifies the intended emotion. For example, a bouquet of roses makes more sense with a bar of milk chocolate, right? How about simple bar food like chicken wings? On their own, they dont make much sense. With a beer and live entertainment, it shines in its moment.
On its own, food has the rare ability to touch one’s soul. The best soul food is home food, made by your mother or grandmother. When food becomes a source of something more like basic income or self expression, it is served at restaurants amid complementing surroundings. When this is done with perfection, food has an even rarer ability; eating it becomes a memory. Harmony is felt.
For you and I, food is no longer a need. It is a want. Being easily and rather readily available, the basic purpose of eating is masked. What we eat reflects us as individuals. Our habits, our taste, our beliefs.
But for most, the act of eating has a deeper value. Eating becomes a matter of life and death itself, when times are such. Here, food takes on its most basic and raw purpose.
Harmony becomes survival.
It is well known that if one visits these parts and moves east, the menu becomes…exotic. One of the items people eat is a “Taboo” ingredient. Why?
For me, it is taboo. It involves me eating my best friend. This, I cannot do. No matter how unattached I am.
During times of crisis, anything becomes food because if you don’t eat it, you die. Dog meat is known to be eaten throughout history in places raged with war, famine or natural calamity. Tribes around this region were subjected to all the above plus the tough terrain, making cultivation almost impossible. Vincent belongs to the Angami tribe. His being one of the most popular and modern ones. Dog is taboo for him too. But some of Vincent’s friends eat it. Over the years, some tribe members initially took to liking this ingredient, although they started as a means of survival. It is readily available and cheaper than other proteins. For them, it is food. Some of them have dogs at home as well. To them, food is different from sentiment.
The Lychee and Dog-meat festival in the Chinese province of Yulin is a sensitive topic. It causes more controversy because of abduction cases of domesticated dogs, which I openly condemn. Controversy also arises by questioning the way these animals are…put down.
The way they are put down sounds wrong to me as well. But this is when those defending it question our collective hypocrisy. (If you’re a vegetarian, this really shouldn’t concern you). A large part of my culinary education involved me learning how to objectify ingredients. Just like a doctor is methodical with patients, my job demands the same from me, but unlike a doctor, my patients are already dead. I used to spend hours fabricating meat used in dishes which people would pay for. In a fair world, the way they are slaughtered should be mechanized, humane and systematic causing minimal pain to the animal. In reality, We all know this doesn’t happen. Some ingredients we consume demand the animal to go through tremendous suffering. Ironically, people refer to it as “gourmet” and pay top dollar for it. Think about this the next time you feel good after eating Foie gras. Importing this ingredient has thus been banned in India.
What a person eats reflects the person and his choices. Vincent and other people from the north-east being ostracized for something a few people choose to eat doesn’t reflect what lies within.
Vincent isn’t affected by this question. To him, it doesn’t make any difference.
If a collective community would reflect the choices of a few individuals, this world would be in a perpetual state of conflict and suspicion.
In such a state, truth would not be able to illuminate the dark.
Unfortnately it is.
When we initiate understanding, we find the truth.
Through truth, we conquer illusion.
I randomly met Vincent on a bus. Prior to our meeting, I was unsure, nervous and scared. He felt the same. Through conversation, we slowly ate away at our mutual insecurities. When we parted, we did as equals. As friends, illuminated by the truth. My Catholic school education taught me this, we used to call it the sacred spirit of “universal Brotherhood”.
For those who don’t understand this vague term, its what you may refer to, very simply as “Love”.