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Janice Pariat | Updated on February 07, 2020 Published on February 07, 2020

Accepting the stranger: In the novel “Bead Bai”, the protagonist is taught to weave the Emankeeki jewelry of the Maasai people   -  ISTOCK.COM

What does it mean to be indigenous? At what point does one begin to belong?

In early January, I was in Mumbai to attend a two-day conference on ‘Celebrating Indigenous Literature(s) in India’. An event on this topic was a first for me, and I was delighted to be a part of the meet organised by the English department at St Xavier’s College in collaboration with RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan). Not merely for selfless reasons though. Like books, I think words too find you at the appropriately right time; for me, in the last year or so, it’s the word “indigenous”. And for many reasons — the writing of a novel with indigeneity at its heart, the protests in India’s North-East against the anti-indigenous Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, the raging Amazon fires in indigenous territories in Brazil, the devastating wildfires in Australia, our planet’s climate crisis that’s pressing for — if not rendering mandatory — a return to indigenous forms of ecological knowledges.

At the conference was a wonderful range of speakers, including friend and mentor Desmond Kharmawphlang, Head of the Department of cultural and creative studies at North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, who spoke on “The Sun Story — A Khasi oral epic”, crafting connections between the sacred and the performance of spoken ritual, and Santosh Rathod of the Institute of Distance and Open Learning, Mumbai, whose presentation on Tanda literature explored both its oral and written forms. On the second day, we listened to a marvellous narration of the folk songs and folklore of Ladakh, brought to musical life by Kacho Asfandyar Khan, who is also a poet and writer. Savita Sukumar, an assistant professor at GM Momin Women’s College, Bhiwandi, spoke on the Nagas with particular attention to the social structures within their tribal communities. My talk focused, much like Kharmawphlang, on Khasi orality — and the need for non-textual literatures to be recognised as such.

The session I reckon raised the most thought-provoking question on the topic of indigeneity, though, was the last — by Mala Pandurang, principal of the Dr BMN College of Home Science, Mumbai. Her talk — which, she apologetically said, was slightly tangential and not quite primarily focusing on literatures produced within India — was titled “Colours of the Emankeeki: An Outsider-insider perspective of Maasai Aesthetics in the novels of Sultan Somjee”. Somjee, I found out, is a Kenya-born writer and ethnographer — who grew up within East Africa’s Ismaili community. His ancestors were merchants who moved from Gujarat to Mombasa in the early 20th century. “Even now he calls himself Asian-African,” Pandurang explained. “What I’d like to ask is ‘when does someone become indigenous?’” It was clearly something not many of us in the room had considered, for her question was met with silence. She looked around at the audience, mostly comprising students, and pressed on, “How many of you are indigenous to Mumbai? More importantly, how long does it take for a person who’s come from elsewhere to become indigenous to a place? Is it about how long someone has lived there?” For Somjee, even three generations wasn’t quite enough.

After this, the air in the room changed. Rather than discussing indigeneity as something distant — that concerned tribal communities elsewhere — the audience were confronted with their own sense of belonging or unbelonging to their city.

The answer, I came to realise by the end of her talk, lay perhaps not in temporality, or in proof of habitation in an area for many years, but in an idea offered up in one of Somjee’s novels, Bead Bai (2012). The book’s protagonist Sakina, “Saki”, was born in the Jugu Bazaar neighbourhood of Nairobi in the early 1920s. Her family belongs to the Satpanth branch of the Ismaili community, and it’s through Saki that we become familiar with “bead bai”— women merchants who oversaw the import and resale of large quantities of beads in British East Africa. (It’s no surprise Somjee described his novel as “ethnographic fiction”, given his focus on the dynamic interaction between indigenous aesthetic and material practices.)

Young Saki gets married and moves with her husband’s family to Nairowua, near the Tanzanian border, and it is in this difficult time of loneliness that she finds solace in her relations with the Maasai women, and her friendship with the elders of the community. It is they who teach her — she who’s also skilled at zari embroidery — how to weave “emankeeki”, the intricate, neck-to-chest jewellery that the Maasai adorn. Saki learns of their ritualistic uses and what each individual colour and pattern denotes. She finds delight in the beads that she loves and sells. And it is in this, Pandurang offers, that Saki’s “indigeneity” begins. Not when years in a place can be marked but when a willing transmission of knowledge takes place between the person who’s indigenous and the one who’s relatively “newly” arrived.

Perhaps indigeneity lies at the moment when there is a sharing in a community’s meaning-making, and honouring, understanding, and learning those practices for yourself. The question that remains is why this particular reading of indigeneity may be important. Perhaps because it offers a definition that serves to be inclusive while also attempting to continue a community’s unique cultural practices.

Janice Pariat   -  BLink


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart

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Published on February 07, 2020
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