Press "Enter" to skip to content

Moving mountains

Many Naga girls are breaking stereotypes to live life to the fullest and contributing to make Delhi truly cosmopolitan

Girls belonging to the Naga tribes that reside in the states of Nagaland and Manipur have made the Capital their home. They mostly stay in ghettos, with people of the same region, who have similar cuisine, belief system and way of life. But they are ambitious, want to chart their own destiny, explore the rest of the world and become rich, not only in terms of wealth, but experientially.

One such locality is Humayunpur near Safdarjung Development Area (SDA) in South Delhi. It has eateries offering authentic Naga cuisine and general merchants selling all the ingredients that might be needed. Rice beer is the popular beverage and the kitchen emits the odour of fermented food quintessential of Nagaland. There are hundreds of flats rented by younger people belonging to the North Eastern states of India. As they walk the narrow streets, the locals seem well adjusted to their presence. It’s a pretty picture.

But this was not the case earlier. The popular perception used to be different. A certain amount of distrust was fuelled by misinformation and false projections — that Nagas eat everything that moves, including dogs; that they team up with Nigerians and are into drug peddling. Girls are objectified and judged for their attire. The Naga girls, and those from other tribes, were in the news for all the wrong reasons — as many cases of sexual abuse and rape were reported. Delhi acquired the dubious distinction of being an unsafe city for women and indulging in racial profiling of people of the North Eastern states.

Over time, Naga women not only took up jobs in the city but became confident enough to try their hand at entrepreneurship. They now defy the stereotype in every sense of the word — they venture out in the world, do their thing, are intelligent, independent, adventurous and fun-loving, don’t think dalliances are worth a mention — and most importantly, are not victims of circumstances.

Avibu Seyie, who has entered her 30s, started working early in life. She wanted to be a journalist and used to write dark poems sitting in the famous Dream Cafe in Kohima in her younger days. She had a stint as an air hostess with Jet Airways, a big achievement for a small-town girl. She grew up in a traditional Naga family with “education being the last thing on their minds.” But she has a way with words — speaks the Queen’s English fluently, has an expressive countenance.

She came to Delhi 13 years ago, started working in a BPO — an exception was made for her since she’s not a graduate. She ascended the ladder fast to become a trainer within a couple of years. And when things looked comfortable and rosy, she quit the job and started taking freelance projects to support her stay in Delhi.

A couple of years ago, she started a pop kitchen by the name ‘A Naga Girl’s Kitchen’ for the love of the food and to popularise indigenous cuisine outside of the North East. “I’m a tribal fusion cook and unlike other food entrepreneurs, I don’t have any plans or interest in opening a restaurant,” she says.

She has curated multiple N-E cuisine events in high-end restaurants and hotels in Delhi and outside, blended with a musical performance by local artists like Alobo Naga and Miss Imsong to add to the atmospherics. Perhaps it’s the recognition of her efforts that her kitchen will feature in a Netflix movie called Axone releasing soon.

Around the time of Seyie’s arrival in Delhi, Lucy Nelia, 34, started working in the Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO) sector. Her elder sister, an academic, was already studying in JNU. Nelia, thereafter, joined the NGO sector, lending a helping hand to causes for the larger good of society. She also worked with the Organising Committee of Commonwealth Games under Suresh Kalmadi. Now, she’s into event management consultancy. She feels at home in Delhi and has been living on her own since her sister went abroad for higher studies.

“Everyone is racist — to some degree,” Nelia says, for people are conscious of their culture and traditions, and it is part of their very being. If a Naga calls her Chinky, it doesn’t seem racist. But a local in Delhi saying the same word has a racist connotation. “Intention does matter. It doesn’t matter what’s said but how it’s said,” she clarifies and adds that she’s never felt unsafe in the city “The media is very loud about it, that Delhi is unsafe for women — which, come to think of it, is not a bad thing,” she adds.

That in no way indicates that Delhi is safe for women – the girls are aware, yet unperturbed. They don’t let this fear cloud their mind or their life in Delhi. Having said that, Lucy prefers to live in a ghetto as it gives her a “sense of community”.

Nelia and Seyie have been joined by Marlin Golmei — who completed her graduation from Kamala Nehru college and is now learning Chinese — in a cafe by the name Cultured. It is a relaxing venue for Arabica coffee and speciality teas. It’s located in Humayunpur and is one of the many cool eating joints that have come up in the area.

A conversation ensues about racist attitudes of people from the North East. Some look down upon mainlanders or plainmanu (terms to describe north Indians). “I don’t deal with people with a preconceived notion,” says Golmei. Yet the girls have many local friends and Seyie’s boyfriend hails from UP.

She’s not the only Naga in a relationship with a ‘mainlander’. Another girl Prescilla Zinyu married a Punjabi many years her senior, culinary historian of repute Ashish Chopra. She worked for many years as an architect in Mumbai. She was introduced to Ashish by a common friend, starting a friendship that culminated in marriage. An excellent Nature photographer, their home in Greater Noida showcases Naga culture and art in beautiful ways — with paintings and artefacts.

“Punjabis and Nagas are similar,” says Zinyu, “They like to feed. We are not at all an odd couple. We have an excellent chemistry and have common interests — we both love travelling.”

The new mantra is that Nagas are no longer aliens in Delhi. They might be different, but that’s a reason to celebrate and the best way to do it is to sample native rice beer on a hot afternoon.