I remembered the first time I felt different for being a Lai. I was 9.
I stood second in class, getting ahead of my best friend who was also my classmate and who also lived in the same locality. The next day she blurted in class, “Ka nu in ‘Hmingthanzuali te chu Pawi Chhia alawm an nih. Anni hnam chhia aiin engngatinge I tihchhiat?’ min ti”.
I cried on my way home that evening.
Yes, I am 100% Lai. Trace both my parents and you will not find a single drop of Lusei blood in my veins. Yet I was born in Saiha, the Mara capital where my father was previously posted and I grew up in Aizawl where my family settled down. My name is definitely not a Lai name. The first language I speak is Mizo and I like Puanchei much more than Hnika. I know that my parents hailed from the south and as a child I looked forward to visiting my grandparents at the end of every year. I know I am a Lai and I also embraced myself as a Mizo. Yet at the tender age of 9, I didn’t know that being a Lai, would somehow provoke my best friend (or her mother?) into labelling me to something as derogatory as ‘Pawi chhia’!
After that incident, I struggled to embrace myself for years. I always thought that being a Lai would somehow mark me apart. And I hated being different! I didn’t like being a minority.
When I reached high school, my life changed. My best friend and I drifted apart due to some reason and I learnt how to embrace myself. I started learning Lai, my ethnic language and explored the traditional norms. I talked to a few family members asking why we are called Pawi in the north rather than Lai. I traced back history, what little we had, read some papers back from even the colonial period. My research was mostly fuelled with anger and past bruises. I made a conclusion but never reached reconciliation. I taught and convinced myself to be proud of who I am and my lineage. But I prefer to stay silent! Silent, when a neighbour accused a family friend saying “Pu Muana hian kan vengah Pawi chhe veng a siam” Our family colony had just come up and Pa Muana had helped us acquire the land. I stayed silent when I feel alienated; silent when I feel different!
When I was in college in Shillong, a good friend of mine who was also a one-time Lai Student’s president told me about an incident. He was invited to certain tribe fresher’s social where he was given time for a 2 minute speech. In his speech he mentioned that we, Lais, Luseis, Maras, Hmars etc are all Mizos. After he was done speaking, he realized not a single person in the hall gave him a clap. He told me he felt all eyes on him as he walked back to his seat. The next person who stood up however thundered to a huge applause “Lai chu Lai, Mizo chu Mizo, Mara chu mara. Chu chu chatuana kan nihna tur ani!” I clearly remember his sour smile as he said “Mizo nih do fe fe hi chu kan awm mawle”.
When I finally came to Delhi for my post-graduation in Linguistics, for the first time I felt special for being a minority. Since I speak a language, two languages in fact, which are lesser known, my term papers and my presentations were always viewed with keen interest by my professors. In fact, one professor stole a Mizo sound from my term paper for a Phonetics Practical Exam. I smiled silently and transcribed it while my classmates scratched their heads. And finally now, for my PhD, I picked a topic on the typological study of Mizo and Lai. It will be another four years before I familiarize and master myself with this topic, but even just writing a synopsis on two languages I call my own, makes me excited. I know that I will learn more about myself in the coming four years through my topic. Apart from that, I will be the lucky one when I go for fieldwork with half of my relatives, who still reside in the south, are still fluent with the language and still well-versed with Lai traditions.
Today, I’ve finally reached reconciliation.
I am a Lai. I am a Mizo.
I have learnt that being a Lai doesn’t stop me from being a Mizo. And being a Mizo will not swallow up my Lai identity either.
I prefer to be silent but don’t blame me if I laugh when so-called-best-friends call me ‘Pawichhia’ and certain wasted neighbours talk about ‘Pawichhe Veng’. I have to come to learn that in life, irrespective of tribe and caste, it’s always the small people who try to keep other ‘small’ people down. Those people are the ones who are insecure about their own identity. Those people are actually the ‘Hnam Chhia’.