The release last week of a music video by a four-year-old girl Esther Hnamte has taken the social media world by storm. Her powerful rendition of Maa Tujhe Salaam – Vande Mataram by AR Rahman had garnered over six lakh views by early Sunday evening. Not only is her performance mesmerising but the fact is that a pint-sized child from remote Lunglei – Mizoram’s second-biggest urban hub –
is belting out an Indian patriotic song seems to have come as a pleasant surprise for many Indian netizens. Within days, Esther was featured on several regional and national media channels.
Esther is a singing sensation who usually sings kid-friendly gospel songs. She is well-trained and well-promoted by her parents and other supporters. I have seen plenty of her music videos on YouTube and appreciated her rare talent. She is by all means a music prodigy who easily learns and memorises lyrics.
As someone from the same southern town, living not so far from her locality, I am immensely proud of what this child has accomplished in her four years of earthly existence and have no doubt that she will go very far in the music industry.
With the state of Mizoram being the powerhouse of music in the North East and possibly in India with – as one song states – music being the “mother tongue” of the people living in this beautiful hill state, I patted myself on the back saying “About time!”. It’s about time India recognises the great musical talents of the North East and of Mizoram. After all, when all else fails, music and art transcend borders and bring diverse peoples together. Music is the universal language that everyone speaks and understands.
With one song, Esther has already put her hometown and home state on the musical map of India. She has unconsciously made herself the Little Ambassador for highlanders in this part of the country who have always wished to be known, heard and appreciated and who wish to matter and be taken seriously as compatriots.
Esther’s song comes at a time when the paradox of being Mizo, who are members of a Tibeto-Burman-tribe, and being a part of this gigantic nation called India, an Indo-Aryan-Dravidian-dominated country, and embracing the nationality that is Indian, has never been more stark. This is especially so with the recent surge in racism in mainland India as part of the hysterical responses to the Covid-19 pandemic during its initial phases. The misunderstandings and misconceptions that Indians from the North East – like Esther herself – have faced in this country with regard to their national identity, their loyalty, their physicality (for example, objectifying North Eastern women) and even the simple geography of their home and belongingness have just been incredible.
Even as their presence and existence are slowly penetrating the consciousness are of the general population, they are still largely placed outside the realm of the thinking and imagination of mainland India.
Little does Esther know that if she travelled to mainland India with her family, they would probably be seen as foreigners by many on the streets, in markets, malls and other public places – whether its in the deep South or the central plains or in the rough and tough Hindi belt. They may be asked if they were from China or Nepal and other not very palatable questions that some of us have become used to.
They may be treated differently by vendors and autowallahs who try to take small advantages out of their seeming naiveté and the language gap. Even if recognised as Indians from the North East, there are many layers of prejudice and discrimination that people from the region are often made to go through – many times in very subtle ways. This is due to prevailing stereotypes about people from the region, coupled with being members of the Scheduled Tribes and of minority communities.
But young Esther does not know this, and she doesn’t have to, at least for a long time. The surprising truth here is that people in the North East who are neglected and underestimated as only a handful minority have developed their own pride in “being Indian”. That itself is evident in the breathtaking videography that showcases Mizo warriors in action and other cultural elements and the hill’s scenic landscape as background of a song that is about “Mother India”.
The video description too is revealing in the emotions it contains: it urges the “brothers and sisters” to be proud of being Indian, calling India “our motherland”. It is well known that the region and its people east of Siliguri have little emotional connection with Bengal and the rest of the country even in the post-Independence era, although reality might point to something else.
The comments section of Esther’s video reminds us that Mizos are proud Indians, as are the other North Easterners despite the region’s enduring label as “rebel country”. They have defined “Indianness” in their own terms and the Mizos are proud to be the second-most literate state in India and to be called the country’s “happiest state” (despite a few sceptical voices about the validity of such findings).
Fifty four years ago in 1966, this tiny hill state was up in arms against the mighty post-colonial Indian state fighting for secession, based on their unique identity and history and compelled by their bitter sense of abandonment before and during a severe famine called Mautam. On March 5 that year, the Indian Air Force in a desperate attempt to crush the insurgent Mizo National Front’s strongholds attacked the capital Aizawl and surrounding areas.
For the next 20 years, Mizos went through the most horrible times of their lives – known as Rambuai, literally “a land in turmoil’ denoting the period of mass displacement, village regrouping, harassment, killings, beatings, torture, surveillance and a general sense of insecurity at the hands of the Indian Army that sought to weed out the insurgents by all means.
Esther’s grandparents’ generation had gone through that period of darkness. Many of its memories simply too painful to revisit. Her mainland viewers would not know the difficult history of the Mizos and their uneasy union with independent India. With the signing of the Peace Accord on June 30, 1986, between the Mizo National Front and the Central government, an era of calm and tranquillity was ushered in. This made possible Mizoram’s impressive socio-economic strides, with its thriving human capital and its talented and adventurous youth no longer sheltered in the mental and physical island that is Mizoram.
But the social, cultural and emotional chasm is still only half-way bridged. The onus is on both sides – the highlander Mizos and the plains’ Indians – to understand and accept each other. But because one million Mizos can only do so much, the larger Indian system must be more accommodating of diversity – not only in theory but in reality. It must create more spaces for minority peoples to participate in the representation of India’s culture and image.
Esther has taken that bold step. Many have preceded and many will follow. The availability of new and innovative platforms has enabled wider viewership and audience in today’s digital world.
But behind the viral singing video of this cute Mizo child is a larger message that must not be missed. A longing to be accepted, to be seen as “Indian” and to reach out to the millions of fellow Indians out there from the remoteness of the hills that barely serves as “a distant dot” in the mainland “Indian mindspace”. For the erstwhile headhunting tribe, fierce in the defence of their land, valiant in their resistance against colonial subjugation and firm in their identity assertion as distinct people to be rendering a song written in a language that is nothing short of foreign, exclaiming “Maa tujhe salaam” is what the India of today truly represents.
And in this spirit, Esther’s video does deserve the recognition and praise that it has received although I am not sure if her forefathers and their forefathers would share the same sentiment. The recent flare-ups in Mizoram’s border dispute with Assam has led to simmering tensions. As border residents on Assam’s side have built a bamboo wall to block the lifeline NH 54 highway connecting Mizoram with the rest of India, the state’s locational vulnerability is once again in the limelight.
To hill tribes for whom land and identity are two sides of the same coin, such issues are highly emotive and evocative of past blockages. This, from the perspective of the ordinary Mizos, is not only alienating but humiliating as well since it reminds them of just how reliant they are economically on the “goodwill” of the plains.
Thus the echoes of Maa Tujhe Salaam amid these troubles, sung by an innocent and endearing child may have little effect on the feeling of the Mizos of being cut off and isolated from the rest of the country. But it is heart-warming to know that Esther’s soaring voice does not fade away within the narrow confines of Mizoram’s borders but is powering its way through the mainland.
Esther will someday understand that she has given India a precious gift, her pure little heart free of hate and prejudice and her melodious voice rising high above all sectarianisms and racisms. Hopefully, it will make some people out there think twice next time before they act on their racial bigotry against people who look like her. If this is their India, it is Esther’s too.
CV Lalmalsawmi is a writer from Lunglei and a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.