Born In A Clan Of Warriors, Poet Vinatoli Yeptho Stabs Her Haters With Kindness and Love
- IWB Post
- September 1, 2016
We might be different, but we still have a common ground to relate to each other. We’re divided by states but are united by our national spirit. But there is something about our country that ticks me off a lot. It’s the fact that the people of the North East are not seen as India. Men go around whistling and catcalling North Eastern women thinking they’re foreigners. Like, no! Stop. Just stop. Take out a map and turn your head towards your right. You’ll see the seven states of the North.
I hope you all remember the scene from Chak De! India when two Northeastern teammates were cat-called and gawked at by two men which led to an amazing fight scene. In that very scene, it showed how people from the North East are not seen as Indians but Chinese, Malaysian or Japanese. Basically, almost every Asian ethnicity except Indian.
22-year-old Vinatoli Yeptho, a 4th-year law student from NUJS Kolkata wrote a beautiful poem titled “Five Rules for Whomever It May Concern,” in which she enlightens us about the racism North Eastern women face because of their looks.
After performing the poem at a Poetry Slam event, Vinatoli’s video has gone viral.
“I was studying in Gujarat previously. Everyone was being so nice to me. One day, I was sitting in my room with my friends and a group of girls came up to me and asked, ‘Are you from China?’ I politely said that I wasn’t from China but Nagaland. They asked, ‘Oh! Where is Nagaland in China?’ Then I had to explain to them that Nagaland is also apart of India. They were disappointed to know that I am from India. It is hurtful to know that people wanted to be my friends only because they thought I was a foreigner,” she said during our phone conversation.
Me: Your poem talks about rules. How often do you break rules and which one is your favourite?
Vinatoli: *Laughs* I am completely against the rule of silence. I have a loud voice, and whenever I want to say something, I say it irrespective of the place asking for silence or not.
Me: Where do you think Racial discrimination starts?
Vinatoli: It starts at the primary school education. When I was in school, we weren’t taught anything about the North Eastern states and their struggles.
I second Vinatoli on this. There was a lot on the Mughals, the French and the British but nothing about North East.
Me: One painful memory of facing racial discrimination?
Vinatoli: Well, there was the memory with the girls thinking I was Chinese. Besides that, I remember that I was in the library searching for a book one day. There was a group of guys talking about me. One said, ‘New Girl’ and the other said, ‘Nice ass,’ and another said, ‘But she’s a chink.’ I don’t think he meant it in a good way and nor did I find it appealing.
‘I do not give you the right to stare at me and make me feel uncomfortable.’
Me: Well, as you’ve also mentioned earlier, North Eastern people are not considered as Indians very often. Can you tell us one fact about North East India that will make every Indian proud?
Vinatoli: There are so many things to be proud of. Limiting it to one single fact will be unfair. I think people need to know about the contribution of the North East in the independence movement. We don’t talk about the war of Kohima which brought all North Eastern tribes including Nepal to fight against the Japanese.
“Remember, my forefathers were head hunters. I was born out of a clan of warriors.”
Me: What is the best way to respond to haters?
Vinatoli: At first, I used to get very angry at people’s ignorance about the North East but then I thought aggression would not help. Now, when anyone questions my ethnicity or culture, I try to very coolly explain to them about my background.
Education is the best way to awareness. If you don’t know, ask. Don’t just assume because that is disrespectful. Being aware of other cultures will help you respect them.
Me: What was your childhood like?
Vinatoli: Well, I had a very simple and laid back childhood. I lived with my mom, dad, two younger sisters and two younger brothers. I am the eldest and the first from the family to go to college and will soon be the first one to graduate. My parents have been very supportive of me and have never stopped me from chasing my dreams.
Me: What one aspect of your culture do you admire the most but not many are aware of it?
Vinatoli: I have a lot to tell. *Laughs* Our state has many tribes and sub-tribes. I come from a tribe called Sumi. We’re very hospitable, giving and forgiving. Being too forgiving, though, sometimes can have a negative impact. Anyway, I personally feel that girls are more free in Nagaland as compared to other states in India. You can walk around in shorts in the middle of the night, and you will feel very secure.
Also, we’re a patriarchal society, but women have responsibilities too. If the father is the head, then the mother is the neck. It is said in the society that if you trouble your mother’s family, you will not be happy in life.
Me: What is one festival you enjoy the most from Nagaland?
Vinatoli: My favourite festival is called Tuluni. It is a very giving and cordial festival where your whole family comes together, you have a feast and give gifts to each other. It is a very joyful time for us.
The festival ‘Tuluni’ is named after Tuluni, the traditional rice beer which is an important part of the festival.
Me: You come from a tribe of warriors. What things have you have inherited from your forefathers?
Vinatoli: I think they’ve given me encouragement, fearlessness, and strength. I feel fearless enough to speak out and put my words across to people.
“Remember the world’s hottest chilis are growing in my grandmother’s backyards.”
Me: You said in your poem that the spiciest chillies grow in your grandmother’s garden. What else grows on it?
Vinatoli: Lots of stuff! We have small bitter brinjals which grow only in the hills. We have cherry tomatoes, Naga tomatoes, pumpkins and small but super spicy chillies. We love our chillies.
Me: You said in your poem that you could take a friend to places they’ve never been before. Take us to one such place.
Vinatoli: Dzuku valley! I tell all my friends about it! It is a valley of flowers, and it looks mesmerising in not just the spring but throughout the year. It’s a trek of an hour and a half from the nearby village, but it is worth it. Many tourists are still not aware of this.
One more thing to look forward to is the Hornbill festival. It is held from the 1st to the 10th of December. We have 16 major tribes and one, or the other tribe has a festival going on each month. The Nagaland government took this initiative to bring all the tribes together so that even the tourists can experience all the festivals of the tribes at the same time. You get to see the traditional war dances; we have huge feasts prepared, there’s music playing, people dancing, art exhibitions and rock music competitions. Tourists also get to see the Konyak Tribe which is the last surviving tribe of headhunters. I plan to take my friends there this time.
Me: One feature you love most about your appearance?
Vinatoli: I think I love my smile a lot. At first, I did not smile in pictures because I thought I had bunny teeth. But then people told me that I should smile more often. Now if you look at any of my pictures, you’ll see that most of them are smiling ones. Others like to pout, but I like to smile.
Also, I really like my fingers. I love to flaunt them! *laughs* Also, my father has always made me feel good about myself. There have been many times that I’ve cried in front of him because I was insecure about my looks. If I ever cried about being short, he would say that short people are very smart. If I complained about having a big forehead, he would say that it is a sign of good luck and if I told him I had too many moles, he said that it means I will be successful in life. He made sure that every part of me indicates a strength.
Me: When you face cultural discrimination, it is hard to stay body positive. How do you do that?
Vinatoli: I’ve heard comments about me like. ‘Oh! She’s too flat’ or ‘She’s not curvaceous’. It is very difficult to deal with it. I realised that I never spoke to my friends about it. It was affecting me even more because I didn’t tell anyone about it. If you’re facing something like that, don’t hold it in. Talk to friends that you trust.
Me: What was your favorite folk tale from your childhood and did it teach you?
Vinatoli: It is a love story between a man, Yeksha and his lover, Ghongli who want to get married but their families do not accept it. Ghongli goes and marries someone else. She earns for the family and works her way to becoming a rich and powerful woman. Yeksha goes on and marries someone else too. Also, since Ghongli was now rich, she noticed how her ex-lover’s family had become poor. She helped his family out by giving them grains to consume. The story teaches you that you must believe in yourself no matter what. Some day or the other, life will find a way to come back to you.
Me: So, you’re basically famous now. How will you use your fame after this poem?
Vinatoli: Well, I have no concrete plan so far. I have been writing for a while now. I’ve written on anxiety as well. Since the performance video was posted online, I’ve had people constantly messaging me. I don’t care if it changes only one person’s perspective. My only intention is to empower the oppressed with my work since I have experienced discrimination myself, be it sexual, gender-based or racial.
Me: Being a law student, how do you think the law can help protect people from cultural discrimination?
Vinatoli: There are many laws to help protect people from discrimination. There are fines and punishments. If someone says or does something wrong to me, I can go and take action. I tell my friends and parents back home about arrest procedures and punishments. I think we just need to be aware of our rights.
Me: We saw a picture of a Dreamcatchers on your Facebook. Speaking of dreams, what dreams did you have before moving to Kolkata?
Vinatoli: My parents and I both had wished for me to go study to a good college. The education system here and back home was very different. I was known for being very active and smart in school, and I dreamt of studying abroad. From a village, I made it to NLU Kolkata, a part of the group of the best Law Universities in India. At first, I didn’t think I would have been able to achieve these dreams. What I learnt is that there are going to be hurdles, but you don’t need to hold on.
Me: Your dream for the future?
Vinatoli: I don’t have a specific dream, but I want to be an inspiration for women. Back home, we have fewer role models to look up to. We have freedom as women but not many rights. Be it through my poetry or my career in law, I want to help empower women in not just my state but also around India. I feel like every state has something to look up to, that other states can learn from.
Vinatoli’s poem tells us about how ignorant we’ve been towards her existence, her culture, her beautiful smile. The Gurkhas, the Garos, the Khasis are all a part of the country that we call home.
Anyone who feels ‘ignorance is bliss,’ think again.
Photo Source: Vinatoli Yeptho