Pi Dari lives in Kammanahalli, a quiet locality in the bustling IT city of Bengaluru, the state capital of Karnataka. Living far away from her home state Mizoram, in the northeast, she keeps the taste of Mizo cuisine alive by maintaining a flourishing kitchen garden in her backyard where she cultivates a variety of vegetables and herbs found back home. Her friend, Pi Zami, too, makes batches of fresh pickles and keeps a ready stock of dried ingredients, such as banana flowers, samtawkte (bitter gourd) and bekang (soybean), which are essential to their traditional recipes but are hard to find in the southern city.
Whereas earlier, the two women used to keep these home-grown and homemade products for their personal use, these days they bring them over to Pi Kaitei's home, also in Kammanahalli, for a weekly sale held there. In fact, every Friday afternoon, Pi Kaitei's garage is where all the action takes place. From 3pm onwards, women slowly start trooping in with bags bursting with goodies and make themselves comfortable as their gracious host serves cups of steaming hot tea and snacks that remind everyone of home. As the numbers grow happy chatter fills the room - some animatedly exchange news or discuss the latest happenings in their community, others begin unloading their bags to set out boxes of sticky rice, bunches of bean leaves and phuihnam (wild shoots), varieties of chilly, bottles of chutneys, and tins of ngari (fermented fish), among other traditional food items.
"This is the Northeast Bazaar, which opens up for two hours every week giving an opportunity to women from the northeast region to interact with each other and buy foods from their home states that are otherwise extremely hard to source in Bengaluru," explains Rini Ralte, social activist, academic and the brains behind this unconventional market.
Ralte, who came over to Bengaluru from Mizoram over two decades ago, understands what it's like to come to a place so decidedly different from one's hometown that the process of adjusting to a new life in the new town becomes tougher than it already is. "Today, there are hundreds of people from the northeastern states living in the city. Some are here for higher education, others in search of good livelihood opportunities. But being so far away from home can be very difficult and lonely, especially when the local language and customs are so different and distinct from one's own. That's why we decided to set up the Northeast Bazaar where women can meet up, talk to each other, and, at the same time, get a taste of home cuisine," she elaborates.
Just a couple of years ago Bengaluru was in the news for incidents involving the targeting of youth from the northeast. As a fallout, nearly 30,000 people belonging to the northeastern states had leftthe city in haste fearing for their safety. Ever since then Ralte, Pi Dari, Pi Zami and others were trying to figure out a way in which they all could connect with each other on a regular basis and derive a sense of support. Today, the bazaar allows them to do this and much more. "However, conceptualising the project was far simpler than turning it into a reality. Our main challenge was finding the right place to set everything up. It had to be big enough to accommodate many women and, at the same time, economical," shares Ralte, who has initiated several northeast solidarity networks in Bengaluru. This critical problem was solved when Pi Kaitei offered to lend her garage. "This proved to be a perfect solution for us. We got down to cleaning it up and then rearranged everything to turn it into a cheerful and inviting space. And the best part, it was rent free!" recalls Ralte.
The Northeast Bazaar formally opened its doors to the community women in July 2014 and since then has gained immense popularity. "We spread the word telling friends and family and through social networking sites. The response has been quite amazing. I remember on Day One, we had sold offeverything that was on offer within one hour," remarks the ingenious activist.
These days, the Northeast Bazaar is the place to pick up an array of authentic ingredients native to the region. There's everything from samtawk (bitter wild berries from Mizoram), satinrem (egg plant), behliang (a verity of peas), bahkhawr (herb) and pardi (herb similar to celery) to lengser (leaves used to flavour meat and fish curry) and chhangban (Mizo bread made from sticky rice) available on sale. "Most of these are brought over by the women themselves. So, in a sense, this is one way in which they get to earn a small sum of money for themselves. Incidentally, the pickles, chutneys and veggies that Pi Dari and Pi Zami bring are very popular," informs Ralte with a smile.
As women browse through the selection of items Pi Kaitei brings out tea and sanpiau (rice cake) for everyone. Eventually, they get talking about the latest happenings in the city apart from swapping personal news and giving each other some well received advice. "The bazaar has become a major hub for information - whether it is finding a suitable job, searching for a safe place to live or just getting updates on things happening back home. Everyone really looks forward to coming here on Friday," says Ralte.
For now, the Northeast Bazaar is operating on a small scale. The money to keep it going comes from small donations generously given by the visitors themselves. The amount collected is also used to lend a helping hand to anyone in need. Shares Ralte, "If anyone needs emergency legal fees or money for food or shelter, we give it to them from this kitty." And are there any plans to expand? "Presently, we cater to only the northeast community because we do not source and sell huge quantities of products. Whatever we offer is always sold out. There is a space constraint as well. We can't afford a bigger place right now and we certainly can't cram up in Pi Kaitei's 20 sq ft garage. So we are keeping a low profile," she says.
Nonetheless, the women do feel excited about spreading out their operations in the future. "It would be wonderful if we could bring over a larger variety of products from our home state and showcase our food and culture to a wider audience. This is one way in which we can successfully bridge the gap between the locals and the northeast community. It will aid in a creating better understanding of each other and increase tolerance," signs off Ralte, on a positive note.
(© Women's Feature Service) February 2015