Away from home, in an unfamiliar space, north-eastern women in Hyderabad talk about the city and how they work their way through stereotypes.
“It was 2012 when I landed in Hyderabad for the first time; I was new in the city and came all the way from Arunachal Pradesh with the hope of getting admitted to a good college. It’s been almost 5 years living in this lovely city. It’s my second home and the very thought of leaving the city haunts me at times,” says Lucy, a student at the English and the Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad.
Like Lucy, there are many young women studying in different colleges and universities in Hyderabad, hailing from India’s north-eastern states. Hyderabad has been the popular choice for higher studies for many from these states, mainly due to the increase in racial atrocities in other metropolitans like Delhi and Bangalore.
“When one of my juniors asked me which city was safe to study, I promptly replied that Hyderabad is better and safer too. She found my suggestion useful and took admission in Aurora Degree College,” says Anna Linggi, a student from Shillong, Meghalaya. Educational institutions such as the Central University of Hyderabad and EFLU have become popular hubs for higher studies, as many students enrol there for a variety of courses. It’s not a big surprise that a majority of these students are women.
“I was in Delhi before but shifted to Hyderabad for my PhD. I found the campus here very safe, especially for women. We have the North East Students Forum (NSF) for north-eastern students, which is a platform for meetings and discussions. In times of crises, we stand for each other and conduct various programmes and events to bring everyone together,” says Hamari, a NSF coordinator at the University of Hyderabad. The total strength of NSF is 200. It started in 2005 with just a few members, but with time, the number increased as more and more north-eastern students came to the campuses. The group has more women (as many as 120) compared to men.
When I interviewed various women of all ages, they all agreed to the fact that better education, job opportunities and the families living in the city have attracted them.
“With crimes against women increasing in other cities, I feel Hyderabad is a safe haven for me. I have lived here for almost four years and I might live here forever, if I find a life-partner here,” says Janifer, with a shy smile.
Thanks to the city’s affordability and the opportunities it provides, many young professionals and job-seekers are attracted to it. Every year, a large number of youngsters turn up in Hyderabad looking for career opportunities in different sectors. For instance, Amy Das from Assam has been living here since 2013, along with two of her friends, and works in a salon in Banjara hills. Earlier, she lived in south Delhi, where the hike in prices had made it difficult to survive on a meagre income.
According to Mercer’s Quality of Living Report, 2016, Hyderabad has been ranked India’s best city, in terms of quality of living. The survey considers factors such as living cost, infrastructure, job opportunities and safety.
Most of the north-eastern women in Hyderabad work as beauticians, hair stylists, etc. “I come from a poor family, and in order to make ends meet, I enrolled myself for a beautician course. It’s been four years since I have been working here and I am happy that I am able to send some money back home,” says Jenny, who has come all the way from a small village in Manipur.
Many young women working in these sectors have the same story to share. On the other hand, some women talk about exploitation at workplaces. Places like spas, parlours and health clubs can be difficult places to work in, and women who find employment there often face challenging situations. The stereotypes that come along with the work makes many women feel even more uncomfortable.
In September last year, The Hindu carried an article highlighting the exploitation in such places. It reported an incident in Chennai, where many young girls were trapped in such centres. So far, in Hyderabad, no such incident has been reported, probably due to the fact that the sector hasn’t really picked up as it has in Chennai.
Then there are many who simply avoid talking about these. “I have been working here for almost two years, I try and avoid talking about my work to my parents. I am scared they will ask me to return home. How will I support my family?” asks Lohiya, who had come to the city from Nagaland, three years ago. Most of the young women who have taken such jobs usually come from poor families. They want to support their families – so they arrive in the city with a glint of hope. They usually complete their schooling to gain some competency in English.
“I was in need of a job and through some of my friends, I got to work in a spa. Few days into the work and a customer asked me if I wanted an extra tip for giving him some pleasure. I was shocked and I quit the job immediately,” confessed Aliya (name changed). In fact, there are many young women who come to the city for a job and end up in such places. “Many women join here of their own will. They work for few years and they leave, some leave within a month itself. We don’t force them to do things that they don’t like. Some women like to earn extra money, so it’s their choice,” claims Manoj, owner of HiTech Spa in Jubilee Hills.
Not everyone has a great story to tell about their stay in the city. But for those who work as IT professionals and in government services, it’s certainly a brighter tale.
For Upasha Goswami of Assam, the new city is the start of a new phase of her married life with her husband Rituraj Goswami, who shifted to the city right after their marriage. To maintain their identities and to bond with other Assamese, they actively take part in an Assamese diaspora organisation called Looitporia (meaning ‘native of the river Brahmaputra’). “We take part in various events to showcase our culture. We performed Bihu in Shilparamam in the National Crafts fair last December. The organisation is culturally active and all the members gather together to celebrate various festivals like Magh, Bihu, Bohag Bihu and Shankar Tithi,” says Upasha. She states that such community gatherings help them to unite. Similarly, in times of crises, they raise funds and support each other.
People from states like Manipur and Mizoram who have a comparatively larger diaspora in Hyderabad, have formed their individual associations. Hyderabad Youth Manipur Society (HYMS), formed in 2011, is a large platform for all the young Manipuris devoted to helping each other and offering advice on adjusting to a place far away from home. The society has 1136 members currently.
Recently, on the eve of Holi, the community conducted “Thabal Chongba”. It’s a traditional dance where young men and women gather in a circle and dance to the rhythm of music. On this occasion too, the members gathered in large number to participate in the dance.
Similarly, the Hyderabad Mizo Association (HMA) is like an umbrella for Mizos living in Hyderabad. There are two organisations which helps them bond – one is the HMA which takes part in social activities such as donating money for the welfare of the poor through NGOs, hospitals, orphanages, etc. The second is the Hyderabad Mizo Christian Fellowship (HMCF) which takes part in religious activities. “We maintain our identity here by associating with both the HMA and the HMCF which help us conserve our culture, tradition and beliefs,” says Juliet Fanai, financial secretary of the HMA. They conduct classes on Biblical studies to maintain their faith in God and to remain connected with each other. The groups also conduct various sports events and hold cultural fests at least twice a year.
What makes Hyderabad the most-preferred city for north-eastern people? Well, the list of reasons is endless – from being the most affordable city to being the safest place for women to venture out, far from their homes. Some have even developed a special relationship with the city and want to settle here.
Melody Levion, who has been living in the city for six years, says, “To a large extent, Hyderabad has helped me explore my independence – not just in familial relations but in mind and thought as well. My earlier notions of culture and perception of the ‘other’ (that I‘ve always been warned against) have evolved, and I’ve learned to open up and embrace differences.”
A version of this article was first published here.