Café Zoe

The Landless Kings

Nirvair Singh Rai

Curated by Shabnam Lilani

Who are you? Where does your name come from? Where has your family lived for most of their lives? Who are your ancestors? Where do you hail from? Where do you belong?
These questions are all linked to one thing – land. Identity, race, culture, and even discrimination — they are all related to the land that calls you its own.

The Rohingyas of Myanmar live their lives in a strange conundrum. The name of their tribe indicates the Arakan or the Rakhine state that they belong to, but they don’t live there. They live in camps, they live in the margins, they live along invisible lines drawn between their country and a few polite others. They live at the mercy of their killers.
But, they live with grace. They live with a dignity that is almost kingly. They struggle, many of them never meet their family members for years, sometimes meeting them only in death, or not even that, but they persevere. This is their story that I attempt to tell.
This is not about victims of genocide or racial discrimination. This is about survival.
There is nothing beautiful about trying to save your own life from extinguishing, but the Rohingyas make it seem graceful, they make it seem less dirty, perhaps. This is not the story of one country or one race, this is the story of land, and how it can live on its people. Regardless of whether the Rohingyas are uprooted from Myanmar and forced to take root in Thailand, Bangladesh or even India, the Rakhine states live on.

The Rohingyas only have memories of their land, and those are painful to associate with. How does one come to terms with the fact that one’s own land has become alien?

To add to that, my memory of the Rohingyas was also layered with silence, laughter, sorrow, and peace as well as unsurety and a hint of violence. These varying recollections span a great deal of time and space, and come together to present an intricately woven narrative.

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