the summer issue
New Delhi city. Enclosed spaces. Women in each other’s company. The settings include girls’ PGs, corners at restaurant, and bedrooms. Subtle moments of interactions among them; the tenderness of words unsaid.
These women would often confront public spaces with steely gazes and compose themselves in the manner of knights taking on quests. Who could blame them for having to do so after the hostilities the city lashes upon them? However, the same subjects created and shared safe spaces among one another, letting go of their defenses they wore as armours previously. They established trust within the sanctuaries they created together.
In a conversation with one of my respondents S Lepcha she tells me, “We Lepcha’s are often seen as primitive tribal people even within the Nepali community… Although we do share the same space we have our own culture, language, myths and so on which are slowly getting lost…Of course it is important to respect different ways of living right? We Lepchas have our own stories of origin, our own relationship with the surrounding environment and I feel we should not lose touch with it.” Her friend takes cue from her to say “…You know we Lepchas are the original inhabitants of this region, we believe that we have a special relationship with the land and that binds us Lepcha’s together although religious conversions have created many differences within the Lepcha community. I am a practicing Christian but I feel that conversion to Christianity has led to a loss of some our cultural heritage, so I feel it is important to be aware of who we are, where we come from, our special relationship with Mount Khangchendzonga…”
Personal notes from ritual spaces
Ensconced within the ramparts of the Manipur University at Canchipur is Langthabal hill, the location of the raasmandop where it is believed the first Raaslila was danced in 1779. The ruins once stood as Chingthangkhomba’s palace. As an archaeological site, the ruins are protected under Manipur Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (1976, Sec:4:1). Perhaps due to a panoptic view, Langthabal hill has been the Company Operating Base of the Assam Rifles for many years, making it an impassable zone. I had narrated the historicity of the site to a high-ranking officer in the summer. Within a few days I had received a text from him informing that the commanding officer of the base would be happy to host me for an hour under his supervision. At Langthabal, a junior officer from Bihar was instructed to walk me around. He twice requested me not to photograph any part of the army base, but the old ruins. Walking through the tightly packed quarters of the soldiers, I find a clearing where a temple stands. The small, bulbous spire and four minarets are reflective of the eighteenth-century Bengal style. Leaving those intact, the rest of the structure had been white-washed peach sometime in the recent past. The crevices which carry motifs and gods in temples from the same time, lie bare. The interior walls however were plastered with posters of Hindu gods.
What does it take for an incident involving an orgy of violence to transcend the barriers of state censorship? More so, how does a dominant projection of an incident tend to subsume the worldview of the inhabitants? Teresa Rehman indeed provides hope in the context of Manipur protests of 2004 against the brutal gangrape and custodial killing of Thangjam Manorama. She says that state censorship is flat footed and cannot keep up with the swiftness and pervasiveness of personal accounts and the depth of that all-encompassing commons which is popular memory (Rehman, 2017). The quest for reality thus gets entangled in the deficit of projecting a highly charged protest on sexual violence and its dominant projection as a communal incident.
The nupi maanbis are a man to woman transgender community of the contemporary Manipur (the essay exclusively discusses transgender women, although other queer communities need crucial attention). The 21st century nupi maanbis occupy a paradoxical place in the Manipuri society. One may observe that many nupi maanbis are accommodated in family and society, mainly for the social roles they perform today, such as a beautician or a designer or a breadwinner for the family (it is still very common for people to mock a lay nupi maanbi on the roadside). (The role of the beauty parlour industry in bringing a social role for nupi manbis requires a deeper analysis). The act of “accommodation” however does not ensue cultural legitimacy, which would involve a wider acceptance of the values necessitated by a gender variant identity. In this intersection of denial and cautious inclusion, nupi maanbis’ social relations are framed by “tolerance”, not “acceptance”. However, in the last 10 to 15 years, nupi maanbis have begun to mark their presence in the Manipuri society albeit entrenched marginalisation, they have acquired different means of articulating identity and community, and socio-cultural legitimacy that were not feasible in the past. What makes the contemporary period an unprecedented one for the visibility of nupi maanbi subjects? The global movements for gender and sexual minorities (including queer initiatives in India), aiming at acquiring civil rights for queer subjects, is a broad spectrum within which the visibility of nupi maanbi community in Manipur is contextualised. Alongside the discourses of democracy and human rights, the age of information has seen people from different minority positions documenting their struggle in social media, culture, cinema, fashion and beauty industry, etc. Conterminously, there are structural interactions between the society and various minority groups mirroring each other’s politics; a crucial outcome of these interactions is the element of cultural subversion. In this trajectory, the nupi maanbi identity today poses challenges to the conventional understanding of gender in general and the societal construct of womanhood and femininity in particular.
Sanahanbi’s husband Raghu works as a peon. They lead a cosy life with three lovely children. Neighbours are envious of Sanahanbi. They consider her fortunate for having a husband who isn’t a spendthrift. But ever since an officer who loves to drink and gamble got transferred at Raghu’s workplace, his house has become a party den. It has been a daily affair. Quite unexpectedly Raghu has started drinking regularly. Day by day he has become more violent and abusive. Sanahanbi often pleads, “This is home not a workplace. Neither am I an employee under your officer. Rather one honour-bound by marriage. Attending to the care of husband and children, maintaining a home needs all the time in hand. It is below your dignity to entertain their biddings in this way. It would affect the children. Don’t make a devil out of me, please have some sense.”
Rahmat Ali offered me a plateful of sweets –muri laddoos (balls of puffed rice stuck together with sticky jaggery). As I leaned forward to pick up the cup of tea from the table, my eyes strayed to land on a few old issues of the Assamese magazine, Prantik, lying underneath, along with a bunch of letters bearing the letterhead of the local branch of the Asom Sahitya Sabha (A literary body of Assam). Those letters too seemed dated and quite old. The wall in front was held together by wooden battens and a number of pictures were seen hanging on it. There was an old black and white photograph of the iconic Assamese singer Bhupen Hazarika, singing with his hands on a harmonium, a nicely framed map of Assam, chain-stitched on a piece of cloth and close to that was a framed photograph of Mecca. A plastic flower vase, lustreless with age, was standing on a table in the corner. The glass panes on the book case were broken and one could see through them a collection of books – Malik’s novels, the complete works of Borgohain, a couple of booklets on Assamese spelling and so on.
Have you heard a parrot speak Urdu?
I have, in my friend Zahiruddin’s house.
A mynah talking in Hindi?
Even that, in my friend Nimai Singh’s house.
What about an ass reciting Sanskrit slokas?
Yes, very often in Agya Gokul Shashtri’s garden.
A cat speaking Bangla, meow meow, ki bolo ki bolo
A dog mouthing English
A goat conversing in Meiteilon?
Like the waiting to meet
The woman you’ve been burning for
Who had messaged saying she’ll come on her own
I also waited for many days
For those unknown gentlemen
Who told me they would come to shoot me.
They arrived one afternoon and
We met at last, face to face.
After having endured it all,
The heartbreak of parting
Chasing after one son in your dreams
Raising the other on your own
our kitchen taps are broken
and our dirt hides thick on tile lines and
unscrubbed bathroom walls
the laundry bag is full and if you peeped into
our sixteen year old washing machine
you’ll find clothes there
from the laundry attempt made by
eleven years old
This monsoon issue of Yendai examines ways of imagining contestations. The idea of taking up subversion as the theme of Yendai had come up on earlier occasions and unfortunately addressing it seems to be topical given the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. Even as we agree on the theme, our approach and ways of understanding subversion differ. We approach it through two ways. First, we see sub-version as acts and practices that challenge the status quo. Second, related to the former, are the ways in which such practices become productive of new manifestations and cultures that may ironically become hegemonic in themselves and invite subversion. Acts of subversions calls for imagining new aesthetics and sensibilities through the questioning of hierarchical practices of hegemonic cultural domination. The present issue is devoted to the possibility of capturing resisting narratives that emerge in such contested fault lines. Subversions are attempts to check the deliberate acts of forgetting put in place through singular meta-narratives and violent repressions of truth. The metaphor of a palimpsest encapsulates the idea of subversion/sub-versions with the hope of reading meaning in acts of over writing and re-writing in the scrolls of time. It is used to explore the many layered existence of a cultural form and not solely the act of writing. In this edition of Yendai, we bring four poems, two visual works, two short stories and four essays on this theme.