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.
Hijam Anganghal’s Jahera eponymously titled after its heroine Jahera became one of the most popular novels of the time followed by AIR Manipur’s adaptation of the same into the famous radio leela Jahera and film-maker Chandam Shyamacharan’s subsequent adaptation of the same into the feature film- Zehra (1999). Jahera/Zehra became a household name in mainstream art and literature of its time. The story revolves around a conflicted love story of a Pangal woman whose excessive acceptance of orthodox Meitei culture in pursuit of a love relationship with a Meitei man ends tragically. This eponymous heroine and the cross-religious love story of yesteryears somewhere left problematic cultural and religious dominance of Meitei over Pangal and also marked a certain type of representation of Pangal in mainstream art and literature till date.
Stories! There are no good stories in Kashmir. There are only difficult, ambiguous, and unresolved stories. (166).
—– Basharat Peer.
Kashmiri nationalist author, Basharat Peer comments on the existential challenges faced by the Kashmiris as well the complexities of narrativising the conflict situation and its human dimension in his memoir, Curfewed Night (2008). Kashmir valley regarded as paradise on earth has been in a state of armed rebellion against the Indian state since the 1990’s. Some of the primary causes of discontent among Kashmiri populace is gradual erosion of political autonomy guaranteed by the constitution of India through article 370, political interference in Kashmir valley by successive governments in New Delhi, and all pervasive otherization of the Kashmiris as Muslims due to gradual rise of Hindutva politics in northern India.
“Tu hi meri manzil hai, pehchan tujhi se/ Pohonchun main jahan bhi, meri buniyaad rahe tu” (You’re my destination, you give me my identity/ Wherever I go, you remain my foundation). Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, the story of a female spy, presents Alia Bhatt’s character as “A Daughter. A Wife. A Spy”. The director has managed to make an excitingly paced spy thriller with the necessary dose of drama yet she chooses to highlight her protagonist’s roles as daughter and wife, first and foremost. Along with representing the human tragedy of war, Raazi also reveals the patriarchal nature of nationalism that expects its women to submerge themselves under domestic roles even when they are working as soldiers of the nation.
Towards the closing scene of Fiddler on the Roof, as Tevye, Golde and their two daughters were preparing to leave, evicted from Anatevka, Golde is seen sweeping their house. When Tevye asked her what she’s doing his sharp tongued wife, Golde, replied, agitated, “I don’t want to leave a dirty house!”
Directed by Norman Jewison, the 1971 musical is the story of a Jew peasant in the pre-revolutionary Russia. The story centers on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to uphold his Jewish religious and traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family’s lives. He must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wish to marry for love.
Known for his sauciness in the locality, Modhumangol one day turned up and asked for Baba. I called out Baba. He came out of the Yumjao in his typical slow paced stride. “Taada”, addressed Baba to Modhumangol, as the latter was slightly older than him. “Get your Yumjao cleaned up. This afternoon some people from the television are coming for video recording”, said Modhumangol. He continued, “They are not able to find any Yumjao, leave aside a proper one, in Imphal.” Baba nodded, but without a word. Modhumangol soon left. Later I protested that Baba shouldn’t pay heed to the decree of the cocky man.
Story of a Name
As part of the requirements for a course that I service, I once assigned my students to write essays on their names. I got more than what I bargained for. The breadth of the names and what they mean; the depth of descriptions of varied naming privileges and ceremonies gave me a window to the richness of differences and the strength of togetherness in this part of the world. My students taught me, nudged me into looking again at my own name, through their personal stories – that range from the funny through the mundane to those with palpable pathos – behind their names.