A Northeasterner’s Reflection on India’s Equation
The question of how one perceives India’s Northeast as a single geopolitical entity – as frontier or border, or as a diverse constituent of different communities. The narratives of constructing or understanding this space called the Northeast are multidimensional depending on from which quarter it emerges and they are undoubtedly contesting narratives. Increasingly the academia is also frequently asking how we research India’s Northeast which perhaps draws the methodological attention. Often a politics of difference, different from the political and cultural identity of India is what identifies politics in the Northeast. The politico-cultural complexities of the region in the presence of a such differential perception; the differences between ethnicities; and the gap between how one perceives as an insider and how the other gaze India’s Northeast leaves one far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It is in such a context that I attempt to understand and elaborate my reflection of Northeast from a commonsensical approach based on observation and reading of the texts as an insider (Meitei person). This essay is also inspired by the beauty of mosaic and the idea of building solidarity for emancipatory politics in Northeast.
Learnings of Culture from the Northeast
Two broad temperaments towards culture can be discerned in our times. One temperament manifests in the form of cultural self-assertion (including intensifying fundamentalisms), which is quite often rooted in whole systems of belief, race or religion. At the heart of self-assertive tendency is a will to claim visibility in the public sphere and secure increased access to shared resources. The self-assertive tendency often mobilises a sense of injury: present or past, actual or imagined on which to build its claims for assertion. Cultural self-assertion can yield productive outcomes as was seen in the Indian subcontinent when a certain introspection in the face of colonialism generated a sense of cultural self-confidence that in turn strengthened both the desire for Indian independence as well as the means to achieve it. However, a decontextualised sense of victimhood i.e. an unsound and unreasoned sense of having been violated, can imbue the will for cultural self-assertion less with meaning and more with emotional charge, which in turn can excite human energies in all sorts of poor ways including such extremities as violence. What gets lost on such occasions is the intelligence and power of culture.
Lockdown 2020 – Ground Notes
The masks were yellow in colour, kept in a transparent plastic bag. As we prepared for our Sandakphu trek, we combed for it in our rented apartment in Jatia. Six months ago, I moved into this apartment (after my marriage), not more than 500 metres from the home I grew up and lived for 30 years. For many days in the beginning, I would often locate my home from the terrace and bedroom balcony of our apartment. Each time I went to the terrace, I would spot the whitewashed walls in the hill towards the north, and a figure – usually moving, who I had often thought to be my father as he would mostly keep busy in cleaning the house and its premises. It wasn’t a surprise, when I was told by my mother that she too had located our building from the kitchen door and by standing under the mango tree near our rain water harvesting tank. It was a neighborhood of poor and lower middle class families. Not only did we share pithas, homegrown vegetables, and fruits like mangoes, bananas, jujube, coconut, and jackfruit, we also shared food that we had brought from our village homes and from our travels, from different events at a relative’s place like birthdays, funerals, ethnic events and rituals. On some days, we did not have to cook at all. Picking flowers like roses and gardenias; stems, leaves or roots of medicinal plants; cutting banana leaves and trees from were done in the neighborhood without the need to ask for permissions from the owner.
“Touch me not”, A Quarantine Story
What a bummer! Being killed by a stupid virus!
Goku’s dialogue (Dragon Ball Z)
In Dragon Ball Z, when Goku, the major protagonist of the franchise, returned to Earth from the Namek planet, future Trunks, another protagonist, told him that he (Goku) would die of a heart virus in the near future. Goku, one of the Earth’s bravest fighters, was unimpressed. True to his fighting spirit, Goku did not want to die of the disease, he would prefer to die fighting. I consider Goku’s statement as an important metaphor of my condition at the quarantine centre I stayed for 14 days – I needed courage to overcome some of the most miserable situations at the centre. We, people of the planet Earth are facing a pandemic now, and I want to reiterate that my personal allegiance with Goku does not mean to downplay the seriousness of any deadly virus. Covid-19 is not stupid, while suffering itself is life’s illuminating experience that makes us our own protagonist. The number of deaths and pain that family/friends of those who died and who recovered faced should not be fiddled with for ideological and sensational cravings.
Theatre in the Time of Crisis
Was there a time with no crisis at all? Can one appreciate art without a crisis? Can an artiste keep silent in the time of crisis?
Manipur has been living with crisis for many years. AFSPA has been part of our life a long time now. But it has not deterred our creative faculty. Rather artistes have produced more creative arts in this land. Art in a land of crisis can never be the same as art in a more peaceful place. Moreover, Art in a period of global crisis can never be the same as in more stable times. It could be remembered that Khongjom Parva emerged just after the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891. One Dhobi Leinou, a balladeer, mourned the tragic loss and praised the great heroes of the War who sacrificed their lives for Manipur. Later, it accentuated into a collective mourning of the people of Manipur. Another important event is that the first recorded Meeteilon/ Meiteilon song in gramophone “jati koubi sakhenbi, leiranglaktagi athoibi” was recorded during the turbulent Japan Lan (2nd World War) in 1944.
Barefoot in the Garden
As lockdown laid bare the unpredictability and newness of everyday, my life seemed indistinguishable from an ordinary March day to the other. One early morning, my eyes followed a rather talkative bird in the garden. It was scruffy, bluish-black and pecked at some seeds that I may have spilled during my gardening endeavours. The bird was a starling. It noisily chirped and hopped about the hedges. As I continued to trowel the soil, some wood pigeons flew above me, cooing. A chaffinch joined in from the roof of the garage. I sat still on the ground with peaked ears. Listening out for birdsongs quickly became a favourite part of the lockdown.
The Old Man by the Lake
I often met an old man in his 80’s sitting alone on the banks of the Loktak lake in the early evenings before the Covid-19 lockdown. I used to wonder at his solitude every time I saw him when the sun almost hid behind the hills in the West and the evening breeze blowing across the Tamu soothed passersby by the lake.
When the lockdown started in February, the initial shock of the pandemic drove me slightly paralysed that I didn’t go out for days other than going to the engkhol a kilometre away from our present house. I was perturbed by the number of people gathered in shops, konthongs and sumang. I avoided talking to people and silently performed my daily tasks of watering the vegetables in the evenings and returned home at sunset.
Brahmanical Supremacy and Workers in the Time of Pandemic
We seem to be living in times that are haunted and shaped by long enduring structures that keep getting dramatically revealed and then dissolving into the mundane, recently exemplified in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. While complex histories and everyday plays of power and their contestations can alone make for a robust understanding of our present, this article was provoked by the compelling force of structures as hauntings that seize and arrest everyday life and moments in history. An attempt to grasp hauntings is likely to over-emphasize certain aspects while undermining others, but it helps to ascertain some structural forms and forces while they are writ large. In this article, I try to outline the forms and workings of caste supremacy in relation to workers.
Contested Landscapes? Imaginations beyond Gorkhaland
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.
Subverting Violence and Working Peace: Understanding March 5th Incident
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.
Nupi Maanbi Thabal: A Brief commentary on Gender and Cultural Subversion
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.
An analysis of Jahera: The problematic representation of Pangal in mainstream arts and literature
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 of/from Kashmir
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.
Patriarch(s) and Nation(s): Wilful Erasures of Female Selves
“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.
On Belonging and Home
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.
The Burden of Names
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.