The Emas, the Reader and the Prelude

Teresa Rehman, The Mothers of Manipur, Zubaan, 2017, Rs 325, pp. 153

The cover of the book depicting the naked emas, is quite illustrative of what it will discuss. The nude protest as the critical event marked as an exemplary moment is so familiar a reading. What lies behind that image are human lives. The book is premised on the many different aspects of discussions, negotiations and the differences vís-a-vís the mode of protest that the women’s collectives decide to take up. The book unsettles the belief of some, that feminism is a linear trajectory of one brave / radical moment to the other – one nupilan (which means women’s war in Manipuri) to the other as if a linear trajectory, but rather it is accumulative of a series of anxieties, insomnias, and negotiations. The preface sets out the premise of the book.

In the book, Teresa Rehman uses the literary device of choosing one character through which she tells the story of one ema each. The reason the characters were chosen has not been explicated though. For instance, Heisnam Kanhailal and Ema Sabitri have been juxtaposed with Ema Ibetombi; Chanam Urmila with Ema Tombi; Bishwajit Elangbam with Ema Jamini Devi; Binalakshmi Nepram with Ema Tarun; Lin Laishram with Ema Jibanmala. One would think of some of these juxtapositions as incongruous. This device makes one look forward to the stories of the emas – except in the case of Heisnam Kanhailal and Ema Sabitri as they have become woven into the protest ever since Sabitri performed the character of Dopdi Mejhen of Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi. In this case one would perhaps want a separate treatment of them.

One is left curious as to the mode of collecting narratives – were they simultaneous in nature? This is because movement from one narrative to the other spans geographical space and in some cases the virtual and the real. Many of the preludes seem to be collated through Facebook. In Ema Soibam Momon’s narrative (pp 26-38) Akhu (of Imphal Talkies) features quite predominantly. The chapter begins with a song ‘Qutub Minar’ written by Akhu. This chapter consists of interviews with band member Sachidananda and Facebook updates and Facebook chats with Akhu. Therefore, one feels a temporal gap between the two sets of stories, as some of the ‘preludes’ as I call them are set in this time of social networking and facebooking that renders communication far easier whereas the emas’ interview were at a time, as revealed by the author during a book release function – during the time of the fake encounter covered by Tehelka magazine. This disjuncture leaves the reader curious about why this juxtaposition at all. One is therefore curious of the modes of accessing information. It has been the case that a small pool of ‘informants’ features consistently in the many texts written about certain places. This, for instance, renders the book as a dominant Meitei narrative.

This contention is important to be brought up also because of a very nuanced introduction by Pamela Philipose which complicates the idea of representation. The introduction also provides a way to critique the title – The Mothers of Manipur – considering as Philipose writes, the sense of solidarity is more often largely within the community and they think of Manipur today as a space where all ethnicities think of as belonging to one collective is a political imposition. Thus the title of the book gives the idea that it is about mothers of Manipur, but being a predominant Meitei narrative this sense of an erroneous representation has its own set of problems of conflating the larger community as being or standing in for the whole.

The book begins with – the before of the event and subsequently the narratives reveal the afterlife of the event. One wishes for more details because currently it seems hurried in the sense that the narrative seems to be drawn from a few hours or at the most a day in the lives of the emas. The desire to know more is because of many interesting tropes that connect the twelve narratives and yet each very distinct and separate from the other. Each of the narratives complicate the notion of shame – I would have wanted to know what was the exact word used – whether it was ekaiba (shyness, shame, embarrassed) or ekai-nungshi ( this is more complex word to translate, it could be explained as a sense of shame/embarassment but also imbued with self-pity) which would have nuanced it further. Retention of some of the words in Meiteilon would have been helpful.

The narratives provide a rich spectrum of viewpoints, not necessary in a continuum – one ema shared a feeling of violation of the self but that seems to have been rationalised and made meaningful for her as one violated self in solidarity with another violated self, or as Ema Nganbi conveys ‘We did it for the people of Manipur … we are not prostitutes’ (pp. 68). Another narrative conveys the act of stripping to be as good as dying and yet another compares it to the raping of the self. These stories complicate the idea of looking in which one struggles to dignify and contrast various uses of the body and the fear that one way of looking at nakedness can become collapsed into the other. There was certainly a fear of the proliferation of the image of the naked mothers and its impact on their relationship with the family. There is a need to expound more on this and not leave it as snippets of an aftermath. This is indeed a hastily written book and although it is imperative to tell these stories –the manner of its telling is equally important.

In conclusion, one needs to constantly remind oneself of the impossibility of extrapolation especially when using few stories to stand in for the whole. For example, the reading of ‘Meitei women’ as ‘unique as they are deeply concerned about the society they live in and are involved in various social organizations,’ (pp79) or ‘This little girl grew up, got married and like most Meitei women, got actively involved in social work.’ (pp 20) The Guwahati release of this book was on 17 February, 2017 at NEthing. The moderator at the end of the discussions kept asking for young people from Manipur to comment or ask questions. This struck me as emblemtic of discussions on the ‘north east’. It seems that one is perpetually stuck in a position of either being insiders and thought of as either having transparent access to the field and thereby become rightful commentators; and those outside, of course reduced to using a via media to tell stories, reduced to a point of perpetual suspicion or feeling the need to authenticate the need to tell stories of the perpetual other. The response, ‘I am not from Manipur but …’ is what happens as a result of this juxtaposition. I find this an impossible bind, for being on the outside or the inside is neither a transparent access nor an impossibility of understanding and engagement. Such binaries should be dismantled so that this does not become the excuse for the lack of an engaging work, for one would speak either as this is the field reality because I come from there or I can do nothing more because I do not come from there. I would urge the reader to read the book stepping out from either of the above categories.