Monday, October 13, 2014

Separation, a love poem

What could I do
to shield myself
from the words
you choose to strike me with.
I am at loss for words;
you have no dearth of it
razor-sharp as the edge of night.
Yet what I recall
of conversations
is abrupt laughter
intense wants
and love,
newly sprung
after anger subsides

I’ve been waiting,
I’ve been waiting
thus, handcuffed
by your disdain
for affection

What words do I choose
to speak to you about my loss?
About your loss,
you choose not
words in times of calm,
but unleash them,
as if untamed monsters
in moments of your choosing,
while I yearn the soothing balm
of a lover or a friend.

You fear imprisonment
by rituals of love,
you fear
remnant souvenirs of love
as lovers disappear

I could promise you
I put my heart
in the things I do
and when I say
I love you deeply,
I do.
When I say so,
through the distance,
it is not a chain
to tug you
as you strain against it.
When I say
I love you deeply,
I do.
When you strain against it
or I do,
there will be nothing
to break
or shred.
Our lives
separate again.
We would shed
each other,
a pool of clothes at our feet
and wear another attire,
another self.
It will be
just a separation
a just separation.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Rage, a pyrrhic victory

The secret defeat
of a pyrrhic victory
the reward itself
a silent solemn object
Perplexed, the victor
He, a naked light bulb
illuminated and alone in his victorious terror

what good was his rage
against the maladies that afflicted her
what good was his rage
against his own grieving heart

Could he subtract from the pale floor
the dark stain
she, coughing up
the bile of his rage

In his fist he held
history’s sorrow
yet grudging tears
his eyes remain dry.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Abandoned Chapters

I visited the abandoned chapters;
they had grown sullen and strange. 
The scribbled notes
as if a morose,
neglected lover 
wait for me 
to decipher his bitterness. 
I coax the words 
to enlarge their meanings. 
I cajole the mundane 
for a missing clue.
says the law of writing, 
another hour
perhaps two
lie folded 
amongst escapade tea breaks, 
In the loneliness 
of losing words 
and thoughts,
I pour over words 
and words. 
A leap years' pact hung above 
-Damocles’ sword.  

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Keeping War: Stale-mate on a ‘Durable Disorder’

Sudeep Chakravarti, Highway 39: Journeys Through a Fractured Land, Fourth Estate, 2012, Rs 450, pp. 388

Highway 39 snakes its way through three states –Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, its winding path could be a metaphor for a river though it is literally a slush in the monsoons especially the part of the highway that fall within the territory of  Manipur. The title of the book, Highway 39, gives the picture of a road trip. However, the book is refreshingly nuanced unlike other recent books on the still persistent idea of the ‘northeast’, many of which for various political reasons juxtapose the two states –Nagaland and Manipur as two antagonistic entities. It was another book reviewed in the same paper ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ that led me to look at the books published in the past few years on what one might provisionally call ‘the same terrain’.

 Highway 39 is not disappointing, and unlike the former it is non voyeuristic in its gaze. One may find the writer’s views critical but he gives convincing arguments and anecdotes in support of his criticism. Rather than brush aside the responsibility of the state and its complicity in what ails the region and many other regions in periphery/ies, Chakravarti is clear on the role of the government and the mechanism of governance.  In the introduction of the book he says ‘Governance plummets if the place is both far enough from New Delhi and lacks the heft of population to contribute sufficient numbers to the equation of government formation in New Delhi’ (ix). The idea of refusing to engage with some of the most pressing problems that the region faces, most important among which is governance; and insurgency being propped up as an easy answer to all that ills the region is part of many writings both academic and other non-fiction accounts. To link both –governance and insurgency, the former leading to the latter and the latter as both encouraged and fragmented by a certain investment in it as part of governance strategy is alluded to by him. What marks the two books as starkly different is that ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ is a book that seems to make a passing casual remark at issues that should be dealt with more seriously, for instance insurgency is callously referred to by Bhattacharjee as ‘Insurgency is complex, at the same time boring to elaborate’.

I am afraid that there is no escaping the comparison of the two books published just a year apart as they more or less describe the same region but in ways which are starkly different, not to mention that some of the informants are common to both the writers. The latter fact perhaps points to larger issues of using the same laid out routes and there being a set pattern in understanding an issue. However, this also points to the fact that the same event may not necessarily convey the same to different people; the ‘ways of seeing’ is definitely different. Chakravarti does not use any protagonist, fictional or otherwise, running through the book, it is him and the people he encounters and yet he offers more than an insight at each experience of meeting people or being there where truth collides with lies and conspiracies – ‘Travel here means confronting the truths, lies and bloodshed that have shaped modern India. It means confronting the reality that people whom I was instructed to revere since my childhood, names we as Indians read as streets, stadia and institutes of learning, faces we saw in history books and on increasingly rare postage stamps, treated other citizens –with brutality that rivalled any other in these modern times’ (p.4).

The book also raises pertinent questions of the reconciliation and peace processes; the inter-linking of faith (in one particular religion) and enmeshing it with identity especially on the Nagaland-Nagalim questions that perhaps those involved need to ask of themselves. This and the intrigues played out by the state had been largely ignored by Bhattacharjee. Chakravarti says this and most people would endorse that ‘It is indeed no secret that India’s intelligence services and the home ministry play the game every which way with each faction, and try to tap into separate points of leverage within each faction by using those with political ambition’ (p. 61). Many other such facts that characterise what is called ‘the economy of conflict’, politics of doling out ‘package’ has been discussed at length.

The book is in parts a juxtaposition of different events that lend an unmistakable air of irony – a billboard of a Manipuri film –Bomb Blast in Imphal; Mohandas Gandhi on a truck that reads ‘Sanitation is more important than independence’ brings to mind a statement by the C.M. of Manipur who once in an interview with Tehelka magazine said 'Education is more important than right to life' or the most poignant irony of the pomp of building a martyrs’ memorial on the one hand and Luingamla’s grave ( a young girl killed for resisting attempts to rape in 1986,  a story which the writer followed to and fro –from official gazettes to different villages) unkempt and without a marker just as the official gazettes hovered between life imprisonment and acquittal and finally the gazette itself abruptly ended without a closure. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Marginalised within the Margins: Meitei Muslims in Manipur

Ever since childhood I remember being in highly homogenous groups of friends and familial circles. Such circles have the tendency to numb us to differences, an easy sedate living insulated from those different from us. It was not a shock though considering the direction the country and the state is heading when a friend narrated to me in a series of conversation the travails any muslim girl growing up in Manipur would have most probably undergone. “‘Amina Begum’ is one of one such verbal harassment thrown at anyone wearing the hijab or have wrapped herself up in a scarf or chaddar,” she explained. People like us who are not subject to such particular harassment and targeting based on religious affiliation might even state that such harassment is to be taken lightly. Harassment of such kind is mildly called laknaba, a term as innocuous as eve teasing, a term which could include an array of other activities which are indeed innocuous and thereby makes it difficult for women to argue that laknaba is verbal harassment also, or perhaps what is required is to coin another term which would encompass the ordeal that such an act embodies. While it is more often than not understood and (hopefully) a consensus built around the fact that women undergo harassment at most public and private spaces such harassment of the minorities should be understood as of much more virulent an attack and the fear of being small in numbers is not to be underestimated. The point here is not to compare the degrees of ordeal that women undergo but to state that women belonging to different communities are marked out differently, the minorities always bearing the brunt and in the case of Manipur, the muslims become the other. Just as we are in other parts of the country marked out by our features, they are in their own land marked by other visible markers.

Sites that we as “mainstream”, at least in Manipur (by we, I mean the majority community of Manipur, the Meiteis regardless of being hindus or followers of Sanamahi religion) have taken as sacred if looked at through a different lens gives quite an altogether different picture. For instance, Kangla (in the news for quite some time now) has easily morphed from being a site of kingly subjugation to a site of resistance, if only, for the Meiteis. Manipuri muslims or meitei pangal is the category in the census and such colloquial  words –pangal, hao have in time acquired prejudices by what the majority community prefix and suffix with these words that most people with political sensitivity prefer the English replacement –muslim, tribal. A series of conversation with this friend from the meitei pangal community revealed for me the many flaws of my own community. Her research interest being sacred spaces she interviewed some of the priests in Kangla. It is difficult to identify her as the “other” from her name or her “looks”. She was entertained with her queries for a few days after which she was told in no uncertain terms that she has polluted the space. As a political move there has been many feasts organised in the space of Kangla wherein people from other religious and ethnic communities have been invited, if only for political correctness. The priest also gave her some of his own opinion on how such moves pollute the space of Kangla. Are we to think then that it is only on such marked off days that “the others” are invited, allowed inside the so-called sacred space? It is to be remembered that spaces only become sacred by exclusivity, an exclusivity that more often than not is built on an exclusion, an exclusion that marks certain people as unpolluted and thereby those who are so. It is time we look at such spaces and understand that in the exalted histories of such spaces lie narratives of subjugation/ discrimination.

The meitei hindus of Manipur certainly pride themselves as being separate from hindus of the rest of the country. This is on the basis of the erroneous belief being that they are innocent of discriminatory practices like that of caste. However the notion of purity and pollution has seeped into the very core of all practices. Women are aware of how they are denied access to certain spaces during their menstrual periods. Practices like these have become banal enough to pass unnoticed. We have equally bizarre cases like Municipal Corporation workers sweeping roads being physically and verbally harassed; something as innocuous as the broom has become a potent inauspicious symbol! This idea of purity and pollution also comes in our conduct vis-à-vis the religious and the ethnic minority. My friend was shown the door by a well known meitei intellectual. She has polluted his sacred texts was the reason attributed. That we still live in a time where it is possible to make such disparaging statements and not only that, in effect actually rendering certain areas of research inaccessible to a community and also getting away with it is nothing less than shameful and is to be pointed out as a practice of untouchability, an illegal act. She narrated to me an incident wherein she with her sisters travelling in a bus bound for Mayai Lambi was address by an old meitei lady, “Ebemma will you hold these flowers for me, I got them for a puja, the person next to me is a muslim”. I would have been stunned to be address this way. My friend growing up in an everyday of such acts of shunning directed towards her nonchalantly replied “ Ema eisu pangan ne” (Mother, I am also a muslim). A remark to which the elderly woman nonchalantly said “Phare adudi, ei adum pairage” (It is okay then, I might as well hold the flowers myself). Would not we see this as an act of untouchability directed towards a community? If this anecdote is amusing I should consider it a failed project to attempt to draw attention to such discriminatory practices.

While the name meitei pangal do suggests the indigeneity of the muslims, the term prefixed as it were, with a meitei, yet the question of indigeneity is a growing and a highly contentious issue. The muslims seems certainly marked out, not only in the state but going by the decade that we live in, in all parts of the country. More, so in the north eastern region of the country, due to its proximity to Bangladesh, muslims have to prove their indigeneity and non-Bangladeshi origin again and again. The meitei pangal in spite of their indigeneity seemed forever set apart because of their religion. As in other parts of the country in the regressive times we live in the religion seem to question their authenticity as indigenous people of Manipur. All other ethnicities following other institutional religion or those aspiring to be one (Hinduism, Christianity, Sanamahi-ism) at least in the case of Manipur no not at any point of time have to prove themselves as being indigenous population of the state. In fact for those following non-institutional religion, the question does not even arise. At any point of them one can see that there seem to a mortal fear of people who do not constitute even 10% of the population (according to the 2001 census).

Not too long ago an incident of muslim villagers lynching a muslim couple in Sora Awang Leikai occupied print and screen space for a weeks. This was used as an illustration of the “otherness” of the meitei pangal. This is strange in a violence ridden place where sporadic killing could be seen anywhere regardless of the religious affiliation of the place. However, the ways in which media possess video recording of the killings and questions of media ethics in such a scenario was not questioned. What was questioned was the ethics of the community and not the ethics of policing mechanism and the manner in which the entire process was video recorded and shown in news bulletin erasing only the most incriminating part.

It could be said that issues like the movement asking repeal of AFSPA, resisting acts of violence, resistance to racialised targeting of women from the region in the capital and our indignation against it occupies our time and attention. One should not desist from that. Along with this however it is to be noted that we treat our own minorities with the respect that we demand. While I write this the news of Haji Abdul Salam, first ever Muslim MP that the Manipur state is going to see is doing its rounds. The Congress has woken up rather late in the day to the fact that they need to have some secular credential. It is left to be seen if this would translate into any palpable changes in the way we view the meitei pangals.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lazy Stereotypes of an Uninspired Mind

A review of Kishalay Bhattacharjee, Che in Paona Bazaar, Macmillan, 2013, Rs 399, pp. 241

Paona Bazaar lies in the heart of Imphal, Manipur. One can describe this place by its proximity to Bir Tikendrajit Road which had seen the infamous fake encounter case in July 2009. In fact many of the landmarks of the town would tell a story of it being part of a constellation of political violence. Che, I would presume, needs no introduction here. The attempt here is to understand this curious juxtaposition of ‘Che’ and ‘Paona Bazaar’ as seen through the lens of a media practitioner. The book ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ largely discusses (but not exclusively) two states –Manipur and Nagaland - of what is unproblematically called the North-east. These two states are not only connected by a common border but also by it falling in the category of ‘disturbed area’. The infamous Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 has been in place in these states, it is often argued that the enactment of this act is partly related to the peculiar and coerced manner in which these states become a part of the Indian Union. One would therefore expect some amount of nuanced understanding which captures the complexities from a book that claims to deal with the region.
This work of non-fiction with a fictional protagonist whom the writer claims as ‘not representative of any community or culture’ is named Eshei (Meiteilon word for Song) which is a dead giveaway. She is a typical native informant in the book that reminds the reader of dated anthropological writings. The book is to a large extent a narrative mediated through Eshei. The writer does not shy away from beginning the book with racial stereotypes that abounds in the mainstream Indian imagination of the so-called Northeast. The oldest armed group in Manipur – UNLF – mentioned in the initial pages of the book is referred to as ‘working towards a unification of Mongoloid armed groups’, is just one of many such unabashed stereotypes. Comparing cultures on the basis of exotic curiosities –for example, comparing Manipuri and Korean culture based on the practice of putting family name before given name; comparing Sanamahism to Shamanism. Perhaps meant to be amusing, but rather than being funny it ends up carelessly taking down a language especially as in one sentence the protagonist’s fetish for Moreh bras is strangely morphed into its seeming importance among a whole community. Unbelievable as it might sound; the author states that bra (brassiere) is an important word among the Meiteis due to the interrogative pronoun ‘bra’ suffixed at the end of a query.

Moreh, the border town, described as a Manipuri Malgudi in the book of course is a terribly wrong metaphor. Using the metaphor of Moreh being a Manipuri Malgudi, the writer was not even romanticising the town but describing the dirt, grit, ‘prostitution’ and smuggling of drugs which is typical of many border towns in conflict zones across the globe. The writer takes himself too seriously, if the name of the book ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ itself is not enough indication of that, sample these sentences – ‘my ‘motorcycle diaries’ brought me to Paona Bazaar’; ‘I was the Pirate of Paona Bazaar’! In the start of the book itself the writer expresses his disdain for one of his native informant as he had to do his own research, he seem to want everything on a platter and does not shy away from expressing this. This is one of the kinder expressions he uses; he describes people scathingly leaving enough hints to identify the people populating his book. Even a superficial analysis of the choice of qualifiers used in the book reveals much. For instance, Manorama Devi (though her name is not given it is impossible to miss out on the clues) is described as an explosives expert but she was allegedly raped. Allegedly raped? What about her real murder? The protests that ensued after the rape and murder of Manorama Devi have been offhandedly described as creating ‘another stereotype of naked protests’. One is at a loss as to what the statement is supposed to mean. Did it lead to a chain of naked protests throughout the country? No. Does the country recognise rape of men and women in peripheral states by the armed forces? No. Or did he mean that yet another stereotype has been added to those currently proliferating on the northeast? A second or a third reading does not make this clear either.
What is worst than this racial stereotype interspersed in the writing is the lack of  any nuanced political understanding of the region from someone who was at the helm of news from the ‘North-east’ as a Resident Editor for a national news channel. In a rather bizarre juxtaposition he narrates two incidents together – the protest by women who stripped themselves outside the headquarters of Assam Rifles; and another incident six months later where a ‘Meitei girl’ ‘made love to a young army officer’ inside the headquarters of the Assam Rifles. The former was a protest by women, now known as ‘nude protest’, against the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by the Assam Rifles: a protest which also demanded the repeal of AFSPA (though mentioned nowhere in the book). It is unsettling to see the two incidents being described in the same paragraph –protest against a rape where the woman was killed and had gun-shot wounds in her vagina and a woman making love to an army officer.

The lack of respect for his subject is clear from statements like –‘Meitei homes have a confusing front and back yard’ or referring to avoidance of eye-contact as a gesture ‘typical of people in Manipur’ or proffering his idea that a dinner shared with two Tangkhul cousins in Ukhrul which consisted of hot pickle is somehow the cause of ‘their violent streak’. Sample this statement ‘In fact, there is a possibility that every detail in this account will be challenged. That is also quintessentially Meitei.’ What this statement attempts to do is refute any possibility of disagreement. Prior to the disagreement being made he already stereotypes it as a trait of a community. The style of writing is reminiscent of dated writings on the lost innocence of the native, the only difference being that according to the writer the natives are to be blamed for the current state of affairs. It is rather strange that a work of non-fiction that discusses so much on the conflict attributes the loss of personal liberty only on civil society and ‘armed nationalist’ and does not extend the same to the police or the army presence.
What one would have wanted was honesty with the times the book dealt with. The book covered a series of politically charged events and people involved.  But the intention of the narrative produced about these events seems to be ridicule rather than looking at the everyday travails of the people. For instance, while trying to take a critical stand on the Assam Agitation, the writer could not come up with anything better than dismissing the leadership as an ‘uninspired bunch’ and describing the years spanning this movement as being a time for young couples to have sex in closed-down schools. The gaze of the writer is definitely voyeuristic. Without explaining much, he also gets away with statements like ‘Insurgency is complex, at the same time boring to elaborate’; calls the NSCN-IM as armed Naga guerrillas and later qualifies his statement and calls them organised dacoits which is a notch lower that the colonial misrepresentation of ‘Naga hostiles’. The writer describes human rights organisations as frontal organisations of armed groups who pick ‘up cases of army and police excesses and drumming up public outcry against the state’. This is quite a painful erasure of the fact that police and army excesses still continue with an alarming regularity.

The problem with the book is not just that he sees the community as a collective without individual thought, trait or agency: a narrative which builds upon easily into the many stereotypes he offers on people as a whole, but also the seamless traversing from one state to the other almost playing with the idea of the ‘Northeast’ as a chunk of landmass conjoined like Siamese twins. It is clear whose side he is on especially as he mentions all the players in the field of conflict and yet conveniently refrains from referring to the State as one of the main beneficiaries of the conflict. The reproduction of existing clichés is however not as damaging as the superficial narration of various events that have had far reaching consequences in the politics of the region in the guise of some sort of social narrative.