Manipur Posts

Women writers from North East India

Writing from the north east of India has always had an interesting texture to it. It is distinct. Although the “north east” is clubbed as one region, the variations that exist in the seven states constituting this region are mind-boggling. Much of the writing that is available from this region is a combination of original writing in English and some in translation. Unlike writing in other parts of the Indian subcontinent where there are very distinct literary traditions in the regional languages and those who opt to write in English, this is not always true for the writing emanating from North East India. To illustrate. Writing in other Indian regional languages has a very distinct local cultural feel to it with preoccupations that are understandably of the region. Also the writing is very clear about the local literary traditions. So much of this gets translated as is in to English. When some of these regional writers opt to write in English then they infuse some of their writing with a regional flavour but only mildly so. This is where the differences creep in with the Indian writing in English emulating more of the rules and traditions of the borrowed English literary traditions rather than being confident of their own traditions infusing the English space. Interestingly these distinctions are not visible in these two marvellous collections of writings — The Many That I Am: Writings from Nagaland (Ed. Anungla Zoe Longkumar) and Crafting the Word: Writings from Manipur (Ed. Thingnam Anjulika Samom). These are collections of writings — fiction, essays, poems, illustrations, comic strip — by women from the north east of India. It is not possible to gauge from the tenor of writing which of the contributions is a translation or an original article in English. All the contributions, irrespective of whether a translation or written originally in English, focus upon their local landscape and culture. There is a calm confidence about narrating incidents of the transformation of their society from tribal customs such as head-hunting to becoming Baptists as in The Many That I Am. (“Cut off” by Vishu Rita Krocha) The volume of writings from Manipur throws the spotlight on recent decades of activism by women and many of them being at the forefront of the armed conflict that has plagued the state. The nature of contributions in Crafting the Word is a little more languid and gentler as compared to The Many That I Am which is puzzling; given that Crafting the Word arose out a women’s literary group called Leikol founded in 2001 and so had more time to hone their writing skills. Be that as it may, there is a quiet maturity to the style of writing even if it is not at par with the punchiness seen in most of the pieces included in The Many That I Am.

Zubaan is a legendary feminist press. It is known for its fundamental work on literature by women. Sometimes the contribution of women is expressed in myriad ways. Fiction is a powerful literary form to highlight the position of women and to express their innermost feelings. Many of the stories included in these two volumes achieve this beautifully. The hard labour that women put in to keep their households going as in “Vili’s Runaway Son” by Abokali Jimomi, “Martha’s Mother” by Hekali Zhimomi, and “As Spring Arrived” by Kshetrimayum Subadani ( Translated from Manipuri by Sapam Sweetie) and in many cases helping the next generation fulfil their dreams as in “My Mother’s Daughter” by Neikehienuo Mepfhuo. The essays in these volumes vary from memoirs to fascinating account of the flourishing of women’s writing in Manipur ( “The Journey of Women’s Writing in Manipuri Literature” by Nahakpam Aruna) to how readers access literature — the “outbooks” or the books apart from the Bible and the school textbooks, in a lovely essay by Narola Changkija ( “Outbooks: A Personal Essay, September 2018). An essay in which she reflects upon how her mother banned all outbooks in the home but her father, a police officer, on his travels would fulful his daughter’s wish and buy her the books she desired.

What matters is that his reverence for the written word was catholic, in the very best sense of the term. Literary or pulp fiction, any ‘outbook’ was evaluated and read and appreciated for its unique self. I like to think I have, finally, developed a similar catholic patience towards books, and life, and other human beings. At least, I hope I’ve learned how to value the things worth valuing and let the rest be.

Another one is a poem “Secret Library” by Dzuvinguno Dorothy Chase in a section entitled “What Time Told Me in 2018”.

The Many That I Am is a very powerful collection. It is best read from cover to cover. Impossible to dip in to without wanting to read one more and one more and one more. Here is an example of a performance poem. Timely words. Much to dissect here. Perhaps best left as is to be read, to reflect, to share and to perform widely.

It is challenging to succintly conclude about the magnificently magical power that lies within these two collections. It creeps upon the reader to leave a delicious sense of sisterhood and belonging, an empowering feeling to know that one is not alone in the daily grind of being a woman in a society still governed and defined by patriarchal norms. It is a fantastic feeling to come to the last page of the book and discover the comic strip shown. The joy of finding in pictures the exhilarating feeling of surmouning all those metaphorical mountains and emotional claptrap that is used by many to keep women from achieving.

Buy these volumes. Read them. Share them with not just the converted but a wider audience. Appreciate the writings for themselves. The “-isms” will follow, if they have to.

11 February 2020

Book Post 52: 25 Nov – 17 Dec 2019

Book Post 52 includes some of the titles received in the past few weeks.

17 Dec 2019

Teresa Rehman “The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women Who Made History”

On 15 July 2004, Imphal ( Manipur), twelve women strip in front of Kangla Fort, the headquarters of the Assam Rifles, a unit of the Indian army. Soldiers and officers watched aghast as the women, all in their sixties and seventies, positioned themselves in front of the gates and then, one by one, stripped themselves naked. The imas, the mothers of Manipur, are in a cold fury, protesting the custodial rape and murder, by the army, of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old woman suspected of being a militant. The women hold aloft banners and shout, ‘Indian Army Rape Us’, ‘Take Our Flesh’. Never has this happened before: the army is appalled.

Award-winning journalist Teresa Rehman’s The Mothers of Manipur is about the mothers and grandmothers who protested boldly. The trigger was the abduction and murder of Manorama but it was also against the Armed Forces ( Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) which gives the army extraordinary powers. Manorama, a weaver, was known in the local community for being a hardworking woman who had been supporting her family ever since her father had died while she was a young teenager. She had chosen not to marry but on 10 July 2004 troops of the 17th Assam Rifles barged into her home, accusing her of being a militant, questioned her and then took her away. The next morning her body was found. She had been raped, her vagina stuffed with cloth and bullets riddled into her genitals. Yet the army said she was shot while attempting to run away but there was no evidence to prove it.

Angered by this incident some of the local women who were also active members of the Meira Paibis (women torch bearers of Manipur) movement decided to do something about it. Some of the women had visited the morgue to see Manorama’s body. They were horrified by what they witnessed. Hurriedly and yet secretly the women put together a plan to disrobe at Kangla Fort. They had two banners painted ( the painter was sworn to secrecy) displaying the words “Indian Army Rape Us”. On the morning of 15 July 2004 they removed their undergarments but wore their phanek ( sarong) and shawls. Once at the gates of the fort they stripped and shouted. It immediately caused a stir. Within hours curfew had been clamped and there was a blackout across television channels. At the time the incident made headlines and was covered extensively but years later too it is viewed as a seminal form of protest by women in a conflict zone as in this BBC report ( March 2017).

More than a decade later Teresa Rehman decided to interview these women of whom all save one survived. What emerges from the interviews is that though these women were mostly from an impoverished background they were strong and had a firm idea of justice. The anger of the older women in the group was fuelled by their childhood memories of the occupation of Manipur by Japanese forces during World War II. At the time too the unannounced arrival of Japanese soldiers at their homes asking for young girls, particularly at night, made their families anxious. The imposition of AFSPA in Manipur decades later brought back those very same feelings of anxiety and fear for their daughters. During the course of the interviews it becomes evident that the women in July 2004 were only concerned with how to display their anger and frustration at the Indian Army and the inexplicable irrational violence it perpetrated upon the locals. Not a single woman thought of the consequences. Years later it becomes apparent that the twelve women had diverse experiences. From being shunned by their families to being idolised by their community. Yet the common factor amongst them all was the anxiety and fear had not abated and now they worried about the safety of their daughters and granddaughters.

The Mothers of Manipur documents the role of these women in an active conflict zone and the consequences of their actions. Yet it comes across as a book that is also a testimony of Teresa Rehman’s own growth as a feminist journalist. She does the balancing act well of being sensitive to the women and their issues without being an over zealous journalist who pries too much into the personal lives of their subjects. It also inadvertantly becomes a part-memoir of Teresa Rehman as she visits Manipur regularly from the neighbouring state of Assam.

Undoubtedly it is a gripping book to read but there is also some dissatisfaction. The fact is mothers forming groups to work within conflict zones or in fragile societies being reconstructed after war is a part of gender and conflict studies. The role of women in conflict zones across geographies is well-documented. Also it has been discovered that these groups share many characteristics. Though there is a competent introduction by renowned journalist Pamela Philipose giving the background to AFSPA and Meira Paibis there is little context given either by her or Teresa Rahman to the Kangla Fort incident in gender and conflict narratives. It has to be extrapolated from the various interviews included. For a newcomer to gender and conflict the book would be fascinating to read but they would miss completely the cues of sisterhood which form in war zones. For now these details are scattered through the interviews. An overarching essay that explained the methodology of how these oral history interviews were conducted, contextualising the action in the women’s movement and the active role mothers/women play in conflict zones would have definitely enriched the book.

Despite its shortcomings The Mothers of Manipur will be referred to for a long time as it not only documents the shocking incident of 15 July 2004 at Kangla Fort but also neatly encapsulates the troubled history of conflict-torn Manipur particularly since World War II.

Teresa Rehman The Mothers of Manipur: Twelve Women who Made History Zubaan, New Delhi, 2017. Pb. pp. 152 Rs. 325 

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