The world’s hottest Chilli, called Umorock, is found in Manipur. A junior army officer from Uttarakhand doubting its potency once took a leisurely bite at one of them. The poor fellow reportedly ran for his life for the next ten minutes, his face turning redder by the minute, his whole body drenched in sweat and his anxious colleagues praying for his survival. This modest sized phallic vegetable, as it were, reportedly inspired the Manipuri saying ‘Piglabasu champrane eikhoise’ which means that even though we are small, we are capable of really hot stuff.’ Che in Paona Bazar is admittedly not as hot a commodity as umorock but this new book on Manipur certainly unsettles the complacent reader with its unsparing details and exasperating ironies. Manipur, contends Kishalay Bhattacharjee, is ‘Indian in almost every way’ in that it is no more, or no less, riddled with complications, and fortified by human warmth, as the rest of India but ‘refuses to believe it.’ Thankfully, he operates with no monochromatic image of what it means to be Indian or Manipuri. Just as in the subtitle of the book, simultaneities of exile and belonging alternately articulate and fracture the book’s narrative textures. Bhattacharjee’s ‘outsider’ origin, education and two decades’ work as a journalist in North East India equip him with the wherewithal for a searingly close exploration on what it means to belong. He refrains, however, from prescribing definitive answers, attending instead to everyday human stories of trials and errors, foibles and failures, accidental bravado and impulsive choices and to the oppression of categories and utopias. Ultimately, the twenty three chapters of varying length and detail between them emerge as a scrapbook of personal rumination on lives and strategies of real people trying to cope with their turbulent uncertainties and placid alienations.
Manipuris, and by extension the North Easterners, writes Bhattacharjee, are trapped in the alienating images circulating in the ‘mainstream Indian’ perception as an ‘imagined community’ of xenophobic, aggressive and militant people rendering them unable to articulate their ‘own’ experiences. Curfews, blockades, explosions, rape, protests, persecutions—Manipur seldom manages to transcend these stock images in the ‘national’ consciousness, as it were. Upset with the structures (or strictures) of his own profession, senior TV journalist Bhattacharjee decides to write, capitalising on his long exposure to the region and its people, seeking to convey some of his everyday experiences to the general Indian reader, partly quoting his Manipuri friends and partly filtering their narratives through his own complicated insider-outsider perspective. He makes no representative truth claim and needs to be burdened with none. His stated attempt to broaden the scope of post-conflict literature beyond exclusive narratives of pain nonetheless deserves serious attention. Conflict also makes for interesting stories of survival and resilience, of liberatory sexualities, of unlikely affinities and of literary, gastronomic and musical sublimation.
At its basic, Che in Paona Bazar is a portrayal of ordinary men, women and children, struggling to make the most of the circumstances beyond their control governing their lives. This is why it is as much about iconic ideas, images and institutions in circulation, unmoored from their origin and manifesting in popular appropriations, assuming distinct lives and meanings even as traces of their originary impulse refuse to disappear altogether. As Bhattacharjee writes, ‘in every facet of life, there’s certain kind of fade in and fade out from deep rooted tradition to strong outside influences, the blend between folk and classical and from the sublime to the grotesque’. Years of living within a conflict zone appears to numb its victims away from the clarity of self expression to passionate searches for identity in purportedly lost cultures and traditions, quests which in themselves often turn violently inward bordering on vigilantism. This in turn constitutes what he calls multiple Manipurs, the many contradictions and potentialities of a people and a place trapped in search of an elusive identity.
Journeys, meetings and stopovers set the stage against which familiar stereotypes are dissected and everyday realities—political, historical, personal and human—are unpacked, subverting the expected and unearthing hopes and aspirations lying dormant within passivity and acceptance. The reader is unsettled with unusual association after association as new dimensions of an apparently familiar story turn up with every new meeting. Bhttacharjee begins, for instance, with a story of the police turning a blind eye to an elderly woman selling soft drugs. By the end of the story, that same individual of uncertain parentage, religion or ethnicity is seen to make a life of her own, building a home near a crematorium, nurturing and rehabilitating abandoned children into successful and dignified professionals.
Bhattacharjee writes of characters born and growing up amidst conflicts. Sometimes they move out of Manipur but often enough they return, literally as much as metaphorically, trying to make sense of their lives. Their desperate search for a future impels them to revisit the past and present of their homeland. Often enough, however, such quests lose direction and produce all kinds of unanticipated consequences. The trajectory of Eshei, the fictitious storyteller invented by Bhattacharjee to lend a coherent trajectory to these stories of doomed quests, embodies most of these facets. She comes from a middle class household with modest finances and connections, goes out to study in the mainland, barely participating in politics until the father of her North Indian lover rules out marriage on account of her alien ethnicity and she overhears another female partner denouncing her people along similar lines. She returns to understand her roots, covertly aligning with an insurgent network and working hard at documenting local folklore. Later her proposal for animation films based on those stories—Bhattacharjee writes some of those in great detail—are dismissed by ‘mainland’ financers as commercially unpromising and a broken Eshei stumbles from one failed relationship to another, her self confidence hitting rock bottom and turning down a genuine lover at the end.
Bhattacharjee confessedly eschews profound formulations on politics, protests and insurgent networks, turning instead to their undersides and to the ways in which they have forced an energetic people to sublimate their animation in food, sports and music. When he does address politics and insurgency, it is to indict their lack of productive direction. Meira Paibis, the women’s movement spearheading the famous naked demonstration against the armed forces in 2004, is exposed as a ‘de facto moral police’ whose dress code diktats, for instance, are often enough violated in practice, Manipuri women displaying no visceral aversion to western wear. Revering Irom Sharmila, the intrepid woman who is on a decade long fast against AFSPA, is a highly regarded public ritual in Manipur and elsewhere even as Bhattacharjee feels hers has been in many ways a lone battle. Similarly, the iconic stature of Ima Market, the all woman run ‘autonomous’ space in the heart of Imphal and another revered Manipuri institution, was dented some years ago when following insurgents’ diktat, non Manipuris were forcibly driven out.
The rhetoric of removing external influence is shot through with ambiguity. Recalling the ban on Hindi movies and western and Indian apparel in 2000 by defenders of Manipur’s indigenous culture, Bhattacharjee shows how Korean cultural and commercial products, ostensibly untainted with external association, quickly moved in to capture Manipuri minds and markets. As a matter of fact, the average Manipuri is just as content with Chinese products monopolizing its markets as its women are with wearing the traditional Phanek.
Economy after all respects no boundaries. The discussion on the vicious nexus between AIDS control funding, narcotics trade and insurgency is particularly illuminating in this context. As the state with possibly the largest number of HIV positive people, Manipur receives substantial funding from international donors, a large percentage of which thanks to governance failure is diverted to insurgent groups via the narcotics route. The parallel economy controlled by tens of insurgent networks thrives on taxing every source of funding into the state, including government schemes, effectively bleeding not only the HIV afflicted but the entire citizenry.
Insurgency probably left its most debilitating imprint on its unacknowledged child recruits. They were easy to enrol, travelled light and exploded right into the target without a trace of fear, rarely, if ever, mature enough to wonder why. Talking to Bhattacharjee some of them claimed to serve their motherland, and yet others merely felt thrilled at operating a gun or bomb, one even confessing to being paid only a full plate of chowmein for blowing up a LPG van. They too, like Eshei, are a part of a lost generation. Unlike her though, they are not even accounted for. Their quest for identity is routed through guns and bombs and the instructions of their commanders even as their lives carry no worth even for those they serve. The sense of futility gripped the average Manipuri no less. ‘All Manipuri evenings (turned into) candlelight vigils in a state where there is no power, no running water but plenty of energy…people…have stopped thinking about it. It really does not matter as long as one is alive.’ With time, acceptance of militancy, filth, poverty and corruption ‘just wove itself in’ and dysfunction, as it were, stalked the valley.
A disillusioned Meitei poet in exile castigated his own fellows as ‘the most pretentious, shambolic and hypocritical people in the world’ and proclaimed the death of hope and love in his land. Indeed, there’s much in the way Manipur looks at love and courtship which reeks of double standards. Boys and girls publicly holding hands are frowned upon but eloping is socially approved and invariably followed by elaborate marriage ceremonies. Adultery, although socially denounced, is rampant in high society and opprobrium melts into acceptance the moment such illicit affairs are solemnized into marriage. As a result, polygamy is a reality but rarely mentioned in public, children in such families learning to live with it as matter of course. Highly influential woman vigilantes and self respecting working women running families are as visible as patriarchs calling the shots within and outside the household, the latter generally predominating in politics and insurgency.
What do ordinary Manipuris do with their ‘plenty of energy’ then, if they can’t direct it against the government denying them basic facilities or against their vigilante insurgents extorting protection tax? To begin with, they talk food. Food, says Bhattacharjee, is the best conversation opener with a Meitei and takes you straight to their soul. With both men and women equally adept at cooking, and a saying authorizing good drinking and fine eating as the distinctive markers of a gentleman, it is no wonder their standard greeting is formed around the question if one has eaten. The Meteis and Nagas of Manipur, otherwise at daggers drawn, share a common love of hot chillies. Bhattacharjee’s lengthy and detailed accounts of Manipuri dishes, recipes and culinary traditions certainly helps in apprehending why and how the political content of an internet discussion forum among expatriate Manipuris soon enough dissipated into passionate debates on recipes, rice and fishes.
Music and dance performance is the other domain which the average Manipuri holds sacrosanct. Thousands of young Manipuri men rush to their Gurus to master Pung Cholom, a three centuries old Martial Arts derivative classical Vaisnavite dance form. Despite negligible commercial prospects, this tradition of Indian origin is strongly defended by the Manipuri youth, as can be witnessed from the five hundred plus practicing Pung Cholom troupes. The same young man, says Bhattacharjee, takes no time in slipping out of his dhoti—his Pung Cholom gear—and into jeans and canvas shoes for an impromptu jam with guitar in hand. No wonder the most famous hard rock singer in Manipur—the man who allegedly found the first ever hard rock group in India—also plays Krishna in Ras Leela celebrations. With men like these in Manipur, and Lou Majaw from Shillong—Bhattacharjee’s ‘Dylan on a Bedford bus’—music has been for years now connecting the North East with the rest of India. Music cannot heal political or historical wounds, nor can it light up streets in the evening. Nonetheless, it is no small tribute to the resilience of this bridge that even an ULFA cannot anymore stop a Zubin Garg from spicing up the Bihu celebrations with Hindi songs. Indeed, with around fifty practicing rock bands specialising in hard rock and alternative rock, some predating the insurgency, the man who started the earliest of them calls rock a people’s revolution in Manipur.
Sport is the third domain to which Manipuris delightfully channelize their energy. The country is no stranger to the Manipuri footballers and weightlifters. Manipur is also famous as the birthplace of Polo. Practicing sportspersons regularly brave curfews, strikes or riots to attend training, Bhattacharjee impressively mentioning an instance of a team of rowers calmly practicing their trade in the canal flowing along the Kangla fort on a day the Police fired teargas shells on a group of protesters on the streets only a couple of hundred meters away. As the inspiring tale of an HIV positive bodybuilder successfully overcoming social and physical challenges to emerge as the best in his state shows, sports is often literally a life affirming force for the Manipuri society and psyche. Nonetheless, there is rarely any cult around famous sportsmen whose sporting career is generally followed by a smooth retirement into humdrum domesticity. Likewise, the lack of visible exultation in the face of a Pung Cholom performer at the end of a perfectly synchronized performance or the utterly unnoticeable appearance of a female rock singer before or after she lords over the stage arguably signifies a typical Manipuri trait. Her energy completely sublimated in her performance, during which she is life itself, the Manipuri perhaps feels no additional impulse to be demonstrative.
Is it a small wonder that nationally renowned football players are the most famous asset of Manipur’s best known country liquor village? No less intriguing is the public secrecy under which liquor and fuel generally circulate within the state under active patronage and connivance of the army. The tortured relation of the Manipuri with the Indian army after all is not limited to charges of rape and encounter. Bhattacharjee brings up tales of normal human interaction as well, of wilful sexual and marital liaison between Manipuri women and ‘Indian’ soldiers, though admittedly rare, and instances of entire villages saved from destruction by the resolve of a wounded officer defying his superior’s retaliatory orders. Amid the blasts and encounters, such instances of human compassion certainly inspire hope.
The chapters on Assam and Nagaland are likewise rich with interrogating tales of accidental insurgents and ordinary citizens performing their everydays, of directionless violence turning inwards and clueless men and women getting on with food, markets, music and hopes for a better day. Bhattacharjee’s insight on the encounter between India and its North east is perhaps best summed up in the following lines by his poet friend Robin Singh Ngangom,
We believe our past is pristine
Even as we reaped heads and took slaves
When we rewrite make believe history
With malicious intent,
Memory burns on a short fuse.
These days Anirban Bandyopadhyay researches everyday histories of social and cultural memories. He has published essays and reportage on popular perceptions of politics, sportspersons and film actors.