This time I make an exception to my preference and which is that instead of the aisle seat I opt for the window seat on the plane. Yes I am flying from Kolkata to Imphal to attend an industrial meet and conference organized by the Manipur Government for the entire North east India. I always choose the aisle seat on the plane because of my obsessive fear of having to go to the washroom and not wanting to create a chaos by asking the passengers on the two seats in between the freeway and my seat to rise and make way for me. But this time, the flight was a short one and I was going to Imphal for the first time in my life and in order to be able to get a perspective of the city, I needed to literally have a top down view of things. I wanted to have a glimpse of the city from air so that I got a better perspective of things on the ground.
There was a thin cloud almost a mist shrouding the ground of Manipur as the plane started its descent. The green carpet of vegetation I saw on the ground below was sparser than the cover that greets me over Kolkata and even though Manipur is supposed to be home to thick jungles it is barer than Bengal. The river Imphal flowed down below like a large fat python snaking its way through the valley. The Ganga seemed now to me like a thin ribbon compared to the girth of Imphal river; the river seemed to be the true sister of the Brahmaputra. It is said that the Brahmaputra is the only male river of India, the rest are all females. Imphal was the amazon among women; powerful, corporeal, assertive and imposing.
From the clouds, Imphal seemed to me to be a strange city and unlike any other I have seen so far. The city is merely a space that hosts together many settlements, visible in the form of numerous dots from the sky. The dots seemed to be self-contained settlements and quite unconnected with one another. On the ground when I eventually drove through the city these dots were revealed to be small villages that survive around common facilities like the Kandla Fort, the Governor’s House, the City Centre and the office spaces. The cab driver who came from the hotel to pick me up was pointing in various directions at what he said was Irom Chamu Sharmila’s village, Mary Kom’s village, Jayluxmi’s village, all women, all famous in the world, placed there right at the international theatre as India’s pride by Manipur.
The cab driver was a proud Manipuri; he enumerated the various skills of Manipur, martial arts, wrestling, dance, music, poetry, cinema, sports, presence in the army, host to Subhash Chandra Bose, textile and silk weavers, Vaishnavs, brave and a society of women power. I quipped in that in the Mahabharata, Arjun came to Manipur in search of arms and eventually married the princess Chitrangada, who was raised as a boy by her father. The driver said that all Manipuri girls are raised as families would raise their boys elsewhere in India, the vast territory of mainland India being the “world outside.” No state of India, he said hosted the World War II apart from Manipur.
Getting a hang of the lay out of the city of Imphal I was slowly getting an idea that Manipur loves to host the major dramas of the world. During the turn of the millennium when the Buddhist Empire of the Mauryas was dissipated and the Hindu kings emerged under the banner of the early Guptas, Manipur kings granted asylum to the Buddhists, created libraries for their texts. When Vaishnavs were being harassed in Bengal, Manipur granted space to the Vaishnavs and the presence of the huge community called Vishnupuriyas are Bengali speaking people from Vishnupur of Bankura. Bankura is home to silk and Vaishnavism and so is Manipur and the overflow of Bankura into Manipur show that they together formed a pathway leading upto the Silk Road.
I visit the Kangla Fort; laid out in the middle of a moat of water that surrounds it, the fort is not really a concrete structure. It does have a much later addition in stone of a stupa like temple for Govinda, a name by which Krishna is usually known in the southern part of India. A brand new structure by ISCON has come up in the fort area but otherwise the fort is not a set of buildings cordoned off by high walls. The fort is an open area of grounds and groves, signifying sacred spaces of worship. The Kangla Fort is the crux of Manipur, every community, every tribe is represented here for every kind of worship is respected in this space. The Kangla Fort signifies what Manipur aspires to be; its historical aspiration is to be at the centre of the world. There is an enclosed space for the execution of enemies and of captured soldiers in war. It seems that their heads were severed off and the practice continued far into the British era, just before the Anglo Manipur war, after which the British captured and subjugated the kingdom.
Unlike the rest of India, Manipur has been ruled by a single dynasty ever since 33 AD till 1955 when the last of the kings Raja Bodhchandra died in 1955. Every Manipuri is a king at heart; a ruler unto herself and this shows in their body language, confident talk, comely manners and hospitable mood. The Meiti dynasty appears to have ruled the kingdom in an unbroken lineage. I am not too inclined to believe this; it is possible that whosoever ruled Manipur must have done so in the name of the Meitis. Meiti signifies not merely a dynasty, but the whole of Manipur for its script is called Meiti as well. Literally translated, Meiti means, Maati or the earth. Unlike the Nagas, who are inwardly nomadic, people who love to move over large territories, their mascot being the hornbill, a bird that marks a large swathe of land between Mongolia and Thailand, the Manipuri people are tied to their patches of land which they tend over generations and eras. Manipuri tribes are agrarian and settled; and because they do not fight for or fight over territory unlike the Nagas, they are calmer and confident than the Nagas. The Nagas are more aggressive and warrior like and while Manipur is also a set of martial people, such people appear to have pursued warfare as aesthetics of the spectacle rather than an exercise in subjugation and subversion. This makes the Manipuri a confident people, autonomous and self-contained and self-contended.
Being essentially Vaishnavs, the Manipuris are careless about ostentation. Tomba, my driver is slightly embarrassed at the shabbiness of the town’s buildings and he says that people choose to look poor because of the fear of the extortionists, who are also the insurgents. Think that like the Bengalis, the people of Manipur feel guilty of being rich. Culture seems to be the antonym of material prosperity and like the Bengali middle class, the people of Manipur love to live simply. We had food at a Manipuri family home, bare and minimum but the dining area accommodated people who would just drop in for lunch. The Ima, or the mother, was apologetic for she was over with fish, but we could catch some daal and a mixed vegetable, a Manipuri speciality cooked especially for festivals. Unlike their dance and martial arts, or weaving and thoughts, food in Manipur was rude and crude. The difficulty of accessing salt and oil appear to underlie the cuisine of the North east. But unlike the Nagas, who cook well and eat heartily, Manipur appeared to be rather indifferent to food and living. All their attention seemed to focus on the personhood, elevating the personality into a position of high culture with everything else as inconsequential.
Tomba, my driver repeats that Imphal is a Valley, a receiver of all that comes down the mountains, a cauldron of influences, and a unity in diversity. He is my guide and chaperone as well. He is concerned about my food, my safety, and my needs as a tourist as much as the deadlines of the conference sessions. I am in an out of the conference and into the city. Everywhere there are huge bill boards advertising classes for dance and sports; these are the two most important cultural skills one must master. Apart from this, weaving and farming appear to be excellent. In the age of the epics, Arjuna came to Manipur in search of weapons and so metallurgy seems to be of enormous importance. In the aftermath of the World War II, Manipur was left with a substantial quantity of metal scrap. During this time, import of metal scrap was banned and Manipur had a good stock of this material. In those days, small furnaces and foundries produced pig iron using this scrap. The scrap was over and so were the castings and today there are no steel facilities worth the name left in the state. The anti-insurgency drive by the Central Government has cleared Manipur of both its forests as well as of its metal industry especially the castings. Today, the state gets all its supplies through Nagaland and the latter imposes huge octroi tax on the products making things costly in Manipur. The train may make things better for the state especially the supplies of steel.
One has to be in Imphal to see the intensity of consumption of steel. Galvanized sheets have wholly replaced the straw thatch or the clay shingle. Much like in Kyrgyzstan, homes in Manipur are arranged as if in a wall. The front of the homes are covered with a raised boundary wall of thick steel sheet with an entrance door punched into it. One cannot have a glimpse of homes from the road; instead one has to enter literally through a slit in the wall into the domestic spaces.
I attend the conference session on skills and everyone is talking of teaching skills like massage, beauty industry, hotel business, drivers, security guards and electricians and plumbers to the young people of Manipur. These are the very youth who enculture themselves into one of the world’s finest forms of dance and arts, of weaving and castings, of making stuff and to imagine a future for such youth of such a high culture country as only the servants of the urban rich in the newly emerging cities of Delhi or Bangalore was a shame. I wanted to shout down every speaker on the diaz.
In the exhibition there were two classes of stalls; one set which spoke of Manipur’s self-respect in terms of developing their local crafts and local knowledge of medicinal plants and spices and condiments while the other set that only tried to capture the Manipuri youth as recruits into the menial service classes subjugated to the city. Skills must help people develop their self-respect, autonomy of the spirit and elevate their minds and souls; no wonder then the skills mission fails so badly for these create servants out of people. The upper middle class with their fancy degrees become servants of a higher order, the economically less endowed are relegated as low paid heavily worked menials. India’s education is a drive towards servitude, one wonders then why did we at all fight for our Freedom?
The session on logistics was rather weak and most spoke of the railways and a few spoke of the road. It seemed to me that Manipur was divided into two segments, one happy with the road while the others looking forward to the railways. The railways is the right wing nationalist project which seeks the integration of Manipur into the Indian republic as an unpeopled territory without any regard for the high culture, the unbroken history and the uninterrupted civilization of the land. Those who seek the road know that Manipur’s survival will once more be like the centre through which goods would move freely between Bangladesh and Burma into India. The railways would make the state a receiver of goods and a taker of human beings nearly as slaves to the rest of India.
Some bureaucrats in the convention speak of Make in Manipur with hideous propositions such as juice making factories in the state. Manipur people, and for that matter across the north east of India, fruits are preferred to over juice and the crux of the industry of food processing is to be able to keep the fruit as it is, and not pound and grind to extract juice. Everyone in the city praises the purity of its air and I suspected that the government of Manipur cleverly discourages the setting up of businesses that drain its natural resources or pollute its air. Barkat, the bell captain of my hotel says to me that Imphal is the best place in the world. Why does he think so, I ask him to which he says that this is a city which has not the heat of summer nor the chill of winter, neither the ravage of the floods nor the ruin of the earthquake, no raze of the cyclone, and not the wreck of the tsunami. The sun during the day does not scorch, the rain does not hurt, no hailstone hurtles down with angry storms, Imphal is synonymous of calmness, and mildness says Barkat. This equanimity of the climate is taken as a legitimizing force as to why Manipur should be right at the centre of the Universe. Of course back in the hotel I used a shampoo and a moisturizer, both smooth and of very fine quality. Barkat told me that those were produced locally. I laughed at the naivity of the skills mission which was trying to make a plumber out of entrepreneurs who could make cosmetics finer that those of the multinational companies.
The idea that everyone must develop in the same way, irrespective of whether every community wants to develop in a singular manner or not and that development must mean some physical infrastructure, some fast cars and some cramped cities with coffee shops and shopping malls is a special gift of democracy and the idea of citizenship. Citizenship defines every human being in a homogenized relationship with the State and this reduces her to a sameness, desiring similar stuff, wanting the same things and imagining a sameness for the entire course of her life. Tomba suffers from this; though a Manipuri at heart he feels insecure if real estate does not crowd Imphal, he feels defeated if the city does not have traffic jam and these ideas of universality confuse and oppress his mind; whether to become an “Indian” or whether to continue to remain of proud Manipuri. Strangely, the two, never in confrontation earlier now appear to be a matter of choice, either this or that.
I used to think that Manipur meant the land of the gems, but now I realize that it is named after the Manipura chakra, a Buddhist term which signifies the heart or the cardiac system of the body. Just as the heart beats to keep the whole body and its individual parts alive, Manipur prides itself in balancing, harmonizing, hosting and holding together the various kinds of humanity. When it stepped in to host the Buddhists, it imagined itself as being a preserve of a threatened social order. When it hosted Vaishnavism, Manipur thought that this egalitarian system of beliefs must be protected and when Manipur hosted the Indian National Army of Subhash Chandra Bose, it acknowledged the immense role of the hero in the Indian Freedom Struggle. Manipur was an independent kingdom, it need not have risen to any of the above for none of these namely the threat to Buddhism, the persecution of the Vaishnavism and the march of the INA ever really concerned the Manipuris. Yet Manipur has risen to issues even when they have not directly concerned it. This places Manipur far ahead of any other as a civilization, it truly considers itself as having a role much beyond its everyday mundanity.
The atmosphere in the city remains, like Manipur itself obscure while hosting you with kindness. I sensed that the weather in the city almost gave me a bodilessness; there was nothing bothering the body, nothing making you aware of your existence as a human being vulnerable to the heat or the sunlight. I matched this up with the fact that I hardly see a temple or a mosque, or even a Gurudwara in the city. There are some common place buildings and invisible because they are commonplace that belong to the Presbyterian Church or to Christian libraries. Otherwise, the concrete structures are barely visible. The Manipuris are indifferent to things and stuff; there were the usual chemist shops, barbers shops, stationery goods, shops for shoes and umbrellas and motor parts and of course steel retail spaces. But the people of Imphal did not appear to be consumerists, the CCDs and the Baristas being absent in the city. The indifference to stuff also makes their living a bit careless and untidy. The population is relatively sparse, unlike in the Indian cities, people do not spill out in the streets in steady streams. This speaks volumes of the Manipuri culture, they have been able to control their population well within limits. This also speaks of the unity and integrity of the Manipuri culture, a culture that has been protected because of the strange absence of immigration into the state despite a highly cosmpoliton population.
Women are powerful in the city; they are everywhere, bold, assertive, confident and free. I wondered that despite its shabbiness and the absence of restaurants and coffee shops and the lack of “development” why Imphal looked so sophisticated to me; I realized that this was because so many women were out on the streets. Women dominate the society; there are memorials of women freedom fighters, more of girls gang who fought the British, Ima Keithel, market places run totally by women though most shops are run by women. Women cycled, women sat around, lazed on the steps of shops, cooked food, tended to children, minded the traffic as police, and were everywhere in offices. Most women and even the young girls dress in their traditional attire and this says a lot about the inner peace and confidence of the Manipuri culture.
I am in Imphal on the day of the Cheirub, the New Year. People are busy celebrating the New Year by cooking vegetables and fish and exchanging cooked meals as gifts. They have laid out a bowl of rice with the various items around it on a banana leaf and offered this to the Gods. These banana leaves are laid out on the pavement in the open air; Manipuris have thousand deities but all are invisible forces of nature, God here is everywhere immersed in the elements of Nature and does not live inside enclosed structures. Manipur is a centre, and like the centre, it is invisible and without any dimension of its own.
Tomba tells me that on the night of the Cheiraub, there is the Thabal Chungwa, where boys and girls dance as in a school prom. This is a dating festival; boys and girls get to know each other and many develop love affairs after the dance. Chungwa means dance; not just any dance but a special form of dance consisting of jumping steps. Thabal means light, of moonshine, or moonlight. Thabal Chungwa is dancing in the moonlight. I wondered whether this was the reason why the Raas of the Vaishnavs became so popular in this land. Manipur is fond of romance, Khamba Thoiti, the Romeo and Juliet for the locals epitomize unfulfilled love and it is said that their spirit moves around seeking love. The young boys and girls on the night of the Thabal Chungwa are supposed to rise to the spirit of romance and fulfill the incompleteness of the dead lovers.
I sneak out from the conference disgusted at the idea of development, the idea of progress and of course at the idea of India that all the speakers seemed to propagate for what Manipur needed was autonomy actually. Tomba drives me to Moirang to visit the museum of the Azad Hind Fauj. I don’t know but Subhas Bose makes me proud all the time; I see his journey around the world to reach Manipur, I see the notes he prints in denominations of Rs 1000 and Rs 10,000 !! I see him attending the Asia Conference, I see him with the heads of state, I see him inspecting the guards and I wonder at his sense of confidence and sense of entitlement. He, in his mind has already declared himself as the emperor of India. Manipuris love him, and I fancied that they love him for having chosen Manipur as the final destination of waging war, of having considered himself as the Lord of India, for every Manipuri at heart is Subhas precisely for these reasons.
At the Loktak Lake I see the devastation that the Indian Republic has done unto the environment of which Manipur is so proud and possessive. Indeed the Assam Rifles, against which Irom Sharmila fasts until this day, have demolished and devastated the precious flora of the land. Along with the razing down of forests, the army has endangered the famous Golden Deer of the forests. The Golden Deer lives in the island forests of the Lok Tak Lake, they do not seem to inhabit the mainland but breed in the islands surrounded by water. The species instinctively can control its population because otherwise it will not be able to accommodate the clan within the limited geography. Like the Manipuris, the Golden Deer shares its restraint on reproduction of the species.
There is something about the air in Imphal and I try to sense it; I think that it is the people in that city. They have no stranger anxiety; they seem to be genuinely concerned with your wellbeing. A young girl just learning to ride the bicycle tumbles and falls down on me in Kangla Fort, she gets up and hugs me, caresses my hurt hand. Tomba accompanies me into the war memorial saying that the place may have drug peddlers. Barkat keeps my room ready with the air conditioner and the geyser, I need neither though. When there is a goof up with my dinner order, they immediately give me a glass of Fruit Punch on the house. They appreciate care, they can care. This is Manipur.
India’s challenge is to protect this diversity of the sub-continent, to hone the inner pride of its people, to respect and regard the cultural magnificence of each society, to design a future according to each society’s historical aspirations and to provide opportunities for all to contribute rather than to consume. A nationwide culture of consumerism is antithetical to the Indian ethos; if pursued with any greater intensity, it portends to end this 4000 yearlong civilization in no time.