Reading and Misreading mothers of Manipur

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

The ‘nude’ protest as a critical event marked is already 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 (women’s war) 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 explained. 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. Without any reason as to why such a device has been used we are left with people trying to tie up the loose ends of this narrative. Perhaps that is why one reviewer tried to read Akhu as the son of Ima Momon.  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 (translated by me, however with no acknowledgement of the same by the author). This chapter consists of interviews with band member Sachidananda and Facebook updates and Facebook chats with Akhu. One is left curious as to the mode of collecting narratives – the narratives are not simultaneous in nature. This movement of characters from one narrative to the other spans geographical space and in some cases the virtual and the real. Many of the preludes (i.e. the narratives chosen to be the via media to tell these stories of the Ima(s)) seem to be collated through Facebook. Therefore one cannot help but feel a temporal gap between the two sets of stories, as some of the ‘preludes’ as I call them are set in a different time and information collated through social networking sites 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. 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 a dominant Meitei narrative. While Pamela Philipose complicates the idea of representation in the introduction the same 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. 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 the narratives is quite hurried. 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/embarrassment 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 necessarily 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 on page 68:[su_quote] We did it for the people of Manipur … we are not prostitutes.[/su_quote] 

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 their family and community. 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. The latter unfortunately has not been thought out.

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) is remarkable in its lack of nuance and (mis) reading the parts for the whole.

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 emblematic of discussions on the ‘northeast’. 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 consequently the only ones invested in an engagement with the discussions; 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 tell stories of the perpetual other. One from the audience prefixed his question with, ‘I am not from Manipur but …’ . This is what happens as the moderator’s insisted that only those from Manipur should comment/ ask/ discuss. 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.


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Soibam Haripriya Written by:

Soibam Haripriya's poems have appeared in Samyukta: A Journal of Gender and Culture; 40 under 40: An Anthology of Post-Globalisation Poetry: Poetrywala, Guftugu, Indian Cultural Forum. Most recently her work appeared in Indian Literature’s issue on 21st Century Indian Poetry in English. She currently teaches at TISS Guwahati.

One Comment

  1. Vijaylakshmi
    March 27, 2018

    This engagement of ethnisizing the issues in its queries as well as a knowledge sharing (the last part of the review) has always been a serious concern for me too. While I have yet to read the book, yet the point picked up by haripriya can be understood from the wider canvas of problems of creating binaries as well as, ‘NE therefore unique’.
    Thank you Haripriya.

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