Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Literature for the Ignored Lives

In Manipur we have witnessed all forms of protest, from burning down the Assembly Hall to naked Emas (mothers) screaming and shouting “Indian Army! Rape Us, Kill Us” in front of Kangla Gate with the banner “Indian Army! Rape Us” against the rape and killing of Thangjam Manorama. Every day a father or son doesn’t return home and the next day you will find ladies in white sitting in every corner protesting. This has become a familiar scene and people get used to seeing it. This is the norm of protest in Manipur.
However, there is a different and - in my opinion- more effective form of protest are hidden in our literature. Going back to history, one can say that Hijam Irabot's poems were one of earliest protest poems in the history of Manipuri literature. Irabot is referred to as a “Working Class Poet” because his poems and songs reflect peasants' struggle against feudal lords of his times. The below lines are taken from his poem “Oh Peasants”:

The fields echoed with
The sweet songs of artless life
The broken, old and the stagnant past
With a hope of a classless society
Get up farmers, do stand up
And fight the battle
Oh You Farmers
Oh You Peasants

His poems are often sung in folk tunes. In fact, his poems have reached our generation orally in manner akin to transmission of folk tales and songs. One of his best poems is “Another 12th December” in which he addressed the womenfolk to wake up for another Women War (Nupi Lal). The sad thing is most of Irabot’s poems are forgotten. There is a huge majority of our emerging GenX youth would not even know or remember his contribution in the struggle to free Manipur from British rule. The reason for this is not the ignorance of our youths. It is mainly due to the fact that such things are not even mentioned in entire Indian history or literature. Theatre personality Pranab Mukherjee told me in a friendly conversation that the North-East History in Indian School History textbook covers only three page and out of it Manipur has three sentences. The History text prescribed for students studying in Manipur have a small section on Manipur. However, Hijam Irabot, one the most important person in determining the young state after Independence is denied a place in such texts.

Apart from Hijam Irabot, contemporary poet, Thangjam Ibopishak is a radical poet who reveals stark realities of every aspect of the Manipuris. His poems are packed with irony, sarcasm and mockery, of real and tragic incidents. His poem “Bharat ki Nongmei Maru da Sijage” (I Want to Be Killed by an Indian Bullet) tells a tale of a usual incident (but an unusual incident to the rest of the world) in Manipur where husbands or sons are picked up from home by Indian Para Military forces as well as ‘Unidentified gunmen’, for whatever the reason is and shot to death. But in the poem the poet asks the killers to use Indian made bullet to kill him just because he loves India/Bharat very much. The poet here lampoons the fact that India has never made gun or bullet but India has used its power to control many states. The few lines below are taken from the poem:

Foreign made. All of them made in Germany, made in Russia, or made in China.
We don’t use guns made in India. Let alone good guns, India cannot even make plastic
flowers. When asked to make plastic flowers India can only produce toothbrushes.
I said: “That’s a good thing. Of what use are plastic flowers without any
The leader said: “No one keeps toothbrushes in vases to do up a room. In life a
little embellishment has its part.”
“Whatever it may be, if you must shoot me please shoot me with a gun made in
India. I don’t want to die from a foreign bullet. You see, I love India very much.

The said poem was removed from a publication of poetry book published by India International Center because they thought it is anti-India. In the words of Tarun Bhartiya, “This poem”, “I Want to Be Killed by an Indian Bullet”, translated from Manipuri into English by Robin S. Ngangom, “was censored out of a recent India International Centre publication on the Northeast edited by Journalist/Development Expert/Mentor for the Region/World Bank Satellite Sanjoy Hazarika. I wonder (aloud) aren’t Acts like AFSPA 1958, POTA, etc. which the Indian government have imposed on so called ‘disturbed areas’ and the bullets fired under the provisions of such Acts are not anti-India?

Such “censors” and ‘marginalization’ of the Northeast in general and Manipur in particular is not an uncommon phenomenon. A recent and fitting example is the rejection of ‘the world’s most successful women boxer’, four times consecutive World Champion Mary Kom from Manipur for the award of the Khel Ratna twice (italics mine).
A four-time world champion, MC Mary Kom has never been considered worthy for Khel Ratna and disturbed by the apathy, the Manipuri - arguably world's most successful woman boxer - is asking what more she needs to do to get the country's highest sporting honour. ‘I have won the World Championship four times on the trot. (Indian cricket team captain Mahendra Singh) Dhoni gets a Khel Ratna for winning just one World Cup, I fail to understand why am I being ignored then. How can anybody expect an athlete to stay motivated if he or she is ignored like that?’…’Last year, when my name was recommended by the federation, I had been shortlisted along with Dhoni but (Arjuna awards selection committee chairman) Milkha Singh struck off my name saying that he did not know which sport I competed in. That hurt me terribly,’ she revealed.

I do not buy the story about Milkha Singh’s ignorance of Mary Kom or the sports she competed in. If indeed, that was the case, then he’s not fit to sit for any sort of selection, personal as well as professional, let alone the Arjuna Awards Committee. Coming back to poetry and Literature, the northeastern literature has been ignored completely. Our literature is left stranded amidst our great green mountains or dumped underneath the Mighty Brahmaputra River. One can only hope and ‘dream’ for a day when our literature would make a mark on the Indian literary landscape and get all attention that is due.
It might, however, remain a ‘distant dream’. In a country where Irom Sharmila has been fasting for eight years now (to repeal Armed Forces Special Power Act, 1958 from Manipur) does not make a sound to the Indian ears how would her poems be considered as Indian Literature. I presume, the ugly and dirty politics played by the State government and Indian government is that as long as we stick to romanticizing our literature and forget that we belong to the state where at every solid angle you look at you find the state police and Indian Army patrolling slinging Kalashnikovs in the name protecting us, we would be heard. In short, the microphone to speak will be given to the dumb only.
Jawaharlal Nehru called Manipur the “Jewel of India”. Manipur is still a ‘jewel’ for India but it is the jewel they wear on their toes. But we must emerge out of their toes to shine. We must create another literature for our ignored literature and lives. And In the glorious words of poet L Samarendra:
“ The bullet you fired
Out of your stupidity
Your anger
Burnt me
made me a dry leaf
Became one with the dust
But my spirit entered into the new plant
And I became a green leaf anew”

we can dream for a new star. The above lines are taken from the poem “ Africagee Wakhandagee Gee” (Thinking of Africa). The same poem inspired H. Kanhailal's play “Memoirs of Africa”

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