[box type="quote" size="small" align="right"]The man I love is waiting for me impatiently. He came here to meet me but my supporters refused that idea,” Sharmila, who is force-fed by the government through a nose tube, said from her bed in Imphal’s J.N. Hospital.[/box]
IMPHAL, Sept 5: Irom Chanu Sharmila, the world’s longest hunger-striker and a living legend in Manipur, has told The Telegraph she has fallen in love but her supporters are against her marrying the man.
The 39-year-old has been fasting for nearly 11 years to have the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act repealed. Some of her supporters appear to be finding it hard to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected romance.
Some of the resistance may have to do with social issues, too.
“He is of Goan origin but a British citizen. That is why they are against the relationship,” Sharmila said.
She added that she wished her relatives and supporters did not see her as a superhero. She said she was just a human being like any other.
Desmond Coutinho, a 48-year-old writer and activist, met her in March this year after a year-long exchange of handwritten letters that Sharmila carefully keeps in a cardboard box by her bedside.
They have met once, in March this year. Desmond had arrived in Imphal in February but Sharmila’s supporters were probably put off by his dishevelled appearance and talk about human rights — including his and Sharmila’s.
He had to wait for some time before the activists would relent and allow the meeting. Ironically, it was a two-day protest fast by Desmond that clinched it.
“(At first) they insulted him and threatened him,” Sharmila said. “It was a stormy night. He was sitting near the meira shang (women’s shelter) where the meira paibis (women activists) gather. They were hard-hearted.”
The couple met on March 9 at a court, just before she was released for a brief period. Sharmila requested the judge to provide him with security.
Had it not been for the security, “Desmond could have been beaten to death”, Sharmila said.
“They don’t like to appreciate our relationship. They are also very possessive, very mean, very one-sided,” she added without a trace of bitterness in her tone.
So, where is he now? “Desmond is in Thailand, meditating.”
When will they marry? “I will marry after my demand is fulfilled,” Sharmila smiled, knowing the wait may be long.
She had been 28, a Class XI-pass whose knowledge of shorthand had got her a job with a local daily, when she began her fast on November 2, 2000, after the Assam Rifles allegedly shot dead 10 civilians in Manipur.
She has now spent years in hospital under police custody for “attempted suicide”, protesting a law, in force in certain northeastern states, that gives troops extraordinary powers to detain and even shoot at anyone they suspect to be a militant.
Many had cited her struggle against the backdrop of Anna Hazare’s fast and pointed out how her marathon sacrifice had not got the recognition it deserved.
Sharmila said it was Desmond’s soulful letters and thoughts that made her fall in love with him. For a year, they kept in touch through letters, mostly written by the spiritual experimenter who has alternately delved into Christian evangelism and Buddhist Vipasana.
He has gifted her a wall-hanging and a tablecloth printed with the images of Radha and Krishna.
Desmond seems to almost revere Sharmila. “I am like Yoko Ono. Or Gandhiji’s wife. I will enable her to do her thing, which is give witness to the oppressed. I am marrying a mahatma and I have a rough idea that it’s not going to be an easy-going life,” he had blogged on manipurtalks.com on February 7.
On another website popular in Manipur, Kanglaonline, a blogger read Desmond’s posts and dubbed him a lunatic.
Sharmila knows better. “He is talkative, but he is trying to be suitable for me,” she said shyly, before getting lyrical.
[box type="quote" color="red" size="small" align="left"]Without any shame, like a couple of birds, no permanent food but so free, so lovely
-she (Irom Sharmila) chanted [/box]
The boyfriend has gifted her an Apple MacBook, which she proudly displayed. Sharmila has also been finding inspiration from Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea, which tells the story of a man’s mission to build schools in a nation shattered by terrorism.
Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Watch, a long-time associate of Sharmila’s, feels she should be seen as a normal human being rather than be placed on a pedestal.
But he added: “She is ahead of Gandhi; Sharmila met Gandhi after she started on the path of fasting.”