By Chitra Ahanthem
I distinctly remember a time when I was in school (which means it was long ago!) and believed that socializing with friends would be a constant in life. I also remember making fun of my mother at one point asking her why she was no longer in touch with her own school time/college time friends and why all her friends as we called them were all work colleagues, why all they did was to meet at their work place or at social ceremonies (marriages, family births and deaths etc) and why they did only boring things. I did not think of asking the same question even though he was only with people who became friends because of his work associations: partly because he was into fun things with his friends going for picnics and night-outs out of Imphal. My mother only smiled at my question and answered in a very unsatisfying manner saying that I would find the answers for myself when I grew up. She also added that I would be doing the same thing as her in a matter of time.
Part of what she said then has come true. Now in my early 30’s I find that most of my early friends are busy with their various social pressures: mainly that of devoting themselves to their families and conforming to the ways of their husbands’ households. Those long-term friendships have been replaced by work related acquaintances or colleagues by virtue of spending time with them. I must hasten to add however, that this status quo is specific to Manipur since a lot of friends settled outside the state or belonging to other places have times for themselves, their friends and other activities. But here? Whenever there is a talk of a get together in the form of a meal or going out for a movie majority of my friends who are married say they are busy with their work and that their Sundays and holiday times goes towards running their households. But dig a bit and then the reality often is that the mainstay of their lives, have undergone drastic changes with all priority on their obligations as a wife, a daughter in law and mother. And in that process, they lose themselves and get carried way in their functions and lose touch with what they like and what they want to do.
Last year some of us who had studied together in college decided to form an alumni and despite the fact that many subsequent senior and junior batches were scattered everywhere, we decided to go ahead and planned a meal at a restaurant in town for all of us who were in Inphal. The actual turn out was lower even after confirmations because of “no permission from husbands/in laws” and “where do I keep the children while I am there?” factors. It is sad to see just how imprisoned women in Manipur become once marriage happens. Very often, the extent of married women socializing is to give company to their husbands when they socialize. And almost always, the socializing space will have an invisible line that separates the men and the women. There must be some reason why the social lives of young married women are so curtailed but that reason escapes me. On the surface of it, this group falls into the educated, employed and often with helpers to run the family. What then would be the reason that stops them from being individuals besides being wives, daughters in law and mothers?
Maybe part of this track comes from the abject lack of pursuits and activities in our society. Schools and colleges bring in everyone together and there is a never-ending socialization process: the everyday classes, the school/college/university functions, picnics and outings and tuition classes. But once a person gets out of this phase there seems to be a sudden pit stop that kind of accelerates when one touches late 50’s in the form of having to attend social ceremonies (birth/death functions, marriages of relatives etc). There is an acute lack of interactive activities in our society where people from all walks of life can come together to discuss and meet. We do not yet have photography clubs that organize photography workshops or photo walks and neither do we have a reading club that meets to read poetry or drama or discuss authors. We do not have movie clubs that screens and then discuss movies. We do have the usual literary societies and drama forums but let’s look deeply and what do we find? Most times, occasions like book discussions, poetry readings and film screenings are organized in very stiff upper lip format: you have the flowery language and the decorum of the Chief Guest speech, Guest of honor speech, invitee speech etc etc and in the process bore everyone out of their minds. Everybody on the dais gets a round colorful badge pinned and those sitting in the audience is left to customarily clap a bit. Chances are also that the audience in such settings, are mostly relatives of the film maker/author and so on and what I call the “usual suspects”. To the uninitiated, “the usual suspects” on the Manipur social scene are known the experts in the specific area so if it is a film screening, there will be a certain set and it is a book release, there will be a certain set of people. The common denominator would most likely be the guys who video-tape such events!
What is strange about the nature of social events is that apart from their formal stiff upper lip format, there is also a lack of inspiring and creative publicity. Very often, the nature of publicity is centered upon a press release (that mostly gets tucked somewhere inside the pages of a newspaper and then, not all newspapers will carry that press note and not all of us subscribe to every newspaper being published) or an announcement through a press conference. The large base of young people are left out of it all when the truth is that the publicity of cultural or literary events in college/school notice-boards can get in a lot more enthusiasm on one hand while triggering off a process of building intellectual and creative knowledge on the other. And since we are talking of social outings, the advent of social networking sites only means that it has become much easier to get out event information. Here’s hoping that the social circuit of interactive events emerge in Manipur!
What I have long admired about Sharmila is her way of the wyrm. Manipuri society is dominated by a few families who prospered during these past sixty years of massive influxes of development funds from the Centre. They have power and influence onlyl as long as you give it to them. If artists could return to their original vision service of the muse, the God, Shiva/Shakti however it is expressed then their cheap money will count for less and their tacky video releases well Warhol made a fortune out of tackiness so who knows. Karmasaka. May each find their own way home. Let them continue with their press releases. It seems if a newspaper prints against the given party line it is burnt and banned. Lucky for you the internet don’t burn so easy.
So many ideas and plans have I presented for her. One was of impressario, to sponsor artists and dancers for tours perhaps nationally and internationally. The peace ashram was shot down early on but I guess there is less money for some with peace, it tends to get resources spread more equitably.
Ok I thought because I understood petty bigotry, grew up with the racism of fledgling fascists in the london of the 70s and 80s and I know the nasty humiliations required of any seeking a traditional Indian wedding that I would not be shocked. I was wrong as I often am. Manipuri society is backward and closed and Manipuris often take great pride in telling me that I will never fit in. I don’t really fit in anywhere so I was shocked but if this is all you got I guess I will see some of you at the wedding who knows you might even give your real names rank and serial numbers.
Sharmila is a truly great woman. Like you Chitra I write from personal knowledge and experience but if anyone wants to offer the usual manipuri take your words don’t burn here unless someone lets them. Her womenfolk have said little. I have always longed for sisters. They wrote of a prophecy of rescue coming from a far off land. I wonder what it might mean.
After AF(SP)A is repealed and the rule of law gradually returns to Manipur perhaps then the young may choose to embrace greater freedom. It is difficult to keep in touch with friends especially if you leave your homeland but if you say that women are not allowed freedom in Manipur. One of the paradoxes. You people claim to worship the idea of woman but you treat your women with contempt. But if as you say it is only husbands and in-laws who hold back a married woman from what in a free country would be termed a normal healthy social existence then Sharmila has chosen far better than you or many of your colleagues. She has chosen to marry an orphan Farang.
You will always be welcome at any gathering that Sharmila hosts in Manipur. We can hide in the kitchen with your son unless that too shocks. I was a suggesting cafe boran and chat but if that is too much freedom the offer is withdrawn. I am free and so is she. But I do not force freedom on those who are not ready for it. After AF(SP)A is repealed I get everything I want. In Samsara all is suffering all imperfect. And why should I lecture Manipuris on that. In a few days I start a short teaching course for novice monks in a lamasary on Manipuri poetry and history (well English but I have tunnel vision and it seems to work.) You remain on of the few manipuris who can write well and have things to say. Manipur must change before that will count in your favour. Be patient then as shall I. Sabbe Satta Sukhita Hontu