Revelry Amidst Trauma

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Those curious about the Second World War experience of Manipur and go to elders who saw the war for their account of what happened will often be left confounded at the consummate ease with which the people handled tragedies and made light of it. Especially amongst the Meiteis, who had the hardest time, as Imphal was the target of the advancing Japanese Imperial Army since May 1942 when Imphal began to see air Japanese raids, although the infantry arrived only in April 1944 to engage in some of the most bitter battles with the Allied troops already stationed in Imphal. The first Japanese bombs landed in Imphal on May 10 morning, a Sunday, in 1942. Imphal residents were advised to evacuate their homes, and elders of practically every family, their number is expectedly rapidly on a decline, after all the war they saw was nearly 70 years ago, have a story to tell of how they had to take refuge at homes of relatives and friends in the rural areas. As always the sense of profound tragedy that the cataclysmic event
was for them is what is conspicuously missing from their stories. The hosts as well as the refugees took the matter in their own strides, and in most cases made adversities sound like playful adventures.

Anecdotal elements in many of these stories concur on how for instance several people were killed in certain bomb raids during a khubak eishei entertainment show or during a feast or a shumang lila show. In other words, even in the times of the most fearsome wars, people continued to heartily take part in entertainment activities, performing arts never lost pace or patrons, feasting continued as much as during peacetimes. This characteristic of the Meiteis must bewilder observers. Call it foolhardiness or call it resilience, this is exactly what has seen the community through traumatic times exactly by shutting off memories of these traumatic events from their collective psychology. The love for the arts evident in these tales is also without doubt what has raised performing arts of the place to the elevated position it enjoys today worldwide. One dance form has been classified Indian classical, but there are so many others that have enchanted in their own ways.

But this peculiar and indeed unique personality trait of the numerically dominant community is still loudly visible today. The manner in which they have been taking the hardships of insurgency, and more immediately, the prolonged economic blockade with little complaint is enough to demonstrate this. But more than this, amidst the blockade the manner their festivals like the Durga Puja and now Diwali were celebrated would deceive new comers there are any semblance of embedded traumas within the society. Only two days ahead is arguably one of their most cherished and important festivals, Ningol Chakouba, and it is predictable there will not be any shortfall in spirit in this celebration either. Perhaps this is the psychological principle of memory shutdown that individuals who have been subjected to extremely traumatic experiences which can damage his or her psychological constitution undergo, although in this case on a societal scale. Perhaps this hedonistic exterior of the Meitei society is what has been keeping its sanity intact amidst all the madness of insurgency and counterinsurgency violence and other coercions all around. True enough, on the faces of the young girls who thronged the Hiyangthang Temple on the occasion of Bor during Durga Puja or in the manner fire crackers boomed on Diwali, there is nothing to suggest that the people are reeling under hardships heaped on them by the current blockade. While this “ego defence” strategy of the society may be an extreme and automatic self preservation response, and despite the good it has done, it must be subjected to therapy ultimately for when it becomes a lifestyle rather than a situational reaction, it can become an endemic problem with many adverse effects. Take the manner in which they have also been tolerating bad governance evident in the paucity of drinking water, bad roads, scarce electricity, official corruption… Here too is loudly visible the same fatalism, and there can be no dispute that in this case it can spell the doom of the society if unchecked at all.

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