By Chitra Ahanthem
And so, along with the dust and the din the week rolled in with a host of festivals. If Kut was marked more by a bevy of girls vying for a tiara (fake?), rather than the actual elements of the harvest festival; then the rush for a host of chakkouba dukhina items and the roar of people at the roadside gambling sites (lagao khouba) are some of the few things that mark the current state of affairs in Manipur. The Miss Kut contest this year followed the usual template of such beauty events taking place here with aspiring beauties putting on their best look but not equipped with enough poise or confidence to answer the questions put to them. A documentation of the question and answer session in such contests over the year would be a most entertaining exercise. On one such ‘memorable’ instance, a contestant was asked about her educational qualification to which she smiled her best winning smile and shot back with a “DM College Science” repartee. The immediate round of loud booing from the audience made the contestant run back stage. For the most part, such beauty contests are inexplicably organized in the open space amidst the biting cold and if nothing else, the contestants really do deserve special mention for being able to withstand the drop in temperatures. After all, the audience has the benefit of keeping themselves warm by jumping around or clapping or doing other activities associated with ‘happy hour’ while the contestants have only the loud boos from the audience to ‘inspire’ them. Many people are against the concept of beauty contests on the grounds that it is all about the exploitation of women as commodities and that the noise about the empowerment of women tag is all but a clever marketing ploy to push the cosmetic trade. Whatever be the rationale behind such contests (if any), the truth is that the beauty industry has given ground for many young women and other professionals to forge a strong career path. Which is why national level contests tie up with various agencies to groom contestants so that they are able to put their best foot forward unlike what happens here in the state with no stringent preparation process or grooming. Which is why the end result is for all of us to see with contestants going hem and haw on the stage when faced with questions that are meant to bring forth their intelligence quotient, their wit, poise and confidence.
Manipur’s Ningol Chak kouba is often described as a major festival/celebration of the Meiteis. The proof lies in the milling crowds in the market area with people going for their shopping for the family lunches and the Chak kouba dukhina. Not many will agree with my take that the celebration has been over- rated and changed its tone for the day is still seen as only an occasion of filial bonding. Yet, scratch the surface and one can see all too clearly that over the years, there is a subtle but very strong sense of consumerist competition taking place with regard to not only the dukhina but also in terms of what the married women of a family takes home to her family. One way of looking at my own take on the festival can be that the way one perceives things changes with the flow of time and perception: which is why festivals are such fun when we are younger and caught by the awe of the flow of events around us. These memories accumulated over the years as we grow up add an extra dose of nostalgia and remembrance, while instilling the hope that these feel good moments can perhaps happen again.
This last week, the Diwali road side gambling phenomenon started with great earnest and abandon: why is why a news report of over 700 dices being hauled up by the police stood out for me as I have only seen police teams who are supposed to be raiding such gambling sites but happily palming pay offs from those taking part instead of taking any action. The same goes for the perfunctory ban on crackers during this festival period: a stroll along the shops in Imphal will give enough evidence with their displays of crackers. A shopkeeper confided in me an incident of a tough looking police officer who came in with his security cover, to his shop that was selling crackers. The shopkeeper’s assistants covered the offending objects in question thinking that the team had come to seize the crackers but the tail in the story was when the police officer actually asked for the most expensive ones available as per the command of his young son!
I got to be part of a panel discussion being held on the sidelines of the Chinjak festival on vegetarian and non vegetarian elements of Manipur’s indigenous food. The discussion warmed up despite my misgiving that a discussion on food held amongst an audience who were eating their food would not be interesting enough but surprisingly, the questions came in thick and fast but got side tracked to whether vegetarianism is better than non vegetarianism. One of the views that emerged was that Manipuri cuisine needs to be promoted in the country and abroad. But not many were able to come up with one eating joint that showcased our food. Only recently, a journalist based partly in India and Italy had only one complaint during her stay in Imphal: that there was no hotel or restaurant that had Manipuri food. Her stand was pure and simple – “what is the point in catering only to certain food elements that one comes across in every other part of India?” Her question ought to be answered by the doyens who have taken it upon themselves to ‘promote tourism’ in the state. And here, I rest my case.