OF MALE AGGRESSION AND SUPPRESSED VOICES: POETICS OF VIOLENCE IN THE POETRY OF MANIPURI WOMEN AUTHORS

By- Linthoingambi Thangjam

(This paper has been published in “Armed Violence and Nationalism: Reflections in Manipuri Literature” for the Centre for Manipur Studies, 2018.)

The northeast region of India is now comprised of eight states namely Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Sikkim. All these states except Sikkim had hitherto been independent until their annexation into British India in the 19th Century. Sikkim became a part of the Indian Union in May, 1975. The total population of all the eight northeast states is 3.1 percent of the total population of India, as per the 2011 Census.
According to the 2011 Census, the population of Manipur is approximately 2.8 million. Three dominant tribes inhabit in the state of Manipur namely the Nagas, the Kukis, and the Meiteis. The Meiteis are the dominant community having their own language and script. However, the archaic script, ‘Meitei Mayek’ in local parlance, came to be replaced by the Bengali script, during the reign of King Pamheiba (1709-1748AD). The ‘Puya Meithaba’ or the burning of ancient Manipuri scriptures in 1729 during the time of King Pamheiba is of great significance in the history of Manipur and its literature because the reading and writing in the local script was obliterated.
Manipur was a princely state till its invasion by the British at the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891, and the kingdom got its independence in 1947. It had merged into India during the reign of King Bodhchandra Singh (1905-1955), after signing the Merger Agreement of 12th September 1949 in Shillong. In the later centuries, a unique syncretisation between Hindu culture and the traditional culture and customs ensued. Adoption of Hinduism (Vaishnavism to be precise) and Hindu ways separated the valley from the hills. Lines drawn on religion, ethnicity, and culture put Manipur in a trajectory of dangerous competitive ethno-nationalisms. No wonder that the state still faces the challenges of insurgency, ethnic rivalries, political unrest, corruption, and human rights violations. Manipur which is a part of the northeast region is one of the most violence affected states due to multiple reasons. Political unrest in the state includes frequent bandhs, general strikes,total shutdowns, boycotting general elections, national holidays and celebrations, economic blockades on the two national highways which are the only life-lines for the land locked state, etc. Such acts of disruption by various groups and organizations throw the state out of gear affecting peace and prosperity in the state. Human rights violations in the state include extrajudicial killings, fake encounters, sexual harassment, etc. The unrest in Manipur is summed up by Bethany Lacina, in her article ‘The Problem of Political Stability in Northeast India: Local Ethnic Autocracy and the Rule of Law’, as, ‘The rules of engagement for the security forces and their alleged assaults on the local population have become a major point of political contention in Manipur’ [Bethany, November/December 2009: 998-1020].
The socio-political unrest in the state has created extraordinary circumstances for the women in Manipur. They constantly face suppression in many forms not only from the male members of their families, but also from the state machinery. This situation is reaffirmed by Salam Irene [2014: 4] in her book, Women of Manipur: An Alternative Perspective, as, ‘While the subjugation is rooted in patriarchy it is sanctified by custom and reinforced by the state’. In a patriarchal society of an insurgency afflicted state like Manipur, where the voices of the women are suppressed due to fear of male aggression, and threat from insurgent groups, it becomes important to be able to delve into the minds of the Manipuri women writers to uncover the suppressed voices. Salam Irene’s observation that the many women victims of violence in Manipur ‘prefer to remain silent for fear of repercussion in the form of social ostracism, or from shame, and a plethora of complex emotions and feelings’ [Ibid., 3], holds true. It is assumed that women in traditional societies in the northeast enjoy greater freedom compared to other societies in India. But, if we look into these societies as autoethnographers, this notion is a misconception not only from the politico-historical perspective, but also from anthropological and cultural viewpoints. In the essay, ‘The Manipuri Women and Changing World’, in the book ‘North East India: Selected Regional Issues’ edited by Amar Yumnam, VijaylakshmiBrara and Seromena Asem find that in most cultural and religious traditions, women play an indispensable role not only as transmitters but also ‘as creators and custodians of culture’, and ‘this relationship between gender and culture is used as a basis for justifying violations of women’s human rights’ [Yumnam, ed., 2011: 127-128]. In a traditional Manipuri family, both men and women have equal responsibilities as they are required on the paddy fields in activities such as tilling, sowing, and harvesting. Both men and women have equal responsibilities in rites and rituals performed round the year. While the male shaman (high priest) called ‘Maiba’ functions as a healer or medicine-man, his female counterpart called ‘Maibi’ (high priestess) has very significant role to play right from childbirth to fortune telling. However, women are cast aside in the matters of the state in the enterprise of reading and writing. Reading and writing, which was solely a royal court’s affair, and handled by the ‘Maiba Loishang’ (The House of Scholars), was a forbidden place for women.
The status of women further took a back-seat after Hinduism was adopted as the state religion. Many freedoms enjoyed by women in pre-Hinduism period were soon to change after the advent of this religion. In the 18th Century, Vaishnavism got firmly rooted in a Manipuri’s religious and cultural life. This meant that Manipuris were introduced to new cultural and societal norms which were alien to them. New norms of cooking, feeding, visiting a temple, dress codes, etc. were introduced to Manipuri women. The segregation and widening disparity between the genders could be seen right from the 18th Century in which Indic value systems such as eating after the husband has eaten, or, equating a husband with a god or, the concept of a chaste wife and sati were popularised and promulgated. Talking about gender disparity, Brara and Asem opine that, ‘Violence against women is a manifestation of the historically unequal power relations between men and women, which led to domination over and discrimination against women by men.’ [Ibid.]
Girls’ education in Manipur came to be accepted by society and encouraged only roughly around the first half of the 20th Century. Tamphasana School, established in 1935, is considered the first all girls high school which introduced Western education to girl students. Amongst the first women to pass the Matriculation examination in 1939 were Sarojini, Satyabati, Radhe, Tamubi, M. K. Binodini, Thoibi Devi, etc. Feminine consciousness developed with growing awareness brought by Western education, and the educated women started writing about their plight in a patriarchal society. Despite the kinds of responsibilities placed on women in the Manipuri household, and the moral conventions which a woman is expected abide by, women have come out of that secluded corner and made commendable contributions to the world of Manipuri Literature.
Manipuri literary space before independence in 1947 had been largely male-dominated. The involvement and recognition of women writers in Manipuri Literature began mostly after the end of the Second World War (1939-45). The dearth in the number of women writers before the war, or even meagre percentage after is explained by the prevalent conventional rules and restrictions placed by Manipuri society on women, and Western education being strictly discouraged by ‘amang-asheng’1 practices. The works of the three most important women figures, considered to be the pioneers, in Manipuri Literature called the ‘yotshabi makhong ahum’ (the three legs of a tripod) namely Takhellambam Thoibi Devi, Khaidem Pramodini Devi and M.K. Binodini Devi, are all dated after the war. Dr. S. Shantibala Devi and Dr. W. Kumari Chanu [2015: 19] in their book, ‘Woman Activism in Contemporary Manipuri Literature’, observed that:
Literature in Manipur during the 1960s tends to depict idealistic and romantic aspects of woman’s lives which gradually evolved to express in the following decades tensions underlying societal norms in matrimonial alliances and individual choices
Though there is a scanty literary product following the Great War, women authors quickly tried to contextualize their issues and problems. Shantibala and Kumari further add that the main themes of the new woman writers were, ‘the fear and anxieties of the times, corruption in economic and political lives, the widening gap in relationships and the unrelenting dilemma of the poor’ [Ibid.]. Most of the Manipuri women writers were influenced by their personal experiences, and from the witness of day to day happenings.
While there have been countless critical works done on Manipuri male poets like Anganghal, Chaoba and Kamal, critical work done on Manipuri women poets and authors is very limited. One obvious reason could be the late entry of women writers into the Manipuri literary sphere. This paper will focus on selected poems of the Manipuri women authors. Poetry was the first literary genrethat Manipuri women writers experimented with. The first Manipuri women poets to address the issue of women were Khwairakpam Anandini, Laishram Ongbi Ibempishak, Sanjenbam Bhanumati, etc. The year 1967 saw the first published poetry collection by a woman poet in Manipuri Literature, Khwairakpam Anandini, called ‘Sajibugi Leirang’ (Flowers of April). This period was soon to be followed by a generation of writers such as Kshetrimayum Subadani, Moirangthem Borkanya, Lairenlakpam Ibemhal, Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi, etc.
Before we get further into the focus of this paper, we need to understand what violence is, and the different forms of violence that the women in Manipur particularly face in the state. World Health Organisation (WHO) defines violence as ‘the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal development, or deprivation.’2 The same voice is echoed by many critics. Out of the many, Joseph S. Roucek’s observation in the article, ‘Sociological Elements of a Theory of Terror and Violence’, is interesting. He observed, ‘On the domestic front, the psychological-terror methods, coupled with intimidation, aim to force the terror object to behave in a manner most favourable for the subject [Roucek, Apr., 1962: 165-172]. Some of the common types of violence faced by Manipuri women include physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, cultural, etc.
Khwairakpam Anandini, in her poem ‘Lei Pareng’/ ‘Garland’ from her collection ‘Sajibugi Leirang’, seeks blessings offering the simple garland that she had woven herself [Memchoubi and Chanu, eds., 2003: 112]. The addressee is silent in the poem, but it is clear that it is one who is above her. The speaker humbles herself as she conveys how she could only get the flowers that had fallen at the legs of the plants after having ended their blooming journey. The humbled speaker, throughout the poem, repeatedly presents herself as a weak, innocent and submissive woman. Had it been a male poet/speaker, would he have spoken from that humbled position? Or is it only because the idea that a woman has to stay subservient having internalized in the woman poet/speaker portrays herself as such?
Even if my garland lacks perfection of beauty
  Considering me unskilled
Happily, and heartily
  Please accept this garland of mine, without any hesitance.
Longjam Ongbi Ibempishak in her poem ‘Kadaidano Achumba: Mami Shamlaba Khonjel)’/ ‘Where Lies the Truth: A Faint Voice’, expresses a feeling of being deceived and lost hope in mankind [Memchoubi, and Ibemhal, Thounaojam Chanu, 2003: 120]. The speaker in the poem is ‘a faint voice’, and speaks for everyone who feels defeated by the reality of circumstances around her. She is referring to the situation that is the state today: corruption, disputes, political unrest and so on. It is a world where human greed has taken over, and the question arises as who is to judge right from wrong.
Whom to ask
Where to seek,
In the battle for survival
Who is truthful?
Who is wrong?
Moirangthem Borkanya, in ‘Fragments of Earthen Pots’/ ‘Chaphu Machet’ [ Ibid.,] describes the woeful tale of earthen pots that lie scattered on a graveyard, expressing the frequency of deaths taking place every day and what has become a normalcy in the state of Manipur. With acts like AFSPA that has been in force in the state for so many years, human life is unpredictable, affecting the lives of the common people. The value of human life has become worthless as death can take one at any time of the day. Incidences of fake encounters are a daily highlight in the newspapers. Borkanya, in her poem, expresses her sad disappointment at the situation in the state. She personifies the fragments of earthern pots who converse with one another, lamenting how they had only wished to serve as ‘Ishaifu’(earthen pot for storing and cooling water), ‘To quench, /The thirsty and the parched’. But instead they ended being used at funerals, with no one to understand their laments except the graveyard itself.
Fragments of earthen pots lie scattered on a graveyard
Littered is so the graveyard.
After the passing of a few days    Another pot comes to mingle at the same graveyard.
Angom Sarita [2010: 3] in her poem, ‘Keinya’/ ‘Bride’, from her collection ‘Mee Amasung Shaa’, wrote how the woman is adorned like a goddess on her wedding day, but ironically ‘remain as a wretched mute’, and she can only silently accept her role as a wife and a mother all her life. Despite the perception that women in Manipur enjoy greater freedom compared to women in other states of India, they still face subjugation enforced by a certain set of conventions ordained by the Manipuri society. The Manipuri woman do not have any say in their wants household and dislikes, from any decision making of the, right up to choosing the man that she marries. When she is married, she goes from being a possession of the male members of her maternal home, to the husband’s. And to the married Manipuri woman, her husband and her children becomes her everything.
Tying .
The scent at the edges of your cloth
Of children and husband
Carrying them to every destination of life.
Y. Indira, in her poem ‘Ei Khutlai Pairage’, ‘I Take Up Arms’ (translated by A. Birendra), speaks as a mother who had lost her son to the grips of violence in the state, the hands of ‘those harbingers of Death’ [Indira, Y., ed., 2007: 22]. The personified Death represents the army forces, which according to draconian act of AFSPA, have every right to arrest and kill anybody even on grounds of slight suspect of involvement with insurgency. There is a tone of anger as the speaker sarcastically criticizes the ‘law’ and ‘governance’ over how petty human life is to them. The helpless mother could not do anything while her son was dragged away by the army. She laments her pain and anguish, never again going to hear the word ‘Imma’ from her son. Many years have passed since his death, and the pain and anguish of her loss has now turned into rage as her questions are unanswered as the government authorities maintain a deaf ear and a blind eye to the situation. The mother decides to ‘take up arms’, because she sees no other way to win justice for her son. This shows the courage of a mother, the courage of a Manipuri woman, who will not cower down and give in, but come out and fight for their own rights, the rights of their husbands, their daughters, and their sons.
Bereft of all joys, and desperate with sorrow –
As I am, I too am a daughter of the soil.
My weary limbs now feel the rush of valour:
I take up arms. (sic)
After having been pushed to limits and one can no longer tolerate this treatment, the desire to revenge is a voice that echoes in many poems written by the Manipuri women authors.  
Sanjenbam Bhanumati, in her poem ‘The Old to The New’/ ‘Who is so Gallant’ (translated by Ng. Iboton Singh), is an address from the Old Year to the New Year. Old Year states that she had been longing for New Year to come, as her end is here [Indira, ed., 2007: 55].
Laugh and enjoy for all the world is yours now,
While I mourn and weep
For all those lapses,
For the tall trees that cracked and fell in fearsome gales,
For those precious lives that sank in despair.
A new year is suggestive of the idea of new beginnings, of a change for something better. People look forward in hope for a change when they are not completely content with the old state. Old Year laments over everything that has happened throughout the year- the condition of life in the state of Manipur amidst strikes, protests, bandhs, blockades, disputes and untold deaths every day. And after each year, that continues just the same with no significant change, but still as a New Year sets in, Old Year wishes for ‘new hopes and fruition.’
In ‘Androgi Mei’/ ‘The Fire of Andro’, Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi remembers the historical episode of the hanging of the two freedom fighters of Manipur, Thangal General and Yuvraj Tikendrajit, after Manipur lost her independence to the British at the Anglo Manipuri War of 1891 [Memchoubi and Chanu, ed. 2003: 150]. But their mourners are a crowd of Meitei women standing all clad in white. And although they stand in silence, they are filled with rage which the poet compares to as a ‘volcano inside’. This leads us to the episode of the two Women’s Wars of 1904 and 1939, when the Meitei women came out to fight against the British forces. The poet/ speaker call out to the Meitei women, who have been holding in their rage and discontent in their ‘wombs’ to come out and fight. Here, Memchoubi uses the myth of the undying ‘fire of Andro’3 which she compares to the rage and discontent of the Meitei women that have been kept repressed for so long.  
Erupt now oh, you
That’s been holed up for many years
In the wombs of the Meitei women
The sleeping volcano within.
The sleeping volcano within.

Longjam Chanu Kunjarani her poem, ‘Hugi Tenjei’/ ‘Poison Tipped Arrow’, lends a strong message to ‘release’ women so that they can come out of their domestic space to fight for justice [Ibid., 170]. Manipuri women have been for long confined to the household, imprisoned by the strong traditional conventions set by the Manipuri society. Seeing their men standing weak and passive to ‘the hunters right in front of you/ With the poison tipped arrows in their hands’, referring the the state actors and the insurgents, the Meitei women calls out to their men to debar all their restrictions, and set them free. As in Memchoubi’s poem, ‘The Fire of Andro’, The bottled-up rage and discontent that wants to be set free, is echoed in this poem as well.
Release me, let me go to the house of justice
To determine the right from the wrong.
What? why do you say I can’t step out
Beyond your coloured curtains?

Irom Sharmila, civil rights activist and poet, who went on a hunger strike for 16 years straight (from 2nd November 2000 till 9th August 2016), against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, In the foreword to her poem ‘Birth’ [Vaid, 2013: 91], translated into the English by Tayenjam Bijoykumar Singh, Deepti Mehrotra writes of Sharmila: ‘She is trapped in a web of deceit and hypocrisy, her fate sealed by violence and militarism.’ [Ibid., 88] Sharmila’s menstrual cycles have also stopped, which signifies that she has stopped being a woman. She stands for all-men and women, equally affected by violence. In her long poem that runs in 1000 words, Sharmila touches on various subjects of power, greed, revenge, remorse, vanity, the indolent man and the diligent man, etc. The poem basically portrays the social and political scenario in the state.
‘…Of the lost son, of the killed husbands,
The hard earned money of the widows is tainted with remorse
Because of the urge to take revenge for the unwarranted sufferings…’ [Ibid., 98]
As David Brion Davis, in his article ‘Violence in American Literature’ had observed that, ‘literary treatments of violence have reflected certain historical conditions and circumstances’ [Davis, March 1966: 28-36]. The condition of Manipuri society and women is also reflected in Manipuri literature. In the selected poems of some of the Manipuri women authors that we have discussed, we can see how they have responded to violence of various forms prevalent in the state. While the pioneer poets like Anandini wrote in a less commanding voice, the poets of the later generation that followed like Borkanya, Angom Sarita, Bhanumati, Y. Indira, Memchoubi, etc. starting voicing on immediate issues of violence, human rights issues, causes and effects of the freedom struggle, militarisation of Manipur, AFSPA, etc. apart from their protest against the subjugation of women.
(Concluded)

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