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Story of Silence

by williamgurumayum
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This write up is an excerpt from Prof. Angomcha Bimol’s speech delivered on 10th June 2012 under the tittle “Towards a Wholesome Holistic Self On Silence, Identity and Coloniality of the Postcolonial”,  on occasion of Arambam Somorendra Memorial Lecture here in Imphal

Ladies and gentlemen, I request you to rekindle your intimacy with stories. For, in the course of this lecture, I shall be sharing some familiar and, perhaps, some not-so-familiar, stories of, about and on Manipur and her people as a way of searching for, what I shall call, a wholesome holistic self. In order to communicate that search, a quest that seeks to transcend, amongst others, the fragmentation and estrangement that mark our society and polity today, I have titled the lecture ‘Towards A Wholesome Holistic Self: On Silence, Identity, and Coloniality of the Postcolonial’. Since a search for self is an existential question, I might as well begin the search by sharing an incident from my personal story, with a hope that, along the way, you will also find echoes of your experiences in the inflections or shades and hues of this story and the other stories that I shall share with you today.
Some fifteen odd years ago, as a part of my doctoral research at Delhi University, I went to interview a gentleman who arguably occupied a significant place in the socio-cultural and political life of ‘postcolonial’ Manipur. The meeting, arranged through a close family friend, was unexpectedly very brief. But it was long enough to put my interview skill as a young researcher through a crucial test. With a palpable enthusiasm of encountering the ‘field’, there I was, sitting face to face with this gentleman, who was then in his late 50s, thin and not particularly impressive or imposing as I had expected him to be, to hear and record the reality from the ‘horse’s mouth’. But hardly had I expected the meeting to be the one as ultimately it turned out to be.
Sitting on a mora in his courtyard, the gentleman went through the pages with printed sentences – that were meant to be parts of a ‘scale’ to measure people’s view on certain political questions. Besides wanting to elicit his views on certain issues and questions related to my research, I needed his judgement on whether those sentences reflect the stand or political belief of a certain section of our society. After going through the pages for a few minutes, he told me that he would not like to give his opinion on the matter! I was taken aback, and did not know what to do for a while. However, I managed to break the uneasy silence that followed his refusal with an edgy smile – on restropect, a smile that communicated a mixture of innocence and helplessness of a young student – and I tried to confront the situation by explaining the ‘neutrality’ and purpose of my research while simultaneously pleading with him to share his views. However, my repeated attempts to engage him on the issues of my research interests could only elicit a consistent refusal from him, and his demeanour that remained calm throughout the meeting matched my increasing sense of desperation. Punctuated by pauses and uneasy silences, and a sense of déjà vu born out of the cycles of pleading from my side and firm refusal on his part, and hope and despair moving back and forth, the encounter that lasted barely half an hour or so was like a frozen space-time zone wherein I was caught with that soft-spoken gentleman. At the end of it all, the only concession he was ready to give in to my persistent effort was that I could talk to his brother, who, he said, also knew all that I wanted to know from him.
Ladies and gentlemen, call it coincidence or destiny, I am standing in front of you to deliver the first Memorial Lecture instituted in the name of that gentleman, Shri (Late) Arambam Somorendra (1935-2000), whose contribution to Manipuri literature and theatre as well as a strand of political awakening that has come to mark the State since 1960s need no introduction. That day, after meeting him, I did come back disappointed, all the way home contemplating the alternative strategies to fill in the vacuum created by his refusal. But it has been a decade and half since that day when I met late Ojha Somorendra for an interview; and in the course of my professional journey that began with the doctoral research programme at Delhi University, I have also learned, and taught students and researchers, on matters related to research in Social Science, including issues pertaining to situations similar to the one I had found myself in once with Ojha Somorendra. However, an aspect that underlies his refusal continues to baffle and bother me even today.
Mr Chairperson, I believe that his refusal that day was not alien to the characteristic silence that has haunted Manipur for a long time. It is a silence that reveals the obvious suspicion and fear that inhabit the hearts and minds of the people in the State. But the question is: does this silence mean anything more than this commonsense awareness that the silence indicates suspicion and fear amongst the people? The answer is yes. To the trained eyes of a student of social science, this silence also reveals the presence of an oppressive condition that undermines the freedom and creativity of the people, and its consequences. With the freedom and creativity of the people subverted, the silence points to the prospect or reality of the stagnation and bankruptcy of ideas and means to lead a better life, and a subverted capacity and resilience to deal with exigencies effectively and efficiently. It reveals helplessness and hopelessness amongst the people as they slip further into the quagmire of decadence.
Besides, this silence also speaks of the death of the conscience keepers of the society, death of those who are responsible for ensuring its health against odds. It is worth remembering that history is replete with stories of people who sailed against all odds to effect reformation and transformation or bring about radical and revolutionary changes in their societies. Thus, with freedom and creativity being undermined, the death of those conscience keepers, such silence could very well be an uncanny announcement of the absence of virtue, courage, and ability of a people to survive as a collectivity.
Sometimes I also wonder whether the silence has become a living testimony of our own complicity in the making of what Manipur has become for sometime now. For, the silence feeds, and also gets fed by, the cynicism of the helpless (and the cowards?), the twisted logics an myopic visions of the powerful, the blurred boundary between the informed views and rhetoric and hearsays, the forsaken public space inhabited by masquerading private interests, the unprecedented communal and sectarian ethos that beckons hatred and bloodshed, and, above all, the debilitating violence that has become progressively grotesque in Manipur over the years.
Ladies and gentlemen, by now you must have forgotten that I was sharing a personal story of my encounter with the silence. Because, presumably your own personal stories must have also echoed in my story, denying it status of being a unique story of an individual. If that is so, it only reaffirms that we do not exist in a vacuum; our individual self is a relational reality and there is no collectivity without these individuals. If some psychologists and social scientists are to be believed, this capacity to find echo and relate with empathy with others is that which makes an individual non-alienated and healthy, and a collectivity consisting of such individuals is a healthy and productive one. Herein lies, ladies and gentlemen, the mutual interdependence between the projects for ensuring the health of the individual and those of the collectivity. A search for non-alienated individuals who can share and connect with other fellow beings is critical to the search for a wholesome holistic self of the collectivity, or vice versa. And it should go without saying that the silence we live with in Manipur is obviously not something that promises such a possibility.
We ought to remind ourselves that those forces which nurture and legitimize the silence are working against our well-being, both a individuals and as a collectivity. Therefore, our survival as a healthy and productive people would depend on our capacity to confront, and undo the detrimental effects of, the deafening silence that has been haunting Manipur. I am sure that there are many in Manipur today who, although numbed by the prevailing circumstances, still dare to hope, or secretly fantasize, to break this haunting silence. As I understand it, public lectures such as this one, is a pointer to that longing.

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