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Lai Khutsangbi, female power and punishment

By Rubani Yumkhaibam

One persistent ideology of the male-dominated society is the punishment of the female excess. Cinema, literature, everyday idioms, etc., are imbued with cautionary tales of women who have extraordinary hunger for freedom and agency. These women are punished and vanished from the domain of the civilized society, thereby weakening and suppressing their presence. Very often such tales are imparted to young children for the future maintenance of the societal status quo. The story of Lai Khutsangbi, a bedtime story for children, is the tragic story of one such woman who exercises power and freedom.
In the everyday parlance of the Manipuris, Lai Khutsangbi is used as a metaphor for unpleasant and unacceptable show of female agency, and in a similar manner Lai Khutsangbi is an accursed symbol that negates female modesty and beauty. The question is – who is the real Lai Khutsangbi?  She does not have a name, she is known so because of her unusually long hands, she does not have a lineage, and she lives alone in the forest. Lai Khutsangbi’s story raises multiple questions, none of which is adequately answered in the narratives – Is  Lai Khutsangbi a mortal? Is she a demon? Why does she attack mostly children and livestock? What is her power? What is her weakness? It is in these questions and their inadequate answers that we have to retrieve the identity and importance of a powerful and frightening woman in our collective memory.
The analysis of Laikhutshangbi in this brief article is drawn from two recent sources – James Oinam’s New Folktales of Manipur (Notion Press, 2016) and Pupu’s Folk Tale’s short digital film on Lai Khutsangbi (https://pupusfolktale.com/wp/). Although there are other sources of the story, the sources here are chosen for the lucidity of the narratives. Let us analyse Lai Khutsangbi’s character. Lai Khutsangbi is characterised as a demon-like human who does not behave and think like a rational human, and one who feeds her hunger on the raw flesh of humans and animals. Lai Khutsangbi lives in a remote geographical area where the wilderness of the untamed nature meets the human dwelling, a heavily forested, sparsely populated village community. Although she lives in the geographical proximity of the everyday human beings, she is set aside at a safe distance from the villagers. Being a grotesque flesh eater, she cannot mingle with the people in the story, and so she lives in the shadiest and thickest part of the forest.  The intriguing abode and cannibalism are further linked with her inexplicable and hideous demeanour – tall stature, unusually long hands, unkempt hair and eerie laughter. She kidnaps young children and kills animals, and she has an inordinate appetite for human flesh, from which the village women and children have to be protected. In James Oinam, she is also portrayed as snatching dead bodies of children from the burial ground (which also shows that the story of Lai Khutsangbi goes back to the time when dead bodies were buried). Her isolation from the harmony of everyday living is evident from the uncooked food she eats and the dreaded dwelling in the thickest part of the forest. Every child dreads her. Notwithstanding her extraordinary character, she is never portrayed as a magical, immortal soul; she is portrayed as an extra-human, demon-like, evil witch; she is a mortal woman with immense faculty (long hands) and evil prowess.
Lai Khutsangbi is a denizen of the wild nature. One can hear recurring attack on the nearby village from the accessible distance between the village and her dwelling. The village is a natural extension of her forest dwelling. One wonders if she preys on the wildlife in the forest. And if so why does she attack children and livestock?  In a brief yet insightful reading of Lai Khutsangbi, James Oinam opines that Lai Khutsangbi’s attack on the village children is “driven by poverty and hunger”, which leads her to “survival cannibalism” (“Kabui Keioiba and Lai Khutsangbi: Stories of Hunger?”, www. e-pao.net). In such a state of material existence, it is only consequential that Lai Khutsangbi attacks the nearest village community, and the caution and repulsion of Lai Khutsangbi among the villagers is also the required precaution.
The story of Lai Khutsangbi is tendered for the young audience as a cautionary tale to stay in the safety of the home. The moral lessons of Lai Khutsangbi teach children to be careful, and to be obedient to the parental advices. In the olden times when the locales in Manipur were largely rural intertwined with  the thick growth of forests and jungles, and also the impending danger from the  wild  animals lurking in the seamless expanse of villages and the wilderness,  such tales must have resounding relevance. Like a carnivorous tiger, Lai Khutsangbi is a constant danger. Ultimately, Lai Khutsangbi’s aggression is projected as pure evil in the process of the real story telling. However for the modern readers, the subterranean implications of  power and resistance of the female agency are not far from detection. That Lai Khutsangbi has an inordinate appetite for human flesh is evidenced from her dissatisfaction with small meals of small animals, and hence she sets out to prey on her victims (young children and livestock in the village). She uses her long hands as weapons to kill her  prey. Her powerful long hands are not the hands that nurture; they are the killing hands of terror and sensual satisfaction (of eating). She wields the power of her long hands in the boundless wilderness of the remote forest. On the other hands Satchi’s (Satchi is the child protagonist in Pupu’s Folk Tale) mother feeds Satchi with loving and protecting hands. Her long hands defy the danger of the dark and thick forests. When all the villagers are sleeping, she prowls in the night landscape (in our times, a woman could be raped or molested in absence of a male guardian!). While being a figure of violence and terror, she is also a figure of self-sufficiency, and in this sense she hunts alone with her bare hands.  Such embodiment of horror and agency makes her a transgressive figure, a woman who crosses domestic confinement).
However, our cultural sensibility has to punish such a figure of female transgression. In both James Oinam and Pupu’s Folk Tale, Lai Khutsangbi withdraws in the wilderness/burial after her hands have been  severed by the fathers of Naocha and Satchi. Lai Khutsangbi is not inherently weak, but in absence of her hands she is reduced to tears and helplessness. Once her hands are cut off she flees in fear. It should not be considered a con-incidence that her power is destroyed by the  male head of the family, husband/father. Satchi’s mother can only withstand Lai Khutsangbi for a while through a witty connivance of misinformation; she waits for her husband to destroy Lai Khutsangbi. We do not find women standing against the evil incursions of another woman in Lai Khutsangbi’s narratives. In the early days, when men were far away from home on military duties, women were responsible for maintaining the household, and this is a cultural marker of the courage of the Meitei women. However, the protection of the village from a female terror is physically invested in the hands of the male members, and this is factored as a masculine responsibility. Eventually the destruction of the female devilry is symbolic of the repression of female agency and triumph of masculinity. In the end, Lai Khutsangbi is a tragic figure who stands at the crossword of female assertion and the necessary male suppression. She is figure that has to be reclaimed from demonization and cultural erasure of complex female characters.   

I express my deep gratitude for Santa Khurai, an indigenous nupi maanbi activist, for her encouragement in writing this article.

Image Source: Youtube

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