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The Body as an Oral Text: A review of Teresa Rehman’s ‘The Mothers of Manipur’

By Sabreen Ahmed

The Mothers of Manipur, written by noted journalist from North-east India, Teresa Rehman, is a testimony to the provocatively progressive culture of activism and gendered social organization of the Meira Paibis of Manipur, woven through the anecdotes of their oral narratives. The book was published in March 2017 by Zubaan, an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi, an imprint of Kali for women, the first feminist press in India. The oral narratives of the Imas, the local term for mother, serve as archival resources meandering in the archaeology of their collective memories about the Nupi Lans or female wars of the past, the present international glare at their unchanging predicament and the future of a hitherto peaceful Manipur encircling round the tales of their historic naked protest at Kangla Fort on 15 July 2004. Traditional anthropology and historical research used elders as informants and oral source materials of humanist positions. However, Teresa Rehman’s rhapsodic representation of the narratives of the aging mothers is itself a feminist intervention creating an archival text from a journalist’s pen. The book is a vivid tapestry of the ideas, beliefs, and values that negotiate through the net of activist social relationships, journalistic interludes of the author with current public figures from Manipur, and the heart-rending oral narratives of the twelve Imas or the mothers who unabashedly stripped in front of the ASFPA headquarters demanding justice for the ravenous rape and mutilated murder of Thangjam Manorama, a 32-year-old custodial woman, on 11 July 2004. The invigorating narrative of the mothers’ nude protest in The Mothers of Manipur can be posited as an antidote to the itinerary of silence of the subaltern women critiqued by pioneering postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak in her polemical manifesto, “Can the subaltern Speak?” and the discourse of the absent third world women from public sphere depicted in leading postcolonial feminist Sara Suleri’s memoir The Meatless Days that have established the jargon of postcolonial feminism from the third world in the western cannon. Here the mothers raised their voice against the internally colonized world in Manipur within the binary of a centre-margin dichotomy, i.e. the marginalized insurgent Northeast and the developing mainland India, in full public glare through their nude bodies and heated slogans.

Encyclopaedia of Feminist Literary Theory defines the concept of “orality” as important to the role of women’s relationship to language in the context of pre-genital oral stage of psychoanalysis. The mythological Philomela provides feminist theorists with a crucial figure for women’s construction of a literary tradition in the face of the violent silencing of women’s voices. The turn to body criticism reflects not merely on mythology and corporeal metaphors but on actual women’s bodies which the very cover page of The Mothers of Manipur invariably suggests. The repeated horrifying descriptions of the dead body of Manorama in the text calls for a comparison with the feminist interpretations of the rape of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, who suffered rape and mutilation of her tongue though not death. Replete with metaphors of biological essentialism, the book incisively penetrates the idea of the female body as an oral text: if the mutilated body of Manorama speaks volumes about the lust and inhuman atrocities of the coercive state machinery in the form of ASFPA, the naked bodies of the Imas speak slogans of protest like “Indian army come rape us” against the vicious cycle of internal colonization of a democratic republic vested in its armed forces. However, it must be mentioned that the linguistic forms of the oral narratives have been retained only partially in translation of their feelings within the continuum between a stylistic and referential dimension. Of course, folkloristic elements in terms of description of the Manipuri  female dress phanek, the male garment Khudei, use of humais or hand fans and traditional food like the local samosa, heikrak, fermented fish item, iromba, etc. have been minutely detailed in the text that delivers a feel of the original to the reader. The narratives of the Imas or mothers invariably shuttle between the stories of their kitchens to their tryst at the war zone that draws out of a time-warp the small voices of Manipur’s history. These twelve Imas belong to different arenas of life – if Ima Matum is a shopkeeper, Ima Ramani is a traditional dancer and actor of the local courtyard theatre, while Ima Momom is a homely Kwa chaba or betelnut-chewing grandmom and yet a valiant Meira Paibi fighting against social evils like alcoholism, drug abuse to indecent frisking of women by security forces. Ima mema belonging to Vaishnavite faith is a septuagenarian with devotional mutterings, while Ima Nganbi is the only English-speaking Mother. The narrative of AIDS crusader Lucy precedes that of the devotional mother. Integrated in the narrative of Nganbi is the author’s personal repertory with the prolonged fasting convict Irom Sharmila, who muses over the poignant long poem-in-making, symbolic of her personal struggles. A woman who is featured in media with her uncombed hair like the fiery Medusa of Greek mythology is shown here as silently succumbing at the face of her singular fight for peace which eventually ended with the breaking of her fast in 2016. Sharmila left her struggle with ASFPA still unmitigated and etched in Manipur’s soil as a permanent entity, with a promise to come back with political power for peaceful progress of her people. Ima Nganbi tells the horrors of the underground groups of Manipur from an insiders’ point of view that seems to support their cause. Their slogans like “Loilam leingak muthatsi” (We want freedom) and “Ning tamna hinghallu” (Down with Indian Rule) resonate with their protest against internal colonization resulting from a draconian law like AFSPA. Rather than being merely a feminist protest of sisterhood, the Manorama rape incident also provoked many emotions against the malfunctioning of democracy in India. The controversy over their outrageous protest and the lack of desired public empathy and their distress led to Ima Nganbi’s remorseful statement, “We did it for the people of Manipur, we are not prostitutes.” A short interlude on the doyen of Manipuri theatre, Heinsnam Kanhailal, the first from North East India to receive Sangeet Natak Akademy Award in 1985 for his alternate theatrical experimentations, and his wife Sabitri, who appeared nude on stage for Mahasweta Devi’s story “Draupadi” in 2000, leads to the tale of Ima Ibetobi an actor herself who once performed for the theatre group, Manipur Dramatic Union. A description of Urmila, an award winning journalist campaigning on menstrual hygiene makes way for the narrative of Ima Tombi, the youngest of all the mothers who runs a small eatery at Paona Bazar and had even gone to Delhi for protest agaist AFSPA.  After introducing Dr. Biswajeet’s concept of “Blooming Manipur”, the author narrates her stint with Ima Jamini whose husband calls her “the man of the neighbourhood”. She positions herself as a mediator after the protest hoping for a plausible solution beyond oppression and resistance from either side. The defying sisterhood of the Meira Paibies resonates in her narrative:

“Once we are out of the house and are with women, we don’t care about our family and mundane affairs. Ours is a community in itself. Ours is a community in itself. We don’t care what husbands, sons or our daughters-in-law will think.” (The Mothers of Manipur, p. 101)

A social activist of international repute, the founder of Manipur women Gun Survivors Network, Binalakshmi Neprum’s narrative is linked to the narrative of Ima Taruni who recounts her memories of a difficult childhood with a garrulous father and later her fate with an alcoholic husband. Her existence intricately knitted between the threads of domesticity and activism, the author fondly calls her “a time capsule” embedding in her 78-year-old memory the changes in Manipur from a land of gems to a bloody state. Rehman narrates next the personal journey of Lin, a model and actress who played the role of the leading lady’s friend in Bollywood film Mary Kom. The narrative then turns to the tale of Ima Jibonmala who doesn’t wish to take side in connection to the UGs. The last two narratives describe the devotional Ima Gyaneswari and the forever absent-mother for her daughter, Ima Sarojini. The afterword in the book is the narrative of Manorama’s mother Thangjam Kunamleima, who says that her daughter’s soul will rest in peace only if the ASFPA goes. ‘Khumanleima’ implies “princess of the Khuman clan” who became spectrally reticent after her daughter’s death, as remembered her eldest child “Mono”, a good daughter and weaver, who remained unmarried to bear the responsibility of her siblings.

Phanek and enaphi, a part of the folk culture of the Meitis, find political relevance through the nude protest. The traditional phanek and enaphi are considered sacrosanct to a Manipuri woman and can’t be touched by a strange man. Pulling down  the enaphi  in collective resistance becomes a part of feminist ferocity no less than goddess Kali herself, as one of the mothers draws an analogy towards the intending enemy which in this case is the state machinery itself. The nude protest becomes sanctified as the Imas offer their prayers before plunging into the battlefield for the cause of retrieving their shame and social justice for Manorama, who was cremated by the authorities as an ‘unclaimed body’ as her family refused to accept her body until the guilty were punished. The mythical content of oral literature is not the content of this reading because it talks about the lived realities of the Imas in their social activism which achieved panoramic furiousness with the Kangla incident with an unprecedented future of social justice for Manorama. However it is the psychoanalytical approach to oral literature that seems to be the required methodological approach to a reading of the oral narratives amalgamated in Teresa Rehman’s gripping narrative of collective resistance of these elderly women all in their sixties or seventies against the assault on the collective honour of Manipuri women. The body as a trope of defiant protest evading the norms of gentility, shame, and sensuality that the Imas used in all their nakedness of the march was a culmination of their mental angst repressed in their “collective unconscious”. Mental illness itself is seen by certain feminists as a subversive act, one that disrupts the dominant culture and asserts its own voice. French feminist Helene Cixous defines behaviour dictated by patriarchy as insane and the repressed zone of true womanhood. The image of the insane woman, she suggests, is exemplary of what women are and should be if they are to stand out of the false male-dominating world. The nude protest was an exhibition of emotional strength beyond the point of insanity or the “false consciousness” of the power structure from a Marxist point of view. Jung’s concept of “collective unconsciousness” is relevant to the mothers’ astounding manner of voicing dissent through the collective medium of their nude bodies. The Jungian model says that collective emotions are hidden in the unconscious; archetypes are experienced but not understood. As Rehman unflinchingly declares in the preface:

“15 July 2004 will remain imprinted in every Manipuri’s heart. The iconic protest will continue to trigger debate and stand out in collective memory. It will always speak of the turmoil of people trapped in a world chock full of violence. It will always reflect the larger story of Manipur – a land torn asunder by conflict and brutality, but constantly exerting the might of its conflict and brutality, but constantly exerting the might of its cultural traditions and humane spirit, to triumph.” (The Mothers of Manipur, p.xxxix)

The protest though a gendered one cannot be read in isolation with the customary Nupi Lan of the Manipuri community in an increasingly growing scene of “false consciousness” after the coming down of the iconic activist, Iron Lady Irom Sharmila. Nevertheless, the book is not without a few shortcomings in terms of conception. Rehman is absolutely silent about the political interventions in the aftermath of the protest. Nonetheless it takes remarkable courage as a female journalist in revisiting a traumatic memory in the insurgency-prone state of Manipur far away from communication comforts. At certain places in the book, the narratorial ‘I’ seems both obtrusive and obvious, an unavoidable narcissistic stance in a journalistic account of a bold authorial voice. The non-linear, subversive manner of rhapsodizing makes The Mothers of Manipur very much a manifesto of ecriture feminine and a remarkable document in folkloristic “orality” and historicity for further academic intervention.

Bio:
Sabreen Ahmed, PhD (JNU), is assistant professor at the Department of English (A post-graduate department under Gauhati University), Nowgong College, Nagaon, Assam, India.

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