Book: Mother, Where’s My Country?: Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur
Author: Anubha Bhonsle
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Pages: 256 pages
Price: Rs 499
For those who wish to know more of Manipur and its complex maze of often mutually antagonistic issues, Anubha Bhonsle’s Mother Where’s My Country? Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur provides a refreshing vantage. This is because of where the author situates herself in writing her account of what is essentially a condition of acute social trauma. In her narrative is discernible the “middle voice” that scholars of trauma writing recommend. She is thus the objective enquirer, as any good journalist is expected to be, but also someone who strives to identify with the subjects; thus her stories are also about witnessing and not just observing.
The book’s sensitive portrayal of a forgotten corner of the country, therefore, is predicted to strike a note of concern and empathy in the hearts of the average Indian readers. It is a story told with both the mind and the heart, and characteristic of this kind of storytelling, the narrative tends to meander its way delightfully between prose and poetry, between the many tangible and intangible realities of the place. It provokes but also milks empathy.
The author shows no urgency to sermonise. She instead allows the moral landscape to emerge as if by what TS Eliot called the “third voice of poetry”. In this case, this would be akin to a voice of conscience that arises out of a dialectic between the outlook of the characters in the book, the author’s own voiceovers and the reader’s engagements with the ideas as they come along. The overall picture that becomes progressively clear by the end of the book is one of a badly wounded civilisation, licking its wounds, trying to heal itself and move on. It conjures up the image with which the author’s well-known colleague, Rajdeep Sardesai, once described Manipur — a tortured beauty.
The opening chapter ‘Sorrow is Better Than Fear’ sets the tone of what would follow. It tells of two Army rape victims, morally devastated but not completely resigned, who retreat into themselves to mourn their immense losses. The story ostensibly is built out of interviews with these victims, but the identities of the two women are kept anonymous for obvious reasons. This, in a strangely shadowy way, gives the story a touch of haunting eeriness. They move around like apparitions, detached and distant like outcasts, watching the world from their self-exile in a place inhabited only by unfortunate fugitives like themselves. Their brutal and traumatic loss of innocence is their purgatory. Each day is a struggle against despair. Suicide is an option but they do not take recourse to it. They instead embrace sorrow as their road to redemption. Their personal battle to save themselves from complete spiritual sterility thus becomes their heroism, and indeed on the larger canvas, the heroism of many more in the twilight zone of Manipur.
This inherent sense of tragedy and triumph in extreme adversity is what you encounter in practically every chapter. This tension borders on the sublime in the portraiture of Irom Sharmila, the lady with the iron will, who took on the establishment singlehandedly in her demand for the repeal of the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958. She comes across as a person with an indomitable will, even when confronted with the prospect of accomplishing an impossible mission, and by this awesome quality, is pushed on to a public pedestal. The author also discovers Sharmila as a private person, with human frailties, someone who pleads for her private life to be respected. In the agonising pulls of her public and private personas, her sense of responsibility to her cause compels her to sacrifice the latter.
As in the author’s portraiture of Sharmila, the broad picture of Manipur that emerges is also an intimate one. It is not a picture that comes out of linear reportage of issues that confront the place, but one that results almost naturally out of a sensual treatment of the sights and sounds and smells of the state, therefore one that is much more complete and nuanced. You get to know, for instance, how Imphal city wakes up, how it retires; you get a sense of the oppression of extraordinary laws as in the chapter ‘Three Anniversaries’; but also the uneasy insecurity of near complete absence of the law as in the chapters ‘Everybody Loves a Good Insurgency’; of youth frustration in ‘Escape to Delhi’ and so on. This certainly is a book with much to take away from.
The author is editor, Imphal Free Press, and author of the upcoming Shadow and Light: A Kaleidoscope of Manipur