with thanks to all those who took me there and all those who made me welcome there
In Hotel Nirmala the electricity
was oftener from its own generator
than from the state grid.
Pricking up your ears
you could hear the tireless monster
humming a lullaby
in the belly of that tall box —
somewhere — I was never sure where!
Only in the depth of night
could you have both
silence and electric lights.
I always took the stairs,
in case the rising lift
stopped between floors
and failed to resuscitate.
The red-carpeted room
is a static ghost within me.
I remember the way the furniture was arranged —
sofa and chairs, glass-topped coffee table,
twin beds, mirror, wardrobe set in the wall,
an air-conditioner, not yet activated.
Two big windows, large panels for the switches,
a bedside table where that all-important gadget —
the telephone — sat, the door to the attached bathroom,
indeed the bathroom itself, every detail in it —
I’d been mystified because I hadn’t at first located
the outlet through which water would drain from the floor.
There had to be one — I looked again and again —
how else would the water escape after a shower?
It was pointed out to me — discreetly tucked behind
the washbasin pedestal. Too clever for me!
I sometimes wonder about rooms in which we sleep
for a few nights only —
how long are they remembered in such vivid detail?
Will I remember that room in Hotel Nirmala
till the end of my days, or will the image fade?
How far is it to the end?
Meanwhile I’m saving an icon:
one paper napkin with the hotel’s name.
In Hotel Nirmala the food was succulent and plentiful —
Indian, and Chinese, and Thai — as one might expect
in a North-East niche of India, by an East Asian gate.
Ordered on the phone, it was always brought up to the room,
and eaten off the glass-topped table, where one struggled
to finish what was offered in the generous bowls and plates.
And the addas
were good there, with professors, journalists, poets.
Some of them told me they were descended from waves of migrants
from Southern China, who had wandered further south
seeking their fortunes over the seething centuries —
like the rivers that run out of Tibet and the Himalayas
to debouch in the Bay of Bengal.
And they looked it. And, they said, at conferences abroad
Chinese delegates couldn’t believe that they were Indian
and spoke no Chinese!
Oh the endless exodus of people expanding at seams,
running from here to there, leaving sticky trails
like slugs over garden paths! If only we could
admit how mixed-up, hybrid most of us were!
I look at my not-so-high nose-bridge and cheekbones;
I am keen to relate to the graceful Manipuris,
and claim them as kin, as fellow Eastern-Indians
from Manipur, the land of jewels, famed in Mahabharat,
land that engendered Chitrangada, inspired Tagore!
But in Manipur there are a hundred embattled causes,
each in its castle, singing its angry song,
each turret a volcano, cooking lava and ashes.
Provoked by inequities, by the brusque controls of power,
the loveless indifference of those who should be listening to us,
our proud loyalties break into daredevil death-work
blocking life-dances we could have otherwise danced
with our neighbours here on earth.
Anger’s a kettle that boils:
the more it is throttled
the more fiercely it sings.
To be ourselves and yet hold others’ hands
becomes hard for some. But if we can’t,
shall we not see more dances of death to the end?
Is the peace of the desert what we want?
The world shrinks, but our little and large
clannishnesses don’t seem to wither with it.
We only need a World Cup
for flags to flap from cars
as if some jihad was on.
How wonderful to sink into Manipur’s music and dance
given by traditional artists — how lucky I am
to be sitting in the front row, drinking so much beauty!
I am sitting next to a professor, an expert in the arts
who can explain in Bengali — so much the better for me.
So many of my generation speak and read Bengali here
and know our classics — I am touched, but I learn
this is a recessive feature, not shared by the young
who are all out to lasso the English tongue.
What I thought was a hunting song is about bull-fights —
Spaniards are not the sole bull-fighters on this planet —
and a creation myth is danced by boys and girls
splendid as peacocks, with gestures of unruffled grace.
The women of Manipur are petite heavenly nymphs,
who look more diminutive because of the way they dress —
they drape themselves in horizontal stripes
which accentuate their alluring tininess.
But come to the Women’s Market in Imphal
where men may wander and buy, but not sell,
where women rule the roost and run all the market stalls,
selling everything from blankets and dried fish
to sweet-sour passion-fruit and dancing dolls,
even have siestas with all their goods spread out,
and you’ll realize that not so long ago
these people were matrilineal.
Like mothers managing their households
the women of Manipur
managed their mini-economies with loving care —
from rice and fish and vegetables and fruit
to cloth from the loom and other crafted wares.
Vulnerable now in these aggressive, macho times,
they can still be the powerhouse
of fierce political protests —
when Thangjam Manorama, thirty-two years old,
was allegedly raped and killed in detention
by members of what are called security forces,
women leaders of Manipur raised headlines
by storming army headquarters stark naked.
‘We are Manorama’s mothers,’ they challenged the army,
‘Come, rape us now, in public, if you dare.’
Sentries sat aghast, rooted to the spot,
to see angry middle-aged nudes running amok.
Police officers begged them with folded hands
to put their clothes on.
And I remember the girl at the University
who, as I was disappearing into the Common Room,
darted to catch me, and gave me a hug and a kiss
of sisterhood and happy solidarity
for talking in their Department of English
about life’s struggles, freedom and authenticity,
the need to be oneself, to shape one’s life’s work
in consonance with one’s deepest identity.
I’ve no idea if the professors approved of my talk,
but it made little sense to talk of anything else.
The toilets in the University had utterly lost their plumbing
pending renovations. They stank to high heaven.
Daily the teachers and the taught soldiered on.
How long would they have to wait? Here was neglect
that made me choke with anger on their behalf.
I was told the Centre had taken over the University
to run it better.
So none may now flush the loo for some time.
I was myself in Imphal on one of the Centre’s errands,
but managed on the spot by the Centre’s Eastern branch,
a seminar on literature and its translation,
a subject close to my heart.
And some of the papers were presented in Manipuri,
one of the Manipuris, to be precise,
Meitei with its Tibeto-Burman base,
and as in Chinese, the voice going up and down,
to which I listened, entranced.
From time to time the Chinese-sounding torrent
would come down like a hammer
on a familiar Sanskritic word.
Here was a language bristling with confidence
on a cusp between worlds, and though at the time it seemed
a unique experience, yet it happens frequently enough
in life, and in our ignorance
we just pay no attention — that is all.
Whether we like it or not,
we are oftener treading a borderland than a central territory,
like Hotel Nirmala’s electricity.
But what my hosts understood
by a seminar’s working lunch
was a unique experience by all counts.
We ate off banana-leaf plates and
small bowls plaited from leaves with exquisite art,
the cuisine Manipuri, not unlike Eastern-Bengali,
with hints of ‘otherness’, an occasional beansprout-scrunch,
and the courses kept arriving, kept arriving —
unstoppably — as if at last
God in his heaven was in charge, and looking after us
after all his false starts.
Dark rice pudding from locally grown red rice,
glutinous and maroon, well, almost black,
was something I’d never had.
To recuperate from such a scholarly midday feast
I was whisked to an old Vaishnava temple, where
an afternoon service was going on precisely at that hour.
Leaving our shoes at the gate,
we walked barefoot across the cool paved yard,
three doors leading to three shrines side by side.
Bells rang. Cymbals clashed. We were splashed with water.
The outwelling Vaishnava past of our ancestors
was inserted in the present in inclusive parentheses
so that the pervasive, oceanic, daimonic peace
of Krishna, his lover, his consort, and his brother
could gently descend on our conflict-ridden breasts
across the centuries and hold us in its embrace.
I knew all along I wouldn’t have the time or chance
to see the National Park where the endangered deer danced,
but I nursed the hope of catching a glimpse of Logtak
and set off with my fingers crossed for luck,
escorted by the professor with the Calcutta connections
who said he’d known of me since the late fifties.
Some were quite optimistic about the mission,
but the professor was sceptical from the start.
‘We’ll see what the roads are like,’ he kept muttering,
and he was proved right.
First we made a courtesy call to a house of wedding
and sweet edibles were brought right to my window.
These were stowed in the car boot and we proceeded.
After trailing army trucks
with forces whose eyes were pressed
against the beautiful countryside, guns ready for action,
a proximity which made me feel dead uneasy,
we finally came to a halt and were informed
that the road was closed and we could proceed no further.
To see Lake Logtak properly we had to get to Moirang
and view the water from a height. When we were stopped
there were still two villages to go through
before we could reach Moirang, where Subhash Bose
had planted his flag in the forties.
The usual story. Security forces
had killed someone, and the people of the dead man’s village
had barricaded the road: they wouldn’t let
anybody pass through their village at all.
The driver turned left and detoured to a house he knew.
Here was a young woman whose father might have helped,
had gone to Imphal, where we were coming from,
and now over an hour away.
They all talked and talked, in Manipuri, discussing a strategy,
but in a little while it became clear
that really I was not going to make it to Lake Logtak.
None of the locals had anything against us,
and they very much wanted that I, the visitor, should see
the famed beauties of their landscape, delight my eyes,
but it needed an elder to persuade the barricade-boys
to open the road for us, and there was none at hand
to perform that role of mediation.
If only the woman’s father had been there,
the story might have been different.
She was pretty, the young woman, with one little boy
and another infant in a sling against her breast.
A desire to help was written on her expressive eyes.
She climbed into the car with both her children
and began to give directions to the driver
for a bold cross-country ride on rough terrain.
She wanted to take us to a higher-than-usual spot,
from where one could get some idea of Lake Logtak.
And some idea I did get. It was all marshland;
the waters of the lake were diminishing every year;
in fact, the lake was endangered and needed protection;
canals crisscrossed the expanses, waterways through which passed
boats of fishermen and fisherwomen in sun-hats.
Water birds flew in v-shapes at the horizon,
where I guessed the lake was, I could tell it, and had there been
someone on whose shoulder I could have climbed, I might have seen
the water’s steady gleam.
Walking back to where we had left the car,
we began to talk, the young woman and I,
in a mixture of Hindi and English.
There were cottages around us —
children, people fishing, living their lives,
somewhere a radio wafting Hindi songs,
and I felt at peace there, breathing the clean air
of the Manipur country.
That I couldn’t see the lake properly
upset my young friend much more than it upset me,
and it was clear she wanted to make amends.
Really, she wanted to make us all lunch
in her parents’ house, with her mother’s help,
but the professor vetoed the idea:
having failed to show me the lake,
he would rather attend a meeting a little later.
And I would have loved to have lunched there
and chatted to them, more than anything else,
but what could I do? My escort wished to return
and the car was his, not mine.
She had an idea — she would give me a water-lily
so that I would remember her. There were purple water-lilies
in the tanks around us; she persuaded a young man —
well, a teenager really, I think he was eighteen —
to get a pole and poke, collect a flower.
One flower? Never! How many in my household?
One husband, two sons — all far away in England?
Then I must have four flowers in all,
one for each member of my family.
But I can’t take them to England! Doesn’t matter —
I must have them now
, carry them back to the hotel,
enjoy them deeply every moment I am there,
and thus, drawing in their beauty
I shall remember her for ever.
And I sat down on the immaculate beaten-earth porch
of a cottage, the young man’s home, I think,
where an old man sat quietly plaiting twine.
Eager faces appeared, jostled at the doorway,
and had I been on my own,
I’m pretty sure they would have made me tea
as the fishing for the lilies
went ceremonially on.
Four exquisite flowers were finally caught
and bound together with some of that strong twine
and handed to me. And I said I wanted her name,
so she got paper and a pen,
and wrote down two names.
She was Laishram Kiranbala Devi
and the lad who’d collected the flowers was Premkumar,
and they were delighted that I knew
that the word kiran
meant light’s ray
and that prem
Never perhaps have I regretted leaving a place so much
as that day, knowing I was unlikely to return
to such a magical spot, and above all
to such magical people.
Back on the main road, on our way back to the hotel,
we spotted khaki-clads
scouring, in wellies, the fields of tender rice —
for what? — for violent men?
By now I was desperately hungry; the professor gave me
two small, incredibly sweet oranges —
rather like clementines,
but much, much sweeter than the average clementine
in British supermarkets.
Alas, we forgot all about the wedding sweets
lurking in the car boot. I never tasted them.
Returning to the hotel, I had a late and lonely lunch,
drowned my sadness in a valley of seasoned noodles.
The water-lilies were the spirits of the place:
I put them in a glass of water, admired their beauty
and inhaled their fragrance as many times as I could.
Purple and poised, they drank a lot of water,
which I kept topping up. They reminded me
of Victoria Ocampo’s play from the nineteen-twenties,
La Laguna de los Nenúfares
, ‘The Pond of Water-lilies’,
and were still unwithered when I left.
A quiet young man used to clean my room
and bring the meals up.
He had picked up courage to ask me if I was
a Bengali, as he had suspected.
He was one, and came from Silchar,
from where many came to Imphal looking for work.
His wife was not so well.
I told him that when I left, he mustn’t bin the flowers
but take them and give them to his wife.
I just hope he did.
Named after a flower, I have written a lot about flowers.
This is not the first time, and unlikely to be the last.
Something bonds me to them, and I sense it.
I have written this in English, hoping it can be read
maybe in Manipur, or elsewhere in India,
and by the other three of my immediate family
who were each “given” a lovely flower by proxy —
or rather, symbolically —
as it was always understood
the gifts would be received
in theory, not in practice,
within minds, not within hands.
Laishram Kiranbala, bright girl,
how well you understood symbols!
True to your name, your mind was washed with light.
I hope you are well. And I hope your children are well.
I knew I had to make a poem, so others could know about you!
When I close my eyes, I can still smell those flowers,
see their purple colour, and at the same time
I see the desperate soldiers clad in khaki
fanning out, wading in the lush green fields of your valley.
Manipur, with its capital Imphal, is a North-Eastern state of India, not far from the Burmese border. It has a distinctive culture, but in common with other Indian states in the region, has suffered from political and economic problems in recent years, including a lack of employment and other opportunities, feelings of alienation from the Central Government, and consequent separatist activism, the suppression of which has in turn aggravated tension and thwarted development. My visit to Manipur in February 2006, my first ever visit to the North-East of India, was to inaugurate a seminar on literary translation organized by the Eastern Region of India’s National Academy of Letters in conjunction with the Manipur Cultural Forum as part of an ongoing process of winning hearts and minds in this remote region.
adda: a form of prolonged social conversation with no fixed end or purpose, which because of its easy-going and unconstrained nature, encourages in-depth interaction and a free exploration and exchange of ideas.
Chitrangada: the seed-story of Chitrangada, a princess of Manipur, is told in the epic Mahabharata. It was developed by Tagore into a powerful verse-drama and later into a dance-drama.
Published in FIRE, nos. 29/30, Special International Double Issue, March 2008, edited from Oxfordshire by Jeremy Hilton.