Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Fine Bongs: to the fine Bongs I know

I have been feeling a tad bad about dissing Bongs perhaps a bit too much recently. I have been feeling, I am perhaps not being fair (which not many Bengalis are, although that is their favourite shade of skin) since I told my Bengali neighbour to go back to Bangladesh when we had a fight over him not closing the lift door and making me climb 4 floors of stairs. On hind sight it is perhaps even ingratitude on my part as that was the only time I got to use my legs for anything other than pulling up pants in months. However, this piece is to redeem myself of the unfairness and give the Bongs what they are due, for once.

My latest visit to Kolkata also gave me time and company to appreciate some of the Bongs I know and material to fill at least one page with good things about them. I will start right away:

The best things I like about them is what that guy Arnab writes in his blog http://greatbong.net/ - “Bengalis, even more than macher jhol and Ganguly, love the ideal of the dispossessed, the simple and the honest fighting against the big bad wolves.” I agree and love Bengalis for it. Not only do they love the fight of the underdog, in them there is, as if almost, a competition to be the smaller one, to attain the greatness in being small, smaller, smallest. Although the practice and that kind of idealism is way dated in these bigger-phone, bigger-car, bigger-TV, bigger-Bibi days, I must admit, as an outsider, it suddenly inflates your sense of self without having to blow hot air for it when you are in Kolkata. In this land of smallness, even my barely hundred cm self feels big. Everyone around me is so humble that something like my rudely asking someone to move their ass so I can sit in comfort in a bar can be looked as a heroic act. It pleases my ego immensely. For nothing gives me more pleasure than to be rude to people. And no where else in the world, I get a chance to be so rude to people and not be spitted back on my face. In Delhi this could result in my being shot by some big shot’s gun of a son. But in Kolkata, I am admired as a spirited woman.

Also I must admit, deep in my heart I am a die hard romantic and I like seeing suffering sad people. Only problem with a whole lot of suffering people is that often they do get angry when the suffering gets too much. This however does not happen often and you really have to push the peace loving Bengalis too far to raise their fury. For example I have not seen any Bengali ever protesting against the very convoluted bureaucratic systems that have evolved everywhere in Kolkata over CPM rule of nearly a century. If you want to go to a restaurant, there is quite a possibility that you will not get lunch 5 minutes after 3 pm. Rules are rules and you have to eat your lunch between 1 to 3 even you have just reached the city after travelling for many hours in delayed (by blockage called Abarodh or workers' strikes) public transport. The union goes to its after noon nap at 3 and if you die hungry who cares? After all there are millions who go hungry in this world everyday. Fair.

In most public places, including the metro railway, the theatres and the Victoria Memorial and the Museum, the process of entering them is more complicated than a getting a passport done in India. These buildings, which were designed with many doors and gates for easy accessibility to a large number of people that are expected to visit them, keep most of the doors locked. The remaining ones have strange rules like, you can go only down after 12 pm and come only up after 2 am and vice versa. Bongs are a very old civilisation and like any evolved organisms their systems of operation have become complicated over time. As a friend said, 'even the cirss-crossed police check points are so complicated in Kolkata, that if you enter one in Tollygunj, chances are , you will find yourself coming out of Kankurgachi'.

This creates one of the favourite Bong social rituals of queuing up. I am not complaining about this. I much prefer queuing up like decent people (and the Bongs are a fine lot if I have not said it before) than the absolutely irritating habit other Indians have of going straight to the beginning of a queue, upon assumption that other people are standing there to attain nirvana or something. What I am getting at is that however, I have never seen a single Bengali complain about these complex bureaucratic procedures. Why in a restaurant do you have to first speak to the doorman, who will then go and talk to the headwaiter, who will then instruct the waiter to go and talk to someone you cannot see inside the kitchen and only then you are allowed to sit down or wait outside in the heat? Why can't they open few more gates at the airport so that the lines are not long and move fast? No, Bengalis do not ask such questions. They accept what is given by the system as good law abiding citizens. I once heard Amrtya Sen talk about this in appreciation to some effect. But that does not mean they are a timid lot. I have seen the wrath of the underdogs more than once in my life. Why, this time when I was at the film festival, one of the theatres had a bad projector. Naturally, the lot, which had queued up long hours before that to get a sit, ran their unexercised self to breathlessness in getting a good seat and reserving a few for their friends, was not pleased with this. And when for the second time the focus went out of it, there was such passionate screams of 'PHOCAS! PHOCAS!' that I for once thought we were inside that other movie 2012, than watching a French semi-porn. I have similarly seen the underdogs losing it collectively while reprimanding someone for breaking a queue, burning buses which have run over pedestrians and beating up thieves and eve teasers. Good stuff.

The other thing, I like Bengalis for, is their sense of culture. Oh, it is so heartening to see them singing Rabindra Sangeet or 60's rock year after year. No modern influence has been able to influence Bengalis love for traditional Rabindra Sangeet and rock music. I mean, 19 year old kids still play Beetles and Led Zep, can you beat it? I feel positively rootless when I am in Kolkata what with my recently acquired taste for electronica and fused music. In cinema too who can beat the Bengalis’ love for European retro and Meghe Dhaka Tara? Not me. I loved that semi French porn. Well, I better not be talking too much about culture here, least I give away my absolute lack of it. I have been already busted once in Guwahati for apa-sanskriti. I do not want to be beaten up by angry underdogs in Kolkata next time.

The next thing I love about Bongs, is their love for love. These non-believing communists might not be so much for love of God, but for love of romance and love of lust, they will surely bring a few more Nobel prizes to the jati (Nation). Prem , as they call it, is the essence of the Bengalis' existence. Towards their mothers in extended childhood and towards Aparna Sen and Uttam Kumar in late adolescence (I do not know many Bengalis who are old) their romanticism stays with them through their thicks and thins. And proven their fondness for melancholia, (also known as Dukkho-Bilasita in Bengali. They actually have a name for it!) it is mostly thins.

Their lives might be ridden with struggles of justice for the underdog, but the never-say-die Bengalis keep the lamp of love (Premer Bati) alight through load-sheddings and delays of metro trains due to suicides everyday. The very sophisticated, well established and wide spread Bengali pornography industry (also known as Bot-tolar Boi and I hear it is dying out though) is a proof of this. Given their love for romance and the kind of endurances Bengalis go through for it, they will give the Italians a run for one more Nobel prize - for being best lovers. If there is a definition of a perfect lover in the world, every Bengali strives to fit it to the T. Men by being dominated by the women and women by keeping their necks at a painfully attractive slant and batting eyelashes frequently. They love to suffer and they suffer for love.

The last thing that I have to mention (of course I could go on with a long list of things to love about Bengalis. But I am afraid I might start eulogizing just like them) is their love for adda. Idle chit-chat, meaningless conversations, baseless arguments, call what you want it, but there is nothing like a good Bengali adda to make you develop strange ideas about yourself and spread vicious rumours about your friends. Adda is also the best place and the way to insult your closest friends everyday, to take out all that pent up emotions from the unbearable humidity of Kolkata. The same Bengali masochism, that makes the Bengalis strive to be the deprived. makes the addas some of the most creative spaces in the world. This I have to give to Bengalis, although they can be boringly constant with some things like their love for old films, music and politics (read CPM-Mamata), they are fabulously innovative with their insults. Day after day, they meet the same friends and have the serious arguments over the same shit – Mamata-CPM, cricket, muri and chanachur or telebhaja, but they will consistently find original ways to abuse each other. I might as well confess here, the overflowing sarcasm, unscientific convictions and the over-riding exaggeration that this tribute to Bengalis is based on, I got it from the millions of addas I have participated in, with my Bengali friends. For this I will remain eternally grateful them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Manipur – Irom Sharmila’s Land


Manipur, literally meaning "jewelled land", nestle deep within a lush green corner of North East India. Surrounded by blue hills with an oval valley at the centre, rich in art and tradition and surcharged with nature's pristine glory…”

I look, annoyed, at the chirpy way my colleague has started the paper on Manipur. Almost like the ‘generous’ pieces the travel publications, I write for sometimes, demand out of run-down places that have been turned into tourist destinations by building concrete govt. tourism guest houses and more concrete hotels around them. It also exudes a sense of peace and calm that sometimes I have to write about the same places while being surrounded by loud Bengali tourists. To notice the blue hills, the lush greens, the rich tradition and culture of Manipur in October 2009 requires the same amount of ignorance (and the supposed bliss it brings), an extremely optimistic disposition (may be caused by pressure of pay cheque) and a paradoxical detachment.

This is not to malign my colleague. His writing does get more critical...

The last decade of the twentieth century is best remembered in Manipur for violent ethnic clashes on its soil. The first in the fray was the Kuki-Naga clashes which started in the year 1992 and continued till 1998 followed by the clashes between the Meiteis and the Meitie Muslims in May 1993. In June 1995, there was a sudden eruption of Kuki-Tamil clashes in Moreh. The latest was the Kuki-Paite clash in 1997-1998. In June 2001, there was Meitei uprising in Manipur Valley against Government of India and NSCN (IM)’s proposal to extend its territory to Naga inhabitant areas. Of all the conflicts that surfaced in Manipur in the 2 decades, the Naga Kuki conflict, and the Naga-Meitei Conflict were the worst….

To address such situations, the Indian parliament enacted the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1958 (AFSPA), one the most draconian legislations that the Indian Parliament has passed in its 60 years. It was first applied to the Naga Hill areas of Assam and Manipur and was amended in 1972 to extend to all the seven states in the north- eastern states of India. … Under this Act, all security forces are given unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations, once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to "maintain the public order". It gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot, arrest and search, all in the name of "aiding civil power”

... Anyone’s would have to. Manipur is nothing but a critical entanglement of complexity, all created and some consequential, right now. And the complexities do not end at ethnic dissatisfaction, insurgency and militarization alone. Proximity to Burma, heroin, guns, HIV/AIDS, counterfeit money, nefarious nexus between Indian state, the Marwari businessmen, leaders of Under Ground groups (UGs, they are lovingly referred to as in Manipur and from now on here), dirty politicians, greedy officials… the whole game will make Puzo, Kubrik etc feel like a little girl.

I tried making a van diagram (remember we are writing a paper?), but it all soon became too complicated and a vague sense of failure similar to that of what I felt while doing my masters in Economics set in. So I borrowed this thing called friendship wheel from Facebook. (Sometimes FB is useful. Especially when you are writing a paper). And this is what it looks like:

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(Image: Devraj Chaliha)

Any serious attempt at writing about Manipur has the danger of creating one’s own Frankenstein. To harness a story which is already out of hands requires creating epics. Thankfully, we (me and my colleague) only have to write a strategic paper about the conditions of poverty in Chandel district. But the lure of unleashing the monster also chases you in dreams while you are thinking about it...

Over the past couple of months the atmosphere in Manipur has been hot and stormy again. The killing of an unarmed ex-UG member in broad day light, in a crowded market place that was reported by Tehelka, lead to intense protests. Needless to say the state’s reply has also been intense. Many activists and protester are in prison, booked straight under the NSA (National Security Act). It means six months' prison without bail and without trial. What threat do people, who protest against military atrocities and fight for upholding human rights, pose to the nation? People who demand an equal and dignified treatment from their own state, who feel neglected and isolated from the identity that has been formed as a nation, are treated as threat to the nation by this government sworn under a constitution that guarantees civil liberties such as freedom of speech! This is why Jiten Yumnum and Irom Sharmila are in prison right now. Jiten is a friend and a fellow activist who works on issues of climates change and believes in justice. He was arrested from Imphal airport on his way to a conference in Bangkok in September and has been booked under NSA. Jiten is a shy man common to the parts here, who is a very quiet activist. Is that what the Indian state fears?

In Manipur, everyday, you read about at least a couple of killings of UGs by military. (Yesterday, 01.11.09: they killed 7). The rumor has it that the chief minister has been strictly ordered by the ‘centre’ to deal a heavy hand in bringing down the ultras. He has been given a target of 1500 killings by the end of 2009, to prove his men are working efficiently. The resultant massacre is designed slow but steady, taking away young lives off Manipur every day. Death by military bullets has become a part of everyone’s life in Manipur. Here is one story about that:

A woman lost her son to the bullet. She got the news that she had to go and bring the dead body of her son from the morgue. Naturally her neighbours and friends accompanied her to this ordeal. When they reached the morgue, another woman, a neighbour who had gone with her to hospital found her own son also there, lying as a dead body. This mother did not even know that her son was killed too.

As we drove around Manipur, through the blue hills that my colleague mentioned at the beginning, it was difficult to feel the usual sense of elation and carefreeness that mountains bring. Instead a sense of anxiety hung from the leaves of the forests and the edges of the really bad roads that are ubiquitous to North-East like its bamboo baskets and monsoon rains. Each village had an army camp adjacent to it and two check gates manned by the army. One at the entrance and one at the exit, from whichever direction you approach. At each check gate, the driver had to get down and register his vehicles and answer innumerable questions. The passengers had to get down and walk over to the other side of the lowered bamboo barricade so that the army could search you and the vehicle. In our case, we were 9 people in the vehicle and the back door of the Marshal did not open. Getting everyone out meant a drill more difficult than the army’s and we had to do it more than 10 times in a distance of about 40 km. But that is not all. There were also patrolling troupes who stopped us few more times on the way asking us questions like 'what are you doing here?' - in Hindi. In our car out of the 9 people, 7 were from that part of Manipur. We were in fact visiting their villages. The other 2 were me and my colleague. My colleague is from Manipur and I am from Assam. The military is from the rest of India. And we are asked what are we doing here?!

The head of the organisation, through which we had organised the visit, was adamant on driving the vehicle himself. The young driver had to sit at the back. The road was really bad. We had to push through knee deep mud longer than we could drive the car. I asked why he was not letting the driver drive. He laughed and said that the driver does not understand Hindi much and if the army asks him to stop and he does not understand, they will immediately fire upon us. That moment it became clear to me why they were pointing to the hills that folded into the horizon towards Burma and told me moments ago, “This place is called Death Valley”.
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Each moment in Manipur throws you with her incredible stories. The Meitei’s talking about the rest, the friendships between a Naga and Kuki that immediately polarizes if you happen to mention the conflict between the 2 groups, the women who have taken in the role of both protectors and protesters in this time of trouble. But my favourite story from Manipur is this one...
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Let the gate of the prison be flung wide
I will not go on another path
Please remove the shackles of thorn
Let me be not accused
For being incarnated in the life of a bird
---- Irom Sharmila

Irom Sharmila is also one of the many who are arrested under NSA for posing threat to national security of India. In November this year, she enters 10th year of being in police custody. She also completes 9 years without eating.

Sharmila was arrested in 2000 for being on a fast-unto-death strike. Few months before, security forces had indiscriminately fired upon a gathering of people killing 11 civilians. Sharmila announced she will not eat until AFSPA has been removed from Manipur. This killing of innocents has to stop! And it has been 9 years since she ate, showing how powerless the Indian state is that even their brutal laws have not been able to break her resolve. She lives in the hospital, being nose fed by force. The law says that the longest the police can keep one under custody under NSA is 6 months. So every six month Sharmila is set free for a day or two. As a free bird, she heads straight for the relay hunger strike that continues outside the hospital in her support. The police arrest her back after 2 days again for six months.

9 years, AFSPA still remains in Manipur, killing many. But Sharmila’s spirit remains alive and kicking the oppressive state in the face. Her friends plan to celebrate her indomitable spirit this November through poetry, music, theatre, dance and much more. I salute her with a few jumps and screams with my arms stretched to the sky.

  • Here I recommend SURFACE, the book by Siddhartha Deb, published by PICADOR INDIA even when I have huge reservations about recommending Bengalis and I am presumptuous about him being a Bengali. It captures the complexities of Manipur through simply narrated stories and experiences of the protagonist. Although at times I did find the protagonist to be an Indian the way he felt about things in the ‘region’. But I don’t hold it against him as the protagonist is an Indian. Brilliantly written and a must read to get a true feel of the pandemonium that we live in. His stories if feel outlandish ever, remember, there is no distance between them and the reality people are living in the North-East now.