Alien at Home

Priyamvada Asthana
The order to return to Delhi came from my research supervisor. It was an ordinary November, Imphal afternoon, I remember. The Archives had chivvied me out at 3:30ish, I had no interviews for the day and was wondering if I ought to nap or right down my findings. It was at that moment that the SMS came. My synopsis date had been finalised and I was informed I ought to come back. I tried to talk my way out of it, tried to get the synopsis delayed, but, to no avail. I had interviews lined up after the date of the synopsis, I told my supervisor – I wasn’t lying, I did. The real reason however, was slightly different.
I was talking to a friend the other day. He’s Meetei. I told him I fully expected to be invited for his wedding. It would give me an excuse to come back to Imphal after my father’s retirement. The friend asked me if I was stupid enough to need a reason to come home. He pointed out that Imphal was as much my home as his. I laughed it off, but didn’t tell him why I needed excuses to come back. They were too complicated to be explained in a whatsapp conversation.
The above two anecdotes are seemingly unrelated, but to me, they signify my complicated relationship with Manipur. We have various homes in the course of our lives. Some are part of our DNA, like ancestral homes. Others, part of our hearts, of our very souls. They are part of us. They influence our decisions. They shape us as people.
Manipur is the latter. It isn’t my ancestral home. My father came here in 1986, as a young IPS, as Mayang as he could be. As a police officer, he was a symbol of the State at a time when the insurgency in the Hills and the Valley was at its peak. He saw a side of Manipur that I didn’t. Even if I did see it, I was too young to remember it. He stayed on for the next 9 years, roughly, mostly serving in the Hills, though he did a brief stint as SP, Imphal West, during that period.
My mother came to Chandel in 1989, a month after her wedding. An ambush the day after her arrival answered why she has always been suspicious, sceptical and scared in Manipur. She admits that she’s also had the time of her life here, but, that fun hasn’t overruled the primary sentiment in her heart. Her lifelong hatred of high speeds, hills and loud noises has largely been fuelled by her six years in Manipur. She remembers sweat and blood soaked uniforms, ambushes, blasts, firings and plans changed at the drop of a hat. In that sense, perhaps, the civilians’ experience is very similar to my mother’s.
I came to Manipur in 1992, barely a month old. My father was SP, Churachandpur at the time. That was the beginning of the Naga-Kuki conflict. My knowledge of it is largely secondary. I pieced together the conflict and the experience through first, my parents’ stories, and then, my own historical research. I don’t remember much of Churachandpur, the first home I ever lived in. As SP, my father had an earmarked house and all my memories are derivative, pieced together from old photographs. We moved to Ukhrul when I was a year old, and that house, I remember. Ukhrul to me, isn’t a city of ambushes. It isn’t a hotbed of Naga insurgency. It isn’t a city to me, at all. Ukhrul to me, is a house, the SP residence. A sprawling bungalow built on top of a hill, overlooking the valley. Ukhrul to me, is those hills visible in the distance. It is my father’s escort running after me. It is my mother’s constant companionship. It is the orphanage where my birthday was celebrated. The city, for me, was confined to that house that was home. Many years later, in my Masters’, the professor took us to the Defence Archives for an academic visit. We pulled out World War Two files, and I found home in them. During the Second World War,the Lieutenant General’s Military Headquarter was a sprawling house, overlooking the valley below. That one line transported me twenty years back in time. I was once more a toddler cooing over the hills visible from my house. Further research told me my hunch had been right. A line in a file in a dusty archive had taken me home.
As a child, I also briefly lived in the 2nd MR Officers’ Mess. That mess is now a dilapidated, decrepit, hovel. It’s falling apart, its elaborately, exquisitely carved furniture now caked in dust, the faux ceiling falling off, the kitchen overrun by rodents, the pukhri – a small pond – covered with moss, instead of being filled with fresh water, the beautiful, ornamental bridge over it, now shaky and rusted and with gaping holes in the floorboards. That had once been home to me. My parents, breaking with family traditions, had not taken me to Vindhyachal for my Mundan. The Devi Temple within the MR premises had sufficed. That break from the past was my bond to Manipur. Rituals act as agents that bind, and bind me to Manipur, they did. And that, is also where all trouble began. I say Manipur is home, but its a home where I have never had a house. At least in the Hills, the SP residence could be called home, in Imphal, home has always been a room or a suite of rooms in the Officers’ Mess. When my father arrived in Imphal as a probationer, he first lived in the 1st MR Mess, and he’s always loved it more than the 2nd MR Mess. When he returned to Imphal in 2001, it was to 1st MR that he came. My mother and I followed in the vacations. I remember that time. We had a full house then. Every room was occupied and every night, we sat out on the terrace, waiting for either the rains or a power cut. It was one big family. The mess was ours to run in, and we created a huge ruckus in it, Cheeku and I. We snuck into Sandhu Uncle’s room to watch the television, while he was at the office or ran off to play in the lawn. Sometimes, Simmi di and Shaanu joined us, on other days, we all piled in to go, visit Barral Aunty in Lamphel. It was a glorious time, all the more so because vacations meant no school work.
When my father came back in 2011, it was again to 1st MR. I didn’t visit him then. My return to Imphal came fifteen years after I had decided I loved the place, in 2016. It was again, to 1st MR. And since then, esconsed firmly in a suite of rooms here, I’ve stopped calling it the Mess. It has simply become, “home”, “yum”, as they say in Meeteilon.
And this is why my bond with Manipur is so complicated. When I’m here, I don’t want to go back. Every time I’ve left, the gaps have been too long. I always feel like an emigrant in the days preceding my departure. The days become emotionally charges. I try to take in as much of this home, as I can, before I must go back to that other home, Delhi. I’ve always loved Delhi. More than the places that are part of my ancestry, Lucknow and Allahabad and Azamgarh and Sitapur. The last two are cities I’ve never even been to. Delhi also is a home of our own making. We have no ancestral links to it, but I digress.
I love Manipur with all my heart, but its a place where my Mayangness is strikingly apparent. I barely speak Meeteilon, no matter how hard I try to pick it up. I wear the phanek yes, but the debate about cultural appropriation makes me wonder if that counts as part of being at home in Manipur, or if someday soon, I’m going to be accused of appropriating the phanek. I’ve collectively spent more time in Manipur than I have in my ancestral cities, yet I have no house here. And laws dictate that I can never own a house here. Can we be at home in a place where home has always been a set of rooms in the equivalent of a guest house? And yet, is an Officers’ Mess a guest house? Does it not count as home if for thirty years, my parents have always come back to it? Isn’t home just a feeling?
My research supervisor is Kuki. It feels odd to divide Manipuris by the Meetei, Pangal, Naga, Kuki, Paite, Hmar, Mayang identities because as long as those divisions exist, Manipur is not likely to find peace, yet, I use it here because this was the second person from Manipur to refer to the state as my home. During the floods, he asked if my house was flooded. My mind went back to the three inches of standing water in the lawn, which most certainly did not constitute being flooded. I told him my home was unaffected, but the rest of Imphal was in very bad shape. In that moment, I wasn’t thinking of the floods at all. I was overjoyed at his reference to “your home”. .
Acceptance also comes sometimes from the oddest places. From the imas at Ima Keithel, who chose phaneks for me to buy based on what would suit me. From the people who, at a wedding, marvelled at and hugged me for wearing the phanek with aplomb. From the people who smiled at me in the Archives and called me their sister. From the people who suggested I marry in Manipur. From the people who automatically changed the ‘v’ in my name to a ‘b’, because, “That is how it is spelt in Meetei”.
And this is precisely also why I will need excuses to come back after my father retires. Home in Manipur has almost always been 1st MR. What happens after my father’s retirement? Oh, we can still stay here, but would it be the same? And to come to this city and live in a hotel would be sacrilegious. It would be heartbreaking. It wouldn’t feel like home. And Manipur is home to the extent that as a research scholar, I came back to work out why Manipur would forever treat me like an alien. To leave and not come back, would be terrible, but to come back to live in a hotel would be devastating. The love would still exist, but the physical marker of home would not be mine, anymore.
I wish saying, “yum laaye”, “I came home”, wasn’t just my wishful thinking. The phanek and phi and chandon don’t make me Manipuri, but perhaps, unconditional love is the bond that ties me to both, the place and its people, however they may choose to identify. Manipur is not home to various ethnic communities. It is home to the love that binds them, irrespective of the insurgency and the inter-ethnic clashes and AFSPA. Love that manifests in very ordinary ways, yet, is all pervasive. Make that love your strength, Manipur, si eigi di thwaigi leipham ni. (That may not be entirely right, I accept. Its supposed to read, “the home of my heart”, but I accept my own failings.)
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

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