In the Grey

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No Man’s Land Woman

The middle-aged “non-local” woman who had been enthusiastically watching me taking photographs of several children, who had happily gathered around the wedding hall as they would do around a church on a Christmas morning or a straw hut on a Holi morning, kept changing places just like the children. No rings on her fingers, no sindoor on her forehead, no dupatta, just a couple of dull bangles on each wrist, and a carefree hairstyle which looked more a natural result of neglect than nurture–uncharacteristic of a married Indian woman. She wore a lungi cloth, not a saree, wrapped around her like a phanek. The children tantalizingly ran away from me when I trained my camera on them but deliberately conspicuously crept up teasingly about me if I had not paid attention to them longer than they felt was good. I love this transparent coyness of children and it was such fun that the children teasingly responded to me that way.

Children from my neighbors in my Kakching neighborhood used to bug me for something or the other. Even when I could fulfill them instantly, I kept drawing it out because I loved the children bugging me, and they knew it. It was like a game. I would make them kites, give them money to buy food of their choice from a nearby store, take them to places, and things like that. I would be so depressed when any child in our group died. Generations of children. Far away from home, I have disappeared from the memory of most people except the children I played with. But now I have a new generation of children in the neighborhood who know me and come to bug me when they are bored.

“Where you come?” The woman asked in broken English.

The context, my experience of people trying to communicate with me in English by means of a dozen or so English words, and my experience as a school English teacher often come to my help at such moments. Initially it had been hard to push aside my post-structuralism, stylistics and syntax as it was deemed necessary in the field, thought at any moment they may creep in through some crack and prove useful.

I looked at her and smiled. Partly because I feel homeless and partly because my philosophy puts me in no specific place on the globe (though they politically chain me down to some floor) (and also because, amusingly I want to my thought to wander aimlessly: how many places I come from–from a hotel in Moreh or somewhere in Lamphalong, Burma, or Kakching (my birth place and home), Imphal, Delhi, mother’s womb, the bride’s home, and so on), I did not reply.

The smile on her face broadened. I raised my camera to my face, and jerking the lens barrel toward her by way of a signal, my turned up my chin and raised my eyebrows a bit wordlessly asking if I can take a photograph of her. She immediately posed, but shyly. There had been some rigidness about her for some time, one that’s akin to what new photograph models wear when they are about to be in front of the camera, some sort of subconscious posing.

I took a shot and then said, “Thank you.”

“Where you come?” She asked again. This time she was in a more relaxed conversational mode.

“Yahan ka hun!” I said in Hindi.

“Kya? Tum India?” It was instantly clear that her Hindi was worse both in pronunciation and grammar than mine that has puzzled a lot of native speakers.

“Hoi, India!” That was a mix of Manipuri and English.

“Ahhhhh!” Her Dravidian mouth released this Kuki-girl cry of surprise. “Nangdi foreigner mallubane.” She spoke better Manipuri than Hindi.

I had been just back from the Namphalong Market beyond the border in Burma and was wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat like the ones you usually see in olden detective movies or westerns (but yes, without much decoration, and I find elaborate decorations and embroidery on wearables stupid), and I had my fully filled bag strapped on my back, and nobody you normally see in Moreh and the Burmba border don’t wear their trousers and shirts the way she saw me in that day.

“Where do you live?” I asked in Manipuri.

“There!” She pointed into a corridor-like alley that opened onto a barbed-wire and rusted corrugated-tin fence fifty feet away and smiled. “Somewhere there.”

She must have read the blankness in my face. There is a stage I experience before confusion–drawing blank, an experience I undergo if the information I am trying to process seems to possess what seems to defy all logic at that stage or if it looks too baffling. So before giving something up as impenetrable and confusing–some sort of nonplussation, I hold on and seek more information. Perhaps a biologically inherited trait.

“You know no man’s land?” That was an explosion–hitting immediately as comedy but cooling down as tragedy. The mention of no man’s land unleashed a hell lot of old memories that made her “there” make sense.

“Yes, I do.” A low, slightly drawn-out undertone of surprise.

“We live there. Mother and me.” She pointed to an elderly woman in a phanek by a hall wall, who I had seen earlier along with the children. Her life was written out there on her sad face. Her weathered withered face that looked apparently perpetually dull creased into a weak but so beautiful and heavy smile that I could not help smiling back. The smile lingered on the daughter’s face too and there was no politics in any of the curves and creases on that face. The world, the globe, spread flat before her, and the barbed-wire border fence was just another man-made structure like the walls of your house.

About eighteen years ago, while I, on a tour into Burma with one of my Burmese-speaking teachers (he looked like a Burmese too),  was crossing the border on foot, I saw several make-shift rag houses along the no man’s land, between the Indian and Burmese fences. They were Nepalese, Biharis and other Aryan and Dravidian ethnic groups from India, whose fate (whatever it was) had deprived them of livelihood and a floor to put their life on in the places people would call theirs. They found a land to live in there along the no man’s land. Nobody disturbed them there. The army on either side of the border did not find them worth their attention. Nobody roused them from their sleep there. They lived in peace there.

The border town of Moreh is a cultural, ethnic and linguistic metropolitan. Lying within the Moreh Police Station and in the jurisdiction of Moreh Judicial Magistrate, the border town of Moreh will often confuse one as to which law the people living here are subject of. Even often their citizenship. There are countless instances of love and marriage across the porous border that the laws of both sides of the border cannot account for. Love spreads its wings across the border, like the rays of the sun across the border as it rises and sets everyday. But these loves don’t live under the same roof. Love unsettles life so much. Love mixed up with the law.

Not so many cross-border uncivil activities by civilians.

“We came here in the early 1980s from Tamil Nadu.” The daughter said.

People move. Humans. Like homeless. From place to place to place. To live somewhere. Some travel thousands of miles to find a piece of land to live on, to build a roof to live under with their loved ones, to put their lives on that floor under the roof, between the four walls in the strong wind. You don’t easily find a foothold in the vacant fields, in the wilds, on the mountains, beside rivers. Nowhere. There will always come somebody to turn you out of there, and so you end up in a no man’s land. Love. So scarce and little in the world.

“I am an AASHA worker.” She said. How wonderful! That’s sort of a social work. Out of that no man’s land.

The sound of the band playing was now too loud for the conversation to go on. The groom procession had arrived. The drums, clarinets and bagpipes were far less loud than the noise they produce in the groom’s wedding procession in northern India. To an outsider to that culture, that noise rises beyond an insane height. Still, as we did not have to shout to continue with the talk, we let it out there.

Later, when things had subsided, I requested the mother for a photograph, and she gave her consent without a word. The lines on her face and the muscles there were eloquent like a poem filled with affects. I photographed her. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted her daughter’s photograph from my SD card while I was sorting out that day’s photographs later. Regret.

 

Joy that costs nothing

Sunday
15 October 2017

That afternoon I had no shooting or field recording. I had a pile of diaries to start reading for a biography project–the diaries of Pukhrambam Bharat, the maker, along with his brother Pukhrambam Tomchou, of the modern Kakching.

After a long Sunday with nothing so entertaining, the children in my neighborhood got bored by that afternoon. In our small estate we have the widest and most comfortable space in the neighborhood for children, and children from all over there come to play here with my brother’s small daughters, especially when they are bored at home. Our home, in that sense is full of fun. There will always be the should of children having fun and laughing. Yes, sometimes they fight, and that’s sweet part of childhood. That afternoon, from my study window I saw four or five children gathered there in boredom without a word said to one another–they were restless, fidgeting, and moving around aimlessly and listlessly. One of them happened to cursorily look into my window when passing by it and there was visibly a slight hue of hope appearing on her ennui-faded face.

“Kaka, when is kaka Ushaken coming back?” She trickily said.

My brother likes children a lot, as much as I do, and I had overheard them saying he had promised them to take them to angling at a river far away. My brother loves angling and if he has nothing to do, you will most probably find him angling at a river or a lake favorable for that fun at that particular time within the radius of 20 kilometers, if he is not at gambling (his another passion) somewhere around. But my brother had not returned from work for a couple of days.

“No. It’s bandh today.” I said. Manipur merged into India in on that day (15 October) in 1949, after Maharaja Bodhachandra was allegedly forced into signing the merger agreement on 21 October of that year. Revolutionary organizations in Manipur, since a long time ago, have been observing October 15 as a Black Day and on this day the roads are deserted and no shops in major markets are open. Earlier, the insurgent organizations used threats to this effect but now people do it on their own. Conditioned.

“Then take us to a nearby place! Anywhere!” She turned it on to me and changed the topic. Children are clever.

I laughed. Children in my Kakching neighborhood find me comfortable to be with. I love children with their simplicity, innocence and innocent small tricks.

Hmmm… Me smells. Gotta take a bath. Will continue after that.

Caught between the Same

Something is many things. Somebody is manybodies. A person is several persons. You look at something or somebody in many ways, and they have many modes, many beauties. I am often caught between two or more aspects of the same thing or person, especially their beauty–a seamless continuum of their beauty, which I don’t want to pin down to one spot or moment or mode.

The following are two different versions among many of the same shot. They have different emotional subtexts and tones.

Of God and Men (Part 2)

Click go to to Part 1

When the boy returns with a bottle of water, Stille first drips a few drops into his (the man’s) mouth, which he immediately swallows eagerly. He then tilts a half-filled glass slowly into his mouth, which the man drinks more eagerly until his mouth shuts before Stille cants off the glass dry.

It seems he is relived for a while–his complaining eases off and then stops. The mist of tension lifts. Even the old woman rises with an effort and comes trudging past Stille, stops beside him and smiles weakly down at the man.

Is she his wife older by five or ten years? Stille wonders. Or his mother, him having sprinted through his life so fast almost overtaking his mother’s age, perhaps consumingly quickened by what he is suffering from?

Soon the creases of faint smile around her lips and eyes wither back home into the usual crow’s feet, and she leaves there before long, trudges back and sits down at a new place, curled up like before. However, when Stille begins to think of going back, the man starts again, and worse this time. He tosses and turns and twists and kicks, and the low moans develop into long-drawn shrieking cries. The spirits that showed a weak rise during the momentary let-up quail.

“What is the doctor saying?” Stille asks the boy without expecting much of an answer of the boy.

“Nothing!” He is quick on the trigger.

Exactly, Stille thinks.

He leans over the man and asks him in a calm, firm voice, “Please don’t cry. Let’s face this.”

The swaying of the head breaks off, and in the dark, steep depressions in the gnarly emaciated face, a pair of glinting eyeballs rolls to a stop to look at the speaker. “What do you want me to do?” Stille asks softly.

The eyeballs glint at Stille for a moment. There is no anger in them. No defiance. No suspicion. No wickedness. Nothing. Just pain, fear and confusion. Then the head that begins to sway takes them in tow. Now his body twists and then his legs shake as if they were kicking off the pain.

Stille leans back up, shifts his position a bit toward his left and begins to massage the man over his blanket. Unaware of what is troubling him and where the trouble lies, Stille is quite quick about the massage covering the man’s back, waist and legs. However, it seems that the man’s body does not feel his massage—the man groans on, as if the pain is as deep as his marrow, oozing out of the pores of his bones, unaffected by the massage.

“My skull! Frozen! My legs!” The slurred murmur amid his moans is fibered. He is tired, but the illness pulsates what remains in him. His slurs a second language to him now, the boy gets closer to the bedhead on the other side and massages the man’s skull with both his little hands, the fingers hooked and flicked out like the prongs of a harpoon. Stille moves further left down to the foot and finds the feet cold like a block of ice. The temperature felt normal five minutes ago. He manages to rub them fast until the increasingly more terrible jolting makes it impossible. Then the man gives himself up to more jolting, more strained groaning, cursing and crying.

The night has both ends of sound—silence and this man’s cry—together in such a strange fashion. There is the engulfing silence and his occasional cry tears into its pitching, throwing its spear-tipped flight into the darkness toward the other end of the long ward. And the ward’s dark silence kisses the sound dry off it even as it flies and turns it into one of its kind. The silent sitters who have woken up remain still like ghosts pitched in their sick beds black against the dull glass windows.

The place felt empty to Stille when he entered, and now when he scans the space allotted to the bed, its emptiness feels so chilling—the bed, the stainless steel on one side of the bed, the rusted steel bedside table with cabinets between the bed and the wall, which the hospital provides, and nothing else, except for a small bag under the bed and a small plastic trough smelling of urine. The steel cabinets contain no medicine. The only vestige of medicine is the spent plastic IV bottle on the hanger attached to the bed, with the tube casually coiled back up and the connector plugged into the hub of an extra needle punched into it.

Did the woman or the boy put the prescription away? In one of the half open empty cabinets? The darkness inside would not give away a small piece of paper that anybody would tend to fold. Or in a shirt or trousers pocket or in a petticoat pocket, as many Throny Vale women of the lower middle class steeped in hard earning with some valued money usually show doing when they furtively loosen the phanek slit to reach for the money when they need to part with part of that on a bill at a hospital or on an unavoidable distant trip? It is not anywhere visible, but yes we don’t put a prescription on the show. We tend to take prescriptions carefully even when we are too broke to make them meaningful and keep them at a safe place intensifying the feeling of safety, false as it may be, and the lesser money we have, the tighter and tighter does our hold get. How tightly a penniless person holds a prescription shows how tightly and dearly they hold their loved ones on a hospital bed against the pull of death, as if the piece of paper were the very soul of their loved ones.

The boy shakes his head. The innocent face has learnt to show despair. Stille shifts his eyes to the man in noisy torment and it looks like he is dying.

Stille’s lips tighten. He draws in a long draft of air and gives a long sigh, and taking a couple of brisk steps toward the right, he leans low over the man’s face and asks,

“Do you believe in God? In Allah, or any God?”

Is he hesitating? The man gives no visible sign readable as a response to Stille’s question. Not even a different twitch in his lean face almost grotesque in fighting pain. Does he not believe in the idea of God or is he pissed off with me bringing in the far-fetched, inane and useless idea of God while he is struggling for life?

 

Go to Of God and Men (Part 1)

 

Neeru Naorem

Happiness spreads across the tissues of the living moments of life, but it is like the air–it slips through your fingers when you try to clasp it in your hands. It is not that we cannot think about happiness. Of course we humans are self-conscious beings and we can think about and examine our own conditions and our happiness. However, when we do so, we put happiness on the table for the equivalent of a clinical examination, and happiness stops being happiness, because happiness is not a singularity. It is a multiplicity–a multiple of several factors. A surgical examination of your happiness may reveal the factors of your happiness, but at that moment of examination, you do no experience the multiple feeling called happiness. Happiness is a composite feeling–let’s say “a feeling”–experienced, not an analyzed one. You may know happiness, but you are not happy if you do not experience this feeling. It is like sadness in this sense. You know your friend must be sad when his loved one dies, but this knowledge does not necessarily make you sad. Knowledge is one thing, and being is something else.

We feel the grainy texture of what we go through when we are deeply in the moments of whatever we go through. In plainer terms, being at the moment of the living moment and being focused on what we are doing at the moment is to be experiencing what life has for us. There is nothing to live beyond that. There is no life beyond that. Spirituality is something else and it does not preclude happiness.

I have seen happy people, living their daily lives happily. This girl I knew from my town is one of them. Irrespective of her material conditions, …

Oops! I gotta go. Will continue later tonight.