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.

 

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Good Acting: Liar’s Face in Fargo

Desperate for money, Oldsmobile salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William Macy) in Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996) has lied to his customer about a tru-coat. The customer displays a fantastic nervous aggression. Look at Jerry’s face when the customer says he lied to him–his looks, his eyes, and how he holds his face. That’s subtle and fantastic acting.

I like the details in the direction, acting and cinematography displayed when Jerry manages to smile at the customer’s wife and the wife returns courtesy when the customer has said he (Jerry) is wasting his time and his wife’s time.

Some Whispers are Soundless

Birth and death meet in a house and it embraces both of these two ends of life into one great enigma. A grey mix of love that comes across as love tinted with fear or fear tinted with love. Every house has this enigma in its rooms.

Dehradun. A small girl died in this house first as far as we know. She puked blood. Then after a couple of years the man of the house followed his daughter. Soon the elder daughter died too for no apparent reason. Then the son, the eldest child, survived by his wife and their very small daughter. All in front of the mother. Soon the mother also walked the way of the whole family, leaving her daughter-in-law and the small kid. The mother and daughter moved to Delhi, where they are living now, leaving the empty house with silence.

People come and go. Houses remain there, standing, day and night, year after year, as if waiting even when there is nobody to come until somebody demolishes them. Before they return to their origins, some see more births than deaths with their occupants moving to more convenient, if not better, places, while some others see more deaths than births. Number is not always the weight–to us humans, a death casts a long gloomy shadow on three births of our loved ones. Death is more conspicuous because it tears a hole in the chest of life and smuggles our loved ones out through it and the last time we see them, hear them, touch them, is the last time we have with them. Death nullifies life on this side of the grave, and it often empties a house with a few repeated sweeps leaving it to sink in silence and decay amidst the din of the busy world, like the one in the photograph above.

The patio of an old British lady’s mansion. Soon after Independence, she gave the mansion and the estate to the Mussoorie Post Office which though has moved to a new place still owns it. The house is dilapidated now but parts of it still have a couple of antique-maniac occupants.

Abandoned houses always fascinate me. The gloom, sadness, decay and the evident shabby-gentility they are characterized by, the mute memories the rooms are filled with, the soundless whispers of their stories splashed on the damp, faded, mossy walls–I love these ghosts, their haunting.

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.

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.

 

Joy in the Junk

Once used to the environment they find themselves in, children find joy–at least momentary ones–in the dust, among broken machines, in the concrete rubble heaps of war, under the roofless slum houses, though those in oppressive conditions would have to get back to their torturous realities after a brief period of joy.

Adults! Hmmm! What they do in search of joy, in search of happiness! Unhappy about happiness. Tired of searching for rest.

Blackout

I had observed the interesting scene from the upstairs for over ten minutes (I would have had no idea about it had the security guy—after I had already taken a couple of shots—not told me it was quite invitingly odd for a person to stand at one place and keep staring like that for fifteen minutes) before figuring out what to do about that. Luxury cars on the sale show at an open showroom at the bay of the largest shopping mall in Delhi.

Down there were people of all walking speeds—some looked casually at the show as they walked and passed on by; some streamed on for cares outside of my field of vision without even caring to cast a glance at it to find business there; some lingered there with no obvious reason with the long-staring patience of a chronically unlucky angler or of a seasoned detective with nothing to detect or a weathered photographer without a camera whose business all in the wide world is to stare at people buying cars; every now and then some young boys and girls from pre-earning ages to a couple of years into working strayed excitedly for a while into the bay and posed, often pouting their lips or displaying a broad smile from ear to ear out of nowhere, in front of the cars (not very close to those otherworldly things they are not so confident to dream of) for a photograph or a selfie before they disappear in a minute or so; a few stuck around there, climbing in and out of the cars, as if in a virtual test drive at the busy bay, posing for the photographer who took photographs of whoever came behind the wheels; leggy beautiful salesgirls in body-hugging black shirts, skirts and semi-seethrough leggings were busy briskly plying about their business with glossy formalities in their hands and the young salesmen—apparently perfunctorily but immense patience—were talking with or explaining things to inquirers and those who hand the bank in their pockets while their companions where checking the cars nearby.

Now I had what to do—I set the camera: 1 sec exposure, f/16, ISO 100. To “ghost out” the movers and blur the lingerers a bit to superimpose the passage of time on the scene. I trained the camera, focused it on one of the headlights, and while the shutter button was in the midst of responding to my pressure and milliseconds before it fired the camera, the mall blacked out, but the shutter button continued and the camera obeyed.

Accidentally the result was interesting, though it was more than just a bit too dark, with the headlights looking like two pairs of monster doe-eyes glistening in a totally dark world, and the ghosts of the relatively fast movers had disappeared in the unhauntably dark shadows. I would have missed it during the blackout if I had not set the exposure down that long, and yes, luckily the aperture of that much high value. I decided that I could compensate for the underexposure in post-production. Yes with some greening grains.

Here I have turned up the exposure demonstering the doe-eyes to reveal the human business going on there though still in the dark.

 

Poet and Short Story Writer

Manipuri short story writer and one of the state’s top cops, Rajen Moirangthem (left) and Manipuri poet and sports columnist, Saratchand Thiyam on the evening of 16 January 2017.

Both of them are national Sahitya Akademi award recipients. I set out as an editor when I assisted Mr. Rajen in editing Chumthang, a literary journal published by Sahitya Seva Samiti, Kakching.

Saratchand and I came to know each other at a seminar at India International Center, New Delhi, in 2005. Organized by Katha. As a young boy–youngest among the delegates–I was a panelist in a discussion program–Knowledge Keepers and Dream Makers. Did he get a book of his released during the seminar? I don’t remember. Something like the English translation of his Nungsibi Greece was hot then.

Two Years Worth a Lifetime

4 January 2017. After I had avoided humans, particularly those who are by default called friends in every sphere of my life for a very long time, Preety Jankeepersand and I met, had tea and paratha at Brahmaputra and walked for long in many secluded areas in the JNU campus. Preety, a kind and self-conscious girl from Mauritius,  has been a friend of mine who has been helping me when and where no other person would actually give a damn. Most friendships demand mutual investment and that reciprocity needs to be simultaneous lest the friendship expires. Preety has proved a different person–in her characteristic combination of quiet and frankness, and affection and aloofness, she would repeatedly and patiently get through my silent irresponsive solitude and do a few things to help me (calling me sometimes, writing to me often with some important information I need to act on) before she leaves quietly. She knew without somebody helping me I would not do certain things despite the consequences. Not many people would be so generous as her at least to a person like me–so aloof, so unpenetrably silent and incommunicable. I would ever remain indebted to her. So happily.

That afternoon we talked about a lot of things. Life in general. Plans for future–what we wanted to do in life, after the linguistic course. I had my camera with me too–I told her I wanted to take a few photographs of her. To remember her by. The easier way.

I had photographed her before too. This evening was calmer and quieter and we were more relaxed. But unfortunately, when we arrived at this particular place–a beautiful one, one we would unlikely visit on any other day–the sun had already set and I had to turn the ISO up and lower the shutter speed. Far beyond I would normally go for. (We did not plan to come here–some beautiful peacocks attracted our attention and we followed a couple of them which we saw and we ended up here.)

Though I wished we got to this place earlier, she was so cool and beautiful in her blue shirt and jeans in that twilight. We agreed we would come to this place again. Earlier. We have not yet gone there again.

I took six or seven photographs there. She was calmly beautiful in all of them. In her quiet and cute beaming beauty. Now the course has ended and she will go back to her country and I will muddle through following my dream. In difficulty. The time has come for me to publish the few photographs I have taken of her. Here are two of them. Up above.  I will add the other photographs too here. And various versions of the same photographs too.

I will remember this friend of mine. Ever in my life. Clearly. Without a cloud.

Konsam Kulladhvaja

A cute light smile spread across his pensive face when he saw me during a literary program in Manipur in mid January this year. He still recognized me after over ten years. The first and the last time we met was at  a translation workshop in Kakching in 2005. He, like participant, patronized me, though quite distantly–I was a young boy then, and the youngest translator.

We walked out. He extended a hand to me, and I clasped it in both of my hands. “How are you, sir?” I asked. “Spent!” His reply was cool and quiet as ever. I had to strain my ears when I first met him. Later it occurred to me that we are almost equal in this regard–remaining within our own auditory comfort zones, both of us are not much considerate to our listeners.

Konsam Kulladhvaja, a Manipuri literary critic

I recognized the smell emanating from his person. Alcohol. He has always loved that, since when I first knew him. In any case, that goes well with him.

When I requested for a photograph giving the reason “You are going into history,” he did not protest but he was not enthusiastic either. But the expression on his face was not for words to describe. My camera was yet to be held up.

Three Artists

Depression broods in art. Anger chafes in art. The fires, cries and deaths of war do not spare art. Every human thing touches art. Still, there is something about art that keeps it cool. You will rediscover the innocence of humans in old men of art being together. Just being happy, without any reason. Just being together. Just listening to each other’s songs. A cappella. Just listening to each other’s poems or short stories.

These guys are such folks. I photographed them after a literary program in Manipur early this year. January 2017. From left to right:

Usham Nirjitkumar (singer)
Rajen Moirangthem (short story writer)
Thangjam Ibopishak (poet)