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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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.

Physical Environment and Human Behavior #1

I found it chocking and claustrophobic when I recently (24-26 July 2017) saw an unfinished building oddly jutting out of the main locus of the JNIMS (Porompat, Imphal) buildings, squatted across the Pong Lambi. I had not noticed it in my two other visits to the hospital earlier this year—one in mid-March and the other a bit earlier.

Twenty-one years ago in early 1996, when I, as a young boy, came first to the hospital (it was called the JN Hospital—Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital—until it was raised to the status of a medical science institute a few years ago and renamed the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS)) to attend to my maternal grandfather who was getting intensive care in a separate room at a private ward, the road had quite a busy traffic flow because of Mahindra Jeep commuters, besides others, especially between the MG Memorial Hall (Imphal West) and Sangomsang (Imphal East) long before the cheaper if irritatingly-too-noisy means of transports—the first and second generations of three-wheelers—became popular in these parts of the state, Manipur. Honestly, irrespective of their undeniable socio-economic and historical importance to the country, I hate auto-rickshaws for their inconsiderate noise and terribly ugly looks and color. When grandfather was sleeping and I had an hour or so to myself, I walked far south-east along the road to see the vacant fields and wetlands edging away far into the distance on both sides at most points of the road that tapered apparently into the faraway greenery of the Nongmaijing Hill. The air was cold and fresh, and being there instilled a liberating feeling in me.

When I saw it in my recent visit, the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS was more like a seldom-swept, asphalted backyard parking lot of some affluent minister with visitors from all over the country—the road brown in the July heat looked old and to have stopped losing aggregate and ageing; the dust that had gathered in the dips in the rough surface texture had turned into dry mud and the layer of new dust seemed to have been there not disturbed enough to drift in the air to change place, and the uniformly brown asphalt surface bore almost no sign of darkening by tires visible on roads in regular use. No new signs of wear and tear. It was not difficult for any visitor driving for the hospital along this part of the road to sense that the vehicles coming from the opposite direction started not long before—the vehicles felt to have just swerved and not all vehicles in the middle of a long drive would not come at the same slow speed which characterized almost all of those vehicles I saw there. My suspicion about something possibly having happened there to the once familiar place was later confirmed by the cul-de-sac the jutting, unfinished building had made of the road.

I had no personal feelings associated with the place but seeing the building inconsiderately squatting there cutting off the road quite apparently social instinctively shocked me. What immediately flashed in my mind the moment I saw the obstruction (or objectively speaking, the erection of huge physical structure across the road) was the Berlin Wall. Later, when I had found out the name of the road was Pong Lambi, another wholly different thing struck my mind, triggered by the word Pong, a term (it is perhaps a chance sound similarity) the Manipuri’s knew the Burmese by, without actually knowing the status of the road’s historical association with the Meitei-Burmese trade relations before the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891.

The change in the physical structure of the place due to the protrusion, something like an unnatural outgrowth of the earth right across the road, nudged my mind to have a different attitude toward the place and to physically behave differently to it than I would have twenty-one years ago or any time without that structure. Later I walked and casually surveyed the place and discovered that the addition of that building in that particular way in the physical environment of the place had nudged the people there also to behave in a certain way that would not have been the case in the absence of the building across the road. The way the built environment emerged ensuing from this odd building’s stopping the traffic rendering redundant the rest of the road south-east of the building (red-circled in the picture) is the physical proof of how people’s settling behavior has been influenced by this building on its south-east. Due to encroachment by human settlement (the legality of which is beyond the purview of the task at hand), the road on the south-east of the building has shrunk into an alley in stark contrast to the width and health of the part of the road on the opposite side of the building. Irrespective of the legal status of the JNIMS claim over the piece of land across the road (yes, the government is the owner of the land and for larger public causes such as the JNIMS, it can make adjustment reshuffling to the patterns of settlement at least of limited areas), nobody would have dared to do anything that would lead to the shrinking of a road in full use. Later on, while researching for this series, I came to know that the part of the Pong Lambi before the JNIMS has now been renamed JNIMS Road.

The movement of people east of the new JNIMS building in question has changed, the settlers closer to the hospital, in the absence of a artery, taking to the small alleys leading to the Porompat DC road while the people of further-away places such as Sangomsang having to take the Khongnang Makhong Lambi on the Iril river and then the Porompat DC road. This shift in movement is quite phenomenal.

Our concern in this series is not to judge the merits and demerits of the physical environment but to study the psychological influences of the physical environment including built structures on how humans behave.

 

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.

 

Bokeh in Lakeshore Evening

The stirs of life slow down to rest
at sunset—they don’t like the dark much.
The streets, closed malls and parks—
they are left to the homelss, dogs, cats,
lost newcomers and nocturnal tourists.

I sit on a shapeless rock growing out of the sand.
Through the sunset. After the sunset.

Dull sounds of oars hitting gunwales—yea,
I saw some lazy boats off the shore in the twilight.
The sound of water lapping against the shore.
A dog barking at a far distance.
Nameless noises of being wriggling in the silence.
A cat teaching its kitten cat tricks
on the white table at my room verandah.
Idiot. Useless things.
There are more important things.

I have brought my eyes back to myself
and keep them about myself only to sense
almost imperceptible ghostly shadows
coming into their curtailed field.
I look at nothing particular—
I just remain capable of seeing.

I sit on the shapeless rock growing out of the sand.
Through the sunset. After the sunset.

The sounds of a familiar language are brought
by the wind, the wave forms twisted into unintelligible shapes,
into a strange language or a non-language.
Just the voices kept intact as humans’.
They must be walking arm in arm in the sand.
In love. In the breeze. The evening soon to pass.
Long tuned to the silence and pressures in the nocturnal air,
you can sense the presence and absence
of movements around.

My mind sits at the center of the quiet
weaving a thought without an idea in it.
Thought in bokehs of ideas.

My photographer friend would say
this is a beautiful scene.