Coming down from the capital heat Delhi to Kerala- ‘God’s own country’ on Monday, June 25 was refreshing. As the Taxi took me along the countryside to Fort Cochin I could feel the wet greens and the smell of the Arabian Sea. In fact a different kind of a feeling as a person who grew up in the hills of Manipur.
Joining a group of twenty one social workers and media activist for a meeting on Peace Building in India we were put up at Gama Heritage residency. A calm neighborhood, more of a residential colony with hang-out joints nearby along the sea beach. We have friends from Germany who travelled across the globe, telling stories of Peace Builders around the World with use of media and information technology.
My young friends (they were just out of college) from Kerala asked me “where are you from?” Initially I thought whether I should say Delhi, presuming that they would have no clue about Manipur. But my curiosity to know their reaction took the better of me and I replied “I am from Manipur”. I was totally surprised by their response. Excited, they said “wow, we know Sharmila!”. They told me about the activities they organized in solidarity to Sharmila in their college. For these young girls Irom Sharmila, was an Icon. One of them even went on to asked me “ have you met Sharmila in person ?”, “is your home near to Sharmila’s home?”.
A friend’s friend, Radhika, legal expert and writer, whom I spoke to over the phone for some leads on trafficking, progress on to a discussion about Irom Sharmila. Though we could not catch up our two day consecutive talk was all about Sharmila, AFSPA, and Manipur. She bluntly commented “look at Anna Hazare, and the response!” She asked “why is the government silent over Sharmila?” I replied “maybe, because Sharmila is an ordinary women from Manipur!”
Initially I thought, since most of the people I met or interacted are from the social sector obviously they are aware of Manipur and its associated problems. But to my surprise, every stores, shops, that I went, they would casually inquire where are you from? But no remarks or naïve / silly questions. More interesting were the auto rickshaw drivers. They would say Madam where are you from? When I replied “Manipur” then they would exclaim “Oh beautiful place”! One evening as I took an Auto the driver said “Oh Manipur, that’s India”.!
None of the people I come across, when I told them I come from Manipur never asked me a second question, where is Manipur? Nor do they gave me an odd look (staring at the other like an alien), which is very common in other Mainland Indian states, most specifically Delhi.
On the next day of my arrival in Fort Cochin, looking for an internet café, I casually inquire at the Seashore Residency a hotel cum travel guide, the manager told me he can provide the connection to my laptop, and that he would charge Rs 50 for any extend of hours. This arrangement was convenient.
Manager Markos was very informative and update. Once the formalities of introduction, he kept me engaged with discussion on Manipur and north east at large. The current presidential polls being the headlines, our discussion was about PA Sangma. Markos asked “will NE (political parties) support Sangma?” “What is your take on a NE contesting the highest office?” My reply was that most NE states are congress or its alliances and the disadvantage for Sangma is that he is unfortunately supported by BJP – not a very popular party in NE.
George, a friend of Markos too joined in. He told me that PA Sangma had also visited Kerala during his tenure in the Lok Sabha. And that Sangma is not a new face in Kerala. George, a Keralite, who works in Oman (Middle East) talked about border trade and business in Northeast India. He told us that the Government of Oman and Government Of India are in a process of a joint collaboration to set up a agriculture field in Nagaland (land will be leased out to Oman government for rice cultivation). George said “CM of Nagaland came to Oman as representative of India to discuss about the project”
During my five days stay in Fort Cochin I came to Markos’ place frequently. One fine evening, Markos said “I hear the news that a dress code is announced for women in Manipur” (news report, June 26, Manipur student leaders prescribe girl students should wear the traditional ankle-length ‘phanek’ (wraparound skirt)). Bit surprise I thought, this guy is really up-to-date. I told him I do hear about it but not in detail. He wanted to know more, “does the girls in Manipur wear uniforms in schools?” do they wear skirts? What is the length of the skirt? what length is allowed? “I couldnt respond much. After some time he asked “is Manipur such a backward state?” ..I was taken aback “huh, it is some sort of talibanization…or probably talibanization influence” I mumbled. He didn’t asked further.
Saturday morning, as I walked along the beach, mesmerized in the activities of the early birds, fishermen, tourist and locals, one gentleman in his late 50s came up to me and said “hello, I saw you for the last few days coming out for morning walk, where are you from?” I said casually “Delhi” he persisted, finally I answered “from Manipur” Then he brighten up. Manipur? he repeated. Then he began talking about AFSPA, sharmila, his concern of problems in the state, blockade, bandhs, hartals. We talk of humanity, values and many other thing. A local businessman, how does he knows so much about Manipur? He told me that he read about Manipur in the newspapers. After a long conversation the gentleman invited me for a morning cup of tea at his house. I promised him “I will come tomorrow”. I never did.
The next day, Sunday morning I took a taxi and left for Cochin airport. The driver obviously asked Madam where are you from? I am from Manipur. He replied “oh Manipur, beautiful place, I have been there once on a tour”.
Along the road, he explained things I was glancing from the rear window of his car.. “This is Ernakulam market”… “main shopping area”… “this are children on their way back from their Sunday school in the Church”...
On my journey back to Delhi, my mind drifted back to the old gentleman whom I had promised to have a homemade cup of tea. I felt bad that I had not kept my promise, while I could have some time in the morning before I left at 10 am. I didn’t even asked his name and more about his “joint family” he fondly talked about. I remember Markos, and thought what would have been the headlines in The Sangai Express, Manipur today. I wondered what would be Marcos and his friend George’s take on the presidential polls ?.
I thought of Radhika and the girls in the Peace Building meeting, their warm sisterly bonding with me. With admiration I remember my school teachers, and many other Keralites in the missionary schools who came all way from Kerala to teach in the far flung villages in Manipur.
Unfortunately, I realized only after I left Kerala that I had not reciprocated the people I personally interacted in trying to know more about their opinion, thoughts, more about the people and the state of Kerala.
The Sangai Express , July 9, 2012. sunday articles