Manipuri literature: Dogged by identity crisis, language conflict
The dilemma over the dual identity of state and nation still haunts writers in Manipur 65 years after independence because of the alienation of the northeastern region from mainstream India, a cross-section of writers from the state feel.
Though most writers accept the dominant Indian identity, they want to assert their language and culture on the national stage.
"For me, nationality of any kind is uncertain. I was born as a Manipuri and remained so for 56 days after which I became an Indian when Manipur joined the state of India in 1947," Sahitya Akademi award-winning writer Yumlembam Ibomcha said at the "Samanvay: The IHC Indian Languages Festival" in the capital.
As an Indian writing in Manipuri, the dual identity of being a Manipuri and an Indian has always occupied Ibomcha like many other writers from the state.
Drawing on the genesis of the dual identity in the evolution of Manipuri literature, Ibomcha said, "Manipuri (Meitei is the official language) is spoken not only in Manipur but in Assam and parts of Bangladesh. This literature developed within 12th to 15th century though it had existed for several centuries in the oral form."
The traditional Manipuri literature developed without the influence of any other languages until the 18th century, when Hinduism came to the state.
The pre-Hindu Manipuri literature is distinct from post-Hindu literature, he said.
"The writers were stimulated by the new religion and ethos," Ibomcha said.
Vaishanvism, the cult of Vishnu, made inroads into the state and festivals like the Ras-lila became popular. But the ethnic Meitei script was replaced by Bengali and a variation of Assamese in the new wave of Sanskritisation, the writer said.
In the year 1709, a king of Persian origin Meidingu Pamheiba (Garib Nawaz) ascended the throne of Manipur. At the behest of a Hindu priest Santidas Gosain, he gathered all the ethnic holy books Meitei Puya and made a bonfire of them in 1729, he said.
"The Bengali and Assamese scripts are not our own. The new generations - most of them - do not read the Bengali script (the indigenous Meitei language had been introduced in schools since the early 1980s)," Ibomcha told IANS.
It sowed the seeds of a language conflict, he said.
Concurred writer and activist Dhanabir Laishram: "We do not blame anyone because the Manipuri script could not keep with the changing technology. In the 18th and 19th century, most of the printing presses were in Kolkata and books were printed in the Bengali script."
One of the problems is the tardy volume of translation from Manipuri to English and other Indian languages, says linguist, lexicographer and creative writer Uday Narayan Singh.
"Translation is not happening on a large scale. The bulk of translation is happening into the Manipuri language. But Manipuri literature is not getting out of its own space. There are only 8-9 big ticket Indian languages which are hugely popular in the media because they have markets. Manipuri is not one of them. I wish media and publishers would look beyond economics," Singh told IANS.
But they cannot ignore contemporary Indian realities.
"It cannot escape what is happening around them - the immediate environment in which they live. They reflect the ethnic violence, terrorism and other turbulence that plague Manipur. It is like in many other places in India," noted Manipur writer and translator Tayenjam Bijoy Kumar Singh said.
"How do you define identity. With the colour of your skin, the colour of eyes or the cut of your face. I have been mistaken for a foreigner in many places in India. But I am Indian first, then a Manipuri," Singh said.
He said he was tired of explaining his nationality.
The identity debate continues as new writers try to balance Manipur with India.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)