CONTEMPORARY MANIPURI SHORT STORIES

This article by Nahakpam Aruna originally appeared in Manipuri as one of the chapters titled Houjikki Matamgi Manipuri Warimacha in her book Nongthangleima Amasung Taibang, which was published in 2001. It was abridged and translated by Dhiren A. Sadokpam in 2008. E-pao and Hueiyen Lanpao republished the article in May 2015.

The development of Manipuri short story passed through various stages linked by an organic continuum from its conception to the age of maturity and sparks. Despite the resistance to recognition of its contemporary form and the near rejection of the same by established littérateurs and critics, the embryonic genre emerged as a formidable literary corpus acquiring a life of its own.

In the twilight of the last millennium, the short story emerged as a potent and mature genre despite its late entry into the varied Manipuri literary traditions. The genre was shaped and chiselled in the early part of twentieth century. With the new education system launched by the British post-1891 and subsequent change in the political landscape, Manipur saw the proliferation of more recent Indian and world language literature.

Short story as a genre, however, was developed much ahead and independent of this phase owing to the Manipuri literature's proximity to strong currents in Bengali and Assamese literature. The changing political contours, social and economic state, stage of modernization and contemporary world literature have left not just an impinging reflection on emerging Manipuri short stories, but also shaped their thematic structure just like these changes shaped the novel in Manipuri.

Gazing through Manipur's turbulent social history, the development of the "short story" in Manipur can be incised into four chronological stages:

1. The period of conception (1932–1941),
2. The birth of the short story (1946–1960)
3. The stage of maturity (1960–1970)
4. The age of meirik (sparks) (1970–till date)
On closer scrutiny, the last stage can be further segmented into two sub-stages: (a) 1970–1990, and (b) 1990–till date.

Like the history of literature in most languages, development of short stories in Manipur was possible due to the introduction of periodicals and journals. Sabbarjit's Yumpanba (Marriage), Dr. Kamal's Brojendrogee Luhongba (Brajendro's Wedding), Krishnamohan's Laman (Obligation) etc. were the ones that imitated the structure of the short story and got print spaces in Manipuri journals during the first phase.

However, it is worth mentioning here that the first ever short story titled Ima Wa Tannaba (Discussion with Mother) was written by Khunthing Tangkhul. Most short stories from this phase have "love" and "romance" as the key themes. Short story writers mainly dealt with the issues of overarching dominance of clan, caste, class and community hostility and discrimination over an individual's choice of "lovers" and "partners" during this stage.

Most writings focused on the societal norms that not only governed but also put strictures on personal choice. Despite the content and the theme, the writings could not get closer to the exact "formal structure" of short stories as is known today. After most of these short stories appeared on the Manipuri journals of the pre-1947, it was Raj Kumar Shitaljit who wrote and published a book of short stories called Leikolnungda (In the Garden) in 1946, a year before the end of British Raj.

In the same year, Raj Kumar Shitaljit also published another collection of short stories called Leinungshi (Fragrance) and thus began a new era of short stories. Shitaljit can be credited as the father of Manipuri short stories for the strong foundation he laid not only in terms of "form" and "content" but also in the actual production of literary works closely associated with the short story genre.

R.K. Elangbam wrote his Chingya-Tamya (Foothills) in 1955. By 1958, when Elangbam published his Yumgee Mou (Daughter-in-law), the flow of short stories became more steady and smooth. Even during this phase, Manipuri short stories continued to depict the idealistic and romantic aspects of life and the tension between societal norms over inter community/clan/caste matrimonial alliances and individual choice.

Shitaljit adeptly handled these themes in his works like Inthokpa (Excommunication) and Naknabadagee (Owing to Proximity). In the early short story texts of Shitaljit, one can find criticism of the sheer hypocrisy of the Manipuri ruling elites without directly referring to them. Some of the works not only reflected the spiritual insolvency and unjustifiable norms of the society but also a voice of revolt against these practices.

R.K. Elangbam's work embodied a careful yet sharper textual picturisation of love relations between man and woman. The changing face of women in society was adequately reflected in Thajagee Ayingba Maithong (The Tranquil Face of the Moon). Apart from mirroring the dynamic changes in gender relations, one can also find descriptive narratives on the prevailing conditions of women of that particular period in history, particularly in late works like Kalenthagee Leipaklei (Earth Flower in Summer, 1979).

Struggle for survival sullied by the filth of the surroundings and purity of the inner self are imageries Elangbam constructs over women. However, the core of short story writings during this period were governed by romanticism and idealism; controlled by a filtered gaze, which in turn had a profound impact upon the smooth flow of a straight narrative.

The romantic and idealistic trend set by R.K. Shitaljit and R.K. Elangbam in their works were further allowed free and smooth run with the emergence of writers of repute like Maharaj Kumari Binodini, Nongthombam Kunjamohan, Kumanthem Prakash, Shri Biren, Hijam Guna, Elangbam Dinamani, Chitreshwor Sharma, Nilbir Shastri etc. in the 1960s. With a fertile ground already set during this phase, short story writing in Manipuri sprouted as a matured genre. It was also the phase of Manipuri short stories where the writers could pull themselves out of the rubric of romanticism and straight away deal with social realism.

The new turn was towards a portrayal of everyday social realities faced by the people. The tremendous changes and pressures experienced in the realm of political, social and economic life of Manipur in the post-1947 period did have a profound impact on the works of all these writers. In sharp contrast to the celebrative moods of independence from colonial rule and feudal monarchy, this was a phase of growing distrust propelled by the crisis in democracy and the all pervasive repressed anger and anxieties in society.

Witnessing the decadence that characterized public life and the growing economic disparity, the writers were catapulted towards these realities unlike the first stage where the spirit of romanticism triumphed. Most short story writers lamented the breakdown of traditional morality and the attempt to replace the same with materialistic values. Dominant themes were the fear and anxieties of the times, corruption in economic life, the widening gap in relationships and cyclic dilemma of the poor.

The breakdown of traditional morality and its effects were all tackled from different possible angles by writers like Kunjamohan, Prakash, Guna and Shri Biren. Kunjamohan's Wanomba (Seeking Favour) revolves around the character Priyalata who offers her flesh so nonchalantly to a senior government official so that her husband could get promoted to a higher rank. The story focused on how power and money can effortlessly subdue one's prevailing and practicing notion of honour and morality.

Prakash's works Manorama, Echa (My Child) and Mama (Mother) deal with the sensitive aspects of sexual taboo and illicit relations. While Prakash's works link the phenomena with distorted understanding of modernity, Kunjamohan links them to larger social issues. Kunjamohan succeeds in portraying the imageries of poverty stricken people without associating the style with extra sentimentalism best illustrated in his work Ilisha Amagee Mahao (The Taste of a Hilsha, 1973).

Inescapable fate of the economically marginalized are clearly sketched in his works. This particular phase in Manipuri short story writing is known for its matured artistic fulfilment. The narrative flow governed and controlled by self imposed restrictions became a thing of the past. The wave became closer to Western short stories in its form and style. Shri Biren's short stories Nanthokkhee, (Escaped) Masina Imphalgee Warini," (Tale of Imphal), Shegairaba Kurangpal (The Torn Skin) delineate close proximity to the emerging changes in the lives of the people that led to disruption in relationships as well as breaking of bonds.

These writings, however, were still markers of Manipuri new writings based on the imitation of the Western short story style. Despite the development, there were no perceptible changes in the narrative style of some writers and continued to have a smooth flow as mirrored in the works of M.K. Binodini and Nilbir Shastri.

The hallmark of Binodini's work lies in her ability to utilize mesmerizing and romantic language in short stories, and this in turn helped maintain a continuity of flow from the earlier works in the entire body of Manipuri short stories. Many of these writings also rescued the form from unprecedented qualitative decline. This particular stage also witnessed the beginning of using directness of communicative styles which were rarely deployed in previous works.

The age of meirik that followed the 1960s literary trend still continues to be one of the most prominent literary waves in Manipur. The short story experience of the 1960s was a result of many well known writers' coincidental convergence at one point from different literary directions and sources. In 1974, writers like Shri Biren, Ibomcha, Lamabam Biramani, Priyokumar, Laitonjam Premchand, Kishorchand, Ibohanbi etc got together under the leadership of Nongthombam Kunjamohan as the editor published a literary journal called Meirik.

The primary objective of the group were to reflect upon and express the changing face of society and its impact on the lives of the people, and capture the cumulative effect as a literary movement. It was a conscious movement. In their manifesto, they have succinctly spelt out why short stories should be written and for whom they should be published.

The writers of this period further broadened their social consciousness. The level of trauma and anxieties that have come to occupy their minds could not be sufficiently expressed in the form and style introduced by earlier writers. They made an attempt to truly reflect the struggle for survival, the crying pangs of the common people and the experience of their exploitative condition.

Out of these efforts, they resorted to a sharpened realistic portrayal of the society and came closer to realism. Another sketch of the times was the way how these writers went looking inwards rather than the outward gaze that was so imminently intrinsic to earlier works. Whenever there were inadequacies of the short story form while delineating their idea of social reality, they even went beyond the prescribed structural style of realism so as to create a new form that was compatible with the content.

Allegories, symbols, dreams, fantasies, folk elements, psychological perspectives were effectively utilized to create new revolutionary writing as a means of expression. The experimental movement that has been discussed here can be put into the following three categories:
(i) Experiment for experiment's sake in search of a new form
(ii) Ideas oriented narrative without a structured story line
(iii) The psychoanalytical perspective
The experiments that were initiated with the advent of meirik have now come to occupy a significant space in the 1980s. Every writer since the 1960s till date had experimented with various narrative styles in one or more stories keeping aside the idea of literary competitiveness. Without much diversion from the thematic or the ideational notion, this experimental movement incubated the writers for two decades between 1970 and 1990. Even if one encounters a variation in the current new Manipuri short story writings, it would simply be either an expansion or contraction of the core element represented by this movement or just the reincarnations of the same.

The problems and issues dealt by the earlier short stories but not so new in theme like dominance and subservience, tension between the rich and the poor, seer helplessness and despair of the marginalized, the breakdown of morality, etc are all reappearing in the new experimental writings.

Prakash's Wakat (The Plea), Kunjamohan's Kasturi Garrage, Biramani's Hanuba Amasung Yongyam (The Old Man and The Monkeys) and Huigee Rachna (Dog's Essays), Laitonjam Premchand's Shahing Chaba Amagee Wari (The Story of a Cannibal), Kamal Toijamba's Mithungsangee Hanuba (The Old Man of the Guest House) can be clubbed into this group. They have not yet gone far to the extent of doing away with the convention of characterization and plot making.

Biramani and Premchand have deployed folk elements to construct symbols and express the concerns of the contemporary times. If Biramani's writings edges on the spectacle, Premchand's work is an embodiment of love and pity. Kamal Toijamba's work Shaktam Machet Machet Mang Macha Macha (Patches of Images and Little Dreams, 1999) is a more advanced product of the Manipuri experimental writing in short story.

The state of uncertainties and turmoil prevailing in the region has also shaped the writer's conception and meaning of the political and origin of the crisis triggered by the same. Toijamba's Uchi (Mouse) and Pebetki Leibakta (In the Land of the Pebet) reflect this trend.

In an attempt to represent the unbelievable realities that have dogged the region, various imageries and symbols are being used without a supposed moral compunction. He sketches a dream/fantasy like sequence of a mouse that was rescued by a kind hearted woman. The mouse finally found shelter inside the woman's attire and played with unbridled freedom.

Abstract ideas as foundation of the story, possessing the features of poetry, narrative without a structured story-line since the launching years of meirik are some characteristics of works prominently being deployed by writers like Yumlembam Ibomcha and Lamabam Biramani. Ibomcha's works are known for their proximity to his own poems. He is at ease breaking the wall between short stories and poems and thereby enabling himself to walk to and fro over the thoroughfare he creates against the wall.

While keeping the thematic tradition, he draws a picture of the metaphysical while adopting a universal approach. Ibomcha and Biramani make attempts to truly reflect the anxieties set into motion by the massive strides in the development of science and technology and the feeling that mankind's space has shrunk; and the constant struggle to carry the load of thoughts over their heads while falling deep into the abyss along with individual modern sensibilities. Mode of expression is the poetic mood sans plots and characters.

They express their thoughts using only symbols and imageries as in Ibomcha's Ishing (Water), Gari (Vehicle), Sahar (City), Numitee Asum Thengjillakli (The Dusk Sets In) and Biramani's Lambi (Passage), Oon Henna Henna Tatharaklee (The Cascading Snow), Meethungshang (Guest House) etc. That Biramani has now stopped taking recourse to this style is a different story altogether.

Adept at composing poems, Ibomcha still has the ability to select consistent symbols and imageries for effective use in writing short stories. Due to overemphasis and overuse of abstract symbols and imageries in the same thematic content, there are times when certain level of confusion creeps into some of his short stories that make one difficult to differentiate between two ideas.

Elangbam Dinamani, who reserved the space for comedy and satire in Manipuri short stories, not only observes life's delicate balance but also becomes part of the experimental writers' caravan. In his, Kege Makhongda Certificate (The Certificate Under the Castor Tree, 1995), Dinamani mocks the social system for ignoring and disguising fundamental truth with a decadent culture masked by artificial glitter.

This artificial glitter to the writer is symbolically represented by the "certificate." His satirical take on the political culture has been amusingly effective. In Malem Achumba Numeet Palan (Observing World Truth Day), Dinamani infuses life into the iconic statue of the blind folded woman with sword and balance.

On a day when the world was observing the International Justice Day inside a hall, the lifeless statue turned into a living woman, and she was attempting to untie the piece of cloth wrapped around the head to obstruct her sight. She managed to un-knot and came out of the hall but was waylaid by the guards. She finally bribed the guards by giving her pair of gold ear-rings and escaped into the jungles.

In the world of Dinamani, where there is no space and time left for truth, symbolic outpourings are the last resort. In these crucial times, what we encounter is not only the turbulent experiences but also the efforts from within to negotiate and escape from the down sliding whirlpool of stormy thoughts that have come to imprison us. The inability to find an escape route can be best understood from the constant tension between the heart and the mind and this is amply demonstrated in many writers' psychoanalytical approach to short stories.

Yumlembam Ibomcha's works uses the concept of "sexual tension" as one way of penetrating through the humankind's minds. Two of his prominent works, Sunita Amasung Meneka (Sunita and Meneka) and Nong Ngankheedaba Ahing (The Never Ending Night), seeks to uncover the relations between man and woman, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters from a view buried beneath human subconsciousness and seems to indicate that human minds operate under an artificially constructed notion of relationships.

While R.K. Mani's Matam Amagee Senapati (The General of the Moment) paints all human beings as war weary generals who had fought, retreated, advanced, won and lost, Ranbir Sarungba's Bindudugee Wari (The Dot's Tale, 1997) is deeply engrossed in philosophical reflection. The primary task seems to be liberating the "self" trapped within repeated circles of lines drawing authority from the society.

The perspective of the "self" is examined, searched and identified by opening the floodgate of thoughts. In doing so, they have also magnified the irreconcilable tension between the inward mind and outward social norms that shapes the human nature. While, Ibomcha builds up his story as if there is a seamless flow of energy between dreams and reality, Ranbir charts a smooth path for human memory to walk along with the story.

There is also another trend in which short stories influenced by realism have effortlessly accommodated the closely guarded inexpressible desires. The effort to bring externally located narratives within the ambit of internal romantic idealism can be found in Sudhir Naoroibam's work Lei-ee Khara, Punshi Khara (Some Lines, Some Lives, 1998).

His Nungshitombi Amasung Ei (Nunshitombi and Me) is a story about a free spirited young girl who mingled with her age group without any normative pressures but gradually got entrapped into a cage walled by gendered rules which turned her into a meek bird. Sudhir's Nongmei (Guns) reflects how the weak change their perceptions and behaviours when empowered and made invincible. The contradiction between thoughts and actions that do not have a destiny are succinctly portrayed in his Marup Amagee Awaba (A Friend's Woes). He is comfortable externalizing the internal in a subtle manner.

The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a new direction in the thematic and thought process of Manipuri short stories. This was the beginning of the post colonial turn which laid extra emphasis on the ethnicity and cultural identity as the motif of the new trend. Turning away from the influence of the West or the seduction of the developed world, regional literatures in India began looking inwards scouting for indigenous sources.

In Manipur too, new crop of writers and poets stopped looking westward and ignored the ideals of modernism in search of the uniqueness in the constitution of nationhood. The peculiarity of the situation made the literary movement a little different from others in that they went beyond cultural identity to incorporate the strident political voices. The new writings are driven by the disillusionment of the people, hopelessness of over fifty years of taking part in India's democratic experience, disengaged politics of the day and new form of colonial exploitation.

The quest for rewriting history, search for the roots, the effort to chart out a path for new historical trajectory and the political echoes that reverberated all around impacted not only on poetry but also short stories. Beyond experiencing universal metaphysical issues and intellectual isolation, the young writers began exploring existential concerns of exploitation. Infused with the task of safeguarding identity and nurturing cultural tradition, they began probing into how their own people have been subjugated or exploited.

The trend gets reflected in Lanchenba Meetei's Meekapthokpada Manglaknaba (The Awakening Nightmare, 1989), Birendrajit Naorem's Amambadasu Anganbadasu (In Darkness and In Light, 1992), Arambam Memchoubi's Leiteng (The Ornament, 1992), Akhokpam Kholchandra's Amamba Atiyagee Makhada (Beneath the Dark Sky, 1995).

Towards the end of the 1990s, the thematic content in these young writers were driven by certain revolutionary zeal. They continued using the techniques of expression like the writers of the age of meirik but had something new to offer. In their effort to highlight issues that cannot be easily expressed through character and plot convention, they take recourse to a critically stylized form of writing to execute the same.

With Lanchenba's Nongyai Matungsida (After Midnight) and Ngaiba (The Wait), there has been a perceptible shift from the early phase of the age of meirik in both themes and perspectives with greater emphasis on expressive political symbols and imageries based on cultural rootedness. In Nongyai Matungsida, Lanchenba sketches the imagery of a Manipuri and his subjective anguish associated with the 13th of August and his feelings of seeing a map of Manipur veiled with cob webs hanging on the wall. This man sees the map as hung lifeless body of a woman raped and murdered. The shrill cry of the woman turns into a nightmare that wakes him up bringing him back into the reality dogged with actual turmoil. To the man, the map represents the motherland still languishing in pain and sorrow.

The entry of Birendrajit and Arambam Ongbi Memchoubi gave a proper shape to this trend. The will and courage to free oneself from political enslavement is vividly reflected in Birendrajit's writing. He takes freedom as a pre-requisite for human existence. A dream for freedom despite being not free is the highlight of his short stories. Memchoubi questions the prevailing political trend of the day fully equipped with engaging political consciousness.

Her writings reflect a continuous flow of patriotic spirit with a poetic spin. Equally at ease at composing poems, Memchoubi takes recourse to creating symbols, dreams and fantasies. In her work, Leiteng (Ornament), she raises a significant political question by recalling Khongjom Lan and bringing back to life the voices of those who gave up their lives for the motherland.

She depicts a picture where the fallen heroes resurrect from their graves and ask if the current decadent politics is worth the sacrifice they made. In another work Ahangba Pun (Empty Urn), Memchoubi goes on to give a severe critique of the insensitive and corrupt elites whose vested interests have over the ages impoverished Manipur personified as a mother carrying an empty urn with too little to offer her children. Located in the same trend, Khelchandra's Seennaidabasingee Kumhei (The Fest of the Jobless) brings out the intensity and gravity of exploitation in the new incarnate of colonial rule.

Another recurring theme many of these writers attempt to bring forward is that of cultural assimilation and resistance. They seem to reject the predominant notion of modernity and development by using allegories, symbols and folk imageries. There is a constant struggle to negotiate their understanding with the strong wave of modern sensibilities while spawning differing ideas. In the attempt to bring out their ideas of the realities and infuse the same to creative products, one cannot rule out the fear that it might impact upon the established art of short story writing.

The voices of the marginalized, poor and impoverished peasants, deprived segments of the society – all find their space in Manipuri short stories. Most writers have an inclination to represent their realities. Getting out of the phase of romanticism and idealism and coming closer to realism began with the advent of the age of Meirik.

The flow of this trend is still prevalent till today. In the multiple currents of themes in short story writing, the theme related to the marginalized voices occupies a significant space. It is also pertinent to study the different ways in the depiction of these voices. Writers like Biramani in their later works resort to realistic depiction after withdrawing from their earlier experimental approach.

Despite the struggle and hardship of the individuals, the over dominance of certain social symbols prohibits the marginalized to come out of their social strata. Priyokumar's Eekhoi Yumlonnaba (Our Neighbour) captures the widening gap between the rich and poor has even altered conventional kinship relationships into that of the purely economic categories of "lender" and "borrower."

His uniqueness lies in the strength to portray the unsung, unseen and unheard peripheral lives in the hills and dales of Manipur. He successfully mirrors the soulful voices of these people thus strengthening his social commitment that can be easily traced in his writings. The fragility of life in the face of ruthlessness of time and poverty is strikingly opposed by Sudhir in his Mei Changlaba Chek (The Brick in the Fire Ordeal). He tries to trace the power of resilience and the hope to assert even by individuals who are yet to be turned into baked bricks.

In recent times, the resounding echoes of gunshots have shaped lives into a state of turmoil. The outbreak of armed political violence in the valley in 1978, subsequent counter insurgency operations from 1980, and the impact of these two developments have left an indelible mark of fear in the minds of the common people. To live or to die are no longer determined by fate alone, and the challenge of life is to live with uncertainties.

Since these nightmares have become an inseparable part of our day to day existence, the same have become core themes of many Manipuri short story writers. Atrocities committed by state forces, the mayhem created by the tussle between state and non-state forces, violence committed by goons pretending to be defenders of the land have become significant issues.

Manipuri short story writers have also adequately represented similar nightmares in the hills. Ever since the fratricidal killings between two ethnic groups, the fire of violence rages on. In this game of death, women, children and the innocents are not spared just like the virgin green patches turning to ashes.

The sheltered and tranquil existence of the people has turned into shattered and anxiety filled life on the run. One can no longer lead a normal life. The unfolding of endless violence and the enactment of the same has given an air filled with the sound of crying children and wailing mothers. Heart rendering tales from on and off the battle fields have become recurring themes from the hills.

Priyokumar's Nongdee Tarakkhidre (The Rain that Failed), Premchand's Christmas Loiraga (After Christmas), Dr. Ch. Ningomba's Narakta Nantharakpa Swarg (A Heaven that fell on Hell) and Joseph Ki Macha (Joseph's Child), picturise the chaos and uncertainties of lives in the hills.

In the 1980s, there emerged a group of women writers who drew inspiration from various sources and perspectives. The range of writings focused from the sheer achievements of the women to the despicable and appalling conditions of the women in society. Measuring the status of women, their fall or grace, is largely shaped by traditional values that reinforces and safeguards the patriarchal morality.

These contentions have been challenged by contemporary women writers. Their writings reflect the pangs and angst of living through the world governed by the rules and boundaries set by a patriarchal order. The pain of performing the responsibility imposed by the social norms and prevailing moral code of conduct has been expressed with a sense of dissent.

This voice of dissent is found in the writings of young women writers like Kshetrimayum Subadani, Haobam Satyabati, Memchoubi, Khumbongmayum Bimabati, Binapani and Ningombam Sunita. Bimabati in her Yotlhingdugee Wangmada (Beyond the Shackles) expresses the anxiety of women on the loss of identity bounded by the norms of marriage under the over rated notion of "unity of souls."

Sunita's Mangalgee Maikeida (Towards Radiance), underscores the advantage taken by men of women's tenderness, and challenges male defined idea of purity and chastity. Subadani and Satyabati make an attempt to build an alternate morality not based on social parameters defined by men. Despite all the efforts, these writings are yet to form a significant collective voice in the Manipuri literary tradition.

A century old short story writing culture in Manipuri has now entered the corridors of the twenty-first century. Traversing back into the history of Manipuri short story tradition, one finds a wide range of perspectives, styles, experiments and execution forming a rich body of work that calls for further research, interpretation and scrutiny.

Manipuri short story writers have kept pace with their counterparts in India and other parts of the world not only in terms of the short story's quantitative strength but also its qualitative potency. However, there is a felt need to give extra rigor to a more insightful narrative structure keeping in mind the tremendous potential this literary tradition has imbibed.

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