Manipur and I have always been in a long distance relationship.
For the last 38 years of my life, my home state and I have been seeing each other once a year (if at all) and like all long distance lovers, the 7 days a year that we meet up, we only (choose to) see the good things in each other and avoid the things that make us uncomfortable. There’s romance, there’s mystery, there’s enigma, everything that makes your heart flutter and everything that makes your pulse quicken when you look at back your tryst when you’re back to your “real” life…
Thus, Manipur and I have always been in a long distance relationship, until now…
Due to a personal situation, I for the first time in my life actually “lived” in Imphal for straight 2 months and what a roller-coaster of a ride it has been. All long distance relationships reach a make-or-break moment when the two partners actually spend some (considerable) time together – after which its apparent that either the relationship was never meant to be or it actually has been True Love from the outset. That’s exactly where Manipur and I are at, at this very moment…
I am not sure if all of bi or multi-cultural children go through this but when your parents are from different cultures, especially that are as diverse as they come, its pretty difficult to feel a closeness to either of the two. You adopt some things from one, learn to love some things from the other, and then when you throw an army background in the mix – Et Voila! your memories are a delightful potpourri of some very colorful experiences and memorable adventures. Needless to say, I look back at my childhood with a lot of fondness, peppered with wistful longing and heavily garnished with a sense of gratitude.
Subconsciously and even unconsciously (yes the two words mean very different things but that is a discussion for some other day) our parents tried to create a balance of both cultures for us two sisters. Invariably, we adopted a penchant towards the Bengali language but Manipuri (Meitei) food. We can speak chaste Bengali and can cook some pretty good Meitei food.
Meitei cuisine is an acquired taste – its not for the fainthearted and is certainly not for people who like their food only a certain way. Its a myth though that Manipuris eat only non-veg, we have a variety of vegetarian dishes but again the flavours are so exotic and so different that it seems pretty alien to the uninitiated. Many of our Meitei vegetarian ingredients are fermented and hence like I said its an acquired taste. My husband was recently eating Soibum and when I told him it was a thin slice of fermented inner bamboo shoot, he commented “in Manipur I am constantly amazed at what all parts of a plant, humans eat and relish” 🙂
But I digress…
My earlier Manipuri vacations were all about getting reacquainted with relatives, visits to Ema Keithel (mother’s market), Luxmi Kitchen (our favorite restaurant to get authentic Meitei thali) and keeping a tally of what brand had finally entered Manipur; and just like that 7 days would be up and it was time to board a plane and fly towards a Starbucks.
This time things have been different – I am living like a local, working from home in Imphal (for the first time), finally picking up chunks of Meitei-lon (lon = language), understanding the nuances of the culture, identifying with the state’s problems and seeing humor in the subtle hypocrisy of the way things work. Some things I adore, and some I really try my best to adapt to; I will not say its been easy but it hasn’t been that hard either 🙂
With all relationships, when you start living together you start learning new things about your partner, accepting the differences, respecting their past and looking forward to the future.
Manipur and I are following a similar pattern…
I have learned how every traditional gold Meitei jewellery design is nature inspired (from honeycombs to Guava blooms, from insects to gooseberries) I have learned that Dragons (surprisingly) play a very important role in Meitei mythology (we had around 5 dragon characters in our folklore from before adopting Hinduism). And I have learned that when you look deeper into gender roles, Manipuri society is way ahead in terms of equality, rights and empowerment.
I have accepted that I will not be able to satiate my cravings for a Java Chip Frappuccino in Imphal for the next 15 years at the least. I have accepted that we will perhaps never get a direct flight from Imphal to Pune. And I have accepted that Manipuri bananas will always look really ugly even though they taste heavenly.
I have found in myself to feel profound respect for our cultural past, when Meiteis were nature worshipers (Sanamahi-ism) and how even though we now practice Hinduism, every household in the Imphal Valley has a “hindu” mandir and a “sanamahi” worship corner. Because of this mixed religious past, in my opinion Manipuris haven’t really been able to embrace either of the religions fully and have ended up with a potpourri of cultures, beliefs and practices that are delightfully chaotic and yet surprisingly very familiar. I respect that Meiteis are overly secular with names – there is no distinction between Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Sanamahism sounding names. Gagan, Shubharaj, Alex, Victoria, Haibi and Zeena are all my cousins. And I highly respect the fact that the “hills people” from the various Naga and Kuki tribes and the “valley people” aka the Meiteis are culturally and linguistically very different, and yet historically and politically they are tied together with the same thread.
Like with all strong relationships, Manipur and I are kind of bringing out the best in each other and I am looking forward to when Indian railways has a decent network in Manipur, actual roads will connect remote villages in the hills and Vodafone (VI) network will be as strong as JIO in the state!
I am tempted to say that Manipur and I may just be truly in love 🙂