Two at a time

SAMHITA BAROOAH reflects on two books on Northeast India — Temsula Ao’s ‘Once Upon a Life’ and Teresa Rehman’s ‘The Mothers of Manipur’

In the last two months, I have been reading, writing, travelling and re-writing my unfinished work. It has been a gruelling time to react, respond and recollect everything that flashed in a moment. During a two-day long train journey, I got the opportunity to read Temsula Ao’s latest novel ‘Once Upon a Life’. Somehow could not keep the book aside even for the major distractions like children crying, train brakes screeching or the food and utility vendors constantly trying to woo the railway passengers to buy their products. Temsula Ao has written an autobiographical account of her struggles and passion to pursue her studies inspite of all possible odds. Her rustic childhood prepared her for the trials of life very early in life which led to a rather stringent adolescence under the hawk eyes of boarding school authorities. Temsula Ao presented her personal tribulations while growing up and hence adjusting to the socio-cultural codes which made sure that women in Nagaland are upholding the community traditions till the last straw. Her anecdotes and nostalgic reminiscences made sure that the reader is never bored.


Ao’s struggle to complete her higher education and continue with her work across the Northeast region was indeed another part of women’s role in promoting education. Her singlehood which goes beyond the boundaries of marital vows indeed enabled her to strengthen her academic identity and also ensure her children’s well-being. When she reflects upon her past from the epitome of accomplishment where she has given hope to many women struggling to liberate themselves from their destined present…it is indeed once upon a life. It is no fairy tale where a banished and battered self is rescued in the end by a prince charming. It is indeed a story of self-emancipation which is made possible and exists in striking reality. Temsula Ao’s depiction of ceremonial death really touched my senses and could re-imagine the occurrences as if they were sketched through the lifeless letters. I was happy to travel for two days across the coastal length of the country in such intriguing literary company. My journey of reading is supposed to be endless trying to grapple with theories, thesis and analysis where there is almost no space for amateur reading and reflection. But queering has always been fascinating for me no matter how much trouble I have landed up in because of such queering.

Just last week I have come across another queering take on the public protest of women in Manipur. While attending the book release of Teresa Rehman’s ‘The Mothers of Manipur’ with an esteemed audience huddled together on bamboo mudhas in NEthing Northeast, it was a very fulfilling experience. Teresa’s journalistic lucidity, factual clarity and reflexive detailing make this book a thrilling one-sitting read.

From an academic research methodological perspective, 12 stories of the valiant Meira Paibis depicted indepth biographical ethnography which also involvedTMOM snowball technique. It was almost like the women said, ‘When you go back tell them we have given our present for their future…’ inscribed in the Kohima war cemetery. As a reader I was interested to find the intricate prelude of some of the present day creative expressionist in their own contexts from Manipur who rooted their transitions in life whether it was Akhu, Binalakshmi, Lucy, Sabitri and Kanhailal or Rajesh, Urmila, Bishwajeet, Lin Laishram, Arambam Singh in each of the 12 stories. Such interlacing of the present with the past showed that Manipur has emerged from the power of a community of women who stood up against the might of the gun.

The book reflects upon the stories of women who participated formed public opinion, raised the consciousness of the women in public and private spaces and aroused the possibilities of peaceful dissent. In a world where uttering a slogan can put someone under the scanner or jeopardise the credentials of a person’s nationality, this book provides some grit to reflect upon why and how the bodies of protest transformed the dynamic discourse on power. It is about the pride which emanates from the armours and artilleries which divides a nation and its own people and how such pride cracks with the revelation of facts. This book has enabled us to understand women’s rights in negotiating for peace amidst the omnipotent domination of militarised chauvinism which rummages through the bodies of discontent.

Manipur has communities of diverse ethnic and religious constructs whose appeal to the world have been voiced time and again through their public discourse. Women in public space have never been as powerful as they were during the naked protest in July 15, 2004 in the entire Northeast region with a shared history of fighting colonial constructs from both Indian and regional hegemonies. ‘The Mothers of Manipur’ throws open further possibilities of understanding the everyday ordeal of the women in common institutions whose lives are constantly judged within the current public and political discourse. My reading of these two intriguing tales of survival through deprivation, militarisation and assertion of women’s agency has left me with a hunger for more such untold stories from the forbidden and forgotten frontiers of Northeast India. It was almost like bearing two bullets at one go.

Samhita Barooah

Samhita Barooah

Dr. Samhita Barooah
 is Educator and QueerUp Founder