Keisham Priyokumar and the Economy of Fragmented Narratives

On May 16, 2015 by admin

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Loiya Leima Oinam

[This essay is on changing trends in identity formation in Manipur. I focus on the construction of the ethnic outsider in relation to anti-outsider movements and the Kuki Naga clashes (1992-97) in Manipur and the ways they were narrativised in short stories.]

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Keisham Priyokumar is perhaps the most important author in this regard since his stories capture the challenges in presenting the subjectivities and a coherent narrative of the killings. His work shows that fiction can also provide an important intervention in the linear and sanitised histories that one comes across concerning these events. Here, I have dwelled on one short story by Priyokumar in order to understand the predicament of the writer in fictionally re-presenting real incidents of ethnic violence, and also to reflect on our own interpretive engagement with narratives of such nature. In a way, the difficulty faced by the author while trying to reconstruct this particular story leads us to a scenario where one can reconcile with narrative perspectives or voices that are sutured.

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In the first edition of his collection of short stories Nongdi Tarakkhidare (The Rain that Failed) (1995), Keisham Priyokumar expresses his objective of presenting “inner worlds”, and contends that the seriousness of literary work lies in the ability to depict the changing world.[1] This is not an “experiment”, he says, but the “journey” of the short story in Manipur (ibid). Priyokumar makes clear his commitment to representing people who live at the periphery of progress and modernity and to whom he dedicated his multiple awards winning book, including the Sahitya Akademi Award. As someone who is particularly conscious of the contribution of his stories in the field of arts, there has been a discernible change in his assessment of his own work and role as a writer. A decade later, he maintained that the long standing aim for a “new expression” in his writing is deliberate.[2]

Amidst the gradual evolution of the short story form in Manipur in conjunction with the changing social situation, the 1970s marked a new wave in short story writing. Considered as path-breaking, the bi-monthly journal Meirik (Sparks) had its inception during the 1960s. From 1974 onwards it became a collective venture of some of the most renowned writers in Manipur. Conceptualised under the leadership of Nongthongbam Kunjamohan, the first volume of Meirik came out in 1974. The other writers were Shri Biren, Yumlembam Ibomcha, Lamabam Birmani, Keisham Priyokumar, Laitonjam Premchand, among others (Aruna, 2009). It heralded a new and experimental style in form and themes, and the use of dreams and allegories became popular. As subsequent writers began to focus on marginalised voices, the influence of Meirik became even more apparent in the realistic portrayal of society and contemporary issues besetting the state.

Although the generation of short story writing to which Priyokumar belonged was in itself a groundbreaking one, for him, a desire for further change, if not disillusionment, set in. It stems from problems regarding publishing and even of readership. He says, “[m]oreover, our literature is not able to do anything for the society today… So, I can write no more short stories. This is what worries me. For now, I can just quietly observe and listen”.[3] Following this rather grim declaration in Lan amasung Mang (War and Dream) (2000), The Rain that Failed has seen its third edition due to its resonance in the current socio-political atmosphere. He admits that he continues to face queries from fellow writers as to whether he will write again or not. The eponymous short story “The Rain that Failed” won him critical acclaim and was adapted in theatre and as a telefilm.[4] From “The Rain” to other stories in the 1995 collection, one sees a collage of fragmented narratives and fractured selves of individuals getting habituated to living with ethnic conflict and everyday violence.

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Priyokumar’s work has stood out for its ability to sensitively and insightfully portray the lives of the underdogs and those living at the darker end of modernity and development. His changing perspective regarding the efficacy of the function of writers in contemporary times points towards the complex and rather important role of the fiction writer. He therefore brings up the centrality of the short story writer in relation to ‘acts’ of witnessing and questions about translating the real experiences and testimonial utterances into fiction. In the entire process of conceiving a story, the writer then draws upon the lives of the people he comes across for inspiration and presents the experiences as those of the fictional characters.

“The Rain”, written in October, 1994, is one of the most poignant stories to have captured the deep-rooted social and personal devastations of the nineties Kuki-Naga clashes. Apart from it, the author has dwelled on the subject in “Ahing Ama” (One Night) and “Mangsatheigi Mang” (Mangsathei’s Dream) from War and Dream (2000). Based on the life of Chongnikim, whose husband died in the killings, “The Rain” is told through a series of flashbacks and reminiscences of events preceding Lungjahao, the husband’s, death. Set against a secluded village in Manipur that is situated near the Barak River (Assam), the story opens with a glimpse of a beguilingly simplistic life led by the couple even while facing acute adversity.

In the story, Priyokumar depicts a multi-cultural society that draws its peaceful co-existence from a mutually demarcated distance and civility. This is only ritually crossed while carrying out trade-related transactions. Lungjahao cuts and sells bamboo to the “extremely thin, dark complexioned” Moti, which are then carried across to the other side of the village on a makeshift ferry through the powerful streams of the Barak river. However, when the much anticipated rain never comes and fails to fill the river, Lungjahao goes to another village to fish in order to provide for his family. Chongnikim’s good-humoured parting remark, “Be careful, lest the fish kills you” (“The Rain” 95), proves ominously prophetic when Lungjahao is brought back dead.

Chongnikim is based on a real person whom the author had come across during those turmoil-ridden years. In the second edition of the book, Priyokumar expresses regret on not knowing whether she was still alive at the time of writing the story.[5] The indeterminacy points towards the impossibility of closure for the story as well as the fate of many like Chongnikim. Upon being corrected by a fellow writer about the protagonist’s name, Priyokumar makes the changes but at the same time points towards a fundamental problem of the identity of the person he is representing. Chongnikim embodies the everywoman of the Kuki-Naga killings. And yet, she is individualised in her solitariness. This is evident in the recollection of the precise moment when the author had spotted her sitting alone in a Barak rivulet:

What struck a strong chord in my heart at that moment was concerning her life—I didn’t care much for her name. To me, even now ‘Chongnikim’ and ‘Chongnikin’ are the same. I don’t think the mental image can ever be erased. I’d like to know only one thing—is she dead or alive? If she is alive, I want to ask her even if she does not recognise me, “How are you? How are you managing? But it is like a dream.”  (“Author’s Note”, Second Edition, 1999)

Here, the authorial position is propelled by a revisiting of that fleeting moment. Through this story, he taps into the ways individual as well as community histories are fictionalised. His statement moreover contains an important question about the author’s role in the retelling of real events that are marked by violence, and by extension, questions the efficacy of literary representations.

The challenges of translating acts of violence in socio-historical or literary narratives have been documented in various works, of which some have paid attention to the adoption of certain narrative tactics. One way to invent ways to write about violent acts that exceed “possible representation” is through fiction (Gopal 247). Also, as Veena Das notes in her seminal work Life and Worlds (2006), “[s]ome realities need to be fictionalized before they can be apprehended” (39). Both Das and Priyamvada Gopal have illustrated these challenges and the overcoming of it in their analyses of Saadat Hasan Manto’s writings. For Gopal, Manto’s Partition narratives demonstrate this struggle with representation and yet they invent ways to fictionalise the real accounts through the trope as well as palpability of the body, and the horrors and controversy surrounding the dead.

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In the context of the Kuki-Naga clashes, few testimonial accounts from the affected people and victims have been found in works that successfully straddle forms such as journalistic report, political study, and academic approach. And these are shaped through years-long engagement with the groups involved in peace and rehabilitatory initiatives (Phanjoubam Tarapot 2005; AK Singh 2008).[6] The visible element of authorial testimony in Priyokumar’s confession however takes us to discrepancies in the very idea of witnessing. The immediate concern therefore is with the role of the author as a proxy witness. His representation of the pain and violence among the victimised characters in the stories remain partial representations since his witnessing is twice removed.

This is not to delimit the artistic possibilities of the writer in imagining or even inhabiting the space of the victim. Rather, it is to remind ourselves of the “impossibility of bearing witness” in testimonies, which according to Giorgio Agamben is a lacuna present in all forms of testimony. (34).[7] Das however warns of transporting theories from Holocaust studies since the violence is embedded in a different sociality (103). And this is why although Agamben’s idea of the limits of testimony helps us to understand the complex registers of witnessing and narrativising, the varying contexts of making the unsayable experiences legible are markedly different in the present case.[8]

In Priyokumar, the unsayable and the unhearable are presented through precisely the fragmented nature of thought and speech that also characterise the structure of the short story. The incomprehensibility and the ability of speaking about events involving violence and survival are reflected in this passage from “The Rain”:

Suddenly Chongnikim heard the Pastor’s voice. She became wide awake as though she had been in sleep. Voices from inside the church were audible. But the hushed confessions of sins to God were barely so. The crucified image of Jesus, his head crowned with thorns and the blood dripping from him, flickered across her eyes. The indiscriminate murders that didn’t spare even the women and children, the burning down of houses and villages, the desperate bid for escape all around even though there were no safe shelters, the unhearable, the unseeable—everything was a dream. The endless tales of sorrow of all the innocent people who only knew how to survive on the plants grown on the hilly barren fields—Chongnikim could not hear those stories from the hills. Her whole being shook due to the horror. Who is the saint and who the sinner, she couldn’t tell. Her only prayer to God was—“kindly save me from this waking nightmare”. (93-93)

The allusion to dreams and a conscious construction of alternate realities is one way to retell acts of violence, and figures as a much more powerful leitmotif in Priyokumar’s War and Dream. The resort to dreams possibly points towards not just the incomprehensibility but the unwillingness to understand the actual events that have occurred. With Chongnikim, there seems to be an attempt to comprehend the ongoing violence around her through alternate means such as slipping into dreams or dream-like state. Most of the experiences mirroring her immediate past involving Lungjahao’s death are assembled through memories, dreams and hallucinations.

One way to understand the unsayable in the realm of the everyday is to recognise this very impossibility of making legible the horrors of violence. However, as with most cases of post-violence trauma, the next best step is to acknowledge the myriad, seemingly inconsequential ways in which memories of violence are “constantly interposed and mediated by the manner in which the world is being presently inhabited” (Das 76). Das’s concept of fragments lies in this very inhabiting of the world, or the ways in which the past manifests itself unannounced in the everyday. However, the understanding of fragments posited in this essay is different. Here, the focus is on the disjointed, discordant, and multiple ways of speaking and narrativising past trauma, and recognising their centrality in the appraisal of the gaps in historical documentation when it comes to the Kuki-Naga killings.

In “The Rain”, Priyokumar hints at the ambiguity of the salvaging power of Christianity during the mass killings. The role of Christianity was constantly invoked during the clashes on the basis of a common ancestry and beliefs of the Kukis and Nagas. It also played a crucial role in the formation of peace committees during the clashes. By 1996, there were attempts to strike conciliation through the retrieval of common roots by leaders and state representatives from both ethnicities. For instance, Rishang Keishing expresses the view that, “The Kuki and the Naga are Christians, believers in and followers of Jesus Christ … The Kuki and Naga belong to Mongoloid race; thus they are racially and religiously one only”, (Singh 177).[9]

In the story, one comes across the paraphernalia of Christianity in the spectre of Christ, the superimposition of Christ with Lungjahao, and the constant interruption of church bells and songs in the half-conscious reverie of Chongnikim. She repeatedly conjures the image of the crucified Lungjahao, which is the way he was killed, against the backdrop of the village church bells. For her, the cross is no more a religious symbol but a gruesome reminder of persecution. As such, her reality seems to be interlaced with dreams. Disturbingly enough, it is given a meaning by her past, since the immediate future of her village or of the people is marked only by the unknown and darkness. The repeated image of Lungjahao holding a fish, almost mocking her, saying—“Chongni, isn’t the fish huge?”— defines her present. At one point, Priyokumar juxtaposes the bright moonlight of the night falling on the porch with the darkness inside her lonely hut:

The moon shone bright against the clear, cloudless sky. The small porch in front of the house was lit by the moonlight. But there was complete darkness inside the house. Chongnikim did not look at the moon… She continued to stare at the small cross that was planted at the courtyard. She could see nothing besides the cross.

“Look, Chongni, isn’t the fish huge?” (89)

This is where the concept of fragments takes us into the deeper economy of multi-layered narratives and subjectivities of afflicted individuals in Priyokumar’s story. At the outset, the concept is fraught with limitations, since it evokes an idea of incompleteness and thus needs to be made a component of a larger whole. Gyanendra Pandey has highlighted the indispensability of fragmentary points of view while dealing with histories of sectarian strife and violence. His idea of fragments connotes both scattered pieces of writings such as “a weaver’s diary”, a poetry book written by an unknown writer, and minorities—i.e., writings from the “smaller religious and caste communities, tribal sections, industrial workers, activist women’s groups”, etc. (47). As a concept, fragments helps uncover the difficulty of representing limit experiences marked by violence, survival and victimhood, and also enables one to comprehend the stories themselves. It, therefore, signifies a narrativising technique which is used by the writer struggling to recount experiences that defy coherent reconstruction. It also serves as an interpretive tool to understand the move away from smooth, linear narratives.

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To understand such histories, it is imperative to look beyond violence as always extraordinary, and thus disregard its banality, but to recognise the very qualification of some kinds of violence as momentous and others as insignificant. In the case of the Kukis and Nagas, one could see the emergence of contradictory narratives surrounding violence, per se, in relation to these communities. One simplifies it by viewing the rift as intrinsic to their ethnic identities, a history that dates back to late 19th – early 20th century colonial accounts about Kuki-Naga hostility. And the other regards the clashes as an “aberration” or absence in a long history of normality and harmony.

Stories like “The Rain” can be situated vis-à-vis larger debates about epistemic silencing and subduing of individually lived atrocities and personal memory under official histories. Priyokumar’s story provides an important juncture in the historicising of violence while it occurs, and afterwards, by presenting the perspective of those who are at the receiving end of that violence.

The writings available on the Kuki-Naga killings are viewed somewhat suspiciously on the grounds that some of them are extensions of the sectarian ideologies that went into the making of the clash itself. Such critical observations highlight the difficulty of finding unbiased perspectives about the killings. Some scholars have noted that “spontaneous” reporting involved in newspapers would be ideologically toned down compared to the deliberations and studied reconstruction of the accounts, since in the latter, there is an advantage of retrospectively analysing the causes or culprits (Singh 29). The so-called objective reporting and archiving also includes collating not only statistics and reliable reports, but also many subjectively constituted narratives such as rumours, hearsay and testimonies. While interruptions such as these in selective writings would eventually form parts of the archive of the said events, one may also look at the ways fictional representations fill the gap for silenced or sidelined histories.

Not only do Priyokumar’s short stories such as “The Rain” provide a crucial intervention in this historical lacuna, but the cracks and fissures in the telling itself indicate the enunciatory possibilities of fragmented narration, speech and subjectivity. The unsayable and unhearable in relation to real acts of violence are represented through fragmented speech that also characterise the structure of the short story. Fragments, thus, proves to be an apt metaphor and analytical tool while dealing with the recovery or readings of ‘unofficial’ records. As narrative device, it aids the authors’ reconstruction, and the readers’ deciphering, of such stories. Hence, the idea of stuttered utterances and narratives in fiction provides a counterpoint to the politics of making whole that underlies our own interpretative practices.

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Priyo

References

Agamben, Giorgio. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Trans. Daniel Hellr-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 1999.

Aruna, Nahakpam. “Contemporary Manipuri Short Stories” (“Houjikki Matamgi Manipuri Warimacha”, 2001), Eastern Quarterly, Vol 5.Issue 1: Literature, Society, polity: Trendsand Perspectives, 2009. Trans. Dhiren Sadokpam. <http://www.manipur researchforum.org/ContemporaryManipuriShortStories.htm>, 2009.

Das, Veena. Life and Worlds: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Gopal, Priyamvada. “Bodies Inflicting Pain: Masculinity, Morality and Cultural Identity in Manto’s ‘Cold Meat’”, The Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India, ed. Suvir Kaul. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001. pp. 242-268.

Pandey, Gyanendra. Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories, Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006.

Priyokumar, Keisham. “Nongdi Tarakkhidare” (The Rain that Failed), Nongdi Tarakkhidare, 1995. Imphal: Raj Publications, 2012. pp. 89-98.

Lan amasung Mang (War and Dream). Imphal: Raj Publications, 2000.

Singh, Aheibam Koireng. Ethnicity and Inter-community Conflicts: A Case of Kuki-Naga in Manipur. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2008.

Tarapot, Phanjoubam. Bleeding Manipur, New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 2005.

 

Endnotes



[1]     “Ayibagi Wahei Kharadang” (From the Author), The Rain That Failed, February 27, 1995.

[2]     “Ayibagi Maikeidagi” (From the Author), War and Dream, December 10, 2008.

[3]      “From the Author”, Lan amasung Mang (War and Dream) (2000).

[4]     “The Rain that Failed” has been variously translated and adapted as: The Turmoil by the Manipuri Theatre Academy, Wangoi under Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy in its September 10, 2003 production; and But it Never Rains by Ningthouja Lancha (Manipur Film Forum), Doordarshan Kendra Imphal, 2001.

[5]     “Ayibagi Waarol” (Author’s Note), The Rain, October 23, 1999.

[6]     Other testamentary accounts from the concerned ethnic groups are found in the writings of KNO’s official representative PS Haokip, such as “Kuki and the Naga Public Clashes”, a “rejoinder” to the NSCN-IM’s article, also titled “Kuki and the Naga Public Clashes”.

[7]     For further details see Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (1999). Writers like Urvashi Butalia (The Other side of Silence), Thomas Blom Hansen (Wages of Violence) and Pandey (Routine Violence) have also explored the challenges of writing about violent episodes in history due to the provisionality of testimonies and witnesses’ accounts, ideological biases of the confronting parties, and the politics of silence.

[8]     According to Agamben, the idea of the unsayable is glorifying silence and is limiting at the same time (32).

[9]     The working of political organisations and civil societies in Manipur clearly point towards the centrality of ethnically imbued collective movements and activities. The efforts to provide a redressal for the entire populations affected in the Kuki-Naga clash can be seen from this context. Even though an official enquiry committee was not formed to address the cause or book the culprits, the constitution of the Committee for Restoration of Normalcy (CRN) with Kuki and Naga representatives is important in this regard. It is another matter that the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM) withdrew from the CRN in 1996 after ethnic tensions seeped into the organisation itself.

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Loiya Leima Oinam teaches at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. She has recently submitted her doctoral dissertation to the Department of English, University of Delhi.

 

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