Love in the time of HIV/AIDS


By Pradip Phanjoubam

Writing of Manipur and the Northeast, especially by those of us who belong here and therefore fit in the category of what psychoanalysts have come to refer to as the anaylst in the subject position, has never been easy. We run into many self inhibiting hurdles, and among these is the forbidding shame of telling life experiences which we are aware others will find difficult to not only understand or empathize, but believe.

Indeed, so many of what have become ordinary and routine life experiences for those living in this remote region would sound incredible, incredulous and fantastic to the outside world. Ours is a world in which the extraordinary have become ordinary, lawlessness has become the law, the incredible and incredulous have become the everyday reality, the unbelievable have become the commonplace…

In these days when it is difficult to convince people elsewhere that works remain undone because of slow internet, or bad telephone lines, or perennial unscheduled and extended power cuts, who would have a sympathetic ear to outlandish stories of gas cylinders not only costing in excess of Rs. 1000, but also people standing in tediously winding daily queues to buy them; or for tales of highway blockades that last for months; of routine paralyzing bandhs called by unheard of sundry organizations; of the fears of unwarranted combing operations by security forces; of ordinary salaried government officers becoming multi-millionaires amidst an expanding sea of impoverished masses; of academics whose only sense of achievement is the next promotion and pay raise.

Why wouldn’t reports of annual droughts in a place which receives some of the highest rainfall in the world sound fantastic to someone who has not lived in the region? How are we expected to tell stories of fake encounters that continue unrestrained despite stern strictures by the country’s highest court, grenade gifts by so called freedom fighters to intimidate ordinary people, the permanent state of exception to democratic norms so blatantly represented by the continued promulgation of black laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, AFSPA, without sounding like exaggerations or over reactions?

I distinguish the difficulties faced by the subject analyst from those of the objective observer, precisely because however incredible these stories are, therefore however untellable they seem, the subject analyst has no choice but to believe them, for they are indeed his own reality too. His problem, as Dori Laub in “Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History” says, is that of the witness rather than the observer. Unlike in the case of the objective observer, memory comes in the way of his analyses. He can and does communicate freely with others who have shared his experiences, but often finds himself at a loss to figure out how he can credibly communicate these experiences to the outside world.

Writing of a similar inhibition but in the context of the Holocaust, Saul Friedlander observes, because memories are so widely different and sometimes incredible, another kind of gap in representation often results because of silence of survivors. Within the same survivor community these memories will circulate freely as their shared experience will ensure they do not appear incredulous. But it is in the dissemination of these stories outside the community where the inhibition would be. ‘The silence did not exist within the survivor community. It was maintained in relation to the outside world and was often imposed by shame, the shame of telling a story that must appear unbelievable and was, in any case entirely out of tune with surrounding society,’ Friedlander notes.

This probably explains why there are so few from the Northeast writing their own histories of trauma they are so familiar with. In most cases, it is the objective observers from outside the region who are left to take on this task. While the role of the objective observer is indispensible in its own ways, for they have the advantage of wider panoramic perspectives of unfolding events which often evade those caught up in these same events, to leave everything to be explained from this vantage alone would amount to leaving a huge vacuum in any effort to understand the region holistically. It is therefore essential for analysts in the subject position to come to the fore.

This however is by no means as easy as it sounds, given the trends in history writing in academics and equally relevantly, in reportage of history making events in journalism. It would be pertinent to remember here, journalism often is described as the first draft of history as much as it has also been described as literature in a hurry. On a more serious and empathetic note, good reflective journalistic writing has also been called ‘a nation talking to itself’.

The emphasis in history writing and journalism is for the analyst to detach himself from unfolding events and dispassionately observe. This already and automatically marginalises the analyst in subject position.

The difficulties then, as noted earlier, are largely a matter of what are now well known inhibitions of writing trauma, including not the least the incredible nature of the skewed reality regions immersed in endemic trauma situations. The tendency in these places has always been for the abnormal to become normal, and in the same breath, the normal to become abnormal. The Northeast without doubt would qualify to be such a region.

In a rather cynical way, this turning of everyday logic on its head is captured in many popular local adages in Manipur and elsewhere. In reference to the government employment market in Manipur for instance, it is now a very common and indeed universally internalized wisdom that to be honest and sincere in the discharge of official duty is to ask to be a self-exile. That in a world which has become steeped in corruption and bribery, it would be career suicide to think of swimming against this tide.

In other words, insanity has become the new sanity, and to insist on being sane would now amount to insanity. A bizarre analogy of this I can think of from school chemistry practical classes is the experiment in which hydrogen is demonstrated as combustible in an atmosphere of oxygen, but when the situation is reversed and the hydrogen is made the atmosphere inside a glass jar, it is no longer hydrogen which remains combustible but oxygen which bursts into flames inside the hydrogen-filled jar.

The challenge is clear. Difficult though it is, the Northeast must shoulder the task of telling its own stories to the world, not always to contradict, but also to complement what the world has already told and knows of it. They must tell these stories as they have experienced and understood faithfully, however incredulous these may sound to the rest of the world. But the challenge does not end there. The Northeast must find the language to tell these stories in ways they can be understood by the world.

In contemplating these matters, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the 1982 literature Nobel laureate, who died recently, and whose obituaries filled the pages of newspapers the world over for weeks, comes to mind. The literary giant found a way of telling the incredible experience of another beleaguered region of the world, his native Latin America, in ways the world outside of the region not only understood, but also stood up IN gratitude that another creative vantage has become available to them.

What appeared as exaggeration to the rest of the world, Marquez convinced them all that this was the reality of his world. Much like the Northeast, this is also a world where the abnormal is often the normal and the normal likewise has become the abnormal. In this narrative style which the world today knows as “magic realism”, a corpse can still be acutely aware of its self dignity, as in “The Third Resignation”, watching with horror to see if any of his relatives who come to mourn him held up a handkerchief to her nose to confirm his suspicion that his body was beginning to smell. Or at night, as he lays in state inside a coffin, wishing his mother would leave the lights on and not leave the room too soon lest rats climbed into the coffin and began nibbling at his toes. In the corpse’s sense of helpless entrapment and impotence, in his lack of empowerment to determine the shape of events that had a bearing on his state of being, in his abject inability to resist events that went against his will, there is something of every oppressed society’s own despair.

In Marquez’s world of magic realism, joint patriarchs and matriarchs in extended joint families live to see as many as five generations of progenies, as in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”; or dead birds can drop ceaselessly from the sky like torrential rain as in “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” Marquez exaggerates consciously and with a flourish too, but in doing so, he conjures up in his own inimitable way, a picture of how in circumstances of prolonged oppressed existence, the line dividing the normal and the abnormal can become blurred and easily confused.

This state of utter confusion of values and perceptions is nothing new to the Northeast, therefore the appeal of Marquez’s and other Latin American writers’ “magic realism” to this world as well. The myriad explanations for the recent macabre massacre in Bodoland in Assam, many of them contradicting each other; the various bitter, grand and now increasingly grandiose struggles for sovereignty in the region making strange bedfellows with struggles for tribal status under the Indian constitution; existing tribal populations till recently resenting others calling themselves non-tribals, yet when the latter decide they too want to be tribals, suddenly turning around to oppose the move; a lady fasting for 13 years over a draconian law; entire populations rising violently against the use of military in civil policing under undemocratic acts such as the AFSPA, yet the same populations voting the political party which unambiguously supports the AFSPA back to power repeatedly…

These pictures are surreal. They are also just a few samples of the ingredients of the incredible, incredulous, fantastic, absurd, unbelievable world the Northeast has become today. Surely these stories cannot be told with justice in standard narratives with the familiar Aristotelian beginnings middles and ends. Sadly, the Northeast still awaits such a tribe of creative and committed story tellers, capable of finding new vocabularies and idioms to make the fantastically impossible, comprehensible to the rest of the world.

In Manipur’s absurd theatre, something else is happening. Democracy has become a façade behind which a plutocracy is germinating. This portends extreme danger for the society in the near and far future. This is not unique to Manipur though, for many see the whole of India and indeed the entire Capitalist world, coming to be ruled by plutocrats. The enlightened aversion of this changing order of political power, is what has made Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, AAP, an exploding phenomenon today, as many analysts have so incisively observed in recent times.

In plutocracy, State power not only comes to concentrate in the hands of a few of the wealthiest directly or by proxy but also becomes a monopoly in their and their progenies’ hands.

In Manipur and most other Northeastern states, the evolving plutocracy is even more grotesque. The wealthy, with the exception of a few, became wealthy not by industry or enterprise, but by brazen and institutionalized official corruption. These emergent plutocrats have no commitments to the society at all, and are interested only in fleecing the system with no thought ever of giving anything back to it. Their way of ensuring their monopoly of power is to reduce everything to purchasable commodities, beginning from education, to jobs, to their and their children’s privileged positions in society. A democratic answer to this question, capable of reversing the system’s gears, to return it to meritocracy and equitable justice, rather than allow it to slip further into the abyss of plutocracy and corruption, is surely another urgent revolution Manipur awaits.


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