“You can skip Manipur.”
“I would suggest avoiding going to Manipur.”
“You’re going to have to be very careful if you go to Manipur.”
If there was any other permutation to the sentiment that implied ‘do not go to Manipur’, I would like to believe that I had heard it all. Even so, after Tripura, Manipur was the second state within the northeast that I planted my feet in.
With #29in29 at stake, stubbornness was a much-required asset.
|Destination: Imphal | Manipur, India — January 2017|
If you’re wondering why I was at the receiving end of so much caution and concern, then you have the national dailies to thank for conveniently muting out issues from the northeast. So here’s what you should know – Manipur has been in the throes of an economic blockade since October-November 2016. The consequence has been a state of curfew, shut roadways, and restricted access to utilities including food and fuel therefore making everything a lot more expensive that it otherwise.
My stubbornness, however, was not without taking steps towards risk-mitigation:
1. Cheap airfares helped nullify the risk of being held up en route due to a road block
2. Pre-booking accommodation helped finding a place that fit our budget
3. Speaking to friends and acquaintances helped establish new contacts in the state, should an emergency situation arise during the period of our stay
Repeating a hack
While stepping out of the airport at Imphal, we repeated a hack that served us well at Agartala; we reached out to the CRPF jawaans stationed at the exit to help us with the best mode of transport from the airport to our hotel. It’s easier getting fleeced when you walk right into the lair of rickshaws and taxis without an idea of what your alternatives are.
A shared-rickshaw outside the airport gate brought us to the Imphal market area at 1/10th the cost quoted inside the airport premises.
P.S. 1: Nothing had prepared me to walk out of the airport into heavy army presence though. I was quickly reminded of how much of my freedom I otherwise take for granted.
P.S. 2: What if I told you that was the beginning and the end of my brush with caution and concern in Manipur?
If there’s a positive story you’re bound to NOT miss about Manipur, it has to be about the Khwairamband Bazar! Also known as Ima Keithel which loosely also translates to mother’s/women’s market, this is perhaps the oldest and only market across the globe that has been run and managed only by women. In other words, men are not allowed to set shop and sell within its premises.
We explored this market the very afternoon we landed in Imphal.
|Waiting as my senses took some time adjusting to the vivacious environs at Khwairamband Bazar | Manipur, India
— January 2017
Armed with nothing but our cameras, my senses took some time adjusting to my vivacious environs! But why? After all, this was a market just like many others I had been to before. What about it being an only-women-run enterprise changed so much about its air that I could sense it the very moment I set foot inside?
I don’t have a clearly articulated answer.
But here’s what I can share with you.
We couldn’t be discreet even if we wanted to, thanks to our racial appearance. So between curious glances and pretend-like-we-cannot-see-them glances, I braved an awkward smile every time I found myself meeting the gaze of another woman at the market. Through aisles of women selling fish, earthen pots, vegetables, cane baskets, fruits, trinkets and everything in-between, I started to ease in one step at a time. Their mannerisms in going about with their business were anything but cut-throat, or so I thought. No howling over the other’s voice. No infighting of any kind.
Every now and then I would pull my camera out, make eye-contact with at least one of them and non-verbally ask if it was alright for me to take a photograph. Not once were we shooed off! But here’s the highlight of it all – every single time we showed each of them what we had managed to click – in spite of the low lighting – they would break into a wide-eyed smile. That broke the ice a little more and strangers who didn’t speak each other’s language, found a medium to communicate.
That and the unwitting off chance of being offered an apple by one of the lady vendors simply because she loved that we took her photograph!
Moreh – that town at the border of India and Myanmar – came as a recommendation from a friend who insisted that I make that trip. But undertaking that ~110 kilometre journey, at a time when fuel prices were pushing private taxi rates through the roof (and beyond) and public transport buses per se were tough to come by, was posing to be a challenge. But only until a local acquaintance helped us locate the starting point from where shared taxi services ply early in the morning.
Swaddled in possibly all of my cold wear for the first time since our entry into the northeast and hobbling through the quiet streets of Imphal while the crescent loomed overhead and the sun struggled to make an appearance through the fog and the mist, we were immediately being sought by two taxi drivers simultaneously. And after mentally flipping a coin, we decided to take the ride with Mr. Inaucha.
Our journey was mostly a silent one. We were five passengers and Mr. Inaucha – who would occasionally initiate a conversation that would quickly veer into a monologue while I would nod in acknowledgment – sometimes wondering whether I ought to be acknowledging everything he talked about.
Two hours into our journey without any halt en route owing to security concerns – even as my eyes saw sights that made my fingers tingle with desire to grab my camera and go clickety-click – we made our first stop – a security check stop. Our IDs were given more than the usual glance.
“Where are you from?”
“What brings you to Manipur?”
“Where are you headed to from here?”
…those were some of the questions posed to us individually by an army officer who had a no-nonsense vibe to him. And then somewhere the same stoic-looking gentleman asked me if I spoke Marathi. I seized my opportunity and asked him if he was from Maharashtra. This resulted in us having a mini exchange in Marathi! Kilometers away from home, I was conversing with another stranger in a language native to my home-state!
At another check-post closer to Moreh, another duo from the army had some more questions for me:
“Why do you write and what do you write about?”
“What about this region do you like? And how is it different from the other places you have travelled to?”
“What do you think about its people?”
This round of questions concluded with us receiving two chocolates and being told, “It was really nice talking to you and hearing about the things you do. Hope you enjoy your time in Moreh. And do write about us as well.”
…Which left me thinking: For the oppressive ways of the army, they have a human side that peeps every now and then – a side that longs to engage in conversations and not merely inspect every single person entering and leaving the region with suspicion and caution!
No journey to Manipur is complete without a visit to Loktak either. Not especially when your welcome into the state was with an aerial view of the ‘phumdis’. For the uninitiated, the Loktak Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the northeast and is renowned for its floating miniature islands.
Our journey from Imphal to Moirang was slightly eventful as we struggled with our language barrier and got off the public transport bus a lot earlier than we were supposed to.
We learned that it helps to ask for directions either to Moirang or to Sendra – not Loktak, which is actually the hydroelectric power station!
|Did you know we had a lady conductor? She owned her job. Nobody messes with her | Manipur, India — January 2017|
Sendra Island offers visitors a somewhat elevated view of the lake. Parking ourselves on a bench at that manicured property, we spent a few hours watching the world passing us by. No, actually we were waiting for the haze to settle and allow us a clearer view of the landscape – which did not really happen. But it was an absolute delight watching fisher-folk and other locals rowing their way back and forth.
In our attempt to make our return back to Imphal less dramatic than our morning’s journey, we sought help from the local traffic police who physically guided us to the bus-stop – which I thought was a kind gesture.
15 minutes in our wait at the stop, we spotted a bus approaching and at that exact same moment my gaze met with the gaze of a lady bystander. She smiled and asked us in Hindi if we were going to Imphal. We were more that ecstatic at hearing someone speak a language we were both comfortable with.
“Yes, we are. It seems like the bus is here too!”
“This bus takes over an hour longer to get to Imphal due to its many stops. Come along with me – we can hop into a shared rickshaw from a little ahead”
|Ima to our rescue at Moirang | Manipur, India — January 2017|
And just like that we followed her. Once inside the rickshaw she enquired, “So where are you’ll from? Oh! It’s just the two of you from Mumbai exploring Manipur, is it? How long have you’ll been here? What have you’ll seen so far? Where are you’ll currently staying? Why don’t you’ll come and stay with me? I can help you’ll in getting to the places around from here!”
When we mentioned to her that we were going to be around for just another day, she sighed. Truth be told I was taken aback with how quickly she had not only warmed up to us but also opened up to us.
I can hardly if ever guess somebody’s age but she did look like someone who would be in her 40s, at least. She was warm and concerned about how we were doing in a new city. I almost forgot she was no more than a stranger we had met only a couple of minutes ago! When we asked her about places we could eat an authentic Manipuri meal at in Imphal she offered to take us to the restaurant once we got to Imphal.
Through our conversations, I learnt of her daughter who moved to Bangalore to study and now works there as a nurse. In fact, she was making a trip to Imphal to meet with someone whom she would hand over a package to have delivered to her daughter. And perhaps that explained the reason why she extended herself so much for our sake as well. Perhaps.
On my flight out of Imphal four days later, I kept thinking to myself – What if I had heeded to the advice and avoided getting to Manipur entirely?
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