Thought Box

The Manipur Man: Bijoykumar Tayenjam

The Manipur Man: Bijoykumar Tayenjam

by Vinta Nanda September 3 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 35 mins, 34 secs

Bijoykumar Tayenjam is an author, a poet and a civil engineer in Imphal, Manipur, writes Vinta Nanda

 I met him last year, while shooting for a documentary film, which is soon going to be ready for release. Mitra Phukan, an eminent English author from Guwahati connected me to him because I wanted to align with writers, journalists and artists in Manipur.

She rightfully conveyed to me that I don’t need to know anybody other than Bijoykumar, because once I set foot in Imphal, I will be able to see the whole of Manipur through his eyes, his expression and the network of people he is aligned to in the state. Why I say that Mitra’s advice was right is because in the three days that I spent in Imphal, I was given a view to everything about Manipur - its art, its politics, its theatre, its music, its activism and its beauty. None other than Bijoykumar Tayenjam and his intense impressions about Manipur’s history and present informed me about so much that I was not aware of.

Here I reproduce my experience of spending the time with him, a friend for life now, through an interview that took me a couple of months to achieve. He’s a busy man and he has more to say than anybody else I know. So I’m not going to waste any time, and I’m going to turn it over to him…

You grew up in Imphal, Manipur and you went to Jamshedpur to complete your engineering. How did that happen? Elaborate about your growing up years in Imphal? 

I passed the first ever High School Leaving Certificate Examination conducted by the Board of Secondary Education, Manipur in 1973. An Act of Manipur Legislative Assembly established the Board of Secondary Education, Manipur. Up till 1972, all the schools in Manipur were affiliated to the Board of Secondary Education, Assam. 

I passed the Pre-University (Science) Examination in 1975 from North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU). At that time there was no engineering college in Manipur. I went to Jamshedpur to study Electrical Engineering at Regional Institute of Technology (RIT).

Little Flower School, Imphal, founded by the Salesian Sisters in 1958, was the first school I attended. I left the school after three years to join a Government School, not very far from our house, where I studied for another three years.

The government school where I studied was not very strict - students were free to leave the school premises during the half an hour recess after the morning classes. A month before Durga Puja, every day during the recess I used to go with my friends to a clay modeller’s place to watch him sculpting images of Maa Durga and come running back in time for the afternoon classes. It kindled an interest in me to try my hands at making an image of Maa Durga. When I was studying in class V, I made an image of Maa Durga complete with her family, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik with straw and clay. Then after drying I coloured the images with watercolour.

As a child I wanted to attend Imphal Art College to learn painting and sculpture but I did not get the opportunity. However, it did not deter me from doing painting and clay modelling on my own. Whenever I saw painters working at roadsides painting pictures on walls and hoardings for advertising various products, I watched them spellbound. From the Government School I was admitted to Ramlal Paul High School, a much sought after private school at that time in our neighbourhood.   

I appeared in the All India Merit Scholarship Examination (for residential schools) in 1969. After clearing it, I went to Gauhati (the present Guwahati) for the final examination with my maternal uncle. It was the first time for me to go outside Manipur. From Imphal we travelled by bus to Dimapur, the nearest railhead at that time, to catch a train to Gauhati. Manipur is practically free from beggars. I was taken aback to see hordes of beggars at the railway station for the first time. There were old and infirm people as well as small children among them. I really felt sorry for them. When the result was out, I was exulted to see my full name printed in the National Herald, New Delhi. I topped in the list of students of my age group from Manipur.

Having earned the scholarship I studied at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith, Purulia West Bengal for a brief stint. I travelled by air from Imphal to Calcutta and then by train to Purulia. I returned home when the school was closed because of the activities of Naxalites in the area. At that time I developed a peptic ulcer. Doctor put me on medication and a special diet. I did not go when the school reopened, as my parents were not willing to send me to Purulia in my condition. Fearing that I would lose one academic year, my father made arrangements to enrol me as a student of another private school in our neighbourhood and sit in examinations without attending even a single class. It was a tough time for me. I got one month only to study the books, which were entirely different from the ones I had studied at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith. I got through the examination with good marks.

I was fascinated by the narration and illustrations in storybooks. The pictures in comic books enthralled me. Whenever I got bored while reading my school textbooks, I scribbled a few lines or made free hand sketches here and there and filled every available space in my rough notebooks. After I passed High School, I completely stopped painting and sculpting but continued to write snippets whenever I was free. I wrote for myself only, not for others to read, nor for publication.

How did your career unfold after you finished your graduation and returned to your hometown?

After obtaining a degree in Electrical Engineering, for some time I was toying with the idea of starting a small unit to manufacture electrical appliances that would not involve heavy investment. I conducted a survey for the supply and demand of various types of appliances. Odds were heavy. Manipur is a small place. Demand was small.

Raw materials had to be brought from outside. There were bottlenecks in transportation. Any new product had to compete with the items already available in the market. I could not find any feasible product that could meet the quality and compete in the price. Support given by the government was for namesake only. In the end I opted for a government job.  

Later I got an offer to join a leading electrical company as a sales engineer but I did not join because of compelling circumstances. I might have joined the company had I got the offer earlier. We cannot say for sure what the future has in store for us. We wish to do one thing but end up doing something else. This is life!

What is the difference between the Manipur of the times when you were young and growing up and the now – socially and politically?

When I was a child, every family in Manipur owned a house, however big or small and had enough to eat. In those days bicycles were very popular in Manipur valley. Every family in Imphal owned at least one bicycle. Cycle rickshaws were the main mode of transport in and around towns. Only a few cars and jeeps were there.

Now, the situation has changed drastically. Bicycles have vanished almost completely from roads. A neo-rich class has emerged. Many with no visible source of income have become filthy rich overnight. The chasm between rich and poor has widened. It gives me immense pain to see the degradation of living conditions of the masses. It reminds me of the maxim, ‘Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.’

Manipuri, an archaic language, has developed several intricate systems or codes over the centuries. The language spoken in the royal household is quite different from the one used by commoners. Anyone who wishes to serve in the palace or attend the 'Durbar' has to learn the appropriate language. All together different forms of address are used while referring to a member of cheirap - a magistrate having civil powers. A cultured person has to use different forms of an appropriate language while speaking to dignitaries, friends and servants. Care also has to be taken while addressing or referring to any stranger according to the age of the person. Etiquette demands one to be polite. It gives me great pains to see many of the present day youths speaking to their elders rudely without showing any respect.

Manipur was under the British Rule from 1891 to 1947. They occupied Manipur after it suffered defeat at their hands in April 1891. After Manipur joined the Indian Union in 1949, the distinction between the royalty and commoner has waned, it is not so clearly marked now. The language spoken in the royal household has almost become obsolete.

Food habits of people have changed to a great extent. The people in Manipur Valley had stopped eating meat after the adoption of Hindu faith (Vaishnavite sect). In the olden days, excepting the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, valley people generally used to eat vegetables and fish. Egg and meat were taboo. Now, people, especially the youth, have started consuming eggs and meat freely.

I have said earlier that Manipur is free from beggars. Well, not totally. During my childhood, it was very common for one or two beggars to visit our house daily. We used to give them rice, not money. Sometimes vegetables were thrown in with the rice. They were old people in very neat and clean clothes. Whenever a beggar came, I used to vie with my brothers to give rice to them first for they used to shower us with blessings after accepting alms. They were different beggars. They had chosen to retire from active life; they had renounced the life of comfort and chosen to lead a simple life. They passed their time chanting the name of the Lord in the belief that it would amount to atoning for their sins in the present life and they would be able to attain salvation or lead a better life in their next birth. Now, they have vanished altogether. I have not seen anyone like them for the past so many years.

There was also another beggar - a very handsome and well-built man, probably in his forties. He had a very melodious voice and sang very well. He used to sing devotional songs to the accompaniment of cymbals. I often wondered why he had not chosen singing as a profession. But, he was physically challenged – he was totally blind in both the eyes. He used to go from house to house led by his daughter, a small girl. After some years, he stopped coming. Might be, his daughter had grown older and refused to help him in begging.

Though Imphal is free from beggars, but it isn’t exempt from begging. The beggars of my childhood days came to our house in the morning, never in the afternoon and evening. The eighties saw the emergence of a new form of begging - asking for donation for no apparent reason. Many people, very often in groups, came to our house asking for donations for innumerable causes at any time of the day. Right or wrong, the mind-boggling reasons they gave were difficult to digest. Further still, most of them had the audacity to ‘demand’ the amount. It was really confusing whether they were asking for donations or resorting to extortion. Many of the youths in the groups showed no respect for elders. They might be substance abusers. Fortunately, for the last couple of years I have not seen them.

When I was studying in school, for news we had to turn to radio and newspapers. Only two English newspapers, The Statesman and The Amrita Bazar Patrika, both published from Calcutta, were available to read daily. The National Herald published from New Delhi came to us one or two days late.

Three Manipuri newspapers - Simanta Patrika, Congress Party’s paper, Khollao, Communist Party’s paper, and Prajatantra were also there. A very limited number of people had telephone connections. Telephone exchange was manually operated. For making a telephone call, I had to lift the receiver and tell the operator at the other end the number that I wanted to call. Very often I had to wait a long time for the operator to respond. Trunk call bookings had to be done in advance. Operators at the telephone exchange were privy to all the information passed.  

Tea stalls in neighbourhoods served as important places for men to gossip and exchange information. Markets served similar purposes for women. Here it may not be out of place to mention that women run all the markets in Manipur.

Development and changes in the political front often manifest in different forms of revolutions and social unrest. Elaborate upon the events in the state of Manipur, over the years, that you have internalised.

Manipur joined India after Maharaj Budhachandra Singh signed the Merger Agreement on September 21 1949 and became a Part C State. Manipur was made a union territory in 1956. Only after violent protests Manipur became a state in 1972.

Manipur has seen students’ unrest, demonstrations, strikes, lockouts and blockades, which have become indelible blots in its history. The first incident I know of is students coming out to the streets to protest happened in 1965 when I was in the third standard. On the fateful day, 27 August 1965, our school closed early and I was home in the afternoon. By the evening I heard many things about the uproar from those who escaped from the place of action hardly one kilometer from our house.

Large numbers of college and senior school students joined people protesting against what they claimed to be ‘wrong policies of the government favouring businessmen’, which had led to an artificial famine and made the masses starve. Agitated people, including students, came shouting slogans and entered the compound of Chief Commissioner’s residence (the present Raj Bhavan). Their numbers swelled. Security personnel guarding the complex found it hard to control and expel them.

Police resorted to lathi-charge and indiscriminate firing. All hell broke loose. Some of the protestors broke the barbed wire fence around the complex to escape. Three people including a woman, Nabakumar, Nilamani and Pramodini, died on the spot. Laishram Chaobhal Singh, student of Lamphel High School, succumbed to his injuries later. In the same year, All Manipur Students Union (AMSU) was formed. As a remembrance of those who died in the atrocity, AMSU observes August 27 as Hunger Marchers’ Day every year.

What was it like during your growing up years, to experience so much happening around you continuously?

Since my childhood I have witnessed many disturbances to public life. I had seen with my own eyes a demonstration by students culminating into violence. It happened on Tuesday, September 23 1969. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, was at Imphal to address the people of Manipur at a public meeting at Polo Ground. I was there with my younger brother and a cousin. As soon as she started speaking a large number of students paraded with placards and shouted slogans demanding statehood for Manipur. It was followed by lathi charge, pelting of stones and firing. In clear view of her, buses went up in flames. People ran helter-skelter.

Security personnel immediately formed a ring and cordoned the area around the raised platform from where she was speaking. A policeman in the chain called us and other young boys to come and stay inside the cordoned area till the uproar subsided. At dusk we went home after the situation was under control.

There is a lingering argument about the circumstances under which Manipur joined the Indian Union. Manipur’s merger into the Indian Union led to the formation of a number of insurgent organisations. They dismiss the merger as involuntary. United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was founded in 1964, followed by the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK) between 1977 and 1980. Later many more insurgent organisations came on the scene.

Reportedly more than 30 insurgent groups are operating in Manipur.

Militant groups further resorted to collection of illegal tax, extortion, kidnapping of businessmen and government officials to raise funds for their organisations. Many businessmen and government officials lost their lives in their hands. Manipur was declared as a disturbed area on September 8 1980 and the Government of India imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA).

Human Rights organisations are claiming that the Indian armed forces have misused the privileges conferred in the act and abused power. It is alleged that the Indian armed forces have tortured and killed many people. Many people arrested by the armed forces have disappeared without any trace.

In 2012, the Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association Manipur (EEVFAM) filed a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) with the Supreme Court of India, seeking investigation into 1,528 similar cases of alleged extrajudicial executions by security forces in Manipur. Human Rights activists blame AFSPA for the killings. They allege that the law gives blanket protection to the Army and the Manipuri Commandos to kill with impunity.

Malom, a village on the periphery of Imphal Airport is normally a quiet place. November 2 2000 started as just another Thursday. But everything changed the moment a bomb planted by insurgents exploded when a convoy of Assam Rifles was passing the area. The men in uniform went berserk and started shooting wildly in all directions. Gunshots ricocheted in the air for a long time. In the ensuing melee 10 people, all of them civilians, were shot dead. Their only fault was to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. People from all walks of life condemned the dastardly act of the trigger-happy men in uniform and came out in large numbers to protest.

Irom Chanu Sharmila began a hunger strike on November 5 2000 demanding to abolish the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. After 16 long years, she ended the fast on August 9 2016. The Act is still enforced in Manipur except some areas of Imphal.

On July 11 2004, Thangjam Manorama Devi, a 32-year-old woman was dragged out of her house by security personnel at night on suspicion of being a member of an underground militant outfit. Next day, villagers at a place not far from her house discovered her bullet-ridden dead body – it is said she had been tortured by at least 13 members of the security forces. It is also said that there were bullet wounds on her private parts. On July 15, 2004, 12 middle-aged mothers protested against the murder and alleged rape of Thangjam Manorama Devi in front of the western gate of the Kangla Fort, where the Assam Rifles were then stationed. They stood there naked carrying a banner that read ‘Indian Army Rape Us’.

On July 23 2009, there was a shoot-out in the bazaar area of Imphal. Stray bullets hit Thokchom Rabina, a pregnant woman and five others who happened to be there. Rabina died on the spot. According to the Manipur police, Chungkam Sanjit, an alleged former militant, fired at police commandos who were on routine frisking operation and tried to escape. Soon after, he was shot dead by the police.

However, photographs (taken by a photojournalist) published in Tehelka along with a report, said something else. Inquiry conducted by the CBI revealed that the police shot dead an unarmed Sanjit after dragging him to a pharmacy and planted a pistol on him. Nine police personnel connected with the crime were charged with conspiracy and murder in the Charge Sheet submitted by the CBI in 2010.

It’s been relentless, isn’t it? One thing after another…

One very shocking incident that raised a hue and cry among the public in Manipur is the case of a 14-year-old school student Yumlembam Sanamacha. The personnel of 17 Rajputana Rifles allegedly picked him up and two other boys, on February 12 1998, from their residences without an arrest memo. The other two boys were handed over to the police the next day. But Sanamacha was never released. He is still untraceable. Some people are said to have seen the Army torturing and killing him at the foothills of Ngariyan in Imphal East district.

The central government inserted the words ‘without territorial limits’ in the ceasefire agreement with National Socialist Council of Nagaland - NSCN (IM), and signed the amended agreement on June 14 2001. The people of Manipur objected to it since it had serious implications. On June 18, all sections of people came out on streets to protest. Protestors stormed the Chief Minister’s office. To control the mob, Manipur police fired at the protestors and many people died on the spot. From there it spread to all over Imphal. Angry protestors burnt down the Assembly Building and offices of many political parties. Official residences of many ministers, MPs and the Chief Minister’s office were partially burnt. In all 18 people lost their lives. This incident is now known as the Great June Uprising Day.

All this must have impacted the minds of the ordinary people, especially the youth, isn’t it?

As far back as I can remember cycle-rickshaws were the most popular if not the only mode of local transport in Manipur. Hand-pulled rickshaws are not there in Manipur. Cycle-rickshaw pullers are referred to as ‘rickshaw drivers’. Now, cycle-rickshaws have almost completely vanished from the roads in Imphal.

During the final decade of the last century, a new breed of rickshaw drivers emerged. They were educated and unemployed youths, who were shy of showing their identity. Some of them were college students. They covered their faces with a scarf or a piece of cloth lest their friends and relatives would recognize them. They were there till the beginning of the present century.

However, now Manipur is comparatively peaceful. During the last four-five years, activities of insurgents and other unwanted groups have come down. Prolonged economic blockades on National Highways have become a thing of the past.

When did you feel the urge to write and what made you take the plunge?

When I was studying in school I wrote some snippets just for fun and submitted them to our school magazine committee headed by a very senior teacher. I was really amazed to see them published after two three months. That was my first experience in writing.

As far as I remember I was very sensitive to what was happening in the milieu. During my younger days, there was no marked difference between the rich and poor in Manipur.

It was early in the year 1996 when I first saw two boys with gunny bags slung over their shoulders rummaging through garbage heaps looking for bits of metal that can be sold to scrap metal dealers. I saw them on the way to the office. The sight of them gave me immense pain and tempted me to write a story of two brothers, my first fiction. Around that time, a new English newspaper, The Imphal Free Press came out. I saw an opportunity in it and submitted the story for publishing in their weekly literary column. It was selected and published. It encouraged me and I went on writing many stories.  

You also write poetry; tell us about it – what you believe is the best amongst your poems and do give us a small piece of your poetry too. 

There are poems trapped everywhere, in everything we see, feel and sense, waiting to be freed by poets. A poem comes into being when the imagination is triggered literally by anything the poet fancies.

As I said earlier, for a brief stint I studied at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyapith, Purulia, West Bengal. During an outing organised by our school, we visited the surrounding tribal villages. I felt as if I had been uprooted from my place of birth in the lap of nature with greeneries all around and replanted at an arid rocky place. The abject poverty of the villagers gave me a shock and I wrote hesitant lines of my first poem. It was a description of my native place and my realisation of how lucky I was to have been born there. I can remember only a few lines of the poem. I rewrote the poem in Manipuri, my mother tongue and tried to set the tune to it without any knowledge of music. I can still sing the first stanza in Manipuri comprising of the following lines:

Hey compassionate Mother Manipur/Looking after your children with utmost care/We, your children, are there for you, Mother.

I have never disclosed this to anyone. After that I have not written any poems for nearly thirty years. It was only in the late nineties I started writing poetry again. By that time I was already writing short fiction.

Tell me a little more about your poetry and which among those you’ve written is closest to you?

It is very difficult to say which one is my best poem. For me a poem is a ‘play’ where words are ‘transformed’, ‘manipulated’ and ‘twisted’ to express lyrical emotions. When I write poetry I look inwards and try to express the feelings evoked in my mind directly or indirectly using metaphors.

My poems in English have appeared in Muse India, Chandrabhaga - a literary journal edited by Jayanta Mahapatra, Poetry India, MZU Journal of Literature Cultural Studies - Mizoram University, among others. My poems are also there in two poetry anthologies, ‘Eastern Muse, Poems from the East and North East India’, published by Authorspress, and ‘Pan Indian Poetry in English Spanning First Two Decades of 21st Century’ and published by Today and Tomorrow’s Printers and Publishers.

Could you share some of your poetry with me?

Three of my poems written over a span of fifteen years are what I think you would like.

Duty - A flower/a petite starry white flower/smiled at me once/in the mellow light of dawn/and fell on the ground/at the slightest blow of a gentle breeze/But the fragrance lingered on and on/Its smile taunted me again and again//The smile keeps telling me/whispering in my ears/"I've done my duty/Have you done yours?"

In search of lost soul - I once was the proud owner of a petite Soul/the owner of a fragile Heart/I could feel love, pain and compassion//Once, I saw a woman/a helpless woman with a child in her lap/tears rolling down her shrunken cheeks/watching people dismantling her roadside tea stall/encroached upon government land/Hammers bludgeoned pulling the stall apart/I, helpless like her, stood watching dumbfounded/Each blow of the hammers reverberated in my heart/Unknown to her, a feeling of compassion engulfed me//On the plot across the road stood a majestic building/also built on government land/The owner, a henchman of a minister/was standing at the gate with a pleasant smile on his lips//Again, I saw two boys, in tatters, not more than nine/carrying rug sacks slung over their shoulders/They were rummaging in garbage heaps/for bits of plastic and metallic objects/Rag pickers, they surely must have been/looking for anything worth selling to scrap dealers/Their innocent faces caused a tumult in my heart/and I wrote a story of the two boys, a fiction/With it I embarked on my journey as a writer//The sight of women selling vegetables at the roadsides/braving chill wind, scorching sun and thunder storm/to eke out a living in this cruel world/being chased away like dogs by government men/saddened my heart and I shed silent tears for them/I had thought if I could, if I could do anything for them/I would be happy, the happiest man in the world//Fed with daily dose of news/of bullets painting scarlet flowers on human bodies/of protectors turning predators/of ravaged women and children/of false promises made by politicians/I now have become immune to love, pain and compassion/My Heart has turned into stone//In this land/where olive greens sway at the roadsides/where trees once stood/where wails have become melodious songs/where dead bodies litter the paddy fields/where undulating waves of paddy plants/once played in the evening breeze/where venality has become a way of life/Soul has no place/I have become a ‘Mechanical Being/unable to feel love, pain and compassion//Every morning, I scan pages of newspapers/searching for my lost Soul/to soften my Heart once more.

Duplicate - I am a duplicate of the original/leading a counterfeit life/surrounded by mannequins//I live on synthetic rice/Plastic egg is my delicacy/In my garden paper flowers bloom//My life history is a long concocted story/My robotic companion showers me with artificial love/Her simulated smile greets me every morning//Imitations flood the markets/Dummies in the make-believe world/rejoice at the computer-generated sale performance//But in the so called fake encounters/deaths are real, so too are the anguish/and tears of the bereaved families/My silicone heart remains unmoved.

Do tell us about your original short stories and essays - what inspired you and where are those stories and essays today? 

As I have already said I get inspiration for stories from anything I see, hear, come across or read that really touches me deeply. In my short stories I try to fulfil an inherent inner urge to communicate with others what I think, perceive and feel about the happenings around me. I cannot escape from the subconscious impressions made in my mind by the milieu. Obviously many of my short stories are based on the lives of the people of Manipur.

In the beginning I sent all my short stories to The Imphal Free Press. Fortunately, they accepted all the stories and published them. People noticed my short stories and I was inducted into North East Writers’ Forum, a forum of writers of the Northeast, as a member when it was established in 1997. I got the opportunity to meet and interact with many writers of the Northeast.

I submitted my short stories to a number of journals. Many were selected and published in Chandrabhaga, NEWFRONTIERS - journal of North-East Writers’ Forum, Melange - Sunday Magazine of the Sentinel, Muse India, Kohinoor, the Dhauli Review, etc.

I joined the Online Writing Contest, hosted by in 2007-2008. Again from the forty-eight cash prize winning entries twenty-five were selected for an anthology ‘Blogprint: The Winners of the Online Writing Contest’ published by Penguin Books. My short story ‘Mama, I’m up here’ made it to the final twenty-five.

My essays have appeared in Oxford University Press and Sahitya Akademi volumes, IIC Quarterly, Imphal Free Press, Melange, Ishani - journal of Nagaland Gandhi Ashram, Marg - a magazine of the Arts, ATMAN Commemorating the Diamond Jubilee of the Gauhati High Court, Glimpses from the North-East, published by National Knowledge Commission, Emerging Literatures From Northeast India, Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, Narrative Cultures of North East India, published by Pencraft International, Delhi among others.

You have also translated many works from English to Manipuri and vice-versa. Tell us about a few of those and what it is that made you feel you needed to do it?

Well, I have translated more works from Manipuri to English than from English to Manipuri. I started doing the translation earnestly when North East Writers’ Forum took up a project to translate writings from the Northeast to English in collaboration with Katha. I was responsible for selection of Manipuri short stories, novellas and plays for the project, and also for getting the selected writings translated into English.

I did not have any problem with the selection of works in Manipuri. I selected the required number of writings in consultation with my writer friends from Manipur. I ran into trouble when it came to finding translators. In the end I had to translate most of the writings in Manipuri to English. The credit of making me a translator goes to North East Writers’ Forum.

Not many writings in Manipuri are available to read. It is the main reason why I translate works in Manipuri to English. Translation is a tough job. In my case I put in ten times more labour and time than doing my own writing. In the target language the strangeness of the source language has to be kept intact and one also must retain the nuances of culture and traditions. The larger elements of style and imagination, narrative form and vision are to be carried forward to the target language. In short a good translation should read as if it were originally written in the target language.

In June 2007, out of the blue, I received an email from Rajpal and Sons requesting me to translate a poem of thousand lines in Manipuri to English. They sent me a few pages of the manuscript as a sample but did not disclose the name of the poet. I told them of my busy schedule. On their insistence I agreed to do the transition. It ultimately turned out that the poet is none other than Irom Sharmila who was on hunger strike from 5 November 2000 to 26 July 2016.  

When I was with you and the theatre doyen Ratan Thiyam, I learnt that you had also translated his works of Manipuri drama to English?

I have translated three plays of Tamo-Ratan (Ratan Thiyam), Wahoudok (Prologue), Hey Nungshibi Prithivi (My Earth, My Love) and Chinglon Mapan Tampak Ama (Nine Hills, One valley). All the three plays are based on the myths of the Mieties.

When the question of myths comes, it becomes imperative that the treasure trove of archaic Manipuri words is explored. Tamo-Ratan used enormous volume of ‘inter-textuality’ to obtain the desired effect of mixing myths with reality and to make the sequence of the plays, starting from the birth of the universe to the modern times through the passage of the creation of living beings and the outset of human civilization, flow smoothly. He has meticulously crafted each line of the dialogues using a liberal dose of choicest archaic words - most of the dialogues in all the three plays are nothing but beautiful verses and odes.   

It is very difficult to know the meaning of archaic Manipuri words by simply reading the text. Intonation of a word is very important to grasp the correct meaning.

After editing and many rounds of rehearsals, when the plays had taken final shapes, there were special performances where I was the lone spectator. Listening to the dialogues with proper diction and intonation was very helpful to understand the intricate meaning of archaic Manipuri words.

Initially I translated only two plays: Hey Nungshibi Prithivi and Chinglon Mapan Tampak Ama into English. I did it for a group of people from the US, UK and Australia who came to Imphal in December 2005 to see Tamo-Ratan’s latest productions. There were academics, directors, playwrights and critics in the group. My translations were given to each and every member of the group to study, one day ahead of the performance. The academics in the group suggested publishing the translations and took my consent to use them for teaching at their institutes.

I was told that you translated Henrik Ibsen’s last play, ‘When we dead awaken’ into Manipuri and it was staged by Ratan Thiyam’s Chorus Repertory - do share with us the experience and the challenges you faced in adapting the play and then staging it.

I translated Ibsen’s play ‘When We Dead Awaken’ from the English version. He wrote it in Christiania in 1899. It is the last play he wrote. It is said that he began to plan it in the summer of 1897. I read the play many times to get the real feel and idea of what the play is all about before I started doing the translation. While addressing a person’s relationship and age count a lot. Manipuri tradition demands that a woman should never refer to her husband by his name, but in European countries there is no such practice. Such difference in customary practices becomes evident while translating speech or dialogue from a European language to Manipuri.

Tamo-Ratan asked me to translate only the dialogues. He wrote the performance text and interpreted it from his point of view. Of course, he kept all the dialogues intact. He said to me, “But I did try my best not to delete a single word from the original text when I was choosing all the dialogues. I never tried to change them, because that is very dangerous. Once I change anything, it may take the second position of the concept of what Ibsen is trying to say”. The other thing, which was very important for me while in the working process, was that it is not a realistic play, as Ibsen’s work may have been considered earlier.

So ‘Áshibagee Eshei’, Manipuri adaptation of Ibsen’s ‘When We Dead Awaken’ was first staged at the Delhi Ibsen Festival in 2008. After that it was globetrotting. Some of the international theatre festivals where it was staged are the International Ibsen Seminar and Theatre Festival 2009 at National Theatre, Bangladesh, National Theatre’s Ibsen Festival, 2010 in Oslo, The Fifth Theatre Olympics held in Seoul from September 24 to November 7, 2010, The Sixth Theatre Olympics held in Beijing from October 29 to December 27, 2014.

You have five books to your credit, two in English and three in Manipuri – many of your works are syllabus in several universities and they have also been translated to different languages including Marathi and Telugu – tell me about it.

Manipuri is my mother tongue but I received my education in English. I learnt Manipuri as a subject in school. For a long time after completing my school education I never wrote anything in Manipuri. There is a world of difference between writing and speaking in any language. So I inadvertently wrote my first short story in English, the language we use for writing in office. It was in 1996. I continued to write in English till some of my friends suggested I try my hands at writing in Manipuri also. I am still learning both English and Manipuri.

After I started writing in Manipuri I have noticed that the first few lines are very important for me. If I start with English then subsequent lines begin to flow in English. The same thing happens when I start with Manipuri. I was not aware of it before.

I have two collections of short stories in Manipuri, Turoi Ngamloiba Wagi Lanban and Nang-gi Waree. I have a collection of short stories in English, Ramu Prasad’s Angel. One of my short stories is taught at School of Undergraduate Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi.

I have two books of translations. One is the Manipur Trilogy - Ratan Thiyam’s Plays, which I have translated into English. The other one is Come Out Sandrembi We Will Make A Grandiose Home For You - Yumlembam Ibomcha’s Manipuri poems I have translated into English.

One of my poems has been translated into Marathi and published in Kavyaparva, an anthology of poems selected from twenty-one Indian languages including English. Three poems have also been translated into Gujarati. Two of my short stories have been translated into Telugu. One of my short stories has been translated into Malayalam.

Our readers will be very keen to know about your family – its roots in Imphal and how it spreads out today. Do tell us about yourself vis-à-vis your clan.

Imphal is the place where my grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters were born and grew up. My grandmother died before I was born. I was very young when my grandfather died. I am told that my grandfather was in the business of importing betel nut and dry fish from the erstwhile East Bengal and Assam. He left the business after my grandmother’s demise.  

My father T. Bhuban Singh was a Senior Advocate. He obtained LL.B. Degree from Allahabad University. For two years he was Advocate General of Manipur. It has been more than twelve years since my father passed away. My mother is also more. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. When she was physically fit she used to run a rice mill and dry fish business. We are four brothers and four sisters. I am the second among brothers. I have two elder sisters and two younger sisters (twin). My elder brother T. Nandakumar Singh, Justice (Rtd.) is now the Chairperson (first) of the Manipur Lokayukta.

My better half Nirmola is an Associate Professor in Chemistry. She teaches at a college in Imphal. My eldest daughter Karin obtained a Science degree in Chemistry, Botany & Zoology from Mt. Carmel College, Bangalore. She completed a Masters in Biochemistry from Bangalore University. She left her teaching job after her marriage. She is busy with my grandson. My son-in-law Rojit works in an American Company. They were staying in Delhi. After the outbreak of COVID-19 they have returned to Imphal. My son-in-law is working from home. My second daughter Parul obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, Journalism and Tourism & Travelling from Mt. Carmel College Bangalore. She completed Masters in History from Manipur University. She is preparing for competitive examinations. My third daughter Linika studied at Gargi College, Delhi and obtained B.SC. (Hons) Zoology. She completed Masters in Biosciences from Jamia Millia Islamia. She is doing PhD in Biochemistry at Manipur University. My son Arvind completed B.A. LL.B (H) from Amity University, Noida and LLM (Human Rights specialisation) from Maastricht University, Netherlands. Now, he is at Eindhoven, Netherlands.  

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