Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nameless Citizens in the Land of the Half Humans

Girl with the Green Eyes
Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985. The portrait by Steve McCurry turned out to be one of those images that sears the heart. Her eyes were sea green. They were haunted and haunting, and in them you could read the tragedy of a land drained by war. She became known around National Geographic as the ‘Afghan girl,’ and for 17 years no one knew her name. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since. The photographer remembers the moment. The light was soft. The refugee camp in Pakistan was a sea of tents. Inside the school tent he noticed her first. Sensing her shyness, he approached her last. She told him he could take her picture. ‘I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day,’ he recalls of that morning in 1984 spent documenting the ordeal of Afghanistan’s refugees (‘A Life Revealed’ by Cathy Newman, National Geographic, April 2002). She could not understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.Later he discovered her name was Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes – then and now – burn with ferocity. She was 28, perhaps 29, or even 30, when McCurry photographed her again in 2002 April, and used the portrait for the cover of National Geographic (April issue 2002). No one, not even she, knew for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist. Time and hardship have erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened. ‘She’s had a hard life,’ said McCurry. ‘So many here share her story’ (‘A Life Revealed’ by Cathy Newman, National Geographic, April 2002) Consider the numbers. More than twenty years of war, more than 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.‘There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war,’ a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat’s photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.
Boy with Eyes of Despair
Yenning does not know if there would be another Steve McCurry to trail the life of the son of Mayanglambam ningol Thokchom ongbi Rabina. But certainly the portrait of the young child on the back of an unknown woman, after his mother was killed in front of him, evokes chasm of unknown feelings in our otherwise hardened animal like lives. The killing of Rabina was, in fact, double murder for the young woman was already five months pregnant. We do not know about the trigger happy killers how they felt or must be feeling, or the sanitized smooth talking MLAs headed by O. Ibobi had, who paid a one-minute silence tribute to the departed soul. Picture of the father and son in front of the funeral pyre is symbolic enough to decry violence and gun culture. But contrary to popular imagination, our esteemed Chief Minister declared ‘killing’ as the only solution to the ongoing cycle of violence. Perhaps, the portrait of the child on the lap of his hapless father is not ‘humane’ enough to quell our bloodthirsty instincts. On July 23, it was the kid who witnessed the death of his mother at BT Road. On another day at another place, another kid may suffer the same fate of losing his/her father right in front of their eyes. Our society has enough potency of such cruel fatalities in the face of the maverick gun-wielding actors’ trigger happy instint and the rhetoric of the head of the elected Government.
Land of Half Humans
Land of the Half Humans by Thangjam Ibopishak is the best description of present day Manipur. Excerpts from the poem is given below:
For six months just head without body, six months just body without head, has anyone seen a land inhabited by these people?…………………………………………..…………………………………………..
There are political rights; a government is set up in the land. Democracy functions with total success. An election is held every five years. But for the people in this land there are no names. So for the nameless citizens the nameless representatives govern the land of the half-humans. Because whether to give human names to the head or to the body — no one can decide. A land such as this is very much in the news, a land much talked about. (Translated by Robin S Ngangom, From: Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast. Published by North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, 2003)
Indeed, there are ‘political rights’ in Manipur. There is a Government, which has no qualms about killing. Democracy functions with total success. An election is held every five years. But for the people in this land there are no names. Just like Sharbat Gula, the girl with the green eyes or the child on the back of a nameless woman. We are citizens of this land of the half-humans. When Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih asked Thangjam Ibopishak in an interview (January, 2006), ‘What are the sources of your inspiration? What are the themes that recur most in your poetry?’ The poet replied as follows ‘The socio-political problems of Manipur form the major source of my inspiration. I’m always caught up in this issue. Naturally, the misery and hardship of the common people, caused by the rotten system, corruption in all sections of the society and the government; the evil nature of man and the resulting moral bankruptcy; insurgency and its repercussions; ethnic crises and the consequent killings; fanaticism and terrorism are some of the major themes of my poetry. I also write on nature and death. But you won’t find any religious elements or influence in these poems. You see, I don’t believe in God or in any form of religion.’But as poet Thangjam believes that, poetry is an art like any other art form — sculpture, painting, dance, music, and so on, just like the others, poetry also has a functional value in contemporary society. Besides this, he does not believe it has any bigger role to play. Yenning agrees with the poet. However, the present day Manipur, which can burn down a library or shoot without any provocations, and where parents are hell bent upon recruiting their children in the police, army or the paramilitary forces, not only as bread winners but as someone who ‘wields’ a gun and be the ‘protector’, make us think otherwise. Beauty of poetry gets diluted and negates its positive functional contributions.
Conspiracy of Silence
The editorial of The Sangai Express, Imphal (English edition), on July 23, 2009, titled as above, observed uncannily true. It reads, ‘Human rights abuses, the excesses of security forces, rape and molestation of women either by security personnel or alleged militants, extortions, intimidations, abduction and kidnapping for ransom, bandhs and general strikes, economic blockades, etc., sum up the story of today’s Manipur.’ Further, it adds, ‘In any situation, the most vulnerable section of society have always been women and children and the situation in Manipur is no different. The sad part is, there have not been much vocal articulation and actions for the children, who have become unwitting victims of the mindless violence that we see around us today. It is a damning testimony of how selfish and how insensitive the adults of Manipur have become today. Not only do we render a number of children fatherless, motherless or parentless, but we are also guilty of being indifferent to the plight of these children. It seems as if there is a conspiracy of silence, when it comes to the plight of these children. In the light of such a shameful reality, can any one of us truthfully and sincerely say that we have the interest of the land in our mind and heart?’‘For those who did not suffer the curse of load shedding and had the opportunity to catch the report live on ISTV, it was a heart rending sight to see an elderly woman, carrying the child, who had just lost her mother, and recounting the event that led to the death of the young woman. To any conscientious man or woman, the scene would have sent them cursing all those scripting such a tragedy all, including, those who have taken up the gun mouthing some platitudes, the law enforcers as well the suited and booted policy makers of the State.’ People of Manipur, as Yenning has earlier published have been reduced to biological beings, devoid of rationality and empathy. We have become so accustomed to the unworldly happenings around us that myth and fantasy have become channels of escaping from the inescapable trappings of existence. But the question is for how long we are going to be the victim of the conspiracy of silence? Are we still to remain as the nameless citizens in this land of half humans? Or does our society need another Sharbat Gula or another boy on the back of an unknown woman? Or are we losing our sanity? Heaven forbid that !
(The article was posted on The Sangai Express on Sunday July 26, 2009)

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