A reality write: Crises of the Kuki psyche in Manipur
By Lunminthang Haokip
October 16, 2007: You receive a telephone ring. The caller at the other end wants to talk to a member of your family. You grow curious and desire to know who’s on the line. The caller ignores the query and insists that the person he likes to communicate with be brought at hearing distance.
You begin to lose your cool and repeat in a firm voice you need to know who he is in a straight answer. By now, the mysterious caller gets irritated and raises his tone, “Don’t you recognize me by my voice?”, and bangs the receiver.
Tongue Pride-Tied: If you ever get hurt by such a curt verbal delivery while being engaged in a mental tug-of-war on wires of Graham Bell’s discovery with such a standoffishly stubborn man of woman-born, take it from me that he’s a blue-blooded kuki. Like 007 James Bond, the world telecommunicates by introducing themselves first.
However, a Kuki in his elements is ill-at-ease to hold in check compelling impulses at will. He would rather risk the enmity of a powerful man than tell him his name first, or do so on demand in a tele-conversation.
Kinky Kuki: Not for nothing a Kuki is said to be conservative. He won’t do anything (in organizational social services) if not properly entrusted and can’t feel at home in every situation. Unless specifically instructed, doing things elsewhere is like cooking in someone else’s kitchen and when invited for a dinner, a Kuki worth his culinary taste, will not accept before the invitation is repeated at least thrice.
Rev. Chungthang Thiek, in a trip to South Korea, was offered some dress-oufits by his Christian host. The popular preacher with an entertaining skill that enthralled his Kuki audiences’ church after church, in actuality, appreciated the presents. But habitual modesty made him say, “No need, its okay, no need brother…….” when he actually needed. This created confusion in the Korean host. Thinking something and saying something else is a familiar game of an art the Kuki needs no one to teach him.
“It’s an occupational hazard to endure the mental make-up of my fellow-Kuki”, W.L Hangshing, an articulate officer of the IAS-cadre of 1985 batch and a keen observer of human nature lamented during his tenure as Director/TD, GOM in Imphal. He further elaborated, “A shabby guy met me in my office, sat cross-legged on the sofa and enquired in my own dialect, “Sir, what’s the status of mine?”. Mildly amused by the vague audacity the stranger exhibited, I shot back, “Who are you and what d’you mean by mine?”
The man with the villain-ish get-up vitiated the official set-up when he owlishly retorted, “Arrey Sir, how come you don’t know me when I know you and your family so well?. And when I cornered him to explain the subject-matter in clearer terms, all that the obnoxious favour-seeker could mutter was, “I mean my petition……yes, that of mine!” As an exception, for once, the perception based on sure-fire hunches of the former DU-champ in rifle-shooting backfired.
The vulnerable Rebel: That’s a character typical of of an average Kuki. He’s got the grit to aggressively hold his undaunted own under pressure, but will melt down like ice in summer and shrink to depths of excessive humility when given a fairly respectable treatment. Even then, when rubbed on the wrong side, “Kukis are more reserved and arrogant than the Britishers themselves”, observed a prominent bureaucrat who has an axe to grind with the sting of the proverbial Kuki-pride.
Of course, there’s an element of truth in it. It was this pride of tribe that convincingly check-mated the onslaught of the mighty British empire in this part of the country in the second decade of the last century. Their weapons were primitive. Yet they weren’t deterred. For once, the sun did set on the British Empire, albeit for a brief period. Subtle as they were, the British rulers bestowed due honour upon the Kuki valour.
The brave rebels were jailed in far-off islands, but not hanged. Nevertheless, a long-term policy was formulated to ensure that the Kukis were undermined in administration, lagged behind in developmental progress and paid a heavy price for generations for having dared to defiantly pooh-pooh the orders and proclamations of the sun-set-proof empire.
Heads Held High: Self-respect means everything to the spiritually uncircumcised Kuki. Come what may, he won’t take shit from anybody. This very spirit violently opposed the British-India’s decree to recruit Kukis as porters to be sent to France against their collective will. The mayhem that followed was known in history as the Kuki Rebellion”. Life-time suffering, strangely, was considered more tolerable than cringing and cowering under the yoke of oppressive subjugation.
A hero in the sixties, a Shillong-based Retd. Major Jangkholun Haokip, is an ideal example of the Rambo-ish bent of mind that symbolizes the Kuki-psyche. Being short-built, as most of the hill-bred tribesmen are; bullying colleagues made several bulldozing bids to make a minor of the mistakenly measured Major.
But true to type, the former street-boxing champ, at every provocation by insulting remarks from under-estimating comrades, sprang to the occasion to rain an avalanche of fists-of-fury on the ill-fated challengers’ chin. There were no second rounds in such square deals. It was simply the survival of the toughest. And in the rough arena of his action-packed military career, the Major-saab earned the sobriquet of “Chatak-patak aadmi”.
Divided They Disintegrate: The centuries-old pastoral existence in the narrow confines of the far-flung hill-tracts casts indelible reflections on the outlook of unlettered commoners in a Kuki village. There too, familiarity breeds contempt .When disagreements crop up in misc. village matters, sub-division gains momentum on clannish lines.
More often than not, open revolt by an aggrieved group against the chiefship ends up in separation to found a new hamlet village consisting of a wronged sub-clan. And so it goes on. A particular Kuki- hamlet village has only two houses. The chief announces that a meeting of the village council would be held. The lone subject vetoes that the council does not approve the summon and no meeting was held.
Clan-centric Society: The village set-up, the traditions held on to, and the moorings that influence village life all prove the fact that clan, and not land, is pre-eminent in the Kuki- psyche. Land, no doubt, is under the Chief’s control. The subjects enjoy small holdings at the Chief’s mercy. When emotions flare up and a break-up is certain, land-holding has no hold over one who’s hell-bent to prove his mettle by establishing a new settlement. This accounts for the absence of big villages in the interiors and the relative scarcity of full-grown horticultural plants around.
Gospel Belittled: A cleverly covered battle for supremacy is silently waged on clannish lines. Cold-war goes on in the shade of seemingly hot-pursuit for fraternal unity. But when it comes to mixing with other communities, the rigid Kuki would rather bank on a ‘devil’ he knows well enough than on one he doesn’t. In religious affairs, for example, it’s almost considered a taboo to have folks from other communities as members of one’s own church or vice versa.
When a converted tribesman, guided by the Word of God, joins a church outside the control of one’s tribe, a notional ‘fatwa’ is served upon the ‘outcast’ with no regrets. A native Kuki never enjoys a meeting conducted in a language that’s not his. In the same vein, inter-tribe marriages are frowned upon.
Trigger-Happy Kuki: A Kuki, for all his weaknesses, is a Jack of all trades and master of a few. You don’t have to teach the Marwari the art of business, the Mizo the art of singing and the Kuki the art of gun-making and firing. When he catches sight of a plane flying high in the sky, triggered by spontaneous natural tendency, he mock-aims the flying plane, as if a gun is held in hand, and says, “Ohhh! its so beautiful, I wish I have a gun to shoot it down”.
All- Rounder: The upwardly mobile Kuki country- youth, attends college, helps in the field, chairs the parish Youth Fellowship, is indispensable in the village church-choir, enjoys the confidence of the circle MLA, pursues odd schemes in the ‘scheming’ BDO’s office and still finds time to captain the village football team. And all these hectic activities aren’t even allowed to disturb his prime-time spared exclusively to romance with his lady-love.
When it comes to sports, the Kuki athletes, instead of venturing out for better exposure in tandem with the DSAs and state-level functionaries prefer to bicker and rub shoulders with their own kinsmen in a poorly self-financed strictly localized yearly games meets. That’s the singular event bored rural boys and girls look forward to as a pleasant break from back-breaking agricultural engagements.
Heart-beats are missed in the run-up to the top-notch tourney when enthused youngsters anticipate the bosom-pals they would meet, the new dresses they would display and the events they’d liked to participate in. They spiritedly slog to earn wages in the muddy fields and save enough to paint the annual sports-meet red.
Cash Flows: Financing such a meet is no problem. The circle MLA will willingly and calculatingly take care of the expenses provided his political adversaries are not included in the organisers’ list and further provided that he alone is honoured as the Chief Guest.
And if the event takes place just before the General Assembly elections, the organizers smile from ear to ear over the glut of keen sponsors. The more presentable girls of the local area are usually paraded to raise funds at the flash of a smile. There’s no need to take such a trouble, now that each candidate volunteers to outdo the other in donations, not for love of sports, but of votes.
Joy To The Shops: Come December. You can’t miss seeing groups of men, women and children wearing disappointed looks , carrying discoloured shoulder-bags who refuse to disband their walking-style in single-files on the broad streets of downtown Imphal’s market-places where thousands converge to shop till the become broket in the cheapest stalls.
If the awe-struck bumpkins can’t give up the age-old habit of single-file walking, they can’t be blamed. That’s the way they trudge everyday barefoot on the narrow footpaths of hilly terrain in a feverish search for a means of earning the next square meal.
Sorrow Back-home: In the city board-rooms and conferences, we discuss ecological-balance and imbalance in theory. But a poverty-stricken mother struggling to feed eight hungry mouths depends entirely upon jhum- cultivation for survival. Top-soil erosion doesn’t top her daily priorities.
Widowed by the bloodshed of recent ethnic clashes, the sickly and fragile mother, with her ill-fed and ill-clad unschooled children in tow, clear jungle-patches, burn up the dry foliage and then, grow vegetables, cumin, fruit-bearing plants etc. Staring at the badly shaven foothills of Koubru-hills, the former CM of Manipur, Mr. Rishang Keishing once said, “The Koubru hill resembles the traditional Tangkhul hair-cut”.
Mother Kuki: As it did upon Mother India in celluloid, the lot of keeping the home-fires burning in most jobless households falls upon the poor mother. Braving rain and leeches, the compassion-personified housewife, emotionally overflowing with the milk of human kindness, brings home some ripe bananas among other fruits, thanks to God’s concern for men’s requirements. Her youngest child innocently tears off from the whole a piece of the irresistible produce of the earth and begins to nibble.
With great sorrow in the heart, the mother slaps the minor child hard on the cheek. The wretched family can’t afford to waste a single piece of the edible. Mom had already given word to the shop-keeper in the market that she would bring so much bananas earlier before being given some kgs of rice on credit. With money-in-circulation on the wane in the rural economy, buyers of locally produced stuff play hard to get. Items like firewood, charcoal etc. no more fetch enough money to sustain landless families. To quote Mulk Raj Anand, “Their days are dark”, and because Kerosene oil is scarce and it’s price exorbitant, “their nights are pitch-dark”.
Societal Gaps: Today, the Kuki stake-holders like politicians, church-leaders and bureaucrats, though are capable performers individually, lack the cohesive approach to identify and fulfill their own people’s aspirations and expectations. As they cannot form a formidable forum for themselves to collectively address and remove societal ills, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widen. There’s a gulf of disparity between the comfortably Delhi-settled scions of first-generation Kuki-mandarins and their ethnic-class-impoverished rickshaw-pulling back-home kindred. This is no sign of a healthy economy.
The NRK (Non-resident Kuki)’s achievements in acquiring name, fame and dame in the national capital is quite commendable. Yet humanity demands that society’s top heads be put together in a brain-storming session and its best nerves be strained till the sun goes cold to find out the cause of the ceaseless suffering that pincer-holds the under-privileged Kuki, and finally suggest remedial measures.
Decades ago, the underdog in the then hassle-free tribal society had reasons to be proud of his heritage. It’s a different scenario now. The plight of the Kukis, by and large, is reminiscent of the judgement of God against the Edomites, “Behold, I will make you small among the nations: you shall be greatly despised (Obadiah 1:2)”.
Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the elder son of Issac (Genesis 25:30). Obadiah the prophet revealed the mind of God that it was their pride that aroused the Almighty’s anger to fall upon them. “The pride of your heart has deceived you; you who dwell in the clefts of the rock, whose habitations is high; you who say I your heart, who will bring me to the ground?(Obadiah 1:3)”.
My Roots: Yeah, born a Kuki myself (before my spiritual birth against a Christian), I’m taking off the cushioning glove of writing in third-person that denies me a direct touch; and am pushing my pen through in first-person to effectively ink a burdensome spirit that is my own in a language that’s not my own.
Hollow Pride: Our forefathers gloried in their courage, conquests and unrestrained freedom. Hauntingly lyrical paeans of praise were sung and mentally preserved even to date. Their dominion stretched from one range to another “in the clefts of the rock”. In heathen pride, over jars of rice-beer, they repeatedly sang, “Who will bring me down to the ground from our secure abodes between Taret (a river in Manipur) and Jaangdung (a river in Burma)”.
Alas, today, does it make sense to sing the same song with our heads held high when we don’t even have a district we can exclusively call our own? And when our married sisters, in torn clothes, carrying pots of cooked- meat on their heads, and sick children on their backs, hard-sell the stuff from door to door for want of any alternative source of income, does it augur well to burn up lakhs of rupees on a night’s celebration of a spiritually irrelevant and culturally modified jamboree called modern kut-fest?
I fully agree that Kut-fest is not the only societal misadventure we are morally degraded by. I also believe that a host of unbroken curses that we inherited as a legacy from our common ancestry worked together to make us small among the nations and be greatly despised. If not washed clean by the blood of Jesus through repentance and conscience-cleansing, curses can go down and down one’s lineage. “For I, the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of those who hate me (Genesis 20:5).
But, looking back at recent history, the graph of our misery and distress soared higher and higher in direct proportion to our heart-and-soul devotion to this Frankenstine of a carnal carnival called kut. Now, even the founders cannot undo what has been done so lavishly. A vast potential of youthful energy that could, if properly channelised, have improved our lot and prestige-percentage, had been wasted in feeding the worthless part of our souls.
“For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life – is not of the Father but of the world (1 John2:16)”.
Yes, it’s the pride of life that made us small. Pride in self made king Nebuchadnezzar eats humble pie (Daniel Ch. 4). It was the blasphemous wining that destroyed his son, Belshazzar, and took his kingdom away (Daniel Ch.5). Kut is doubly guilty of both the sins cited above. In God’s sight, our most awaited autumnal venture is nothing more than a pompous show of pride takes us nearer and nearer to doomsday.
The Creator, in His mercy and longsuffering, yet offers a way- out from doom., “ If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (II Chronicles 7:14).”
Repentance is the key to re-acceptance. National sins should be repented for nationally, and individual sins individually. I, for one, feel miserably sad that I myself was once a part of this fest. To quote a late former MP, “I do not blame the system I belonged to; but I blame myself who belonged to the system”. And to set the record straight, I hereby show my repentance in public by rendering the following verses on my reviewed feelings about the taxing annual fun-fare my people will do much better without:
The author is Additional Deputy Commissioner under the government of Manipur, a Northeast state in India.