Amidst all the politics and politicking, we are here once again on the doorstep of an enchanting human story told in purest poetry. Yes, we refer to Ningol Chakouba which is barely a month away now, which today is no longer just a Meitei festival but of so many other communities in the state as well. And why not too, for this festival has nothing to do with religion or politics or community affiliations, but about reaffirmation of filial bonds between siblings, a human value that would without doubt cut across all these divides. It is like the harvest festival or the celebration of Spring, phenomenon which cannot be by any interpretation, unique to one culture or people. Hence, Ningol Chakouba is the day in a year when married daughters (or sisters as the case may be) return to their parental homes for a family reunion luncheon.
It is true that this festival too reflects the patriarchal structure and ethos so deeply ingrained into our society, and hence married women leave their parental homes and go to live in their husband’s homes and not the other way around. However, there is no point in being fanatical about it and it will do well towards promoting social harmony to acknowledge there are certain attributes of the patriarchal order which are gender oppressive, and there are other attributes which are not so, and are instead simply the paths of least resistance in the natural flow of a society’s collective social and economic growth. Once this is agreed upon, the progressive way forward should be to look for ways to discard the oppressive and redundant so that only those attributes which are complementary to contemporary life remain as our customary practices. It will also do well to acknowledge that nothing is permanent in this world, not even values, and like everything else, even values will have to conform to the changing times and needs of a society.
Back to the rumination on NIngol Chakouba then. In the olden days, this festival must have had a much greater significance. When communication facilities were bad and farming was nearly everybody occupation, work in the fields would have been too preoccupying for frequent visits and family reunions. Moreover, before the diversification of professions and the arrival of day care centres and professional house helpers, it would have been especially difficult for women to leave the binds of demanding domestic responsibilities of childcare and chores. Ningol Chakouba then would have been a very rare occasion for married daughters to return home for a relaxed reunion with siblings and parents. Today, the physical separations of siblings after marriage is no longer as agonisingly wide, but the charm of this festival remains, enough to have everybody prepare with warm hearts, wet eyes, swollen throats, for a nostalgic journey down memory lane.
For many, it will be a time to quietly mourn and cement mutual love with tears shed for missing parents and siblings. Others will be luckier in being spared thus far of what is an essential and ultimately unavoidable tragedy of life – deaths. There will be heartbreaks to remember just as there will be joyous moments to revisit. There will be wrongs and misunderstandings to forgive and reconcile. There will be failures and successes to console or congratulate each other for. There will be new additions to the extended families, giving more causes for hope and a will to carry on. Tears and laughter without doubt are the two sides of the same coin of human life, which is why there can be nothing as an absolute tragedy or comedy. There can be no doubt about it that everybody and anybody’s life will have an archive with loads of tragedies and comedies. As the French say, c’est la vie, or “that’s life”. So many wise men down the aeons, in every culture, have told us precisely this in as many words. Only in fairy tales do stories end with the familiar refrain “and they lived happily ever after.” In real life however, one success, however big, cannot define anybody’s life, neither can one failure, however big, destroy it. Life continues, even beyond the familiar refrain “they lived happily ever after”. This is why despair and egoistic pride are both vain, and in different ways, an exhibition of narcissism. One word can replace both these sentiments – hope. A will to achieve more, driven by an engine of hope, regardless of which station in life one may have landed in, is in an existential sense, the only tangible meaning there in life.
Consider the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways”. The emphasis is on “unhappy families” whose stories are unique to themselves. By contrast, there is nothing left to be told about “happy families”. They simply fade away into the nothingness of “they lived happily ever after”. It cannot be a coincidence that all of the most enduring and enchanting stories from every culture through the ages, are about these uniquely “unhappy souls”, Anna Karenina included. Why is that Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Khamba-Thoibi, Laila-Majnu, Romeo and Juliet etc are remembered much more than the multitudes who walked into the sunset and supposedly “lived happily ever after”? The answer probably has a lot to do with a paradoxical element of life. Everybody strives for that ideal condition described by “they lived happily ever after” without actually giving a thought to the possibility that the struggle itself, rather than the goal, may be what is giving meaning to life.
To struggle implies there is something more to be achieved, giving a sense of purpose and vitality to life. To despair or to be contented hence are both sins against life – the cardinal sin of giving up hope and vision of continuity. Maybe there is nothing as “lived happily ever after”, or to use a more contemporary allusion, “end of history”. Even in that condition, there must be something always to go after, unless one has decided to give up. Reflecting on Ningol Chakouba then, we urge everybody for one thing – take life in its strides.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author