MK Binodini’s debut novel of ‘Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi’ for which she received the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1979 remains her only novel for though she did go on to write a play (Ashangba Nongjabi) and even translating a Bengali play into Manipuri, besides writing numerous feature and non feature film scripts, she did not write a conventional novel again. Her last published book is Maharaj Churachandgi Imung, a memoir of her life and times in the royal family of Manipur, which started out as a weekly series in a Manipuri newspaper that was collated and then published in book form in the year 2008. Prior to Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi of course, the writer’s first published book ‘Nunggairakta Chandramukhi’ (1965), a collection of 16 short stories that went on to receive the prestigious Jamini Sundar Guha Gold Medal.
Though the central figure of ‘Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi’ remains Princess Sanatombi, one of the many children born to Maharaj Surchandra (1886 -1890), who went on to ‘marry’ the Lt. Col. Henry P. Maxwell, the first Political Agent of Manipur after it became part of the British India empire; the novel takes readers through the many fissures between the feuding royal members for the right to rule. A large part of the novel is thus, not just the immediate years around the Anglo Manipur War of 1891 and the later years, but also the back events told through anecdotes that went on to contribute to the bitter internecine rivalry between the Nara and Karta lineage of the former royal house of Manipur.
The way the title has been structured perhaps takes away from the fact that essentially, MK Binodini’s novel though in the author’s own words, a work of fiction and not history, give a lot of socio cultural and historical insights to contemporary readers. Who knew that the social ostracization that Sanatombi endured on one hand and the religious beliefs (and dogma) that people held would lead to designing an integral part of the wedding attire and get up of Meitei brides? When Sanatombi decides to organize a Raas Leela at the Official Residence of Maxwell, the royal elders give her permission after due consultation with priests and learned elders but is told not to wear the regular head gear that Ras Leela performers wear at the sacred Govindaji temple. So instead of the ‘koktumbi’ (a pointed head wear) which is placed slightly on the left side of the head with a silver tassel and a thin veil covering the face, the ‘jhapa kurak paibi’ (jhapa, a round jewel like design worn at the back of the head with thin butterfly motifs atop the crown of the head) was worn by Sanatombi with the veil flowing down from the back of her head. It is this decorative headgear that continues to be worn by Raas Leela performers in public events and as part of the wedding attire by Meitei brides. To this day, the Jhapa costume cannot be worn for Raas Leela at Govindaji temple!
The narrative goes back and forth in time, some through events around Sanatombi but often, as extensions to the characters mentioned: a mention of a certain royal staff leads to episodic mentions of what events they have been part of or their association to other characters. The various social rules, the etiquette at the Royal Court and home, the pecking order of the Queens and the consorts of the King, the blind belief in sorcery and omens, the rumours and gossip come alive through the writing as does the stringent patriarchal tenets in practice: how royal consorts with male heirs are more equal than others, the casual mention of domestic violence that pops up when Sanatombi gets into a raging fight with her husband Manikchand who casually warns that even royal women can be tamed by beatings by citing an earlier incident of another royal woman.
The fictional elements of the book firmly lie in the romance between a young Sanatombi and a much older Maxwell. There are moments of tenderness and what looks like a socio cultural understanding but as a post colonial reader reading the book from a broader world view, one cannot help the unease in the way the character of Maxwell sometimes shows off Sanatombi to his western social circle like a trophy, telling her how to wear her clothes. As for Sanatombi, is she rebellious as a character, a woman with agency over the personal and the political or when is she someone acting on her whims? There are childhood anecdotes of her questioning why being a girl makes her any different from a boy but scratch the surface and one sees how during her growing up years, she had the affection and the protection of the powerful dowager queen (Kumudini, wife of Maharaj Gambhir Singh and mother of Chandrakirti Maharaj) and her own father, Surchandra. Once she marries, she settles down to domestic and wifely duties but has to maintain decorum while entertaining Maxwell’s social visits to her marital place. When she settles down with Maxwell, the ‘acceptance’ accorded to her is one that is given grudgingly due to the position of power that the later has over the erstwhile Kingdom of Manipur: she hosts guests at the Residency where she lives with him but cannot enter the inside rooms of the royal palace where she is made to sit outside on a seat made out for her.
The author in her foreword to the book says ‘Oh! You who believe in fairy tales is now a woman on whom misery has fallen.’ It is this refrain that Sanatombi lived and tragically died with: her last rites held in the dead of the night with no family member in attendance. Bor Saheb Sanatombi works as a book that has a mix of elements, a tragic romance, palace intrigues, queens and consorts marking out their allies and foes but ironically falls somewhat short towards the end where the author tries to give a semblance of redeeming Maxwell by establishing his emotional ties with Sanatombi and Manipur. It was towards the end of Maxwell’s tenure that the first Nupi Laan of Manipur took place after unidentified people burnt down the houses of a few British officials leading Maxwell to put in extreme measures that ended up angering the public. That a novel set during a historic setting that starts with events leading to the Anglo Manipuri war that was a result of the infighting amongst the Manipuri royals would blank out the injustice meted out to the common people while making a case for Maxwell’s character and intentions does not read well when one reads it in contemporary times.
Overall, it is a book that makes readers discover a lost era. Hopefully, the next re-issue of the book will be done after a more careful proof reading as there are incorrect spellings in some of the English texts.