Ratan Luwangcha, a photographer friend from Imphal was shot at his residence some 15 years back by a valley based insurgent group. Ratan was the most popular and vociferous scribe/photographer from the valley for civilian causes and had exposed many a scams. Ratan was seriously injured and was admitted in ICU and word got around fast about the urgent requirement of blood. The mothers of Imphal queued up in hordes. They infused new blood and a new vigor into my friend who was bedridden for almost an year.
Ratan in his second birth told me about a strange morning walk in the lanes and bylanes of Imphal. An old man and his swan go for long winding walks at around 3am, collects daily newspaper and by the sunrise around 4am plus(yes, sun rises early in our North Eastern region of India) return home. Then the old man Chauba feeds Tomba, his pet swan. Chauba reads the Manipuri daily and Tomba gets down into a nearby pond. A pet dog watches over these sessions with a gaze of neutrality from a distance.
Now in January 2024, I quote an India Today report,”In bone-dry statistics, about 200 killed,1000 injured and 60,000 homeless between May and August. All this while the state police and even the armed forces, for the most part remained helpless spectators. Even arms and ammunition were looted from the police constabulary amid allegations of state complicity”. The story of this strange morning walk looks like a very slight material in retrospect. But it’s not true that they were walking through the streets of Imphal which were so peaceful prior to the present fractured law and order landscape in the state. The times through which Tomba and Chauba walked were bloody times too. Ofcourse, the scale was much smaller and the violent eruptions were mainly between the state and non-state actors. Ratan Luwangcha narrated the story of this man and his swan which was nuanced with a mixture of beauty and violence like a Shakespeare play.
Everyday around 3 in the morning, a beak pushing the mosquito net was egging the sleeping old man to get up. He was not sure of that day’s morning walk as a curfew imposed was in place. Two encounter killings which were captured by a hidden camera and were exposed by Tehelka magazine triggered a civilian uprising. The swan, which was trying to wake up the lazy master, made all kinds of whistle, trumpet, hiss and snort. Finally they were on the move only to be stopped forcefully by the security personnel. They were forced to return home. The subsequent day repeated the same narrative. Swan whistled to the security personnel. They returned home again. The civilian unrest was on high boil and the curfew continued. Both Tomba and Chauba defied the curfew in place and walked through the enveloping mixture of soundscapes created by the swan’s whistle to the army whistles, during the next couple of days. It became a curious sight even for the armed forces at Imphal streets.
I found an ultimate metaphor in this material and shot the man and the bird with an idea to return with my Crew for making a longer duration film which was not destined to happen. The old man died suddenly and the only documentation available was Ratan’s photographs and my short video on it. This short film was referred to animal/bird clearance board by the Central Board of Film Certification and a bizzare letter landed on my table. It said that the swan is not a domestic bird and as a responsible Gazetted Officer, I should take action on it by informing the Forest Department of Manipur! The metaphor story slowly started consuming me as the maker of the film ‘Old man and swan’.
On a later day visit with Ratan in Imphal, I found two swans floating in that same pond. The widow explained the story behind, after the disappearance of the master. The swan started following anybody with a walking stick on the street. It criss-crossed the road searching for its fellow walker. The native wisdom of the old lady prompted her to get another same species companion. Thus, as a Gazetted Officer with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, I see a potential binocular offense. It is not a single swan but two swans there in the pond. Should I write on the file that the bird is wrongly identified as a swan but actually it is a duck? The film ‘old man and swan’ never came out of the Censors! That’s what happens when a filmmaker is obsessed with the idea of mirroring the universe on a dew-drop. When I met the legendary Gandhian fighter of Manipur who refused to eat and had survived through forceful nasal feeding for sixteen long years, the metaphor obsessed filmmaker had a hardcover copy of Amartya Sen’s seminal book, ‘ The idea of Justice’. Irom scribbled on the first page and we took a photograph. Later I had witnessed that epic moment in Sharmila’s life when she decided to end her fight against the draconian lawless law AFSPA 1958. She was gleefully feeling the touch of food when a nurse at the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital poured a few honey drops onto her left palm. Sharmila felt the honey drops and was smilingly going to taste it. Suddenly she withdrew her right hand in a jerky fashion. Sixteen long years were reflecting on those honey drops. Sharmila became melancholic at that ‘to-be or not-to-be moment’. The whole visual media had obliterated that two minutes of epic conflict which was not fitting into their breaking news format.
I don’t know the later part of the swan story. I know that Sharmila got married and had twin boys, but could not return to Imphal from Bangalore. The idea of Justice is still trying to cross through the lawlessness in the streets. The whole narrative came alive in front of my eyes as I learn about another long journey named as ‘Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra’, which has Nyay(Justice) woven into it. A ripple idea for Justice can transform into decisive waves as I go through the history of this land where a handful of salt was raised and an Empire came down…
Imphal is a throbbing space in time.
(AIDEM online will also be simultaneously publishing this article in English, Malayalam and Hindi)
Joshy Joseph is an award-winning film maker and writer