Basanti Debating Club. What can this Poem by Khwairakpam Chaoba Teach us Today?
First half of the twentieth century in Manipur was an interesting time for varied reasons. The hold of Hinduism started to loosen up, although not before it attempted to tighten rein once again. It introduced various repressive religious policies to control its subjects with state patronage. This prompted the emergence of a new Meetei movement to challenge Hinduism, and as an answer to a perceived lack of a religion the Meetei’s can call their own. Scholars have termed this new movement by various names – Meetei Revivalism, Sanamahi movement etc.
Naoria Phulo, stood tall in this challenge and paved the way for a new self-respect and emancipation of Meitei outside the hold and fold of Hinduism. He extensively spoke on the need to embrace ‘my’ religion, language, script, history in order to achieve emancipation from what he perceived as oppressive Hinduism. On the literary front too, there was also a group of western educated, till then devout Hindus such as Khwairakpam Chaoba, Lambam Kamal, Hijam Anganghal etc. who expressed their love for language and literature. There was a concerted effort amongst them to enrich Meeteilon and literature so as to instil confidence and price amongst the speakers of Meeteilon, many of whom then were burdened with a sense of inferiority.
It is needless, for now, to map out the contributions made by these early literary figures for the growth of language and literature as the focus is somewhere else. Although it is important to note the immense works produced by them which laid the foundation for a new literary movement, for reshaping of identity and consciousness. Naoria Phulo and the literary figures of Imphal did not have a direct engagement. However, it is clear from their writings that they all shared a new wave of consciousness, a renewed possibility of loving the self, hence, did away with the earlier self-hate produced by Hinduism.
Khwairakpam Chaoba has extensively written on the language question, but his opinion seems to be ambiguous. His ambiguity should be determined by his allegiance to Hinduism. I would to like keep away those ambiguities/contradictions for the time being and focus on a particular poem in order to articulate a politics which might be useful for us today. The poem ‘Basanti Debating Club’ presents not just a quest for language like his other poems and essays, but attempts to represent a consciousness mediated by modernity. It also shows hitherto aspirations of his community although trampled by another powerful language and community.
‘Basanti Debating Club’ was written in 1939 and appeared in the school magazine of The Johnstone High School. It is not a popular poem like his other poems and does not immediately concern and appeal to the taste of anthology makers. In the poem, different birds gathered for a debate on the topic, “Manipurda College Lingheide” (Manipur should not have College). Sparrow, fluent in English and Bangla, supports the motion. Sparrow is a master in the art of argument. Thus, with reason, the bird argues:
“Lingheide lingheide, Manipurda college lingheide.
Matricmakki mafamleitri, ashida college palheide”
(College should not be established in Manipur
There is no place for matriculates, college will not have a place)
Chonga (Mayna) pundit, speaking in Sanskrit, disagrees with sparrow’s reasoning and opposes the motion. There is a nameless, unmarked group of small birds, cheklamacha. Cheklamcha begin to create noise by shouting against the motion. In a single voice, they demand for the establishment of a college in Manipur. The poem does not specify the language of the cheklamcha. Crow, disinterested, turns its face away and supports the topic and asks, “Ko ko College lingkhatladuna kya matalab?” (“What is the use of establishing a college?”). Cheklamacha get angry, and the debate is marred by chaos. Later, the small birds opposing the motion, win the debate after a vote. A governing body of the birds is formed to establish a college. In the meantime, a Laishram boy throws a stone at the birds. At the end of the poem, in the form of a couplet, Chaoba laments,
“Ha matam,uchekmaknasu thak ashi youkhraba!
Eikhoi Meiteidi keidoungie mimannarakkaba?”
(Birds have reached this level, oh time!
When will we Meiteis compete with others?)
Interpreting the Poem
The poem is interesting for various reasons and can be understood in many levels as there is interplay between language, power and identity. In the poem, languages of power: English, Bangla, Sanskrit and Hindi are represented by distinct birds such as sparrow, chonga pundit and crow. Cheklamcha is not given a language but a noise. They create noise; a noise is usually without an identity. It cannot be marked. But, through their noise, they are able to convey their intention. Language of the cheklamacha is unnameable, is without an identity, because of the fact that it is the language of cheklamacha. Cheklamcha are insignificant small birds.
In the poem, debate is conducted in the languages of power, either to oppose or support the motion. Speakers of these languages are individuated while cheklamacha are deemed mere listeners, mobs, representative of the uncivilized, chaotic native. However, it is this nameless and invisible(lised) native language together with the aspirations of the small and insignificant birds that would eventually shift the tone of the debate towards a consensus for establishing the college.
Debate as an act that prioritises reasoning, modernity and democracy is foregrounded in the poem. It also aims at bringing an issue to the forefront, and finds a solution amicably through discussion and public opinion. But, the question that needs pondering over is – are debates in general and the debate in the poem in particular, amicable at all? Violence and power of language are entrenched. It is evident in the poem that language, not just a mere language but a language of power, is found appropriate for the debate. Capacity to reason is with the language of power, while the nameless language of cheklamacha is not. Although postcolonial studies would inform us about the incapacitated nature of language of the cheklamacha, it is not because the native language does not embody meaning. Its embodied meaning is hollowed out in the encounter with the other, in the debate, and in the very act of joining democracy. Hollowing out of meaning is performed in order that a new meaning can be imposed. This newly arrived meaning was constituted in a different culture and space. And the consequence of a new meaning is history now.
A debating club is also an important space for dialogue that allows democratic participation of contesting opinions. It is representative of the (democratic) western public space/sphere. Western modernity or elements of it, in the form of a debating club, found its inroads in Manipur in the poem. Ironically though, this import of western rationality – a public space, according to Chaoba, has not arrived yet in Meitei/Meetei society. Therefore, he laments the lack of such democratic spaces where public opinions can be formed when the lower species like birds have it already. Perhaps, this lack or the enthusiasm to embrace western mode of reasoning and debate, and that Manipur did not have a college during his time must have been a pressing anxiety for him. Let us remember that a few years after in 1946, the first college in Manipur, Dhanamanjuri College, would be established in Imphal.
The Noise and its Meaning
In the poem, Chaoba does not make cheklamacha lose agency completely. Through their noise, a non-western mode of engagement, they are still able to resist the hegemony of the reason manifested in the languages of power; and assert their position clearly at the same time. The noise of cheklamacha could be read as an anti-colonial struggle not just in terms of a physical sense of the term but cultural as well. Partha Chatterjee’s theorisation of the East as “political society” as against West’s civil, the victory of the cheklamcha is significant. It is a win of chaos over order, non-reason over reason. However, on the other hand, participation in the debate by cheklamacha and the show of aspiration for a college is indicative of the growing acceptance of western education and rationality by the Meetei masses as against the Hindu orthodoxy of his time. The hard-won debate by cheklamacha for establishing a college received a heart-breaking antithesis when a Meetei boy broke the gathering of the bird by throwing a stone at them.
We cannot be certain of the language of cheklamacha. The context of the poem and the poet tempts one to assume it to be Meeteilon. Implication, again, by virtue of the context, identity of checklamacha is to be Meetei. However, are they just Meetei or does it include other communities of Manipur? We can put the discussion to an end here if we impartially agree that the language to be Meeteilon. But let’s try to push it further and seek different kinds of answers by asking different kinds of questions.
Representation of Manipur has been a contested area where maximum number of symbols representing the state emanate from the Meetei community. This over representation by a single community has led to an uncanny equation of Manipur equals Meetei. This equation is not without merit; and, within Meetei community, Meetei Hindus enjoy a fair share of cultural and epistemic representation. In such a context, a Meetei does not find an easy challenge while talking about Manipur. On the one hand, the Meetei person cannot use Meetei as representative term of the state; on the other, term such as Manipuri is received with suspicion as it has already achieved a kind of synonymity with Meetei.
In the poem, language of cheklamcha is not mentioned. It is only a contextual conjecture. One can begin by asking why they do not have a language. Is it because the constituents of cheklamcha are in multiple that Chaoba struggled to have a generic name? Or, the easy equation that Meetei equals Manipur trumps the difficult part of representation? Lamabam Kamal, in his introduction to his Lei Pareng (1929), struggles for Meeteilon as he was envisioning readership for literatures written in Meeteilon. My argument, thus, is to understand the noise of cheklamacha in the poem in terms of multiple, in terms of a struggle, as a tension within the noise, as something which cannot be collapsed into one. Because it cannot be collapsed into one that a Meetei struggles for a singular meaning of the state. It is not difficult to imagine this would have been the nature of the struggle of a literate Meetei of the first half of the twentieth century and later. The struggle has become much more prominent now than in politics and representation of Manipur.
The noise and chaos of cheklamacha are something one can embrace and celebrate. The chaos is not oppressive and it does not seek to become one while fighting for a cause which they all agree to fight for. In the context of the poem, the collective noise of cheklamacha is able to defeat the order of the superior birds. Perhaps, this is the lesson we can learn from the poem. The tension within cheklamacha should remain as a signifier of a continuing effort to live together. In the manner of speaking, figuratively, the struggle of Meetei, symbolic or otherwise, hegemonic or not, real or pretentious, for a unified Manipur, perhaps, should continue even when other communities’ idea of Manipur or politics is sharply different. After all, it was a Meetei boy who broke the chaos by throwing a stone.
The author teaches at MECI Explorer Academy, Imphal. His research interest includes language and script debate, minority studies, literary theory. The article is extracted and reworked from his Ph.D. dissertation submitted to University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org