Manipuri author Binodini’s Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi has now been translated into English by her son, L. Somi Roy as The Princess and the Political Agent. Binodini is the name that M.K. Binodini had assumed as her pen name. She was also lovingly known as ‘Imasi’ to many in Manipur.
It was out of the blue I was told by a friend about a book reading of the newly translated book via Zoom during these bleak lockdown days, and I jumped to the opportunity to join the event on 7th June 2020. It was amazing to be in the midst of literature lovers online and discuss and read the book together. I am overjoyed to have discovered Binodini’s writing in such a serendipitous way.
The translator, L Somi (seated left) with people who help him in the translation work, Thoidingjam Lamshmipriya (seated), Wangam Somorjit (right) and Pena Balladeer, M. Mangangsana.
I got to speak to L. Somi Roy and asked him for an interview which he gracefully agreed.
Me: On 7th June 2020, there was an informal online reading session of The Princess and the Political Agent via Zoom with various book lovers. Please tell us about that…
Somi Roy: The European Manipuri Association organized the reading of The Princess and the Political Agent hosted by Rajya Downes of the European Manipuri Association across five international time zones. The reading was an ‘e-leikai’ participatory reading of The Princess and the Political Agent, meaning ‘electronic-leikai’, to connect expat Manipuris who are living in different countries. It is also a global network of shared interests using the literature by Binodini.
Me: Princess M.K. Binodini was a rainbow of talent and a great writer. Please talk to us about the various transitions of Binodini as a writer and how she blended into a social activist later…
Somi Roy: My mother, Binodini wrote in many genres…but she didn’t publish many. She published travelogues, short stories, travel essays, memoir essays, dance-plays, poems, film scripts …she was also a lyricist and a novelist as well. Isei Binodinigi is a collection of her 68 song lyrics and translations of 28 Rabindra Sangeet from the original Bangla. It is co-edited by Aribam Syam Sharma and Chongtham Kamala Devi. There are three kinds of songs that they would play at All India Radio, Manipur… one was ‘Adhunik’, second was ‘Devotional’ and third was ‘Patriotic’…Binodini wrote for all those three genres of music too… such as for patriotic songs, her song ‘Kanaada Sinnaganee Phiral Ase’ which was written in 1960’s but it was sung for June 18th as a patriotic song… and the song, ‘Lairabinee Haine Ema Nangse’ was written by her after she returned from New York because she missed Manipur very much amidst the skyscrapers of New York. A distinct memoir essay of hers called ‘The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories’ was published by Zubaan Books, in my translation and I enjoyed doing it so much and I wanted to translate it well…She used a lot of memories as her sources and resources of writing…Some of the film scripts she did were ‘Olangthagee Wangmadasoo’, ‘Ishanou’, ‘Imagi Ningthem’, ‘Asangba Nongjabi’ (Crimson Rainclouds)…she did many notable radio plays…
‘Thoibidu Warouhou’ido’ was written in 1973, an essay on the sangai deer which is now taught to 9th graders in schools in Manipur. As a result, that brought about the awareness of Manipur’s environment and wildlife to the people of Manipur which paved the way for awareness programs and festivals such as The Sangai Festival that we see today…After that she wrote Keibul Lamjao, a dance-drama that was choreographed by Thokchom Chaotombi. There was a political problem. Keibul Lamjao was burned by some unhappy farmers…she had written a dance-drama about Keibul Lamjao when she was a secretary at the Jawaharlal Nehru Manipur Dance Academy in Manipur … Aribam Syam Sharma adapted this dance-drama as a dance film. She became a social activist organically. When she went to Keibul Lamjao, Thoibi (the deer) was pregnant and she was so haunted by this and she wrote about how she felt, although she did not consciously become a social activist and an environmentalist just for the sake of it…Around the time of Lungnila Elizabeth’s death too, she wrote many an essay expressing herself, for The Poknapham, the Manipuri daily. So, Binodini’s foray into social activism comes from being a writer. Politically though, she leaned towards leftism and was a sympathizer of Congress.
Me: From the Lady of Meisnam to Princess Sanatombi to Princess M.K. Binodini, all women throughout various generations of the royal family seem to exude a strong feminist essence; yet, you have written on your blog that “Binodini always demurred when she was called a feminist.” Would you please explain, why?
Somi Roy: That is because Binodini did not believe in labels and she did not approve of Manipur’s women to adopt the word ‘feminism’ just as a fashionable label or a tag without learning or knowing about Manipuri women or about feminism. She would tell them… “Why don’t you find out more about Manipuri women and call yourself a feminist?” But all her books have strong women… so… you are the reader… if you want to call her a feminist, you can… There is an ancient song-rhyme about this bird called Nonggoubi who was cursed by God that she could not ever drink water from the surface of the Earth and she could only drink the rainwater that fell from the skies during monsoon…this apparently happened as the story goes because Nonggoubi refused to take part in the cleaning of rivers and ponds when she was invited by her neighbors and villagers because she was very busy with house work and as a punishment for her refusal, God punishes her and compels her to drink water by opening her mouth towards the skies whenever rain falls and never from the surface of the Earth… Binodini was such a woman that she sided with Nonggoubi and understood why she refused to go to the cleaning because as a woman at home, she had many tasks to do…She was aware that such was the case of every Manipuri woman then…
Me: Please share with us about Imasi’s influences…
Somi Roy: Her main influence came from the palace because that is the center of Manipur’s culture. The Sankritan…Jhulon from Konung….such were her basic education…she would learn them by heart since she was a child, growing up in the palace…that came first and secondly her other influences came from her education in Shillong… she had studied Sanskrit classics such as Kalidasa… Rabindranath Tagore… She spoke fluent Bengali and Bengali literature too influenced her…including Russian literature and English literature. She loved the ballads played out in the palace and used to read for joy.
Me: If you remember any of Imasi’s favorite literary works, please do share.
Somi Roy: She liked to read something for its pristine beauty of content; regardless of technical errors… she used to enjoy reading young writers’ works of Manipur and used to support young writers such as Lamabam Biramani. She also enjoyed reading Meiteilon as well as English literature such as Virginia Woolf’s works and Russian literature… She loved Laishram Somorendro’s works in Meiteilon and and Khweirakpam Chouba’s works.Her favorite Bengali writer was Shankar. She also enjoyed Badal Sarkar’s works.
After the interview L. Somi Roy explained to me the historical and modern mesh of the cover art of The Princess and the Political Agent. The crimson skies that we see on the cover, L. Somi Roy said symbolizes the war that was happening then, along with the Kangla Sa smeared with blood which also symbolizes the turmoil and the bloody battles with the British. But the part of the palace painted on the cover is of the newly restored palace after the war. He said that he tried his best to stick to the rhythm and nuances of the flow of Binodini’s thoughts and prose as were seen in her literary works, and also by being around her a lot. Knowing her as a person helped him translate her works without breaking her flow or without being damaging to her creative expressions as an artist and a writer. He believes that the translations should capture her style and he wanted to be faithful to the book as literature and not as a literal translation.
Somi Roy is a translator, film curator and a conservationist.
Writer at IRAP