Hundreds of young people leave Manipur every year, essentially forced out by the ongoing problems with insurgency and a dysfunctional government. But even as they seek safety in physical relocation, their hearts and identities remain firmly rooted in a homeland they know they may not be able to return to anytime soon. In such a situation, they pick up the pieces of their former existence and painstakingly reconstruct it in the virtual world. With the aid of social networking sites and group mail, these self-imposed exiles find a space to share their experiences of and nostalgia for their distant home. One such space is the Virtual Hoten (locals pronounce hotel as "hoten") where members share food, photographs and recipes.
"Much like the Bengalis, the Meiteis (the majority community of Manipur) have an all-consuming passion for food. They discuss it with as much relish as they eat it."
The Manipuri identity in displacement
Manipur is an extraordinary experience in several ways. Its food, its dance and music, its rites and rituals and its fascinating history are celebrated in everyday life by a people who are extremely proud of - and emotional about -- their heritage. Manipur's loss of its kingdom and later its ongoing battle against insurgency was offset by innovative attempts to hold on to everything that it loved. The word identity has several definitions but it primarily operates at two levels: assertion of it or celebration of it. In Manipur, situated along the Myanmar border, identity is both asserted as well as celebrated in many forms and forums.
I recall a symposium on the tourism potential of Manipur, where I was openly sceptical about some "potential" attributes listed by speakers. I asked why anybody would travel to Manipur for a vacation when it offers neither infrastructure nor a sense of security. In less than 24 hours an online discussion forum, Manipur Talks, picked up my comments and started a thread which carried on for pages together. Such is the acute sense of identity that a mere comment on the state's tourism potential is analysed, dissected and debated by its people for days.
Then there are spaces where you can literally sample the flavours of Manipur.
Virtual Hoten opens its doors
I first encountered the Virtual Hoten in an Indian Forest Officer's garden in Chandigarh. A Manipuri, he has been growing his homeland's indigenous herbs and plants in his kitchen garden. While explaining his exploits to a few other Manipuris accompanying me, I came to know that there exists a space on the internet dedicated to connecting young people from Manipur.
"In the northeast, history is a tricky word. Every armed group stakes a claim on it to suit their agenda."
It started in 2009, after an alleged fake encounter resulted in the deaths of two people in Imphal. Soon it became a popular online community forum and the discussion shifted from politics to food. Much like the Bengalis, the Meiteis (the majority community of Manipur) have an all-consuming passion for food. They discuss it with as much relish as they eat it. In Manipur, even the morning greeting to a neighbour passing by is this: Have you had food yet?
I was initiated into the community discussion with an invitation to "sample" boras (a pakora-like snack). In plainer terms, the thread was triggered by pictures of boras sent by someone back home. This inspired debates and arguments about the best bora (boras from Nambol got the most votes).
While I was being served vegetable boras, the forest officer was tossing up some Kelichana (white pea salad), a major talking point in the Hoten. The mix of boiled peas cooked in oil with onions and marois (garlic chives) is a rather simple recipe but immensely popular. Even as members concurred that the best Kelichana outlets are at Imphal's Nagamapal, RIMS Road, Khyathong and BT Road localities, Virtual Hoten managed to acquire a really old photograph of the dish's original vendor, Keli, selling the chana.
Reconstructing the past
As we sat around our virtual snacks, we discussed history - much as we would have had we been in a tea stall in Manipur.
In the northeast, history is a tricky word. Every armed group stakes a claim on it to suit their agenda. Manipur's history has been open to hundreds of interpretations because most manuscripts were destroyed by Maharaj Garibniwaj who reigned from 1709-1748, and under whom the kingdom embraced Hinduism. I was informed that though all the ancient texts were burnt -- in what is known as puya mei thaba or the burning of the manuscripts - folklore has it that one puya (the word is derived from the puranas or royal books) was saved by one of the queens. So whatever history is now written is based on that salvaged volume.
"While most of us give in to fond reminisces now and then, at the Hoten they live that nostalgia."
Bamons (Brahmins), I was told, who came from Bengal had written most of the texts that are used as source materials today. Any telling of Manipur's story is primarily based on manuscripts collected by a few individuals and whatever British political agents left as ethnographic monographs. The India Office records with the British Commission have important leads. TC Hodson, Alexander Mackenzie and Major William McCulloch are authors of informative books on Manipur. Ethel St Claire Grimwood's My Three Years in Manipur and Escape from the Recent Mutiny is an account by the wife of the political agent Frank St Claire Grimwood who was killed in 1891. The accounts are very intimate and personal and are probably the best available sources of information on Manipur after the British captured the kingdom. The Hoten is still fighting over the correctness of their history and it is unlikely that the argument shall be resolved any time soon.
Lived experience in a virtual space
I was lucky that I got to be part of a tea-sipping adda, since weekends are generally slow in the Hoten. This is because the tea stall owner is busy "weekending", claiming that he has run out of tea leaves -- without tea and the local newspaper, how can Meiteis sit and chat? How real they seem, but the adda, the diminishing supplies of tea, the weekend hiatus are all imagined situations, based on collective memory. While most of us give in to fond reminisces now and then, at the Hoten they live that nostalgia. Take, for example, leipung adda, which is conducted over group email exchanges. This mode of conversation gets its name from the word leipung, which refers to mounds on kuccha roads over which the young and old sit to discuss matters of local, national and personal interest. It's another kind of lived experience that is felt over a virtual space.
"Imphal is written as 'Imphan' and school as 'skoon' because that is how they would pronounce it in the vernacular, just like 'hoten'."
The most exciting days, however, are when someone virtually elopes. Nupi chenba or eloping is a major source of entertainment. Some cultural context: the practice of eloping (and then, often, marrying) is rather common in Manipur even today amongst young people. In this online community if news arrives of someone eloping then there are informers and lawyers and the entire sequence of ritualised post-elopement events are played out in the Internet community. With the real Manipuri taken hostage by conflict and exile, the virtual community members give themselves the imaginative free will to draw humour from impossible situations.
The Hoten has more on the menu than just tea and snacks. There is a saying in Manipuri: Chakcha yuthak phajaba. It means that good drinking and fine eating is the reflection of a well-mannered, cultured person. This clearly shows that drinking has been a part of the culture even though there is a militant diktat, social ban and government regulation against liquor. So the Hoten started serving virtual drinks as well -- local brews from Androu, Sekmai and Phayeng. I am not sure whether this practice elicited the wrath of the armed groups who love to play vigilantes.
"This space allows young people to cope with displacement by restoring continuity with the past and a collective memory."
The language of belonging
Initially, the group of around 100 people were interacting on mail but as the number grew they moved to a Facebook group. The interaction was intermittent and the reason offered by the owner of the Hoten was that he was suffering from indigestion so his hotel was shut. The group didn't do too well so they moved to a page instead and named it Maisnam Mangijao. There are more than 3000 members today.
The profile of the owner now reads:
"CEO--Linux_Kernel_Maintainer--Tester--Waiter--Tech_Support--Hawa_Gari_Handan_man at Mangijao Inc, Imphan February 1980 to present , Studied Criminal psychology at Lampak Skoon ,Past: L P Skoon."
It is important to note that Imphal is written as "Imphan" and school as "skoon" because that is how they would pronounce it in the vernacular, just like "hoten". Similarly, it's "gilas" instead of glass and "biskoot" for biscuit.
As in the email group, here too thrive imagined scenarios from life as it is lived back home. For example, a conversation taking place "at" Ta Chaobagi Hoten in Wangkhei, close to the city's landmark Govindajee Temple, where pork dishes are a delight. Given the situation back home they even form Joint Action Committees (JACs are formed in Manipur at the drop of a hat for any killing, abduction or community issues). The virtual JACs protest against power cuts and water scarcity.
A recent thread proceeds like this:
Group Member 1:ho Khura Mangijao, Chaa amata shotke, Taibi na aakash bill hek pibaga sing-ge !O Uncle Mangijao, let me have a tea from you on credit. Only if Taibi (That's what the chief minister Ibobi Singh is referred to. It is Tada + Ibobi. Tada means brother) approves the bill, I can give you tea on credit.
Hoten Mapu (Hotel Owner) replies :Jiri lamben shemde haiduna CHAA mana amata phangdare. With the Jiribam road under repairs, there is scarcity of tea leaves.
Group Member 2:Oja Mangijao shi Amu Muk Shawai Shawai Manglishe Kadaida Chatpi_bage? Election Mayagi Pot Yamna Shitpa Matam_shida. Sir Mangijao is hardly seen nowadays. Maybe because of elections... he has a lot of things to attend to.
Group Member 3:CMgi manaonupana hairafao pidrisinadi eikhoina sotkedi sungya yaraktou mandre. When the CM brother's (in another thread, Group Member 1 was found out to have traits similar to CM's brother, hence) request can be refused, people like us stand nowhere.
This is virtual Leipung Phamba... a regular addaor chat corner found in every leikei(locality) of Manipur.
Self-exile is also a form of protest and writing transforms the diasporic into metaphor. This space allows young people to cope with displacement by restoring continuity with the past and a collective memory. It achieves much more than what the average internet chat room does.
Homelessness is a collective feeling for the Manipuri outside his or her state. The complexity of the experience of such a life has led to a new kind of identity formation, even if it centres on a make-believe lunch-house or hoten where recipes and memories are brought to life.
(Kishalay Bhattacharjee's book Che in Paona Bazaar, Pan Macmillan, 2013, has a chapter on Virtual Hoten).