“ImFahl”, I am corrected by the first security guard who inspects my passport at Kolkata airport as I tell him I am bound for “ImPhal”. “It’s my home place”, he says grinning broadly as he waves me on. Imphal is the capital of Manipur on India’s North East border. As I arrive I see a huge notice ‘all foreigners report to the office immediately on arrival’. I am relieved that Dinesh, the FXB host in Manipur, is meeting me- thankfully he has done all the groundwork. I fill out a form, headed ‘the particulars of the foreigner’. Manipur is considered a ‘sensitive’ area due to separatists who operate in the surrounding mountains. The ‘welcoming party’ of officials and army is quite intimidating. It is immediately noticeable how many men with guns there are ‘lurking’ around the airport complex, and then beyond, all the way on the road into the city.
In 1949 a treaty was signed by the ruling Maharaj which merged Manipur with India. It was controversially received and there has been a long playing war ever since between those who feel it should be arranged into a number of independent separate Indian states and those who don’t. It borders several states I have barely heard of – Nagaland and Mizoram. I have heard of Assam (the tea), and of course Burma too. Burma lies to the east. Nagaland to the north. Alarmingly Dinesh explains to me how the men with guns have a carte blanche licence to shoot without impunity. “You know they can shoot and that can lead to injury, maybe you will be unwell, maybe it could kill you, but now in some provinces they don’t have that mandate anymore – well it’s been revoked in two,” he says in a half hearted way almost as if to console himself. My luck has it that the shooting ban is in effect in Imphal. When I read the local newspaper ‘The People’s Chronicle’ one of the reports mentions that someone is ‘shot to the death’. It’s as emphatic as that. I am listening to Dinesh’s take on the army presence as I witness a man with a gun standing guard on every block, several trucks pass loaded up with men in camouflage, guns that look like body part extensions. The guns are AK47′S, 303′s, old World War II cast offs, and some SLR’s (“self loading rifles”, says Dinesh) They don’t look too menacing I am thinking as if to reassure myself, but, at this stage ‘what the hell do I know, anymore?”
What Dinesh tells me is that FXB Surakshar India (Surakshar means ‘security’ in Hindi) is sorely needed here. The Burmese/Indian border is rife with HIV victims – widows and orphans plus an ongoing lucrative drug trade. Heroin has been the thing – used needles being shared widely. Dinesh explains a system where the addict sticks his arm through a hole in the wall and and some anonymous someone on the other side slides the (more than likely) used needle into the vein. There is a new drug on the market ambitiously called the World is Yours. It comes in tablet form.”If you crush it, it gives out an orange, choco or lemon aroma. It is smoked in a hookah and upon inhalation one begins to feel more power, you feel more sexually active and sex workers in Burma use it to enhance their performance. The raw materials are found here in India but the production is in Myanmar, then it comes back to India but the production is definitely in China or Burma. It’s called narco terrorism because India blames Burma but they are both culpable and accountable,” is Dinesh’s take on the situation at hand. What is apparent on my visit to Imphal is the number of HIV victims. Mainly widows. Previously married to addicts and left to support themselves, and, on average two children – frequently one who is HIV positive and one who is not. I meet ‘gangs’ of strong, single HIV positive women mostly on Anti Retro Virals, all supporting one another. It’s different to Tamil Nadu where the diagnosis is considered a shame.
When I check out and pay my bill at the Classic Hotel, Imphal, the receptionist at the desk asks me ” Is Edelstein your surname?” Often in these parts of the world- China and India – one’s name can be used as both the first and the surname. For example when Prem, one of the FXB staff members gives me a list of his colleagues, it reads like this: Solochana (social worker), Sushila (peer volunteer), Reena (peer volunteer). Smiling, the hotel receptionist tells me that her niece was given the name ‘Edelstein’. I ask her if she knows what it means. “I think something like strong woman; one who has force and power,” she replies. I tell her that I don’t know of that meaning but I do know that the German origins of the word mean noble or precious jewel or gemstone. We discuss it’s German/ Eastern European roots. How odd it seems to me that a young girl in Manipur is randomly given the name Edelstein as her first name. Cool, I reckon. Now that I think of it, when I filled out the form ‘the particulars of the foreigner’ one of the questions asked was ‘name of father’. So the name Edelstein seems to have featured frequently here in the past 48 hours in far flung Manipur.
I wanted to write a bit about my experience of the rural villages of Africa, India and China. Not that I am lumping them together. More that I can draw some comparisons. My host Bruce Lee repeatedly reminded me that Bu Tuo and the Yi people are not China. The Yi live in mountainous regions around Bu Tuo, a three hour drive from XiChang. The drive leads you to regions of high altitude coupled with a bracing cold. The levels of hygiene and sanitation were surprisingly non existent. “The Yi people wash three times in their lives” Bruce Lee explained, “when they are born, for their wedding and for their funeral”. I had evidence of that. The blackened faces, feet and hands, the stench, the filth, the soiled tattered clothes and the litter everywhere. Like some communal depression- a lack of pride or care or awareness. The latrines are there, and there is no talk, as there is in India, of an open defecation ‘policy’. One image I have in my mind is of a crouching woman, in the glaring sunlight, in a huge field, bare bottom facing the road, not a bush or tree in sight to provide any cover. It must be quite liberating, I guess. That was in the Tamil Nadu region of India. Preferable I would say to squatting in a shit filled, stinky latrine with flies swirling around. By the time I got to ChengDu I have never been as happy to see a toilet bowl. The simple pleasure and joy of sitting on a toilet seat.
Let us address the issue of the flies. In China they were constant companions. In the food areas, on the washing line, in the home, in the cow and pig pens. And around the cow pats, the rivers, on the faces… in your face. Damn them and swat them. And how, one might ask, is that considering the chilly climate. The stinky odour. Even in the heat in India it did not pervade like it did in the Bu Tuo County of China. The close proximity to animals in the residential home is real, and that is probably the reason for the flies and the stench. In Africa and India the proximity is fairly close too but the homes are clean and tidy. They do not smell.
There is an African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”. And here there is one overriding common denominator existent in all the rural areas I visited. The spirit of community. The women working – be it gathering crops in the fields or weaving, laughing and gossiping together. The children fetching water and playing ball or skipping rope together. The men playing cards, smoking and drinking together. The men, women and children walking together to reach the local church service, funeral or wedding. A gathering of the force and power of community and the need of social activity. One of the images I will never forget was at the FXB Village of the ‘outcaste’ community, the Periya Colony in Mathur. Dusk and the light was falling as we drove into the main road of the village. It is the one and only road. We stopped the car and walked through the community recognising people we had met earlier that day. On the road was a man being soaped down by a woman. Children running around, men riding motorbikes, other village elders walked by. A baby crawled into the road. The man was impossibly and spectrally thin. The woman was large and strong in her sari clad body and she spirited healthy strokes over his wafer thin body. I discovered that she was his wife and he her husband, a tuberculosis sufferer. After that public wash at the communal tap, she helped him over to a bed on the floor. He lay down outside the mud house coughing quietly, close to the tethered cow. He looked like he had days, maybe hours, remaining on this planet. The wife passed by with a very young child in her arms, a worried look on her face. I imagined the community gathering around her at the moment of his passing. They would not have to take a tube, a bus, nor get into a car – they had some steps to take, at most.
Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members. -Pearl S. Buck, Nobelist novelist (1892-1973)