Gurumayum Deepika currently teaches in the Department of English, GP Women’s College, Imphal as an Assistant Professor. Her areas of interest include Women’s Writing, New Feminisms, Northeast Literatures, and Translation Studies.
Starting from Nupi Lan (Women’s War) in 1904, women have been forerunners of social movements against oppressive regimes in Manipur. In comparison to North Indian Hindu societies, Meitei women has been perceived as having relatively more freedom, and are often seen at par with men socially, culturally, politically and economically. However, their lived realities tell a different story. In this context, the paper would attempt a critique of the narrative of the Nupi Keithel, the women only market of Manipur, as a symbol of economic freedom of its women. An alternative reading finds the space as one where patriarchal gender norms and social hierarchies are prevalent, rather than being an exclusive space for Manipuri women as endorsed by popular narratives. This concept of gendered spaces is found adequately represented in many of the literary works by women writers from Manipur, of which two short fictions by Nee Devi are examined here. Nee Devi’s writings focus on the representation of trauma and hardships faced by marginalized women in Manipur. Women’s sexuality and critiques of traditional morality, themes rarely discussed earlier in Manipuri literature, also find expression in her works.
Keywords: Nee Devi, Manipuri Women’s Writing, Meitei, Nupi Keithel, Gendered Space
“Shiba Ngamdaduna Hinglibashingda”1— the dedication to Nee Devi’s latest anthology of short stories in Manipuri reads “for those who are living only because they are unable to die” (Devi). When her first work Kadaidano (novel) was published in 1987, Nee Devi was barely twenty. Her other published works include the novel Cheithengfam (1988), a poetry volume Chakngai Warisida (1995), and two anthologies of short stories Shollaba Maree (2002) and Lei Manaa Amatang (2009).
Women’s writing in Manipur emerged very late owing to their late access to formal education which came only in 1935 (Nahakpam 24). Though there are a few women who wrote in journals as early as 1931, the year 1965 is “popularly regarded as the emerging point for women writers” in Manipur with the publication of Thoibi Devi’s novel Radha, and Binodini’s anthology of short stories, Nunggairakta Chandramukhi (27). Khaidem Pramodini along with Thoibi and Binodini, belong to the first generation of women writers in Manipur (24). While the “pioneers” (24) veered towards the search for the ideal woman, it was the “second generation” (30) of women writers who first began to explore the image of the new, educated, middle-class women “negotiating with the boundaries of traditional patriarchal society….” (31). Different from the conservative trends observed in the preceding generations, the “third generation” (38) writers became more vocal about issues such as women’s rights and gender equality:
Raising their voices against restrictive and gender-biased customs, they began to explore new ideas such as women’s rights, equality between genders, and so on. . .. along with related social norms— such as the loss of women’s individuality within a marital bond, the sexuality of women, and the relationships of transgender/non-binary individuals. (Nahakpam 40)
Nee Devi belongs to the “third generation” (Nahakpam 38) of Manipuri women writers who identify with a “new awareness of women’s condition in Manipuri society and the attempt to delineate a new place for women outside the subjugation of patriarchal, traditional and religious moulds” (38) while reflecting these new sensibilities in their writings. This paper attempts to examine the literary representations of women in Nee Devi’s short stories through the concept of gendered spaces. In this context, a theorization on Manipur’s famous women’s market, the Nupi Keithel2, becomes pertinent.
Gendered Space and Nupi Keithel
From the 1904 British attempt to reintroduce a system of forced labour, women have been forerunners of social movements against oppressive regimes in Manipur. Following another upheaval in 1939 which was also led by women, the two uprisings came to be known as the 1st Nupi Lan and the 2nd Nupi Lan, respectively. A more recent development could be observed in the significant role played by Meitei women between 1972 and 1980 in the form of the Nisabandh or prohibitionists, which gradually evolved into the present day Meira Paibi movement (Kshetri 29). In comparison with women in North Indian Brahmanical societies, Meitei3 women have thus been perceived as having relatively more freedom, oftentimes at par with men—socially, culturally, politically, and economically.
The centrality of patriarchal values and strict conformity to the patriarchal codes— “the Leimarel code4 and the Emoinu code5,” (Chungkham 34) ensnared with the remnants of a powerful ancient matriarchy (Arambam 11), and a still evolving aftermath of the seventeenth century Sanskritization, however results in a paradox which is complex and multi-layered. A closer observation thus points to lived realities that reveal contradictions and paradoxes, thereby necessitating a re-reading of the popular and culturally-endorsed narratives about women in a patriarchal Meitei society, and a critique of simplified and simplistic understanding of cultural symbols such as the Nupi Keithel (Women’s Market).
The concept of space as not-so-neutral but rather highly gendered is central to understanding the power dynamics that operate within all patriarchal systems. For instance, the division of space as polis and oikos in ancient Greece with the former accorded to men and the latter to women, clearly delineates one space as belonging to a particular gender. In her book Space, Place, and Gender (1994), Doreen Massey foregrounds this politics of gendered spaces:
From the symbolic meaning of spaces/places and the clearly gendered messages which they transmit, to straightforward exclusion by violence, spaces and places are not only themselves gendered but, in their being so, they both reflect and affect the ways in which gender is constructed and understood. (179)
Thus, Massey reinforces the importance given to not only what Lefebvre termed the “‘geometry’ of space but also its lived practices and the symbolic meaning” (Massey, Politics 251). In the Indian context, the discourse on space has conformed to a similar paradigm where public and private spaces are problematically identified with male and female genders respectively. Therefore, it becomes important to look at spaces as more than just locational concepts. As McFadden emphasizes, “space is gendered and highly politicised” (McFadden):
certain spaces have been culturally, religiously and politically marked as either ‘male’ or ‘female,’…. The spaces we refer to as public are assumed to be male, and for centuries men have excluded women from the public where all the key decisions relating to power are deliberated and implemented. (McFadden)
The Nupi Keithel is known all over the world as being the only market in the world run entirely by women, and has often been seen as a symbol of the economic freedom enjoyed by Meitei women. In other words, Manipur’s Nupi Keithel is a unique manifestation of a gender dynamic that departs from traditional gender norms practiced in other Indian societies as women have access to the public space, enjoy mobility and visibility, and are active participants in trading and commercial activities. The market came into existence around the 16th Century as a consequence of the Lallup system, a form of forced military service under the monarchy (Kshetri 25). According to this system, adult males had to be in service for ten out of every forty days. Therefore, in the absence of the men, women had to take charge of their homes and economic affairs (25).
An attempt to comprehend the underlying politics of the space leads to new questions that challenges this narrative of economic freedom of Meitei women. The contestations range from administrative control to the presence of class and ethnic hierarchies among the women. Though Nupi Keithel has only women vendors, it cannot be claimed to be independently operated by them since its administration (including the licensing system) involves the Imphal Municipal Corporation, which keeps its functioning far from being managed entirely by women. Additionally, an understanding that the Nupi Keithel originated out of necessity in the absence of men which compelled women to step out of their homes to earn a livelihood, and not as a manifestation of an equal society, also undo this myth of ‘freedom.’ As Kshetri comments, “economic necessity forced them to come out from home with their products for sale in the small market of their localities…. these markets developed into women’s market in every nook and corner of Manipur valley” (25). The myth6 associated with the origin of the market—of women as mediums to bring peace and a common culture, is also problematic as pointed out by critics: “Women’s role is very much specified as a carrier of culture and peacemaker, again a patriarchal construct where woman has no power over herself. . .. The power and control are still manipulated by the male authority” (Chungkham 36). Moreover, a recent observation has been the presence of male vendors in this ‘female’ space that has led to a dilution of the traditional definition of the Nupi Keithel (Manipur Govt Bans Male Vendors). This visible presence of males in the ‘female’ space, combined with its invisibility in the form of dominant patriarchal norms, along with historical and cultural connotations, are instrumental in the creation of the gendered politics of the Nupi Keithel, making it a space which does not function entirely outside patriarchal bounds.
A more challenging issue with regard to the Nupi Keithel, the symbol of economic ‘freedom’ of Manipuri women, is that of the homogenization of women belonging to different communities and ethnicities within this space by looking at them from a majoritarian lens. The practice of stalls being passed down from mothers-in-law to daughters-in-law could perhaps be a reason for the space being dominated mostly by middle class Meitei women who hold the license. Thus, despite being identified as a collective female space, the fissures within and their ensuing politics cannot be ignored. The women in the Nupi Keithel are divided along lines of class evident from the division among the women themselves as licensed vendors who are allotted a seat inside the building of the market, and unlicensed street vendors who do not enjoy the privileges of ‘informal inheritance.’ There have time and again been protests demanding an equal space which is denied to them, ironically by women (Roadside Vendors Associations). Soyam Lokendrajit’s critique7 of the conflation of visibility in public spaces with freedom is relevant here:
The proposition that women enjoy economic freedom in a society that itself does not have economic freedom defies the logic of social sciences. Toiling to make ends meet and yet silenced in the name of tradition—it is exploitation of the highest order that only looks like freedom. (54)
Based on the above premises, it would indeed be naive to see the Nupi Keithel as an exclusive female space and a symbol of economic freedom of Manipuri women. The divisions among the women themselves lead to a hierarchy which is not so openly acknowledged. The market has licensed women vendors occupying their spaces, but there are also unlicensed women vendors who are deprived of access to these spaces, ironically by other women. In addition, there are street women whose presence in the further margins of the Nupi Keithel are omitted, and are excluded entirely from this ‘female’ space. These women are among the most vulnerable sections in a society deeply entrenched in patriarchal codes, and are more than doubly marginalized. While many are forced to enter sex work, others resort to hawking cheap items on the roadside. There are women who become part of the Nupi Keithel, such as the madwoman Indrani, as well as those who stand in its margins like Leibaaklei, both protagonists in Nee Devi’s works.
Nupi Keithel in Nee Devi’s Short Stories
Nee Devi’s writings explore realistic representations of women in the Meitei society and their silent sufferings. She depicts the struggles of women, particularly those of socially ostracized and marginalized women— the discarded women, widows, madwomen, and women disowned by their families. Her works poignantly capture the trauma, difficulties and hardships faced by women in a conservative Meitei society. Nee Devi’s short fictions also question patriarchal society’s association of traditional morality and honour solely with women. More importantly, her writings boldly reflect on the question of women’s sexuality, a theme not often addressed in works of Manipuri literature.
The short story “Ashibagee Macha Ashiba” [Dead Offspring of the Dead] is part of Lei Manaa Amatang [A Petal of Flower], a collection of fifteen short stories published in 2009, which also won the Katha Award. It recounts the story of Indrani, a madwoman and widow, who does odd jobs and runs errands for the women vendors in Nupi Keithel. Unlike other madwomen, she keeps herself tidy and does not have an unkempt appearance. While alive, her husband had brought home a second wife which tremendously affected Indrani, and it is his sudden death that ultimately causes her madness (Devi 92). Years after her husband’s death, she reveals to the women around her that he has come back, and expresses her happiness. They play along as she shares her stories with some even pestering her for more details:
What all did you talk about? When did he come? Yesterday? Or was it the day before? . . . . . But did you really talk to him? . . . . You should’ve asked him where he was all this while. (88)
Not too long after, news of Indrani’s pregnancy shocks everyone causing widespread scorn and contempt for her. She is ridiculed and mocked at by those in the market calling out to her, “Indrani, who is the lucky father?” (93). Indrani disappears for months after this incident and it is only towards the end that she reappears, dishevelled and completely devastated. As she tells everyone, her child was stillborn and “they flung it into the river, calling it dead” (94). At the end of the short story, she walks away sobbing and talking to herself as the women remain staring at her.
In the short story, the Nupi Keithel becomes the site of humiliation of a woman by other women. Nee Devi raises questions of traditional morality in relation to Indrani, the madwoman protagonist whose husband is long dead and is chided for having sexual desires— “‘This’ madwoman is a flirt, she’s certainly going to end up with a bastard child, god knows which madwoman takes so much fancy to looks...!” (Devi 91). The writer goes beyond the private to locate Indrani only in public spaces—bus parkings and crowded market places in and around the Nupi Keithel. Though she is not involved in any economic activities, she becomes a part of the space, spending all her time there and running errands for the women vendors. In the short story, society takes the liberty to assume that Indrani is devoid of sexuality because she is a ‘madwoman’. The writer’s protest against Indrani’s humiliation by both men and women in the middle of the Nupi Keithel is seen in her calling them “god-like people who have never committed any wrong in their lives and will never do so” (93).
The story therefore is the writer’s critique of a society that fails to hold perpetrators of violence responsible while wrongly blaming the victim. It also questions a patriarchal Meitei society that refuses to accept women as individuals with emotions and desires, and only sees them as sacrificing wives and mothers or the chaste widow. Nee Devi questions how women like Indrani are stripped off of humanity and sexuality by the patriarchal society which judges women through its skewed moral codes. The short story also highlights the glaring presence of women as agent perpetrators of patriarchy within the space of Nupi Keithel, undoing the narrative of an impenetrable female space. The writer thus comments on how the physical invisibility of men in the female space does not necessarily point to its absence. Rather, patriarchy is manifested within the space in its presence as oppressive norms, as is evident in the case of Indrani:
Some look at her and chant god’s name, while some spit at her in disgust. Everyone began to distance themselves from Indrani. Nobody sends her to run errands like before, none allowing her to come close, or indulge in playful banter with her. (92)
Indrani is humiliated by the women in the place which she had considered herself a part of. The writer’s rejection of society’s different moral yardsticks for men and women is expressed by a woman in the short story— “You dogs! Do women get pregnant without men?!” (93), which is a powerful assertion through which the writer questions society and more specifically, women for their complicity in enabling the oppression of other women. She chides society for blaming only women, while ignoring the men who victimize them, and the system that enables such oppressions. Indrani ultimately is left out from everywhere because she is a madwoman and ‘immoral’—she is driven away from her home and excluded from the female space. A most poignant example of a socially marginalized woman, Indrani disappears, victimized by patriarchal gender norms and its skewed moral codes. She is ostracized by the market women, and the Nupi Keithel which was earlier a space for sisterhood metamorphoses into a site of her exclusion and ostracism.
Nee Devi depicts Indrani not just as a ‘madwoman’ but also as a woman of flesh and blood who has emotions and desires like other women. For the society, Indrani wandering around the market is acceptable and appropriate. She is treated with sympathy, if not love, by the women in the Nupi Keithel, and is wholeheartedly accepted as one of their own. However, they immediately abandon Indrani as they come to learn of her pregnancy. There are no questions asked and no explanations sought from her. The women in the market and society as a whole assumes that she has committed an act of transgression by having sexual relations with a man. For them, Indrani despite her madness, transgresses the boundary set by a patriarchal society, and is therefore to be punished.
The writer’s scathing critique of the society arises from the ambiguous nature of Indrani’s ‘transgression.’ Indrani thinks that it is her dead husband who came back, and she continues to engage with him perhaps mistakenly encouraged by the women who delighted in her stories. On the other hand, the women turn a deaf ear to her stories and continue to do so until they hear of her pregnancy. In the story, they make no attempt to find out the truth, nor do they try to comfort Indrani who until recently was one of their own. Not for once do they consider Indrani as a victim of sexual violence by a man who took advantage of her condition and made her believe that he was her dead husband. There is no anger directed at the man who “came only when it’s dark” (88) and he is left untouched—it is the madwoman who bears the brunt of traditional morality codes, leading to her repeated victimization.
Nee Devi in this short story deconstructs the idealised representation of the Nupi Keithel in popular narratives as symbolic of women’s economic freedom in Manipur through her depiction of Indrani’s social ostracism and humiliation within the ‘female’ space. Besides the representation of women vendors as active participants in trade and commerce and the Nupi Keithel as a space representative of the empowerment of Manipuri women, Nee Devi in locating a madwoman in the centre of the Nupi Keithel and her narrative questions the existing narrative. Subsequently, it is in Indrani’s humiliation that Nee Devi highlights the prevalent gender norms of the Meitei society which is represented in the microcosm of the Nupi Keithel. The writer in the short story thus highlights the undercurrent of the politics—of gender, class, and traditional morality, of the cultural monolith that Nupi Keithel is.
In other works, Nee Devi’s female protagonists confront patriarchal scrutiny in their quest of a livelihood and forage beyond the ideal, submissive woman. As she explains, her characters are not restricted to portraying the ‘ideal’ women (Devi 292). It is perhaps in line with this that many of her female characters exhibit grit and challenge of the oppressive norms of a deeply unequal society.
Nee Devi’s short fiction “Leibaaklei” is from her anthology of short stories Shollaba Maree [Frail Relations] which was first published in 2002. It tells the story of a woman Leibaaklei who struggles to make ends meet for her family of five, while also facing her husband’s taunts about her ways of earning. Leibaaklei collects leftover rice from rice mills and also goes around collecting food waste from the locality to feed their pig. She goes to the market to earn a livelihood, and takes care of all household chores alone. Her bedridden husband continues to judge her even as she alone suffers to run the house. Leibaaklei unlike other Meitei women does not even go to her parents’ home to celebrate the annual festival of Ningol Chakouba8, as her only resolve is to earn money to feed her family. As she stands in front of the movie theatre selling tickets, the police suddenly appear and she along with some other women are taken away to the police station.
In this short story, the character Leibaaklei is someone whom society labels as a kaalaa bazar toubi— a derogatory and demeaning term for women hawkers who stand on the busy streets, a “fallen” woman. Women like her exist in the margins with no designated place within the previously discussed female space. With no help from her husband who is rendered disabled, she does odd jobs and singlehandedly runs a household of five. She goes to the market to earn a livelihood and resells cinema tickets in an effort to make ends meet. Though he in no way contributes to the household, her husband Lukhoi is quick to judge Leibaaklei for what he and the society sees as not so respectable a means of earning a livelihood— “From the day Leibaaklei stood on the roadside to sell movie tickets, all her efforts became sinful indulgence in her husband’s eyes, her sweat and blood turned poisonous, and everything she did began to be deceitful” (Nee, Leibaaklei 46). The question of honour, and patriarchal constructs of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women is dealt with sharp criticism by Nee Devi in the short story.
The writer locates Leibaaklei in public spaces like Indrani, but interestingly, Leibaaklei is not entirely part of and welcome in the female space of the Nupi Keithel. She literally stands in the margins, on the road— an open and vulnerable space for marginalized women like her in a gendered, patriarchal society. Towards the end of the story, the police take her away along with some others— “Leibaaklei was also among the ones herded onto the police car” (48). Unlike the ostracism of Indrani from the ‘female’ space, Leibaaklei is never considered a part of that space from the beginning. She does not own a shed with a license, nor does she attempt to make herself a part of it. On the other hand, she stands and moves around the margins of the Nupi Keithel trying to earn a livelihood. Leibaaklei is not only excluded from this space, but her presence is totally omitted— it is as if she does not exist at all.
Already excluded from the Nupi Keithel, she is further victimized by the police action. Nee Devi reflects on the cruel circumstances that women like Leibaaklei have to face at every juncture of their lives. The short story highlights the plight of marginalized women victimized by a patriarchal ideology in the public as well as the private. Leibaaklei discards social acceptance and is no more bothered by its judgements in her struggle to survive and feed her children. Her husband Lukhoi, on the other hand, thinks that she ‘enjoys’ her work so much that she cannot even wait for daybreak to set out, even going to the extent of calling it an “addiction” (47). His disability which makes him unable to contribute anything for the family, coupled with an “inferiority complex” (45) makes him question his wife’s morals. He forgets that it is Leibaaklei who is the sole breadwinner and she struggles to earn as well as take care of the house. Lukhoi’s character can thus be read as symbolic of an ailing patriarchy, one ever to judge and preach, while not offering any respite to the sufferings and difficulties.
Nee Devi in the short story tells the story of Leibaaklei and her struggles for livelihood in the margins of the Nupi Keithel. In doing so, she sheds light on a previously unseen side of the Nupi Keithel and its politics of exclusion. Unlike the women vendors who are part of the space of the Nupi Keithel, Leibaaklei is depicted as far distanced from it and can only move around the margins of the Nupi Keithel. In a sense, her exclusion from the representative ‘female’ space is a form of victimization meted out by the women in the Nupi Keithel who judge her like her husband. This could be ascribed to her mobility being associated with being a morally loose woman as reinforced by ideals of traditional morality. As much as Nee Devi critiques the women of the Nupi Keithel as upholders of patriarchal moral and social codes, she also highlights the space as being exclusive at more than one level— gender and class. Leibaaklei’s exclusion from the space is enabled by the women who collectively represent the Nupi Keithel, who follow unspoken rules of ostracism and marginalization of women like Leibaaklei and Indrani. Thus, she is rendered vulnerable and has no place within the ‘female’ space. As in the case of Indrani, Leibaaklei’s location in relation to the Nupi Keithel is symbolic of her position within a patriarchal Meitei society.
Thus, we see these women who literally as well as metaphorically stand on the margins. Both Indrani and Leibaaklei are excluded from the ‘female’ space of the Nupi Keithel, and are subjected to discrimination and judgement grounded on patriarchal moral codes. Their location in and around the female space, in no way offers them any respite from discrimination and ostracism. Nee Devi thus highlights the issue of women being active participants in subjecting less-privileged women to discrimination and humiliation. Through her two protagonists, she decries the patriarchal norms of Meitei society that holds only women culpable while overlooking the role of men as perpetrators of violence and injustices. As the writer herself says, “men are also involved, it is not only the women who are at fault” (Devi 292). Therefore, the concept of space in a patriarchal society needs to be understood in terms of more than just physical and geographical locations. Far from being neutral, spaces are rather highly gendered as well as politicised in patriarchal societies, as in the case of Manipur’s Nupi Keithel.
The understanding of Nupi Keithel as a site within which complex politics of gender, class, and marginalization intersects, rather than looking at it simplistically as a symbol of economic freedom enjoyed by Manipuri women, is vital to a more inclusive discourse on gender in the context of Manipur. Though a certain degree of agency and ‘freedom’ is manifested in their mobility, access to public spaces and roles as leaders, as well as in their abilities to make choices to some extent, it does not, in any way, come close to a question of feminist autonomy.
Nee Devi reflects these complexities vis-à-vis women in the Meitei society in her literary representations. Though there is no radical subversion of patriarchal stereotypes, her works question traditional morality and the burden it places solely on women as its upholders. Her writings also critique the patriarchal polarization of the ‘ideal’ woman who is shy, docile, submissive and oppressed, and the non-conforming ‘bad’ woman. The writer recognizes the lived realities of marginalized women in a male-dominated Meitei society, and therefore writes about their experiences, questioning deep-rooted patriarchal values in the process. Nee Devi in her writings builds up a feminist resistance if not outright rebellion.
1. Nee Devi writes in Meeteilon, the language spoken by the Meiteis of Manipur.
2. Nupi Keithel is the women only market in Manipur, probably the only of its kind all over the world. It comprises of different buildings that sell different items ranging from clothes to ritual offerings. It is also known as the Ima Market or Mother’s Market.
3. Meitei is the major community that inhabits the Manipur valley. They are also termed as Meetei.
4. Leimarel is the Supreme Mother Goddess of the Meiteis. According to the creation myth of the Meiteis, the Supreme Father wanted his son, Sanamahi, to become the king of gods. But the ancient supreme mother goddess plotted against him and made the younger son Pakhangba the king. As a punishment, the supreme mother goddess
had to serve as a slave/wife to Sanamahi who became the king of the household
and was worshipped as a house god. Thus, according to Chungkham, the Leimarel code stands for the female principle being subsumed into the male principle and of sons dominating over the power of the Mother.
5. Emoinu is the Goddess of the household, and symbolizes the patriarchal moral code that justifies and consolidates the location of the ‘good’ woman inside the house. She is the representative figure of the ideal Meitei woman whose main role, according to Chungkham, is that of housekeeping and motherhood. She further likens it to Victorian codes, calling them “more moralizing than practical.” Chungkham is of the opinion that though the object of such a moral code is intended to nurture an ideal woman and an ideal man, its hierarchical and patriarchal nature inevitably breeds an uncontrollable male dominance.
6. Oral sources tell of bloody battles between the gods and humans, or among different clans. The goddesses were asked to sell things for both groups and to arrange a feast. The warring groups were then made to eat a common dish, symbolically binding them in a bond of brotherhood.
7. Soyam Lokendrajit’s critique is premised on the assumption that Manipur has a dependent economy.
8. Ningol Chakouba is one of the most important festivals of the Meiteis. On this day, married women visit their parental homes for a meal and gifts are exchanged.
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