Separated for Freedom


I was a lecturer in a college in Imphal, Manipur. I came to Delhi with my family in 2006, intending to find work and especially so that my children could get a good education. There are good schools in Manipur, but there is a lot of insecurity and fear of local terrorism, which is the reason for very strong army presence, not so much in the cities but it is high in the rural areas. Rural people are always afraid that the army can raid their homes and arrest and detain anyone, particularly young men, without giving any reason. In Imphal too, young men can be stopped and interrogated at any time. Life in Manipur is very unstable, the atmosphere is tense, people are vulnerable, and nobody can assure that if someone has left the house they will return safely. We associate that sort of danger even with the sound of a firecracker exploding. Local resistance to the government and army has also taken cultural forms. For the past twenty years Hindi is not allowed in any school. Nor are we allowed to write Bangla in Manipuri script. Bollywood movies are not allowed either. If young people want to watch Hindi films, they either download these from the internet or secretly buy pirated CDs from the shops.

In Manipur, most women are educated, and almost all are working, either in government or private offices. Only 10% of women stay at home as housewives. The women are generally independent, young women are not pressured for marriage or dowry. Irom Sharmila, who has been fighting for many years to have the Indian army withdrawn from Manipur, is an example of the innate strength and spirit of Manipuri women. But everyone, men and women, remain at home after 6 p.m. as they fear being picked up for interrogation. All public spaces are empty in the evening. In comparison the localities of Delhi are safer, people can move around freely all day and as late as they wish. The public spaces are much more secure, even for girls and young women. One can travel in cars and buses without fearing bombs and attacks or worrying about curfews. Here our minds are not continually tense.

I do struggle with my displacement because I am away from my home town and loved ones. The separation is an emotional issue, but apart from this I am enjoying the freedom of Delhi, and it is good for my children. When we first came to Delhi we thought the city would be organized and easy to adjust to, and that our children would get admission in good schools. This was an illusion. We stayed near the Nizamuddin railway station for five years in a working-class locality. Later we shifted to a better neighbourhood in Chhattapur. Then we moved to Khirkee as the rents are cheaper here. The only problem we are facing is a decline in my husband’s business, which sometimes makes us very depressed. But on the whole this area is a good place to stay as there are so many facilities – transportation, markets, and so on. It is in the heart of the city, and there are so many people, from different social and ethnic backgrounds. Sometimes I worry about the safety of my teenage daughter, because I sense male trouble-makers who can prey on youngsters hanging around on the streets.

There are many Manipuri families living in Khirkee, and I am on good terms with them. I can tell intuitively tell their backgrounds, their origins. Most are from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Few are upper-caste. Some ignore me and pass by; others come up to me and very politely introduce themselves as Manipuri, and develop a friendship. I have come to know some of the single women very well, they are all working. In Manipur women marry a bit late, so the migrant women here are trying to gain professional skills and earn, before actively looking for a partner to settle down with. But if they continue to live independently away from home like this for too long, many will end up as spinsters.

I left home only because I wanted a good education for my children. I miss Manipur a lot. I sacrificed my life there for my children. But I do appreciate the freedom of not having to be inside by 6 p.m. and also appreciate the freedom of moving around without having to inform my in-laws and relatives about where I am going or what I am doing. Here I just tell my husband.

If the political crisis in Manipur was somehow solved, there would be no curfew, and perhaps no reason to leave. It could become a heaven for everybody.

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