In Manipur, the Goddess Panthoibi symbolises love and peace. But she is also the shakti that fights “evil”, said Manipuri novelist Linthoi Chanu. The author discovered Panthoibi, a Meitei deity, as a child, through an elderly man – a friend of the family – whom she called “Pupu” or grandfather. “There’s a story that Pupu told me, in which Panthoibi is enraged with a monster that was destroying the world made by the ‘Creator’. She comes to fight it, but realises that the monster’s skin is thick, and made up of rock. She cannot cut or stab it, no matter how much she tries,” said Chanu. Dejected, Panthoibi goes back to her mother expressing defeat. “Her mother says, ‘Drink my milk and go back and fight’. The goddess does exactly that. When she returns to face the monster, she finds its soft spot – the tongue. She manages to pull it out and cut it, and drinks all the blood that comes out of the creature.” That’s how the monster is killed and the world is rescued.

In the wake of the ongoing ethnic conflict that has gripped her home state Manipur, the unparalleled courage of Panthoibi comes to Chanu’s mind very often. “Those in power have failed us,” said Chanu, the author of the recently published novel Wayel Kati: The Quest of the Seven Guardians, in a phone interview. “When you have power, you can bring so much change. But we feel a sense of betrayal.”

Chanu was in Manipur in May 2023 when violent clashes broke out in the region, following long-festering issues between the Kukis, a Scheduled Tribe, and the Meiteis (who are the majority) over tribal status for the latter. What was concerning, she recalls, was the misinformation campaign that was stoking the flames. She remembered trying to address this on her X handle. But the Internet shutdown – Manipur had imposed a ban on the Internet from May to December, the world’s longest cyber blackout in 2023 – silenced voices like hers.

When she arrived in Delhi a month later and finally got access to social media, Chanu realised that the situation had gone out of hand with deleterious narratives being put out online. Locals couldn’t even counter or question these claims, she said, because they had no access to the Internet.

Nearly a year on, now living miles away from home in Mysuru, where she works as an assistant professor in the English department of St Philomena’s College, Chanu is still nervous about what’s happening back home.

The 28-year-old Meitei writer, who has spent close to a decade researching myths, folkore and legends from the northeastern state for her books, believes that what people really need now is to return to their stories.

“Because in our stories, especially our folklore, we are not divided,” said Chanu. “These tales are about the triumph of good over evil; about nature and the actual dangers that lurk around people – the monsters and other supernatural events that one cannot comprehend. It never pits people against people, and our stories never demonise a particular community. If we remember how we used to be, we will be able to save ourselves.”

Sharing tales of the elders

Chanu grew up in the town of Uripok in Manipur, where in the 1990s, unrest was commonplace. That decade saw communal riots between the Meitei Pangals (Muslims) and Hindu Meiteis, and clashes involving the tribal groups of Kukis and Nagas over issues of territoriality, which killed and displaced several hundreds of people. “This one time, when I was staying with Pupu’s family, a commando stormed into the house, while we were having dinner. He asked us to sit outside in a line. Pupu was unable to crouch because he was very old, so the commando hit him with the gun. I was too young to comprehend anything, but I remember feeling very scared,” she shared.

Back then, Pupu’s folktales became her refuge. While Pupu moved away, Chanu started revisiting these stories in her own writing. It was the rawness of folklore that interested her. “But as we grow up, the simple love for storytelling becomes very complex. Our own ideological thinking, perspectives, and experiences tend to influence these stories.” Chanu wanted to make room for different perspectives. “I felt a great responsibility. I believed that I had to tell these stories because nobody else would.”

The fact that there was no single compilation of books on Manipuri folklore made her research slightly arduous. Her source material were books and archives in public and private libraries, and interactions with the elderly in the villages of her relatives, whose stories she recorded. “The ethnographic research proved to be very helpful.” But she was conscious about not replicating these tales as is. “Folklore is alive only because it is told from one person to another. The perspective changes and evolves when it is transmitted.”

Chanu self-published her debut, The Tales of Kanglei Throne, in 2017. The book delved into the mythology of the Meitei community. At that point, few people were writing about their own, orally passed-down lore. Her second book, Wari, a slim 84-page collection of short stories, covered a wide gamut of experiences from Manipur, not bound by themes or ideas – from black magic to ghostly legends and tales from the Meitei faith to magic realism, speculative fiction and even routine, daily hardships faced by locals in the region.

The opening story about an old woman named Tharo was based on the urban legend of Khoidouwa, a practice of black magic by a greedy human afraid of dying and who preys on healthy souls. Another story titled, “Amity in Queue”, explores a friendship that blossoms between two women during a blockade, as they wait in a never-ending queue to fill fuel in their two-wheelers. It’s set in a period of political turmoil. Over the last two decades, Manipur has witnessed many agitations, blockades, and bandhs. The blockades, according to reports, would last anywhere between 30 days and four months, with petrol and LGP prices skyrocketing. While Chanu alludes to this humanitarian crisis, her focus in this story is the people and how they negotiate this. “The inspiration for this was my mother Sumita Potsangbam. My family had a lot of financial issues, and I’ve seen my mother suffer a lot of hardships, but she was surrounded by friends, who ensured she didn’t go through it alone. She also tried to help everyone else, and I admired that quality of hers,” she said.

Her latest novel, Wayel Kati, published during the conflict, and recently shortlisted for an award, delves into fantasy but again draws from stories from different corners of her homeland.

Chanu often gets asked why she doesn’t write in her mother tongue Meitei lon, also known as Manipuri. “But my state itself doesn’t have one common language. We are home to nearly 36 ethnicities, and Meitei lon itself has so many dialects.”

The present conflict in Manipur, she said, has made it evident how segregated the people are. “And language has a big role to play in it,” she thinks. She feels that writing in English in a space like this “is in itself a revolution”. It helps people connect beyond their differences. The irony of using the language of the coloniser to counter oppression is not lost on her. “But the primary role of language is to communicate. And for that, we need a tongue that everyone can connect with. There’s also your language, my language, your mother tongue, my mother tongue. But if we get too much into this, it becomes political, and that’s not something I want to do,” she clarifies. “In Manipur, at least right now, it’s impossible to give one native language preference over the other. Maybe there will be a time when this will happen, but that would need a lot of effort from everyone.”

She also wants to use language as a tool to reach out to readers outside Manipur, who lack context about her state. The careless reporting of the ethnic conflict, she said, has only reinforced the need for this. Facile generalisations were made about the communities that were at the centre of this storm, some of which were pernicious and had far-reaching consequences. “There were miscreants who were involved in these clashes, and the truth is that many of the Meitei and Kuki people were not engaging in violence,” Chanu said, adding, “We have to ask why stories of resilience, humanity and community were not being discussed or heard anywhere.”

Art as a tool for remembering

Artists in Manipur have been working with many constraints since the conflict broke out. In December last year, Meitei Manipuri singer Akhu Chingangbam, founder of the band Imphal Talkies, was kidnapped at gunpoint from his home in Imphal, and released later. While the reason for the incident remains unclear, Akhu has been unwavering in his social activism, which is also reflected in his music. In another incident, Maniwood actress Soma Laishram faced a three-year ban (later lifted) from acting in films for participating in an event in Delhi, where she spoke out on the need to fight for peace in Manipur.

In such a charged atmosphere, making political statements can have repercussions, and artists are aware that they are most vulnerable. “There is such a great divide happening in Manipur right now. The conflict has splintered the state,” said the California-based author, writer and photographer Byron Aihara.

He decided to return to his documentation and research of Lai Haraoba, a festival of the Meitei and Chakpa communities that “honours indigenous deities, many of which are part of and inhabit the hills and valleys” of Manipur, to counter the growing divide.

Byron is of Japanese-American origin but got acquainted with the state when he travelled to the region in 2010 with his best friend, the Mumbai photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani. After he returned home, he “obsessively researched Manipur for two years, focusing on the state’s dance and music traditions”. “My research has always focused on the link between traditional rituals and performance arts,” he saic. In 2013, he finally returned to Imphal and has since made several visits to Manipur. He lived with Oja Khangembam Mangi, the then 90-year-old Padma Shree awardee for traditional Manipuri music, and followed him as assistant to five Lai Haraobas, where he had presided as the functionary priest and Pena ritual musician.

“For the Chapka community, I lived at the home of the Khulakpa village chief, Ninghthoujam Toyai documenting full events and feasts of their 11-day festival,” Byron recalled. The eminent scholar Mayanglambam Gourachandra, the founder of the People’s Museum of Kakching, also opened the doors of his home to Byron. “Nearly all the past research done on Lai Haraoba in English has been through secondhand accounts. Mine was mainly by witness and participation. I have danced under the moonlit sky before the sylvan deities at Lai Haraoba, partaken of their sacred meals, and pondered in meditation deeply before them.”

His soon-to-release ebook, Dance Music Ritual in Manipur, is a new version of a text that he published in 2016. The updated book with expanded chapters, and 130 previously unpublished photographs, will be available on May 3, when the region marks a year since the conflict. “It would be wrong for me to say that the current and ongoing violent and divisive events in Manipur have not influenced me to bring out this book,” he said in an email interview, “Lai Haraoba is a festival of remembrance to remind people of their creation in the landscape of Manipur and how to carry on and be better human beings. A book will not solve any problem, but it may make a child smile in recognition or an old mother remember the dance of better times.”

Students of the Government Dance College of Imphal perform Leisem Jagoi (the dance of creation) at their campus, on the occasion of Lai Haraoba. | Image courtesy: Byron Aihara.

Many other artists are also seeing merit in preserving folklore from the region. Mashun Khangrah runs Pasei, a bookshop and co-working studio in Ukhrul, Manipur, and hails from the Naga community. “I have been documenting some of the stories [of the Nagas], but I am not necessarily putting it out in a format that we are used to, which is folktales and short stories. Instead, we are working with local artists, illustrators and graphic designers to come up with collaborative projects.”

Byron hopes to someday record the old Kuki songs that are fading away. “I have travelled to the Southern Manipur district of Chandel once and made forays to get contacts. But right now, these southern districts are a No-Man’s Land for anyone from the outside. The situation is quite dangerous,” he admits.

He continues to keep himself abreast of the situation in the region through friends, many of whom are now family. “I adhere to the idea that historian Simon Schama talks about in his book, Landscape and Memory: the landscape of a place is as much shaped by the minds of the people who live there, as much as the earth and rock. I have never been to a place where this is truer than Manipur,” said Byron. The indigenous creation stories he witnessed within the Meitei community and the deities, he said, are homegrown, springing from the hills and valley itself. “It is also a really beautiful place, not foreboding, but a lovely and luxurious land.”

Wayel Kati: The Quest Of The Seven Guardians, Linthoi Chanu, Niyogi Books.