Thingnam Anjulika Samom
Thingnam Anjulika Samom is an independent journalist and researcher based in Imphal, Manipur. Her areas of interest are gender, conflict and society in Manipur. An avid translator, she has also edited an anthology of Manipuri women's writings, 'Crafting the Word' published by Zubaan in 2019.
Exploring alternatives I--My mother, Thingnam Bhabini, widow, age around 68 years. After retirement from the government service she became a vendor in the market. She is now selling phanek online with my younger sister.
Exploring alternatives II--My sister undertaking online and home sale of phanek
Exploring alternatives III--A neighbourhood woman sells fish and vegetables in her tea shop by the side of a deserted road. The fresh supply she procures through relatives located in rural areas feeds the locality.
Exploring alternatives IV--My sister-in-law, Tombi, age 47 years, runs a shop selling Moreh items, meaning kitchenware, clothes etc imported from Myanmar. Her income from the shop has stopped after lockdown and border closure.
No Alternatives--Hijam Sakhi Devi, about 68 years runs a small neighbourhood shop, which also functions as a kitchen and a living room. She is the second wife of a man who has now left her. Her elder son is a divorcee and unemployed. He has two children, whom she looks after. Her younger son used to support her by running an electric auto but now even he has no work. With dwindling income, she is unable to keep more stuff in the shop.
Spirit alive--Thokchom Pishakmacha, about 86 years, resumes selling tea and snacks in a small locality market. She says she is not used to just lying around at home and comes out to rest.
Sole woman in Nupi Keithel
A mentally challenged person who roams the market and used to be fed by the woman vendors. She does not even know her own name. Says she has been in the market for last 550 (yes 550) years, then says she is one-year-old. Now she sleeps and cooks inside the market. I think some of the youth volunteers and passers-by have been feeding her. She also forages from nearby vegetable suppliers etc when it opens for wholesale.
Women form the backbone of the social and economic institutions in Manipur. The Nupi Keithel, also known as Khwairamband Keithel, located in the heart of Imphal is symbolic of the contributions of women. Here, thousands of women sit in colourful rows selling fruits, flowers, vegetables, rice, fish, handloom clothes, religious items etc. This is the place where women from all over the state meet to eke a living, to feed their family, to become economically self-reliant and self-sustainable, besides being a place for bonding and friendship. One of the main touristic attraction of the state, the Nupi Keithel is also a site of political activity for the women. The women vendors here have from time to time rose against political decisions and social evils, the most significant being the famous women's wars or Nupi Lan of 1904 and 1939 when they rebelled against colonial British oppression of the people.
The decision to shut down this market which feeds thousands of families was taken by the women vendors themselves after a meeting with the Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh. The women vendors closed down the market in March, a few days ahead of the nationwide lockdown. Till date, it remains closed. For a couple of months, the youth volunteers who usually guard the wares of the women vendors at nights continued to look after it. However, in mid-May they also sent out a distress signal to the women to clear the market of their wares. With rising COVID-19 counts and lack of food facilities, most of the youths went home.
The spirit of the Nupi Keithel is however not the stone and concrete structure, it is the quintessential enterprising spirit of the Manipuri women. Nupi Keithel has never been only the three buildings in the heart of Imphal. It is the innumerable little lines of women vendors by the roads and lanes all over the hills and valley of the state. It is the myriad web of relationships between women producers, marketers and sellers through the state. The lockdown might have affected the stone structures but the relationship is alive. Never still, the women are expanding their kitchen gardens preparing food for worse times. All over, in nooks and corners of small locality lanes, new keithels are emerging during this lockdown. It is the housewife selling vegetables at her gate, the neighbourhood woman selling fish procured from her rural relatives, the locality shop selling needed items behind downed shutters, the old woman tired of staying at home and coming out to sell tea and snacks at a locality market or the young woman exploring online sale through Facebook pages and other forms of social media. The Nupi Keithel is shut but it is alive and thriving.