On the extreme left is a rare photograph from a forgotten corner of India. This is Imphal, the capital city of conflict-scarred Manipur in the North-East. The day, 26 January 2009. On this day, in 1950, the Constitution of India came into force replacing the Government of India Act 1935. Since then, Indians celebrate 26 January as the Republic Day when India became a Sovereign Democratic Republic with a Constitution to guide her destiny. It is a national holiday in the country. Most people watch the Republic Day Parade that takes place at the Rajpath in New Delhi on television. Every state also has its own version of the parade but what would you do if you had to catch a morning flight out of Imphal on 26 January? Militants in Manipur ritually boycot the Republic Day. Predictably on this day (26 January 2009), they had declared a general strike , and no taxi or bus could ply on the road .
There were limited options. You could curse your dumb travel agent, and travel agents in general , for having landed you in this mess; you could curse yourself for having trusted a travel agent in the first place; you could try try walking from your hotel to the airport undaunted by the prospect of being stoned en route, or you could simply give the flight a miss and take the risk of losing money. OR, you could do what I did.
Desperate times call for desperate solutions and though I have never fancied myself as “actor material” lacking all the three essential ingredients — looks, star presence and acting skills, this was one occasion when I readily accepted a suggestion from a wise local. Even militants make allowances for a medical emergency. A friend who had a van, a tenuous connection with a hospital, and therefore a badge, advised me to lie down in the back seat pretending to be a patient in excruciating pain. The good thing about being a patient in pain is that you would not be expected to talk much incase the vehicle was ambushed.And so we made it to the airport. On arrival, we found the airport was locked because the airport staff was required to be present at the flag-hoisting ceremony inside the high security airport grounds. The airport would be operational and the flights would take off once the ceremony was over, I was informed. Around me were a curious bunch of people in folk costumes. I was trying to figure out whether they were part of a tableau for the airport Republic Day ceremony when a bemused local set my doubts at rest. Militants also exempted people who had to attend religious functions. Therefore, locals who are in the loop, and who had devised their survival strategies to combat strikes and hartals, donned their ceremonial robes, on top of the regular shirt and pant, or sarees, and travelled to the airport. Once inside the security zone, the folksy clothes would come off. It was quite entertaining watching the drama and I almost forgot I had to catch a flight. My reverie was broken by a lady who came up to me and offered me a sweet from a plate. That, she explained, was part of the Republic Day celebrations. It was delicious and memorable because noone, in any airport, anywhere in the world., had ever offered me a sweet simply because I was there. I was glad to be an Indian and in Imphal that day. A tourist could not have pulled off that trick . The flight finally took off… and all ended well.
These are some photographs that were taken during the visit to Manipur. I was there on a field trip to research material on AIDS orphans ( for my book, Hopes Alive, Surviving AIDS and Despair, published by FXB India Suraksha and released by Nobel Laureate Prof Amartya Sen in Kolkata and Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari in Delhi in 2009) . Sadly, this breathtakingly beautiful border state, has effectively become out of bounds for tourists because of the constant threat of violence and strikes. These were some rare moments snatched from the working days which let me taste the colours, the sounds and smells of everyday Manipur. I was lucky to have Khoi , a Manipuri social worker, as my guide.