Since November 2000, Irom Sharmila Chanu has been on hunger strike, demanding a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which has Manipur under military rule, whose daily violence the mainstream media rarely mentions. Waiting for liberation, she fasts, held by the government in a hospital, force-fed through a tube in her nose.
Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar
She came into brief national visibility with Anna Hazare's fast, prompting many to ask, if his demand could be met in a few days, why couldn't hers? And now, Irom Sharmila is in love. Reading about her in a book, a man wrote her a letter. Desmond Coutinho is a British citizen of Goan descent. An epistolatory romance followed, and he landed up to meet her in Imphal, creating outrage among Sharmila's followers. Sharmila has been declaring her love through greeting card poetry without a care, unhappy that her followers want to keep them apart.
Sharmila's frail form, her fragile skin, the stark, dark hair is such an image of dedication, that what might have seemed funny or cheesy in some circumstances, becomes utterly moving; a celebration of humanity. From within a seemingly supra human existence, Sharmila has cared to be like the rest of us, a fool for love; with no plans of giving up her fast, but willing to claim other bits of life without the burden of being a symbol -- the "iron lady of Manipur". Nothing could demonstrate her conviction more, for clearly she is a woman driven by what she thinks is right, not trapped by what she thinks others will want her to do.
This seems so in contrast to something Anna Hazare said in one of his speeches. He said his life was so enveloped by social service, that not only had he not married, he did not even know the names of his brother's two children.
In this, he echoed a thought common to the idea of political commitment -- that the leader must be "pure", above worldy attachments. It echoed the joke doing the rounds that had Anna been married there'd be no movement because his wife would insist that he got home early, and bought veggies. It bothered me the same way as Faiz Ahmed Faiz's famous line -- "aur bhi gham hai zamane mein mohabbat ke siva" (The world has sufferings other than the pain of love).
But is it not possible to be devoted to a political cause or social service and yet fall in love or know your nephew's names? I don't know the answer, honestly, but I've always found this position a little condescending, implying some zenana-mardana difference, hierarchy between frivolous things like romance, love, domestic arrangements and the high-minded pursuit of revolution. And I do not understand how we are supposed to truly change things without negotiating the mess and the tests of everyday human existence.
Paragons of virtue might make good models, but like other god-driven situations, they also spawn two things: the shifty response that since we are incapable of this saintliness, we need change nothing at all ourselves; and the wild-eyed fanatic who goes around castigating and denouncing everyone in the world for any variation from 'the path'. Where's the understanding of humanity here, which might show each of us a way to be different in this life?
So let's celebrate Irom Sharmila for the revolutionary suggestion that it doesn't have to be like that -- one part of life is not higher than the other, but both may be shaped differently as the moment allows. May she find her happy endings -- to her political struggle, and to her love story.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.