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The International Writers Magazine: Seeking In the Restricted Zone

12-Days in Manipur
• Kareena Maxwell

The sky is cracked in Manipur over the tea fields in Assam. This is where my ancestors once bagged their babies in slings, across their shoulders, while they earned a living picking tea leaves.


The Imphal Airport is deeply set in the crater of my India in Manipur. The steps to the dance are measured here. The democratic process has become a word of partial action. In layers of conflict that throw themselves into Manipur, the sweet garden of orchards arousing meditation in each one, unplanned truth in word and democracy – not in action or deed. I am the blond American in the land of brown skinned men with black hair – their strands have lost their beauty in this forest of heads because there are so many of them. The earth buckets in an oval basin then the trees hold the dying and the dead. Secrets ooze in their eyes; pouring into me with my whiteness suddenly, I am a satellite of fame.

I walk as a maiden in designer clothes from the power land where continental things tear the planet from its mission of death to life as a beginning. Now I enter the eternal where I won’t be considered dead if I die here. In dry air the voice of God appears in the search for the Stilwell Road of World War II. Soldier’s foot prints have seeped one quarter of their journey to the other half of the world.

I am looking for my father. I can’t know him. There is no father but a profile of a man-universe who once inhabited my mother’s world. Dark rivers in Manipur run in the temperament of loss. Bodies pushing further into the soil deeper and freer than life in Manipur could provide.

Border I returned to India not to ashram my soul into enlightenment but to find the meaning of life on the Stilwell Road. I scheduled my days to coordinate with my Restricted Area Permit that allows me to stay for 10-days. It was only 2-days ago when I was leaving New York City. The sky now shared my desire. It was the same here under the Hindi rifles and dotted bullet-belts of khaki child-like men.
Manipur is my glass. It is my spit, my piss. The filth of India is my beauty. Manipur is my Shiroy Lily in June in shades of pink. I rise up and pay allegiance to the universe infinite from the Manipur sewers.

My mouth, face down on her lap; my legs wrapped around the cesspool giving glory to the blessing of degradation: From there, from that portal, I can only go up. I arrived at the airport quickly recognizing my driver and guide. In the sun against the clouds I could see Ibrahaim Singh squinting. His waist sunk in against his belt and his back appeared to be curved slightly. In his brown skin and brown eyes he stood still when he saw me walk toward the car. LaGuardia airport now seemed like a Bloomingdale's crowd of transplants against the Imphal airport. Squiggling bodies moved and scraped along the ground and if they had two-hands both were out asking for my money, my handbag, the bottle of Poland Spring that was enriched with bacteria and growing more valuable by the second.

The air is composting with old skin and henna. I speak to my mother in my head. In my mind I tell her of the beauty that is before me. They call it “land of the jewels.” She was born in Bombay and raised by a strict traditional Indian father and when she fell in love with the American soldier and married him, grandfather refused to know her. Shortly after, my American father was shot down as a hump pilot and over the Lake of No Return; his craft was buried with him in it in aquamarine mud.

My life was to begin in New York City where my mother returned to live in my father’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. She has lived there ever since. When I was two-years-old my grandfather caught a glimpse of me when we had returned briefly to Bombay. During a backyard Hindi party my grandfather found me took me in his arms and never let me go.

The jewels of India contrast with gold inlays. Stones fall out and disappear when the foundation is weak. My mission now as a journalist is to explore the Stilwell Road and to find my father’s grave. I have 10-days to do it until my permit expires. I am truly tired.

The Shiroy Lily balances life in pink in dark green soil: Specks are soft fine and fork-tuned in the dirt. Fertilized with dark and hungry soil, the petals are 7-different depths of pink and the stem reaches to my waist in Manipur on the Himalaya hills the Shiroy gives 2-weeks each year to show her face to the lovers and then it disappears.

My driver is a fat man and right away he drives like a robot. Crimson dirt imbeds in soft tires. The steering wheel gets stuck when turning tightly to the left. And then we pray for the wheels to turn straight. “Keep us from temptation…” like my grandfather he mumbles his prayer chant in forecasted moves.

My breasts are numb. Eric calls the newspaper looking for me wondering about my arrival. They stay numb at the mention of his name. My father, my boyfriend, they appear dead. There is no life in me for them yet I need them both.

The car is no barrier against the warm wind in Imphal. Flowers and rot the smell each trying to scream out past the other. If the world is seen as hostile, then the India here in the north east has that. If the world you live in is seen as beautiful then you will see that. India is a cloudy illusion and the path of what is real. Rotting limbs with maggots feed on smiling bodies: This is the first time I truly understand human conflict.

Ibrahaim is beautiful and perhaps an illusion. Visible but can is he real? When I first see him I need his rafter; his float: The tube around me in the waiting waters. Ibrahaim reaches out and takes my carry-on. From that moment I am the dependent American in the swarm of political disease in Arunachal Pradesh.

My permit has 9-days left on it. It’s my metro-card, the pre-paid travel waiver telling me where I can go from the sideline of the Stilwell Road. We leave Manipur going south and the old Indian sun bakes our souls, our infra-structure into moment to moment breaths. Where is my father? And why did his plane disappear into the Lake of No Return? Manipur has lost her life to the rifle. Guns force our feet to stay flat on the floor. The fields are filled with women with babies strapped to their bodies as they break the tea leaves into world profits. Drink their labor in medicinal roots beyond the chilled water from the boiling stage. Drink it hot. Iced. It is tea from the curved spines of Indian workers. To eat, to shelter they work in combs. The dance of Manipur keeps the romance of life alive as it swirls in circles in coverage – pink and gold and green – memo into the day.

Hours into the heat on Ledo Road, I awaken to banging on the car from a Burmese insurgent. His clan stops us. I can’t be afraid, I am an American. The world is friendly and I believe I own wherever I am. Whatever is in front of me is sacred and protected. Ibrahaim’s shoulder is wet from my dropped head that found itself there during my sleep. Ibrahaim is beautiful. Tea with milk covered skin and slightly pink mouth, his cloth shirt soft and loose. The militia’s arms look green and it is not easy to visually breakdown what is dirt and what is his true color. Cows roam on the path. Small families live in huts off the road surviving under thatched roofs of dreams; the spirit and the flesh walk in possibilities. The military are self-appointed blood shot eyed men who straddle rifles across their chests.

The WWII plane with my father in it is in the front of my eyes. The man with the rifle is a faded film of reality. The only truth here is the Stilwell Road and my father. Manipur is a jungle, an emerald with roses on stems and thorns. I place my feet in the mud outside the car and my words are weaving around; not for one second can I close my eyes. He looks like a Chinese Indian – the Burmese world of deep religion and unchanging politics.

He has the rifle but I have the ammunition. I am New York. I can’t be taken out of my goals. I am New York Times. My mouth is silent. I let him take me into the hut. Ibrahaim longs to protect me as the worker bee to his queen. I now protect him and Tony. My body is surrendered to the little man in the slug infested ground. My clothes stay on and I know when he butts me with the end of his rifle into the enclave that my pants will come off until he finishes. Longing in the memory of a good cigar he asks if I have one. I am lying on his mats on the hutted floor. I hold my knees together while he talks. “No,” is my answer to the tiny man who calls himself Chang. I grab a rag and put it between my legs then put my pants back on.

I approach his alter and pray to Ganesha and my mother. She is in the symbol. She hears my statements and my questions. Chang listens to my Hindi then drops his head. Continents fade and we are the species of intellect and dreams. Now, we are at war. There is the man with the gun and the woman with the brain.

© Kareena Maxwell July 2012
kareenamaxwell (at)

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