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Rainbow-coloured Dreams of Hope, Love and Peace

Unknowingly, it all came together when I reached out to an activist friend in Manipur. I was enquiring if I could do something for the children in the relief camps over New Year. As we shared the last couple of years, I told him of my recent efforts to write about stories of human resilience.

I asked if I could bring out voices of turbulent Manipur.

One thing led to another and there I was, on the phone with him. Drawn into thoughts that encompassed the existential reality and social fragility of the region, the innate vulnerability of a human being. This is his story. A layered understanding of the human condition – love, fear, companionship, familial relations, sexuality, a self-identity that is inseparable from the land to which he belongs.

Considering the socio-political circumstances surrounding him, he had decided to keep his identity confidential. When I started writing the article, I asked him what pseudonym he would like.

He calls himself the White Heron, flying over the mountains and into the valleys. Often bloodied with the pain, suffering the angst of his community. Born in the valley, with his heart and soul yearning for the hills—he belongs to the community of the afflicted, those who hold on to a fragile thread of hope.

He oscillates between hope and despair, between hopelessness and childlike excitement. He fantasises about the peace a White Heron signifies, whose spirit sees the needlessness of misery. He is much like Sarah Orne Jewett’s Sylvia, from the 1886 short story titled White Heron, wanting to save nature from the adverse forces of industrialisation and greed. Our White Heron desires to serve and protect himself and his people from the wrath of human selfishness.

This, then, is the story of Manipur’s White Heron (WH). A gender activist, relief worker, a lover in pursuit, an aspiring intellectual. A human being.

Steeped in the experiences of war and ethnic turmoil his elders lived through from the 1990s, WH hopes to bring out voices, thoughts and emotions unheard and unspoken in Manipur.  Human experiences lost amidst gunshots.

It is also a commentary on the life of a young queer person in Manipur.

WH laments about Manipur’s endless struggle with poverty, violence and conflict. He searches for an appropriate metaphor and remembers Sisyphus – a community’s endless struggle in perpetuity, to win. Our generation, he says, is searching frantically for a leader, a saviour.  Hijam Irabot was a visionary leader, who had inspired his grandfather’s generation.  When the 2023 conflict tore apart the already fragile fabric of Manipur, the palpable void left WH wanting an empathetic leader.

Brinda Thounaojam’s press release after a long silence and the two times Babloo Loitongbam spoke, seemed to give WH a sense of balance. They were community leaders who spoke from a non-violent position without the language of communism. The respite was short-lived as both were threatened and their private properties vandalised. That encapsulates the circumstance in which WH is living. Now. Hopes and aspirations of a better tomorrow, crippled by violence.

What does it mean to live in a place where you are under constant threat to your life because of who you are? We can be up to date, well informed and even well-read on the issues plaguing this land. Living in sprawling metropolises, growing up throwing tantrums because our parents wanted us back home from parties at midnight – how could you and I truly understand the ingrained fear the young and old in Manipur have continued to live with over generations? To live with the fear, hide and run from a gathering because a group of gunmen might target us if they knew our sexual orientation or ethnic identity…

WH narrated an incident that may sound like a scene from a movie but, in fact, remains a daily reality for so many people of Manipur. His colleague had not celebrated her birthday in a long time, so she organised a get-together at a local restaurant. Casual banter over food and drinks, people coming together to share a few moments. It ended with the group being held at gun-point for ‘partying’ at 8:45 p.m., accused of ‘having a good time so late in the night’. WH knew too well he was doubly at risk if his sexual orientation became known.

As the gunmen continued their abusive confrontation, WH quietly stepped away, back into the restaurant and into a dark alleyway. His heart pounding. His breath restless. Quiet, so as not to attract attention. He waited for what seemed like an eternity. About half an hour later, he overheard the confrontation coming to a close. The deal was that the group will appear the following day to make formal apologies…or else…

In a patriarchal, authoritarian community that has experienced violence for generations, Queer and Trans people have very little space. Politically charged violence for ethnic identity leaves little hope for those who fall outside the ‘normal’. Conversations around sexual identities and sexuality happen in the shadows and under the covers of secrecy—feeding more fear in the hearts of those who just want to be free.

WH made an interesting observation when I asked his thoughts on the struggles women and gender non-conforming people go through. While women continue to fight for their space and rights, their resilience has been documented. There are leaders to whom the current generation can look up to and in whom they can find strength. Their battles and victories are etched into the pages of history.

The story is not the same for Queer and Trans people. Particularly in Manipur. WH became infatuated with a boy when he was about 11 years old. It changed his life forever! It took many love stories and heartbreaks before he came to terms with who he is, before he truly found himself. After years, as his first love story became an unforgettable memory, he proudly describes himself as a unique and fabulous Queer person.  The memories of that first experience melt into his student days, as he fondly recalls his time in Delhi as “dreaming rainbow-coloured dreams”.

In 2021, the Pride movement was starting to find its place within an already conflicted community. WH was actively involved, having found inspiration during his time in Delhi in the early mid-2000s.

With the onset of 2023 war in Manipur, those rainbow-coloured dreams have turned bleak and the pride parades slowly died from the proverbial gunshots. WH believes that the strides made by the Trans and Queer community have regressed to the 90s. A time so homophobic that gender non-conforming people do not have the freedom to think about it even internally.

My contemporaries in a place like Manipur lack historic figures who fought for gender rights. People like WH oscillate between having the drive to build a movement and succumbing to communal atrocities—ethnic, social and psychological. It is not a lack of endeavour by the Trans and Queer community but their constant drowning in ethnic turmoil. In the volatile atmosphere, WH says, they would be easily blamed for moral corruption, extramarital affairs…maybe even held responsible if their community lost the war. He reckons a society drowned in chaos, relentlessly scapegoating Queer and Trans people at every chance it gets.  

Section 377 may have been decriminalised in the country but for a community where justice is not served even for basic human rights, the realities are quite different. In a region blanketed by wartime sexual violence, conscription and extra judicial killings, the kindling for gender non-conformity turns to ash even before the fire starts.

Within these struggles, what does love mean to WH? What does human touch mean?

He experienced the physical expression of love and care only when he was at his lowest. A psychological impression that would pave a rugged path to self-understanding.

Growing up, WH and his siblings lived with his grandparents – seven brothers and sisters in one room. His parents ran a small shop not too far from his grandparents’ house but couldn’t afford to come back and forth, so they lived at the shop. WH has no memory of ever sleeping next to his parents. He cannot recall a single instance where he felt the comforting physical touch of his mother or father. His parents were victims as well. Of a state forgotten by the system and drenched in poverty.

He is unable to look at his father and think of care…when he looks at his mother, he sees a failed relationship. There is love, of course. Perhaps just not in the form he longs for.

As armed conflict has haunted the community for generations, so have these traumas that have passed on from generation to generation.

WH moved to boarding school, then to Imphal to complete his schooling and finally landed in Delhi for his graduation. There had been a constant presence of people in his life but also an emotional disconnect that was rooted in a deprived childhood. In his mid-30s, he became acutely aware of the lack of love and touch from when he was a child. A caring touch and affection put him at unease…and now he longs for it.

Through romantic relationships and break-ups, he struggled with being comfortable of a caring touch from another human being. He felt lost, withdrawn, as he was unable to make sense of his longing for a comforting touch and the discomfort he felt with it. There had been no time or space to make emotional sense of it. This confusion took him spiralling into meaningless, mechanical sexual encounters.

While he explored sexual touch and knew it intimately, this new phase left him feeling empty, devoid of any feelings. It reached a point where he was forced to look within. He started speaking to close friends, exploring therapeutic massages – understanding that his discomfort was rooted in the vacuum of his childhood. The meaningless sexual encounters were his way of looking for that missing caring and comforting touch.

WH feels an intense longing for the expression of care because he, like everyone in Manipur, is exposed to and surrounded by violence every day of his life. Gun violence. Ethnic violence. Emotional violence. Domestic violence. Patriarchal violence. Transphobia. Violence in every moment, at every step.

Nearly twelve years of teaching and social work helped him build human connections. Yet, at night, when WH is in bed…there is a shadow of loneliness and emptiness. He feels a vast empty expanse between himself and his parents. They are trapped in a generational gap that disallows them from expressing love and care. Patterns of anxiety over the human need to express love, the societal pressures of fears of expression, transphobia. Meanwhile, the days become a façade, the daily routine of a job, fulfilling family duties. While there is love and care, there is no expression of it. WH deeply feels that in a society as troubled as Manipur, it may just be pointless to even look for it.

One wonders what it takes for someone like WH to wake up in the morning and live another day unhindered by everything that surrounds him. Fear, lovelessness, violence, despair…

He walks in peace, just as he hopes others would. He questions the kind of love that is stunted by shame, that is nurtured with bloodied hands. A kind of love for one’s motherland that comes with taking the life of another human being.

His relief work, he believes, is peace-building work. The idea that his neighbours, whose lives have been torn apart by ethnic wars, are now his friends. Their children are his to look after, while the families try to rebuild lives from relief camps.

Work, then, isn’t just work. It transforms into attempts of building a community of peace, hope, togetherness, acceptance and love.

WH is someone who wakes up every morning and searches for the meaning of life… between friendship and solidarity, relief work and community, the discomfort of expressions of love and care and the yearning for it.

This, then, is the story of our White Heron.

NOTE: These thoughts are reflective of WH's state of mind during 2023, a few months after the ethnic war broke out.

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