Manipur's Never-Ending Love Story: A Son Translates His Mother's Seminal Work

A love story wrought out of seven languages, this is a translation that pummels the very depths of the questions of Manipuri ethos and faithfulness.

Somi Roy, the founder of Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation in Manipur had been thinking of translating his mother’s Manipuri novel Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi, ever since he was in college.

Originally published in 1976, this Sahitya Akademi winning magnum opus was written by Binodini Devi (1922-2011), who was very highly regarded during her lifetime in Bengal by peers like Mahasweta Devi and Mrinal Sen.

She was educated in a British-style boarding school, and college in Shillong, where she was read Sanskrit, English, Russian and Bangla literature. She was exposed to Leftist ideology in the heady years when thoughts that were nationalist and anti-colonial made waves in India. 

Although she was not very open to offers of translation, of which there were quite a few, she preferred her son to translate her short stories and screenplays. She was a princess for whom the personal was the political, and vice versa, and whose life dwelled in the epicentre of politics and art.

The following are excerpts from a conversation with Somi Roy.

What helped put this book together? 

My sources have mostly been oral and oral consultations. The text is the original novel Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi.

The Princess and the Political Agent is the English translation of a work of Manipuri literature that employs six different languages – actually seven, if you count nonsense poetry. There is, of course Modern Manipuri, and then an archaic form of it called Ariba Lon, as well as snippets of English, Bangla, Hindi and Sanskrit.

I have gone mostly to my family and close relatives of Binodini. 

Chief among them, my cousin Thoidingjam Lakhipyari Devi (daughter of my mother’s older sister), from whom, in addition to general help, I mined the courtly speak of royalty. She was also a source of help when it came to dialogue, ritual, and incantations— stuff she knew from her days growing up in the pilgrimage town of Nabadwip in Bengal where our grandmother Maharani Dhanamanjuri had built a temple.

For the archaic Ariba Lon, I consulted the traditional scholar Chanam Hemchandra and the pena balladeer Mayanglambam Mangangsana. Wangan Somorjit, a clan cousin also helped with the historical sources and insight.

What are the transgressions that you might have observed in the folk versions?

The folk tale of Princess Sanatombi, scathingly remembered in family stories, and even a nursery rhyme for children, is where Binodini brings alive a woman of questionable character, remembered as fallen and ostracised.

Binodini does this quite often in other works. Her essay pleads empathy and understanding of the Mother Crow Pheasant, even though she is traditionally characterised as a work-shirking bird of the Manipuri fable.

She has also re-written a play based on a Good Sister-Bad Sister folk tale from the point of view of the wicked sister of traditional lore.

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The transgressions I see are the upending, the questioning, and the reframing of accepted and rote thinking that Binodini the writer has done with this and other works.

Would you say that translating your mother’s novel has been quite different from working on her short stories and screenplays? Tell us a bit about the kind of ebb and flow, while juggling with the form.

Not really. The novel is just longer. Translating her stories and screenplays has made me more familiar with her use of language, rhythms of her prose, the piquant and sharp dialogue. The ebb and flow, I would say, was more in the multiple revisions of my translation. Mostly it centred on her use of time frames, so revisiting drafts was an ongoing examination of how to do the exposition in translation.

For instance, Binodini’s first mention of the Anglo-Manipuri War is through the ravings of a delirious woman flashing back to a traumatic memory that also serves as a foreshadowing of episodes to come. Another one, relating to form, is how to convey the palpable back and forth structure between periods for a reader who is not familiar with the periods and customs of this culture.

Did you ever feel it might restrain objectivity while translating a book which in turn originally drew material from a variety of sources like the court chronicle (a different genre altogether)?

L. Somi Roy. Photo: Nan Melville

Good question. My mother was very clear, both in her preface, and in many conversations, that this is a work of fiction. In addition to the dry but often amusing court chronicle, she also drew on conversations she had with friends like the great late Pundit Khelchandra. She delved deep but not as a historical researcher would. 

She was fleshing out and reclaiming character, both historical and invented, and I think convincingly, through the art of fiction. We have to allow the power in her art to speak as well, when we consider historical objectivity. Once she’d said to me over lunch, highly amused, that her novel was cited in a court case. They don’t know what is historical, and what I invented, she laughed, adding – “And I am not telling them”. 

Binodini has observed material aspects/norms of the princely state in detail – there is great emphasis on the description of weaves, jewellery and the opulence associated with the royal. What personal recollections do you share in this regard?  

Binodini’s core education was growing up in the palace, the centre of Manipur’s culture and civilisation, of its rituals, dance, and music. A big part of that is growing up surrounded by the finest material expressions of Manipuri civilisation, including jewellery and design.

But she also saw and grieved over the degradation and decline of all this in her father’s kingdom, once the centre of a civilisation but now a mere border outpost state in post-Independence India. 

We once worked together in her later years on recreating a traditional and authentic Manipuri wedding ensemble, the craft and design of which she felt was being lost. It is now in the collection of the Newark Museum in the US and been exhibited in museums like the Peabody Essex in Massachusetts. I perceive in the novel a deliberate painting of a world that was slipping by through her imagery and details of the material, for posterity and generations to come.

Can you comment on the history of royal matrimony as politics in Manipur? How is Sanatombi remembered  today?

I daresay the Sanatombi remembered today is very much the Sanatombi created by Binodini. Let me leave it at that. Matrimonial alliances were important always, as with all feudal monarchies. Over the last couple of years, I have been working on a project with our neighbouring state of Tripura and I have been learning a lot about the matrimonial and family ties between the two royal families. 

Manipuri women smelled nice, Tripuri princes used to say. Pretty much all Tripuri kings and princes of record from the 18th century on were born of Manipuri mothers. Sachin Dev Burman, the composer prince of Indian film music had a Manipuri mother.

Until well into the 1930s, marriages and proposals from Tripuri kings and princes for the hand of Manipuri princesses were an important part of our regional culture.

Binodini was the youngest of the five daughters of Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi of Manipur. Photo: Imasi.org

Local women falling for sahebs is a common trope in some late 19th century Assamese texts as well. There is a fascination for the unknown, but is something more happening too?

This is not so easy. Remember who told Princess Sanatombi in the book she would have been king had she been a boy?

If only she had been a boy? Who dressed her up as a boy?

Her father the king…her great-grandmother the Queen Mother… Maxwell… She did end up the consort of the most powerful man in Manipur for about ten years, when her cousin, my writer’s own father Maharaja Churachand was away at Mayo College. So, this is more than just another native wife trope. 

I found the portraiture of Maxwell very fascinating and kind, he gets a heartbreaking epilogue. But the conflict somehow stays with the reader. Do you think Binodini wanted to redeem Maxwell (figuratively too)? 

Binodini was a humanist. There are no villains in her literature. Yes, Maxwell is also rescued from a faded history like Princess Sanatombi, and the queens in the novel. For women are passed over in the writing of history. Not much is known or remembered about Maxwell in the public mind in Manipur really. For instance, I found out during my translation, he was a Scotsman, not English or simply British, thanks to this thing called Google. 

There was, and still is, a lot of superstition and belief in magic in Manipur.

Binodini is careful to write from the values and beliefs of the period, not from hindsight. Maxwell is certainly not enshrined or castigated in popular memory like Sanatombi is in lore and rhyme. Beyond what she gleaned from terse textual references that she found, Binodini does not research into Maxwell the historical character as much as make Maxwell her literary creation (a man, a civil servant, a soldier, and lover).

Binodini was an artist not a historian, but as with much in art, an unerring sense and perception of character that was often borne out later by historical fact and document. I wonder what she would have done with the internet at her fingertips. 

Binodini was a pioneer among women writers in Manipur. Photo: imasi.org

To what extent do you think the unease of language played a vital role in the relationship between the British government and Manipur princely state? How challenging was it to translate those parts? 

 A question after my own heart—language, translation, misunderstanding, pidgin, accent –are all integral in Binodini’s novel. They provide colour, character, even turns of plot and narrative. There is courtly speak, with upto six different modes of address for royalty, three or four characters names depending on degrees of inter-character familiarity and station. 

Maxwell speaks a mix of English and broken Manipuri. Sanatombi finds him funny, and learns to speak in ways for him to understand.

The Indian clerk who interjects in Bangla and speaks Bangla-inflected Manipuri is his interpreter, his interlocutor, a man not entirely trusted but also useful to both sides. A shared comfort with foreign tongues she makes the plot key to political information, exchange and analysis between the clerk and the princess’ brother-in-law. 

So, yes, in addition to the six languages I mentioned, the challenge for me was to render all this into one language, English, while trying to preserve this texture, trying not to flatten it out too much, yet not so much as to trip up the reader’s flow at every second sentence with the exotic and the strange. There is no glossary. The distance between a Tibeto-Burman language such as Manipuri and English is vast to also state the obvious. 

I remember a Jorge Luis Borges quote now, “The original is unfaithful to the translation”. You know, there are multiple levels of interpreting “unfaithfulness” in this story…  

What a Borgesian thing for Borges to say! Love it.

You remind me of his library of Babel with this. I am sure we will find an infinite number of translations of Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi there.

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But all translation is an act of unfaithfulness. Traduttore, traditore, as the Italian phrase goes. Yes, ‘translator, traitor.’ But in defence of our indefensible tribe, should we also accuse Binodini of being unfaithful to history, to her family, of faulty memory, of inadequate research and cultural theory? We must ask ourselves this.

Do you think Maxwell and Sanatombi were faithful only to their lands at the end–or was their love a never-ending (land)scape? 

The Princess and the Political Agent is a love story by just another author who was intrigued by and was writing about the mysterious ways of love. How does a woman fall in love with the enemy?  Princess Sanatombi, as depicted, is also a traumatised young woman, sometimes acting out of delirium, often finding herself alone, in a complex romance. 

But no two love stories are the same, only the madness is.

And there, for me, is the enchantment I felt reading and translating this book—as a lover of literature, a Manipuri, and as a translator between cultures.

For us Manipuris, I suppose Maxwell-Sanatombi is a never-ending love story. As long as there is memory and readership, the vignettes will live on. 

Rini Barman is an independent writer and researcher from Guwahati, Assam. She tweets @barman_rini.

Note: The story has been updated to amend the spelling of the original Manipuri novel from Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi to Bor Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi.