Now that the blast of the Diwali fireworks is over, the festival fever continues into food. Yes, it is that time of the year when food will be thrust on your face – on the plate for a meal and several through all the social media sites. It is the time for ningol chakkouba, a day when married women are invited to their natal homes for a hearty lunch. It is a special day, the second day of Hiyangei in the Meitei calendar. The women would deck themselves up in fineries, carry gifts of fruits and other snacks and would in return be given some nice gifts.
Some hold the opinion that the festival goes back to a king. Around that time, it was the sisters who were the ones to invite the brothers for a lavish meal. The king had a sister who was married to a poor man and as such had limited means. She could not afford the customary obligation to extend a meal invitation for a king. Realizing her difficult position, the king decided to turn it around and instead of being the invitee, decided to invite her. Since then, it has been the custom for the brother (or natal family) to extend the invitation.
Of course, pretty much like everything else, this is not the only version explaining the origin of this custom on the second day of the month of Hiyangei. Curiously for a community engrossed with a linear continuity (call it geneology, etymology, chronology) to the point of obsession, ningol chakkouba is a festival that is celebrated more through the experience rather than talked about or discussed.
Where it is written about, it has been highlighted as a celebration of the brother-sister relationship, though it appears to me that it is more of the married women and their natal home. In Manipur, this basic notion still remains at its core though extended in different ways. On this day and the days ahead of it, the market is quite lively as people shop for gifts and stack up the necessities for the feast. it is a peak time for those who are into pisciculture. ‘Fish mela’ are organised to meet the high demand for fish – the special item for the feast.
Many a married women plan their trip to coincide around this time of year – have a quiet Diwali of candlelights followed by a family feasting indeed. As i had mentioned in an earlier post, back in Manipur there are hardly any crackers at Diwali as it had been banned (or so i am told). Perhaps, for those in North India, the magnitude with which Diwali is celebrated makes it easier. For instance, my nieces have a week off for Diwali festival! (and I remember diwali as a one day holiday near the annual exams).
For those who do not go back to Manipur, it is still an occasion to feast and get together with friends and relatives. It has been several years since I last participated in the festival back in Manipur. No doubt things must have changed, as the festival has changed for me. for me it was usually a family event back then: waiting for my aunts to arrive and to be torn between staying back or going with my mother to her natal home. In my initial years away from home, it became an event of a sort of a substitute family – a small group of us from the same place in the same university living in proximity and in the somewhat same social circle. Today, as with many staying outside the state where it is not an official holiday, it is celebrated on a convenient day around that time – often happens to be a weekend (driven by a market economy as we are).
With the number of people away from their homes in Manipur, it is no longer about the brother-sister relationship as it is said to be rooted in. It is also about ‘nomimal’ sisters who are not necessarily married – rather especially so outside Manipur. In a more personal celebration, the invitee could very well be someone whom one considers to be in such a bond/relation or it could be an extension to be a part of it. In a larger less personal way, it has also become a way of celebrating belongingness in a different way: where it is organised by students union or other such non-student groups. But then, it is not about sisters or siblingship at all.
November for many Manipuris is not so much about Diwali as it is of Ningol Chakouba. The internet is often flooded with photographs of the event in Manipur as well as its diasporic communities. Every year, I see the updates from various locations around the globe posted in some of the popular community websites, social networks and sometimes news portals back home. The pictures seem to tell me, ‘look! we may be far away from where we came from, but where we came from has come with us and stays with us’.
‘Where we came from’ is not about the place but a mental image of what that place is associated with. It is a sense of bringing home to the environs where one is presently stationed. It is about re-creating that small world of being a part of something – something that is not just about the person that you are, but of belonging to a community despite the geographical (and cultural) distance. In such a context, long gone are the norms that excludes the husbands (of the daughters/sisters) from the feastings.
The most obvious material and visual part of it are the food and clothing: visual because some of the photographs are taken especially to be communicated through the various web portals to be connected to the wider community.
In many case the men in these photographs are dressed in khudei loincloth and women in phanek and wrapped in inaphi, possibly not necessarily silk as would be insisted on back in Manipur. Quite possibly these clothes have been brought with thoughts of special occasions in mind. They probably remain in some corners of wherever they have been stored and remain sleeping like a favourite toy – something that one is fond of, impossible to think of getting rid of, pulled out from time to time to reminisce or reconnect though no longer a part of the everyday usage. More so for men then for women for the sole reason that the women’s clothes can still be seen put to use on a few other occasions but the khudei is hardly a dress that one wears for a special occasion outside the home. The phanek and inaphi is and can be used to dress in ‘cultural attires’ or ‘traditional dress’ but not the khudei. The latter is probably taken out of wherever they have lain unused to be put to use twice a year on the two occasions of ningol chakkouba and cheiraoba.
Interestingly for a festival revolving around feasting and seasonal food, the food component is everywhere and yet nowhere. What seems fascinating to me is what ends up on the plate: the preparations, the ingredients and its sources, the quintessential dishes and the extra lengths to give it that special touch (if there is).
NB: all photographs have been sourced from e-pao.net