Asia India Stories

Ima Keithel | North-East India’s Women-only Market

September 6, 2019

by Eileen MacDougall

I decide on the Ima frying whiteish dough balls over a stand-alone stove and gas canister. ‘Aloo,’ she smiles and gestures to the wooden bench next to a young man slurping a leafy soup. Seconds later, this plump woman serves me a lunch of grilled fish, unidentifiable green veg, those fried potato balls, banana leaf, rice, and then, despite my protests, several second helpings.

The Imas are lined up behind their gas stoves, enticing the locals with their jokes and salty fish dishes. Sitting opposite, in front of stacked ceramic pots, are two more, warming their hands over the burning embers of a square metal pot. My host, Suporna Devi, is one of over 4000 women who congregate daily, in Ima Keithel, Manipur’s main market, selling everything from temple paraphernalia to locally-caught eels.

But, unlike the rest of India, here men are forbidden from trading. Passed down the generations, a stall at Ima Keithel, meaning ‘Mothers’ Market’, is highly coveted and provides the local Imas with an important source of income. Spilling out of the market buildings, encroaching on the roads, under the concrete flyovers, women are everywhere, selling produce. Some are eating, some reading, some sleeping. Many are chatting.

Believed to date back to the 16th century, the origins of Ima Keithel are unclear. Sandwiched between Myanmar and the Indian state of Assam, Manipur has long been forced to fight the Burmese and Chinese to retain its autonomy. A forced labour system, called Lallup Kaba, sent the men far from home to fight these wars, leaving the women at home to cultivate the land and sell the produce, possibly fostering this peculiar phenomenon.

For thousands of years Manipur remained an independent kingdom and a crossroads of trade and cultural exchange until it was conquered by the British in 1891. The golden, oval valley fringed by misty blue hills was famously called ‘the Jewel of India’ by India’s first prime minister. It is home to a diverse mix of tribes, who ethnically share more with groups in Burma than with the rest of India. Several hard day’s travel from Delhi, Manipur feels like a faraway land compared to India I’ve come to know; somewhat familiar, but yet not. A unique language and alphabet add to my disorientation.

The two large market buildings sit in the commercial heart of Imphal, a dusty, grey city, home to as many motorbikes as people. Mornings see the city enveloped in a heavy, December mist, which she usually manages to shed by lunchtime. Most ladies are sitting under bright shawls: many baring two pale vertical lines on their foreheads, meeting on the nose: the mark of local Hindus. I feel the weight of eyes as I circle the floor. But smiles are soon reciprocated with smiles, and many proudly remove their glasses to strike a poise for my camera. Before long, I fall foul of the sly sales pitch of an unassuming mother and daughter. Several tea-towels later, I note to myself this is still India.

When I reach Suporna Devi’s stall, I am thankful for the rest, and we are soon conversing, in a broken fashion, through Hindi, her third language. She has worked here for over 20 years, she tells me, inheriting the pitch from her aunt. Pointing to a poster, emblazoned with hammer and sickle, she exclaims, “this is not just a marketplace, but also a place of protest!”

The revolutionary slogans spray-painted to the outer walls point to a more complex story, and I have started to research Manipur’s matriarchal society. Since at least the early 20th century, the Manipuri women have been wielding a strong influence over political and social matters of the state, with Ima Keithal at the centre of the movement. The market developed as a place not only of trade, but as a centre for gathering, a source of the latest news, a place to discuss ideas. The mothers of Ima Keithel started credit unions, lending to women who wanted to started businesses, and mentored them in the process.

As she ladles yet more rice onto my plate, Suporna suggests I visit the Nupi Lal (Women’s War) monument in another part of central Imphal. This is a memorial to Imas who fought the British rulers in the 1930s over attempts to export local rice to British battalions in other territories. Locally rice became scarce, the price spiralled and the Manipuris began to suffer. The Imas protested, peacefully, but were met with attempts to sell the market buildings. They refused to relent and eventually military and police forces were unleashed against the unarmed females. Although the export policy was eventually repealed, many women lost their lives in the struggle.

During the Second World War, Manipur became a battleground for the war between the British and Japanese: this part of India is scarred with war graves. With the independence of India, a ravaged Manipur was absorbed into the new country, unleashing a seemingly indefinite cycle of violence and insurgency as anti-Indian and ethnic groups fought over differing visions for the state’s future. From 1980 until today, most of the state has been classified as a ‘disturbed region’ by the Indian government, a ruling designed to give the Indian Army additional powers to help them maintain public order. In practice, it has granted them immunity from prosecution for a range of heinous crimes.

Despite the departure of the British, for the Imas of Manipur, the oppression continues and their imaginative responses evolve. From torching liquor stores and fining drunk men, to protesting, naked, outside an Indian army base against a case of rape and murder by the armed forces, their actions are undoubtedly radical in a country where the majority of women have little say in domestic or societal affairs. Today, they are continuing to hold out against the talons of globalisation: recent attempts by the local government to replace the market with a modern supermarket were derailed by round-the-clock sit-ins by the Imas. Again they succeeded.

After a few days of loitering around Imphal, chatting and drinking chai, I decide it is time to leave the Imas. Several check where I am going, who with, and most importantly, have I eaten yet? I gesture to the fish section at the back of the market and they nod approvingly. After my last meal, I ask Suporna if she enjoys her work in the market. She smiles and says, “This is not just my work. This is my life.” I tell her I am leaving. “Vapis ana,” (come again) she says, and goes on frying her potato balls. I heave on my backpack and head for the bus.

How to get there: I took the bus from Guwahati, Assam. It was an uncomfortable, although beautiful journey that crossed through the hills of Nagaland on the way. There are also direct flights from Delhi, Calcutta and Guwahati. Imphal makes a convenient stop if travelling overland from North-East India into Myanmar through the recently opened Moreh-Tamu border crossing.

Where to stay: The Hotel Nirmala has decent rooms starting at 850 INR. Aheibam Homestay is a good budget option.

Where to eat: The stalls of Ima Keithel, of course. And the Luxmi Kitchen does a mean thali.

After a decade working in London, Eileen swapped flashy buildings for a notepad and camera and set off for Asia. She fell in love with India, and it was here she started to write about her travels and the culture she was becoming immersed in. She is at her happiest on a bus alone heading off to somewhere new but seems to spend most of her time near mountains, mainly the Himalayas. She documents her adventures on her blog and her Instagram @nomadicnumerist.

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