Author activist Santa Khurai's photograph

Interview: Santa Khurai on Language and Queer Identity

We spoke to Northeast Indian writer activist Santa Khurai about queer identity and multilingual diversity on a session titled, "Queer Spaces: Intersectionality & Representation."

by Yoshita Srivastava

We spoke to Northeast writer-activist Santa Khurai about queer identity and multilingual diversity on a session titled, “Queer Spaces: Intersectionality & Representation.” This session was part of “Switzerland-India Language and Diversity Dialogues,” organised in collaboration with Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council, New Delhi.

Here is a glimpse of her thoughts about language and queer identity.

Q: What is the relationship between language and identity, and is it important to find articulation of your identity in a language that you might call your own?

SK: In the context of Manipur, Nupi means women and Maanbi means similar/alike. However, the core value of the meaning carried by the term Nupi Maanbi is not men like women. It means people who have been assigned male at birth but identify as girl/women and feminine subjectivity and expression. This covers a range of people assigned male at birth but inclined to femme identity which not necessarily requires hormone replacement therapy or gender re – assignment surgery. The existence of people with unconventional gender in the Manipuri society has been flourishing since time immemorial and this can be traced through historical evidence.  For instance, “Pheida” who were once employed at Kangla; the abode of the Meitei king.

The existence of Pheida has been erased from history due to corrupted social polity, resulting from external influences coming along with layers of colonization. However, the belief system of Manipur aborginal community cannot be erased completely. It continues to flourish through different format and expression. Hence, Pheida can be the prototype for Nupi Maanbi, who neither practice body mutilation like castration nor were bound by a community culture and lived beyond the belief of binary gender. These people don’t follow strict gender pronouns; they were addressed as “Eyamma” meaning brother in English language. Likewise many of the modern Nupi Maanbi do not have issues when people call them “Tamo, Eyamba,” meaning brother. This term conveys a respectful address in the community.

Hence, the belief of gender plurality is rooted in Manipuri society and is not strict to gender pronouns. The language itself indicates the understanding of gender fluidity in Manipuri society. The term Nupi Maanbi has been claimed by women of different forms and body, challenging the stereotypical definition of womanhood. This challenges the gender binary, that limits womanhood to cis gendered women and labels transgenders as “Third/Other” gender.

Q: With colonialism enforcing english globally, what do we miss when we lose multilingual diversity, and how can we work at conserving this diversity? 

SK: When we talk about colonialism, we just cannot place West and english as the father of colonialism. People also need to look into the current scenario of number politics and power relationship that many majority exercise. In the context of Manipur, we cannot limit the narrative of colonialism to English but also have to acknowledge the reality of Hindi and Bengali dominating over Manipuri. The modern Manipuri that people are speaking in the millennium has a great amount of language assimilation. Almost all the Manipuri community members aren’t able to follow the original language, terminology and dialects.

This has led to a failure in understanding and recognizing multilingual diversity.  ‘Nativizing’ foreign language and normalizing exotic culture is a part of linguistic and cultural imperialism. The question of assimilation and dying of culture and language is because of a state/nation/people who hold the central position. Hence, people across the world need to reach out to communities who live in the periphery. For instance, though Manipur is a part of India but it would be completely wrong to look at the land and people through a pan Indian lens. Native requirements could be different from the understanding and beliefs of the outsiders. Outsiders need to step out of their belief systems and allow the native community to develop methodology, encourage translators and link resources to sustainability. In the process, people across the world should focus on leadership and not representation.

Watch her discussion with Swiss writer Max Lobe on our Youtube channel.


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