Irom Sharmila’s New Beginnings: The ‘Iron Lady’ in Flesh and Blood

After 16 long years, Manipur’s ‘Iron Lady’ has declared that she will end her fast protesting AFSPA.

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India
4 min read
Flesh, blood, sinew, muscle, Irom Sharmila is all of this, and more. (Photo: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Iron-Lady-of-Manipur-Irom-Sharmila-Chanu-1457117077849765/photos_stream">IromSharmila</a>)

(After 16 long years, Manipur’s Iron Lady declared that she will end her fast protesting AFSPA on 9 August. Irom Sharmila – an epitome of grit and dedication – is likely to now enter politics.

As her decision marks a turning point in her life, The Quint revisits a conversation with senior journalist Anubha Bhonsle, who spent years following Irom Sharmila’s struggle. The following article was first published on 12 January 2016, shortly after Bhonsle’s book on Manipur and Irom Sharmila was released.)

Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

– May Swenson, ‘Question’

What are heroes made of?

The canvas of their existence must obviously be larger than life. Their eyes should shine with steely resolve, the mouth set into lines of firmness. A noble brow must be the facade behind which lie bulletproof convictions. They should be half phantom, half legend – untouchable.

Heroes don’t hurt.

Except, what if they do?

Anubha Bhonsle’s <i>Mother, Where’s My Country</i>. (Photo: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/abhonsle?fref=ts">Anubha Bhonsle’s Facebook Page</a>)
Anubha Bhonsle’s Mother, Where’s My Country. (Photo: Anubha Bhonsle’s Facebook Page)

Journalist Anubha Bhonsle’s book Mother, Where’s My Country: Looking for Light in the Darkness of Manipur is the tale of one such hero. The book, a result of nearly a decade spent researching a land riven by state-sponsored violence and insurgency, is the tale of many individual lives, with their miseries, defiance and acts of courage, but the luminous centre of it is unmistakably Irom Sharmila.

In a chat with The Quint, Bhonsle opens up about her long-term association with the ‘Iron Lady of Manipur’ and her fifteen-year-long hunger strike, and we find out that true heroism is all-too-human.

Anubha Bhonsle has known Irom Sharmila since 2006. (Photo: Anubha Bhonsle)
Anubha Bhonsle has known Irom Sharmila since 2006. (Photo: Anubha Bhonsle)

Hunger

Raksha swirled the beaker one more time and began to slowly pour the thin white gruel down the funnel, into the mouth of the tube and into Sharmila’s stomach, bypassing tongue, tastebuds, teeth and everything that makes life worth living.There is an empty taste that hunger leaves in the mouth. For Sharmila hunger and eating had been detached, eating had become this scientific, precise, measured thing that involved assimilating nutrients and vitamins through beakers and tubes. An experiment where there was more vigilance than taste. Food was nostalgia; sometimes a memory and sometimes it came in her dreams: her mother Sakhi was feeding her rice with her hands. It was a good omen.
Excerpt from Anubha Bhonsle’s Mother, Where’s My Country
Exchanging letters with Desmond is one of the few private joys Sharmila is allowed. (Photo: Facebook/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Iron-Lady-of-Manipur-Irom-Sharmila-Chanu-1457117077849765/photos_stream">IromSharmila</a>)
Exchanging letters with Desmond is one of the few private joys Sharmila is allowed. (Photo: Facebook/IromSharmila)

Love

Desmond Coutinho is considered a bit of a maverick...I can’t claim to know him or the depth of his devotion for Sharmila. What I have tried to represent in my book is Sharmila’s perspective...He sends her books, he sends her rosaries, teddies...they exchange letters. He clearly holds an important place in her life. She has often expressed a desire to lead a normal life, perhaps have a family someday. For her, this desire and her political commitment aren’t contradictory at all. What I find sad and ironic is that a woman who has quite literally given her all to a cause, who has essentially lived in loneliness for more than a decade, is not allowed to exercise a very important personal choice.
Anubha Bhonsle on Irom Sharmila’s controversial relationship with British citizen Coutinho, who was once roughed up by Sharmila’s women supporters (aka Meira Paibis)
Irom Sharmila’s political commitment has taken its toll on her relationship with her family. (Photo: reuters)
Irom Sharmila’s political commitment has taken its toll on her relationship with her family. (Photo: reuters)

Family

Mother, Where’s My Country sheds some light on the Iroms’ little-known familial details. Originally a large family with multiple siblings and a single matriarch, the Iroms’ have paid a heavy price for their resistance. Hassled by the police and the army and under constant threat because of their association with Sharmila, most of the siblings have willingly forfeited contact.

Singhajit, Sharmila’s elder brother, alone in putting his own domestic life secondary to the cause, is the primary mobiliser of the movement but an alleged lack of transparency in the use of Sharmila’s prize funds has put a strain on their relationship.

I spoke to Singhajit recently, after the earthquake on January 7, to inquire after their well-being. When I asked about Sharmila, he laughed wryly, and replied that she’s the same.
Anubha Bhonsle

Sharmila’s relationship with her mother is, in some ways, more complex.

She considers her mother her guiding light.
Anubha Bhonsle

In the book, Bhonsle mentions that the two haven’t seen each other since Sharmila began the fast in 2006 – Sharmila out of fear that her mother’s heartache might weaken her resolve, and Sakhi because she can’t confront the pain of her child. Even so, Sakhi has been, for many years now, preparing a rice-water concoction for Sharmila to wash her hair with and sending it to jail through Singhajit.

The only time the two can be said to have had a meeting of any sort is when Sakhi had to be hospitalised in the same facility as Sharmila, who, worried, sneaked into her room at night. On glimpsing her mother’s peacefully sleeping form, however, Sharmila stole away without saying a word.

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