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Kabui Keioiba and Lai Khutsangbi: Stories of Hunger?

James Oinam *

An illustration of 'Thabaton and Kabui Keioiba '
An illustration of 'Thabaton and Kabui Keioiba ' by James Oinam



It is said that during a great famine in Manipur, the police patrolling the streets dispersed crowds cremating bodies and ate the corpse, in other words engaged in cannibalism. This may be a rumour only, but in this essay, I'll argue that some of the Manipuri folktales were most probably inspired by survival cannibalism (cannibalism driven by extreme poverty and/or lack of any food to eat) that might have happened in Manipur or elsewhere (probably Europe).

(I believe our ancestors after coming out of Africa followed Tibet–China path to come to Manipur. Please refer the human migration map produced by Genographic Project to understand why I draw similarities between the Manipuri folktales and (western) European folktales—because they on lie on the same migration path.)

The stories of survival cannibalism can be found in many versions, real and fictitious. In primitive versions of various folktales, we find instances of cannibalism. For example, in Snow White story, the stepmother queen asked the soldier to bring body parts of Snow White when he returned from forest to eat them.

We all feel something is inherently wrong in eating your own kind. Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Ape, argues that animals are genetically designed not to kill their own kind as it is suicidal from evolutionary point of view. So how does the mind resolve this conflict? In Europe, particularly in France, there were instances of wolves attacking and eating people.

In the more distant past also, there must have been instances of such attacks as their cousins the dogs, which evolved from the wolves, are with us, indicating continued proximity. Out of poverty and hunger, there are recorded histories of people resorting to cannibalism and believing that they have become wolves, thus explaining, if not justifying their actions, to themselves.

Also, a mental disease called lycanthropy deludes the sufferer into believing they have turned into wolves. In the world of folklore, it is said that some mythical person who meets you in forests offers you a magical power to be able to turn into a wolf or a tiger, in return for your soul.

Although the person is absolved of unnatural act of cannibalism (because he has become an animal), one has to become a beast in the process. A beast is generally considered to be more distanced from God than man, hence the connotation of selling your soul.

In the story of Kabui Keioiba, why did the protagonist decide to become a tiger? He does not use his new-found power to gain material wealth. It is not a spiritual development either. He does not gain any fame. In fact, if the animation movie of Kabui Keioiba is anything to go by, he was more famous as a spiritual healer.

After the transformation he had to live a life of a refugee. If we assume the story was loosely based on or was inspired by survival cannibalism in which transformation was thrown in, it will put the story in perspective. In other words, the Manipuri folktale of Kabui Keioiba may have been inspired by survival cannibalism.

One might remember that the early editions of Grimm Brother's collection of folktale books followed the original stories more closely in that they were gory and had adult contents.

In later editions, to target small children as their audience (readers), the stories were revised. When Disney produced these stories, they were further 'sanitized'. So if a story is too gory for small children, it means the folklore is old one.

In the Manipuri folktale of Lai Khutsangbi, why Lai Khutsangbi was trying to catch the child? We may look at various similar stories found all over Europe for an answer.

Other than Santa Claus, who rewards children for their good behaviour, there are many other figures that roam the streets to punish badly behaved children. The evil Krampus and others punish them by leaving bad things to eat, beating them up, and carrying them in their sacks to eat them.

So one explanation is Lai Khutsangbi punishes badly behaved children. The other possible explanation is survival cannibalism. An old woman (Lai Khutsangbi) driven by poverty and hunger engages in survival cannibalism. This reason does not need any moral for children; even well-behaved children can become victims.

In Hanshel and Gretel story, the children are sent away to forest by their own mother (in the original story) because there was not enough to feed all the mouths in the family.

Further, the children are captured by an 'evil' witch who wanted to eat them. Clearly hunger is entrenched throughout the story. So the fact that the small boy in the Lai Khutsangbi story was not misbehaving will support the argument that Lai Khutsangbi may be a symbol of survival cannibalism from the distant past.




* James Oinam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at jamesoinam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on March 07, 2017.



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