TODAY -

Tales of Meitei Proverbs : Book Review

James Oinam *

 An illustration of 'Khamba Thoibi Loi Kaba' by James Oinam
An illustration of 'Khamba Thoibi Loi Kaba' by James Oinam



Book Title: Tales of Meitei Proverbs
Author: Sarangthem Bormani
Translated by: A. Tomchau
First Publication: 2017
Published by: Ajit Sarangthem, on behalf of Borasa Publication, Chanam Pukhri Mapal, Imphal - 08
Price: Rs 250 (hardback), Rs 200 (paperback)

The book is a translation from Manipuri to English. It has 52 stories that tell the origin of common and uncommon Manipuri proverbs.

The proverbs in English are used as the titles for the chapters. This might strike as a bit odd to someone who is conversant with the Manipuri language as it seems to create some artificiality and distance from the actual proverbs.

The impossibility of capturing all the nuances of a language in translation has been noted by many people.

For many uncommon proverbs one can't even imagine what the actual proverb might be (reverse translation into vernacular language, i.e., Manipuri).

However, the translator has given a few Manipuri terms along with their meaning or explanation where absolutely necessary. For example, "higaiwa" refers to a controversialist person. The word probably is a compound for "Hi + Kai + Wa". "Hi" means boat, "Kai" means break, and "Wa" means word.

A prince refuses to make amends with his brother who had borrowed his boat and accidentally broke it while participating in a boat race. He wanted neither mended nor even a new boat in its place.

This small book is generous with names of kings, princes and queens, from well-known kings like Chandrakirti and Churachand to not-so-common Taothingmang.

It seems many proverbs coined much later around actual kings, maybe even later than seventeenth century, have not survived to this day. However, mythical or semi-historical proverbs have remained popular.

One may cite the proverb:
Will a tiger give birth to a cat?
(Kei na bu tokpa pokpara?)


The proverb revolves around the story of mythological figure Khamba. When the king of Moirang asked if they should help Khamba in killing the tiger, Thonglen replied: "Does a tiger give birth to a cat?" (meaning Khamba does not need any help). Khamba was the son of Purenba who had killed nine tigers single-handedly.

The chapter "Playing Pena at the Back of Elephant" tells the mythic-historic story of Pakhangba who went into hiding to escape from a rival king, and goddess Panthoibi had to design a stringed instrument called pena to lure him out. The author explains that pena comes from the Manipuri word "penba", which means fulfilment.

The tradition of playing pena behind the elephant carrying the king started with this incident. The proverb means to be merry, forgetting one's worry and fatigue. But nowadays sometimes it seems it is used to mean trying to persuade a stubborn person. The confusion probably arose due to its mixing with a popular Hindi proverb, "Bhaes ke piche bin bajana?" (Playing bugle behind a buffalo).

Curiously, the book also narrates the origin of a popular song,
"Come, come my love/
greedy and envious are many/
walk in front of me
".

The story is Kouba Angangnga, a native of Moirang, who had gone to live with his in-laws in Langol Hills, was summoned back by the king as in his absence, the kingdom ran into financial difficulties. While returning back, armed to his teeth, he sings the song to his wife as he had misgivings about the summons.

There are descriptions of various cultural habits and their explanations embedded within the stories, from the practice of sandalwood smearing on the body to martial art tricks employed in fighting a tiger or bear.




* 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 November 02, 2019 .



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