Thursday, February 20, 2020

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Revisiting Calamity: Courage and common future
IFP Bureau | First Published: February 10, 2020 00:52:23 am
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British historian, Victor Kiernam wrote that active involvement in the present can develop the right sense of touch of the past. Perhaps the converse that only familiarity with the past can impart the right touch of the present is also tenable. We cannot act on things gone by, but they continue to act on us, and the past and present combine to make the future.

Here is a revisit of Belinda Morse’s Calamity & Courage: A Heroine of the Raj. Its first edition was launched in 2008 in UK. The book’s second edition launched in Imphal 2014 has been significant, with the author herself present at the very place where the epoch-making event of Anglo-Manipur war took place. Popularly known as the Khongjom battle, it was the deciding battle fought between Manipur and the Queen-Empress’s army. The tiny kingdom of Manipur lost its sovereignty in the hands of the British.

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The war paved the way for effective control of the kingdom by the British. Belinda Morse puts on record in her forward that Ethel Grimwood’s My Three Years in Manipur has been her inspiration for writing the book. She realised that “nothing can equal her own first-hand account of her ordeal”. Victorian artist John Hanson Walker was the writer’s great-grandfather.

A portrait of a lady painted by the artist, which hangs in her house, kindled in her a quest to know more about the lady. The lady was none other than Ethel Grimwood, wife of Frank Grimwood who was the then political agent of British India stationed in Manipur. The book My Three Years in Manipur and its author have found a place in the historical imagination of the readers of Manipur. Historical references from the book have been cited by scholars of modern Manipuri history repeatedly.

For this reason, readers who have been intimate with My Three Years in Manipur would experience a feeling of uncanny familiarity when reading Calamity & Courage. The book is faithful to the personal accounts of Mrs Grimwood. Yet, the writer gives us more insights by weaving-in facts from sources like The Times, records from the British Library, Letters and Journals of Queen Victoria, Illustrated London News and other rare documents.

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A Manipuri historian or a scholar would have found it difficult to get access to the kind of references that the writer has managed to employ. Chapter five onwards, the writer steers us more towards the life of Mrs Grimwood after her ordeal in Manipur, and her remaining life in England and America. This includes tales of Ethel and her second marriage to Andrew Cornwall Miller, of Ethel ‘teaching music for a living’, inventing a new persona for herself as ‘Evelyn Miller’; and the gloomy dusk of Ethel’s life suffering from ‘toxic psychosis’.

Belinda Morse has gone through arduous research to write the book. She had come to Manipur in 2006, before the second launch of her book, following Ethel’s footsteps. The turmoil which she read about Manipur from the headlines of the Imphal Free Press saddens her. Violence still runs on historical time. But in the present historical juncture, there is a change. Today we stand together, cutting across the political boundary and the continental distance, as citizens of the world. Reiterating Victor Kiernam’s words that the present can develop the right sense of touch of the past, the present and past combine should make a future – a common future.

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