A recent social media feud broke out regarding the use of Uri-upal metaphor in lyrics, its interpretation, and impact. Mingsel Foundation put up a feminist analysis on critiquing the romanticisation of such lyrics while some came up strongly defending the romantic element. Here, one must keep in mind the difference between ‘romanticisation’ and ‘romantic’. The dictionary definitions are: romanticise means ‘to deal with or describe in an idealized or unrealistic fashion; make (something) seem better or more appealing than it really is’ and romantic means ‘characterized by the expression of love’. Mingsel Foundation argued in their instagram post that such lyrics “urigum upal/pamel da yetchage, narum thupna hingjage, nungsi thougal toujage, pamu seba fanhanbiyu” portray women as weak and passive, aspiring to be submissive and dependent on men. Mingsel Foundation also stated that the romanticisation involved in the lyrics decorates and perpetuates the same. On the other hand, some criticise Mingsel’s position with the idea of preserving the beauty and romantic element in the lyrics and the form of relationship described in it. Those who are against Mingsel’s position also claim that many women choose to be ‘homemakers’ and take care of their respective husband and family out of love.
We are neither going to dive into the meanings nor the interpretations of the metaphor. Instead, our focus is on how relevant it is or not to reality. In fact, the reality of our society is that a handful of people at higher economic and social positions reap the benefits of the existing class divide and oppression. Under such a system of economic exploitation, the majority section of the population has been forced into a loop of dependency on various factors. It has always been impossible for a man to provide and support the family alone. Women have also been taking up some kind of job that pays, on top of their unpaid household labour, in order to support the family.
Let us now listen to what working class women speak about their families and the problems they face. During one of our interviews with the street vendors at Khwairamband market, one woman said, “Leimandabagi lakpanida, angang singse ani matric thari aba, ada khara mateng oigadra ana lakpei wane” (I have come out here because of utter poverty, two of my children are appearing for matric examination. So, I am here with the hope that it will be of some support.) Another said, “Ei karigumba suningai engkhol su leite, 500/600 ki loubanida, 50/100 adum lemba, lemdabana ayambanida.” (I don’t own land, I bring stuff worth Rs 500/600. I earn around Rs. 50/100 as profit. Most of the time, I don’t earn any profit.) Another woman said, “Emaan emaannabana phaja phajaba phijet leiteng setlaga bazaar sida lak ae, adubu eikhoidi leitabanina ngasi echado lairik tamhanba ngamnangai ngasi bazaar sida thoklak aga potse yonba lakpaneba.” (Peers dress up and come to the market, but we are poor and have to come here to sell these things for our children’s education.) Her husband has not been able to work for 14/15 years due to liver problems. Similarly, another woman whose husband could not even go out because of a spinal cord problem said, “Echanupi sina nursery tamamdaisida mapana Manipuri school da tamhallasi hai. Eina hujikki matamda Manipuri school da tamhanba haise, yai leitaba lairaba eikhoigidi. Adubu echagidamaktadi ei pamde. Aduna ei keithel thoktaba yade ana echa nupi na hek nursery tambadei ei bazaar thoklak ae.” (When my daughter was in nursery class, my husband asked to enroll her in a Manipuri-medium school. I said that in today’s time it is okay for us poor people, but I don’t want it for my child. So, I decided to come and work here in the market.) Who is the uri and who is the upal? Who is going to live narum thupna and whose marum da? One street vendor articulates their struggle as chakhao gi lan ( battle for the stomach). These are the hard facts, the realities of the lives of the majority. The romance, the romanticisation of the wife depending on the loving husband goes out of the window at the face of these material realities for them.
Apart from these street vendors, many women are daily wagers in brick factories, quarrying business, construction sites, and sweeping jobs. A lot others engage in weaving, stitching, making incense sticks, papad, bori, even sex work and whatever possible just to earn money to support their family. Many women in the health care sector are also underpaid. Even recently, the ASHA workers who are also COVID-19 frontline workers submitted a memorandum reminder to the chief minister and “the union also demanded that before their regularisation as full-fledged employees, the workers must be paid adequate payments on being recognised as workers and in consideration of their activities.” To continue to work an underpaid job does not come as a choice. It comes out of poverty and dire need to support the family unlike the popular belief that men provide and support their family. For women, to be able to choose or leave a job by choice and be a ‘homemaker’ comes with class privilege.
Men from privileged class are easily able to provide and support or be the upal in the uri-upal metaphor. It is only in such a situation the rest of the metaphor, the woman being dependent, narum thupna hingjaba, becomes possible because of the very economic and social privileges they inherited. These privileges also come from exploitation of the working class. Moreover, this is only a handful in our society and what they have is a luxury for the majority. It will be illuminating to listen to what one street vendor in Ima Keithel said in the context. She says, “Hannagi leiramba potpham do adudi ei card ama leire haina khallasi, card se eina sikhiba matamda atoppa mida pithokte municipality na keithel nupi singda pide. Magi macha masu na loi oihouwe. Adu oi taradi eidi keithel card leite. Ei sighra naghra taradi ei echaduna amuk lambida pham tabani.” (Let’s assume I have a card for a market spot. When I die, the municipality does not give it to any other person or other women vendors. They give it to their kith and kin. But I don’t have a card. So, after I die, my children will have to come out to the streets and be a street vendor.) For some, privileges are inherited, but for others, poverty, hardship are inherited. For the majority, who are poor and deprived in this land, there is no question of uri upal, the metaphor and its romanticized interpretation fall flat.
In the context of this uri- upal debate, we should also remember that every woman is a working woman. Most of them do both underpaid and unpaid labour, and they belong to the working class. With the economic exploitation and class oppression, their man cannot even make enough earning to be the upal for his wife to tangle (yetpa) on the husband, as the metaphor puts it, and feel the romance. Nor is he able to provide enough so that his wife can live marum thupna and enjoy the love. The constant effort to make some money to support the family is an everyday struggle for both these men and women. These women do double the work, and their unpaid labour is not to be simply celebrated and romanticised as thougal toujaba or seba fangjaba. Instead, it is a necessity for them both to be able to go to work the next day and make another day’s living. They do not have the choice to be able to decide to be the uri or to just narum thupna hingba. For many women, it is a luxury. It is only affordable for those who are at higher economic and social positions.
Therefore, the argument of romantic interpretation and respecting choices reek of economic and social privileges with no contact of the social reality. The reality of the majority is that neither the men nor the women are able to be the upal or the uri, and to be able to is a luxury. Thus, such romanticisation is far off from reality and irrelevant, too. On the other hand, in a society like ours where the majority belongs to the lower economic strata, women are always forced to struggle more. Therefore, it is imperative for feminist analysis and class analysis to always go hand in hand.