“Madhabi” by Dr. Lamabam Kamal


BY HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR

Text: MADHABI (Novel)

Language: Manipuri.

Author: Dr. Lamabam Kamal Singh (1899-1935).

Dr Kamal wrote the novel at the age of 31. He died at the age of 36 years only. In 1948, he was conferred the title Kaviratna– the greatest poet. Dr. Kamal is regarded as one of the three most important Manipuri poets of the 20th century. Madhabi was written in February, 1930 while he was still studying medical in Dibrugarh, Shillong.

The novel is a tragedy based on the love story of a girl named Madhabi who sacrificed everything for her love. It is recognised as the first modern Manipuri novel. The name of the present day Canchipur where Manipur University is presently located was called so after the region was fictionally called Canchipur in the novel.

Though the novel is based on the Meetei community who live in the valley part of Manipur, it carries the universal values of love, friendship and sacrifice. The novel also tells a beautiful story of coexistence between mankind and nature.

Brief Summary of Madhabi

Rajkumar Birendrajit is a young, studious student and an obedient son who does not usually like festivals and the material things that many people are after. He has a friend, Shashi, who is direct opposite to his character but a best friend who could do anything for a friend.

On a fateful day, a day before they agreed to go for Cheirao ching kaba (a religious festival celebrated on the eve of Meetei New Year which involves people climbing a specially designated hill to  pay religious visit to a god who sits on top of the hill), they went for collecting flowers in a nearby wood. In that naturally bound place, Canchipur, they met two beautiful girls.

Birendrajit was surprised to see the two very shy and beautiful girls in that unusually beautiful wood. In that moment of surprise, suddenly, one of the two girls hooked a garland around his neck. She was Urirei.

A kundo pareng (a special white flower garland) is a sacred symbol of marriage. When two persons get married, the man and woman hook a kundo pareng around each other’s neck. Putting a garland around his neck by Urerei was an expression of love.

When Birendrajit and his friend departed with a promise to meet the two girls on the day of Cheirao ching kaba, Madhabi, who was along with Urirei during this whole time told her: “Dearest friend, I have sacrificed my body and soul to a person and cannot move independently. You will not find me again but if you are in any trouble, we will meet.” Since then, Madhabi was never seen again.

The story is followed by Birendrajit’s leaving for study in a foreign land, troubles in the life of Urirei because of Bhubon, the villain in the story who has unrequited love with Urirei. Urirei becomes homesless. While her mother is mad, she has lost her father without any trace. The only hope Urirei has is the return of her lover, Birendrajit. She always hears the song of a cuckoo that sings every night on a tree near a pond. She thinks the song as her lover’s news and it gives her strength to live through the agonies of life.

After completing studies, Birendrajit returns home with Dhirendrajit who he made friendship while studying together. When the two reach home, they find that their parents have already fixed their marriage with a wealthy person’s two daughters. Dhirendra used to secretly love Madhabi but he never told her. On the other hand, Madhabi was uncertain of a man’s heart. However, Dhirendra comes looking for Madhabi to express his love. When he cannot find Madhabi, he accepts the arrangement made by his parents.

On the other hand, Birendrajit receives a dubious letter by Bhubon saying that Birendrajit’s best friend Shashi has married Urirei. Birendrajit remains silent and agrees to the marriage arrangment.

In the last part of the story, Urirei unites with her family. Birendrajit, on knowing the truth, marries Urirei. Dhirendra marries with the arranged woman. But Madhabi was never ever seen. Dhirendra met Madhabi once with a sanyasi dress but before he could recognise her, she disappeared. No one would see her again.

A very interesting and ironical part of the story is that, throughout the story, it is the story of Urirei that the readers are told while the title is Madhabi. It seems that the story is a comparison between worldly love and spiritual love, seeking love in the physical world and an unparalleled sacrifice for love. The author leaves this to the readers to decide.

Marginalisation of Manipuri Literature

Madhabi is not the only classic work in Manipuri literature. This is only one example. There are many other classic works such as the epic poem, regarded as his magnum opus, Khamba Thoibi Sheireng by Hijam Anganghal consisting of 39,000 lines. There are 10th century literary works to 21st century literary works known for their distinguished style of writing with different indigenous and derived techniques. However, hardly the readers, literary enthusiasts, authors, poets etc. outside of the state recognise these magnificent gems of literature.

There is hardly any translation of these literary works. The above summary is a personal translation which may be very poor. The language obstacle is understandable but the lack of government and civil society effort is disheartening. Many eminent authors and poets from the community have been awarded for their works by the Government of India. However, a large ocean of literature remain unheard and unread.

There are not only social and political reasons for such marginalisation; there are cultural and linguistic factors too. The extreme geographical distance causes social, cultural and linguistic gap and aloofness of the people of the region from the rest of the country. Combined with this is the absence of efforts by the Government to initiate steps to translate literature from the margins of the country.

Manipuri literature is confined to Manipur. It will be a pleasant surprise and a humble experience for the literary fraternity around the world to read Anganghal’s Khamba Thoibi, Kamal’s Madhabi, and Khwairakpam Chaoba’s distinguished works. These works can be translated in Hindi and English and other major languages. These works and, for that matter, many unread, unheard, unknown literature from the margins will certainly enrich the literature of the world.

Besides, Manipur cannot be called a place where literature is widely read. Only about half of the whole population of Manipur can both read and write the language. And, only few again encourage and support Manipuri literature. In fact, Manipuri literature is marginalised by its own people. There are mockeries of poets in their early days. We often hear ‘warakki kabi’ as a ridiculing phrase made to budding poets. Poets and their works are considered unworthy since they cannot bring financial help to the family.

It is time that Manipuris themselves respect poets and encourage young and old people who love writing. At personal level and at the civil society and government level also, there should be efforts to give respect and recognition to the poets, authors, and writers. Steps should also be taken to translate major works in to other languages. There is the urgent need for literary fraternity and enthusiasts to look into the matter as well.

You can read the original “Madhabi” novel by Dr. Kamal in Manipuri language here.


This article was written as part of a class project during my undergraduate years.

The project topic was:

Locate a text (poem, story, essay, song) that can be defined as marginalised literature.

Give the context of the text- date, place, community.

Write an essay explaining why it should be considered marginalised writing, how it departs from mainstream writing, what are the social and political reasons for its marginalisation. Analyse the piece you have selected.


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5 thoughts on ““Madhabi” by Dr. Lamabam Kamal

    1. Description of the beauty of nature by Dr. Kamal in “Madhavi” will best be captured when reading the original novel in Manipuri. I would not want to translate it here. It will never be as beautiful as it is in the original.

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