Martin Thokchom (first from left) with some school children and teachers from a far-flung hill district in Manipur Credit: EastMojo image

Imphal: Think Manipur. The images it evokes are of the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, insurgency, Irom Sharmila and human right violations. However, there’s more to this Northeastern state than these gloomy images.

Come October 12, by the end of the day, a group of millennials would have organised a first-of-its-kind crowd-funded two-day literary festival in the state capital Imphal. The brains behind the festival is Martin Thokchom, a bespectacled 29-year-old owner of barely-a-year-old independent book store.

The post-graduate in English literature from Delhi University’s Ramjas College has been a regular at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) since 2014. Though he has cleared his National Eligibility Test conducted by UGC, Martin is reluctant to pursue a career in teaching despite his family’s mounting pressure and living in a society obsessed with the security provided by government jobs.

An avid reader and a bibliophile, he launched his book store on October 11 last year, deciding to name it Ukiyo — a Japanese word which, among other things, means living in the moment detached from life’s myriad woes, a term that he came across while reading an article on Japanese art.

The bookstore at Sega Road Thouda Bhabhok Leikai in Imphal also provides free snacks and hot beverages during pop-up sales

Dreaming big

“I began attending JLF five years ago while I was in Delhi after learning that many of my favourite authors would be present during the event. I was unaware that writers could be humble. I knew nothing about the connection between writers and their readers. There are a lot of things that we need to learn from writers and their personal experience which goes beyond their books, life lessons,” Martin said.

In less than a year, Ukiyo has become more than a book store; it’s a meeting ground where the young and the old, united by their interests in literature, exchange ideas about bringing social change and much more.

Attributing lack of awareness about the nuances of publishing as one of the factors for the abysmal state of Manipuri literature, he observes: “Many budding authors in the state are ignorant about the challenges of what goes after writing. A talented young writer approaches a publishing house and comes back dejected after their manuscript is turned down, blaming their own creativity and talent. We are yet to know the role of literary agents and the importance of proofreading and editing after writing a book.”

At 40, Rakesh Konjengbam, a former schools development manager India of Cambridge International Examinations — a division of Cambridge Assessment, a non-teaching department of University of Cambridge — is the oldest member of the team organising the lit fest. Armed with an MBA in Marketing from Global Business School (ENPC France), he is also the founder and chief executive of Ingenix Educare, an educational services provider that will act as the outreach partner of the event. He worked with Cambridge University in various capacities from 2004 to 2014 before returning home.

Ukiyo conducts pop-up sale every now and then, offering books at affordable prices

“I agreed with Martin on exploring the idea of organising the literary fest when he broached the subject as he had exposure to such events. In my personal opinion, improving infrastructure and businesses, advancement in science and technology, are without a doubt tools for bringing about societal development. If we look at history and go back to the ancient Greek and Egyptian civilisations, leaders with a humane touch who could grab everyone’s attention and whose decisions go beyond mere profit making were widely read without focusing on only a scintillating subject,” Konjengbam observed, lamenting that lack of such leaders prevent the state from producing visionaries.

A knee-operation could not deter Natali Ningthoukhongjam from joining Team Ukiyo. Despite being bedridden and having difficulty walking during the first few weeks of her involvement, the civil servant played her role to perfection in raising funds for the event and bringing out Lamai, the magazine commemorating the book store’s first anniversary. Lamai literally translates into ‘page’ in Manipuri. The magazine is edited by Parul Tayenjam, a young feminist and environmentalist, who along with Natali are the only two female members of Team Ukiyo.

This author was mourning the loss of his prematurely born baby girl who passed away three days after being born when Martin told him about the upcoming event. His message to the author read, “Brother, we are planning something big and we want you to be a part of it.” In fact, as he informed the author in detail about the impending fest at his book store, the latter was carrying the corpse of his baby at the back of his car, parked outside the book store. Bidding time for performing the last rites of the dead child as instructed by the priest, the author was looking for an escape. The world of literature just did that. Doesn’t Ukiyo also mean ‘floating world’?

“When I first opened the book store, organising a literary festival appeared impossible. Then I met you (this author), brother Rakesh, Parul and Natali. You all agreed to help me in executing my idea. I also met others like brother Sandip who has experience in organising such events. You all encourage me to dream big. If our dream is not realised this time, we will come back stronger next year,” Thokchom said enthusiastically.

Sandip has an engineering degree in computer science. There are many millennial like him—more engineers, a banker, an architect, a photographer, even a student currently pursuing his Bachelor of Arts degree — united by the temerity to dream big and to make the festival a reality. Together, they are Team Ukiyo.

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