The Pan-American Highway can still lay claim to being the longest road on the planet (see earlier blog piece). But Asia Highway #1 running from Istanbul to Tokyo (12,774 mi./20,557 kms.) has no rival for the vast landforms, the spectacle and depth of human story it gathers on a single strand. Unlikely sinew that spans half the globe, it connects ethnicities, ecologies, civilizations, and world views that are more often than not at bitter odds. And yet the wild truth it whispers, (that some fragile thread makes us all kin) however dusty, pot-holed or neglected the road may appear, will bring you to your knees to kiss its cracked, gritty pavement. It achieves a staggering feat.
Bisect this wandering ribbon of road (calling it a ‘highway’ sometimes seems like flattery) and its midpoint would bring you to a most intriguing and remote spot: the once princely state of Manipur (‘Bejeweled Stronghold’). At my last visit to India’s far northeast corner I could only look down from adjoining ridges into this pocket valley and its gallery of hills normally beyond limits for foreign travelers. But a day later came news that these controls would be lifted for a one-time, 24-hour period at the visit of an Indian dignitary. In the company of friends, I raced to the border and spent a memorable day and night exploring terra incognita – Imphal (the capital city), Lake Loktak, a hydroelectric dam, a World War II museum, and conversations on a university campus. My journal entry on return was brimming with all we had seen and heard in this guarded mountain valley.
For the cognoscenti, Manipur is known for its school of classical Indian dance, as the home of polo, for heirloom-worthy handicrafts, and as a place where Japanese advance into India during WWII was halted. As remarkable are the floating islands (‘phumdi’) on Lake Loktak where thousands of fisher folk have permanent dwellings on great mats of natural vegetation that drift over the southeast corner of the lake. But, to its sorrow, Manipur is known also for unremitting ethnic conflict that has long pitted the Meitei valley communities against the Kuki, Naga and other tribes who inhabit the encircling hills.
For two months, that smoldering conflict has burst into open flame as ethnic hatred has overturned public order with arson, mob violence, and now, bodies lying in the streets, sending tens of thousands fleeing to relief camps for protection. Over the cities, towns and villages, there hang plumes of smoke and Asia Highway #1 has become a gauntlet of suffering. Even more pitiful, public authorities seem unable to rein in the violence as enmities harden and trust evaporates.
But in the headlines and reporting that has come from this cauldron, one small feature of the story has been all but overlooked. According to one account a clutch of Meitei women, unable to bear what was befalling nearby tribal families, formed a circle of conscience around their neighbors, facing off those with cudgels, guns and firebrands, as though to say that Asia Highway #1 had somehow crept into their moral imagination and that its silent appeal might yet be heeded.
If the titular leaders of that Bejeweled Stronghold are unable to bridge the divide between parties to this bloodshed, they could hardly do better than to summon to the table the women who defended their neighbors at risk to themselves, and those whose homes and lives were spared as a result. Let them take each other by the hand. Let their bonds be the basis of a peace inviting all who live along that stretch of Asia Highway #1 to the promise of a ribbon of road that girdles – and holds together – half the earth.