In the Kingdom of Dying Ponies
Polo, the sport of kings, hails from the forgotten, violent state of Manipur, India. Can anyone save its endangered, fabled horses?
Photography by Ashima Narain
Sinam Bimol, a policeman, looked out on the field and yelled, “La! La! La! La!” There were three steeds in the distance grazing between the narrow pools of a government fishery. The sun shone strong from a cloudless sky on this rare piece of Imphal green; there is preciously little un-urbanized space here. Bimol, 40, a packet of Parle-G biscuits in hand, was summoning the attention of the middle horse, a 7-year-old chocolatey beauty named Stallion. The tournament was six days away and Bimol, a short, stout forbearing sub-inspector in a black beanie and captain of the Manipuri team, India B — the New Delhi squad goes by India A — was showing off his herd: In addition to Stallion there was Red and Jackson.
People in Manipur told me that Bimol is the state’s best polo player. But even he had to keep his ponies on land that was not meant for mammals. This fishery was doing him a favor.
To an outsider like me the solution for the lack of grazing space seemed simple: Set apart some land for the ponies and put them there. And indeed, that is what some, like the state government, are trying to do. But results have been uninspiring. A preserve set up in 2013 quickly fell apart after money ran dry without warning. On top of that, the farmers who cultivate the land set aside for the preserve have been haranguing the government over compensation amounts. The dispute, which is still ongoing, raises the question: In a place with abysmal roadways, rising unemployment, constant power outages, and armed insurrection, why should anyone care about ponies?
Somi Roy is Manipur’s leading equine activist. To him the suffering ponies represent something far greater than the sum of their parts: The ponies’ revival might be the first step in sparking Manipur’s own. “By using No. 1, the pony and No. 2, polo I want to instill a sense of self-esteem here by showing people what a wonderful, rich culture we all come from,” he told me. “I want to reframe Manipur for the 21st century. We are known for HIV. We are known for the conflict, the longest hunger strike ever, ambushing army convoys. But we need to build up the positives.”
Roy — of middling height; thin, inky hair; beady, bespectacled eyes; and with no particular background in animal welfare — has been instrumental in lobbying the state government on the ponies’ behalf (including nurturing strong ties between locals and the United States Polo Association). Using his innate proficiency in the art of networking and the variety of connections afforded to him through family lineage — his mother was a princess of the Manipuri monarchy and a renowned Meitei author — Roy has convinced the government to adopt his “pony policy,” a 10-point program designed to prevent pony extinction.
Key among the policy’s proposals is the revival of the 300-acre preserve, the one that failed in 2013, and the creation of a multi-disciplinary board of pony “experts.” But there is also mention of “scientific breeding,” pony-related “ecotourism,” construction of a racecourse, a disease management plan, an allowance program for pony owners, and the establishment of a national equine research center. In November, the government formally announced its adoption of the policy, but there has yet to be any significant progress made.
Like Manipur’s ponies, Roy is a little wild. Born in Imphal, schooled in Darjeeling and Delhi, he has until recently called New York City home for three decades. He worked there as a film curator for groups like the Asia Society and the Lincoln Center, arranging film festivals and museum exhibitions. He has also worked extensively in rural Appalachia on film projects. Though his blood runs Manipuri, “What I am today is I’m created by America,” he says. Particularly American, he insists, is his work ethic: He expects things to get done within a set timeframe, which can be a problem in Manipur. “My point is I want to make things happen. Where I’m going to be frustrated, yeah, okay, I’ll be frustrated.”
Roy considers the formal adoption of his program a significant milestone, but he also knows that unless concrete actions are soon taken it will about as useful as a fractured polo mallet. “Things fall apart quite easily here. This is a place where people are used to things not working out,” he says. “This is the only capital city in India that does not have street lights. Or street signs. Or a mass transportation system. It’s kind of, when you step back and look at it, this is amazing. They don’t repair the roads. They don’t have street lamps. The postal office barely works. Every invitation has to be hand-delivered.”
R.K. Nimai, 62, a former sports commissioner and amateur equestrian, often works with Roy in his pony activism. “If we allow the ponies to vanish, then we are losing a part of our roots. Almost every activity of the Manipuris, the pony was involved,” he asserts. “Somi, his perseverance is very good. He keeps reminding people of the need [to save the ponies].”
Some, however, find Roy’s methods distasteful. According to one young person who used to work as his assistant, “Somi Roy is more American than Manipuri. Everyone’s like, ‘This guy is acting like a king.’”
Even Nimai cannot help mentioning it. “The only thing I have a difference of opinion on is that he wants to do too many things. Somi doesn’t think like a Manipuri.”
Others support Roy’s mission but question its chances of success. “His plans are all good if the government takes it and implements it the way he’s envisioning it,” says a former official at the Ministry of Women and Child Development and a close friend. “But it’s not going to happen exactly as he has planned. I’d be surprised if it happened like that.”