Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Before I begin today’s column I would like to express my tender emotions like poetry drawn from the prose, to see online, the images of Krishna Janma celebration at Mahabali on August 15 this year, as I remember going there as a little boy just before WWII. Equally touching is the group photograph of North American Manipuri Association convention 2017, US, with 200 membership of Manipuri diasporas, including one from my school days. As I recall I was one of the first three Manipuris who have ever settled in the West.
I’ve just dusted through my brain and got rid of all the gauzy cobwebs. I can remember that fateful day of May 10 1942, though not as clearly as a cube of sunshine, when the townspeople of Imphal were jolted with intermittent, as yet unimaginable, sounds of bombs exploding over the town centre. The chilling truth flashed across their mind that the Japanlan had indeed arrived after all. Having switched off the chatter of everyday talk of the coming war, most people fled their homes as news quickly spread from words of mouth that, it was indeed Japanese bombs.
Manipuris remained uneducated even in their own vernacular. Yet the last English-educated Meitei rulers preferred to keep the masses uneducated, as if wanting them to cultivate wisdom out of ignorance, like extracting blood out of stone. The British were uninterested. Only James Johnstone started a school to teach Manipuris enough English to work as their pen pushers. So Manipuris had never seen an aeroplane before, nor had an idea of what it looked like. When the Japanese reconnaissance planes were flying silently in the azure Imphal firmament for a few days before the bombing, people didn’t know they were aeroplanes. Sirens from the British cantonment in the ancient Manipur capital of Kangla, were whining. But everybody thought they were practice runs. There was no way of knowing that the Japanese were round the corner as Imphal had no daily newspapers, radio, or telephone to contact with the outside world except by telegram from the infamous Telegraph office of Nupilan-2 connection.
My father was quite friendly with Christopher Gimson, the Political Agent (boro sahib) from 1933 till the end of the war in 1945. After he went back to England I called at his house in Leicester with my girlfriend Margaret in 1967. My father knew about the sirens.
On a hilltop in south of Imphal, a section of 4th Assam Rifles was stationed to watch the sky during the day, with orders that as soon as they saw or heard an aircraft, they were to heliograph a message to headquarters at Kangla, whereupon a siren would be sounded from the top of a metal pole. In the good old days the siren was sounded everyday exactly at 12-noon from this contraption near the west gate. Imphal dwellers then knew it was numityungba.
As I walked home, our Uripok Road was weirdly quiet. In our house my father, cool as a cucumber, was directing everybody to pack bags and bundles with essential goods that each person could carry. We left the house after locking it up in a couple of hours and walked up the Uripok Road towards Kangchup for our new life in the village. The Road was jostled by men, women and children, fleeing the town in all directions to outlying villages for safety.
Imphal in those days, had no automobiles. The rich had pedal bikes like Raleigh’s and Humbers. Most transport from outlying villages to Imphal were by bullock carts grinding the dusty main roads especially in winter, bringing paddy in gunny bags. Some inter-Leikai (between dwelling blocks) lanes were knee-deep in mud during the rainy season. Shoes were non-rainy season accessories. There were only 3-4 lorries that I saw plying. There was a government red-painted truck Dak gari that carried post to and back from the ‘Imphal Railway station’ at Dimapur, the metre-gauge single track Railhead in Assam. Another passenger bus called Moirang gari with galvanised metal sheet body, was parked by the Nambul River near Wahengbam Leikai. It carried passengers from Khwairamband Bazaar to Nambol, Bishnupur and Moirang.
King Bodhchandra had a small black car. During the War in 1944, he succeeded his father Churachand who lived at the new palace that was built for boy Raja Chandrakriti on November 4 1910, on time for his return from Mayo College in Ajmer. It was designed by a British architect in a pseudo-Rajput style; probably because Manipuri rajas were Hindus with Rajput surnames as Singh and their wives, Devi. Bodhchandra stayed put in Imphal during the war and was appreciated by the British Army that took control of Manipur’s administration. The palace had a carriageway from the north main gate into its low brick-walled compound. It was neatly surfaced by crushed red brick chips with a couple of small fountains with sprinklers by its sides. The tiny Durbar Hall was located in the west near the gate. The Main building was painted off-white. I’ve been inside the palace compound once before the war with my sister-in-law Ibemhal when she went to sing for Jalakheli (water sport) festival at the Govindaji mandab, and a couple of times inside the building after the war, through the good offices of a couple of young Ranis.
The palace gate was guarded by armed Meitei police known as State Military Police (SMP) garrisoned at the present 1st Manipur Rifles cantonment, armed with downgraded 303 rifles with their magazines taken out and sealed. I remember two well-known havildars promoted to jamandars in the new 1st Manipur Rifles. The battalion was formed by Captain Priyobarta as Chief Minister of Independent Manipur (1949) after recruiting Gurkhas from Shillong.
I knew Captain MK Priyobrata, and his younger brother MK Joy – a dashing Army captain. Both brothers volunteered to join the Indian Army to fight for Britain during the war. They were our pride and joy. I also knew their younger sister, one and the only one, princess MK Binodini. I saw her last as she came to give her condolence to my father when my mother Mani Devi died. The Palace, one of the very few Meitei historical edifices, had not been improved after the war. When my wife Margaret, son Neil and I went to meet the regal-looking titular king Leishemba Sanajaoba a few years ago, it was shamefully dilapidated as the succeeding Ibobi Congress governments took no interest. In 1942, the British administration had been warning Imphalites about the Japanese bombing with slit trenches dug up in the bazaar area and along the main roads like Uripok and Sagolband. Householders were told to dig up such bomb shelters. We had one in our garden.
My father Irengbam Gulamjat Singh was a civil engineer, qualified from Dacca. Later, he was sent by the Administration for training in electric engineering to Shillong. He was running the electrical department of Manipur after the State British Civil Engineer CF Jeffrey, with no experience of electrical engineering, left to retire in Australia. He was running the hydro electric powerhouse, which he and Jeffrey built at Sanahal Lokchao. Jeffery built a nice bungalow for himself by the Indo-Burma (IB) Road, near the PWD office that was situated near the present Hotel Classic. The site of the powerhouse was scenically very beautiful, a bit like the Lauterbrunnen Fall, Bern in Switzerland (Sangam film starring Rajkapoor and Vijayanthimala) with a waterfall and diaphanous water of Leimakhong River meandering down with its booming flow sound, as the running water hit or rolled large boulders and rocks along the river bed. It was full of trout fish (Sana Nga). The whole setup of the powerhouse existed until the early 1970s when it was completely destroyed by a landslide.
My father kept the powerhouse running during the war and after. As Chief Electrical Engineer, he constructed his post-war office Near Keisampat, now opposite the Manipur State Archives complex. My orthodox father wouldn’t dine with beef-eating sahibs but would eat biscuits with a cup of tea. Jeffery respected his orthodoxy to the extent that when I was going out with Margaret, now my wife, he, having been informed by Gimson, wrote to a friend of my father in Imphal, about the possible disaster of my marrying an English girl.
Gimson had told my father about the imminent arrival of the Japanese to Manipur. So he had made arrangements for us to flee Imphal the same day as the bombing, and stay with a family in the village of Senjam-Chirang near Koutruk, the site for Manipur Sports University. It’s about 19 km from Sanahal Lokchao through Khurukhul village. My father had already hired a lorry that was owned by the Kangabam family in our neighbourhood, to take us to the village in the afternoon. But as the bombs exploded over Imphal at noon, we fled on foot. I vaguely remember that day. I was told, as I could not walk far I had a piggy-ride on the backs of my two sister-in-laws. The village was about 25 km from our house. But it took an eternity.
The evening was closing in by the time we arrived in the village. We settled in our prearranged dwelling place, which my father had rented and converted as our family home with adequate lighting with kerosene lanterns. The next morning, my two brothers cycled to Imphal to see that our home was not looted. My father went to see Gimson, who told him that almost everybody had left Imphal except some looters in the bazaar area. Assam rifles Gurkhas were posted. All Marwari merchants had also left on foot along with a large number of refugees from Burma, who had been staying at makeshift accommodations at Koirengei in north Imphal, where the military later built the first aerodrome.
(The writer is based in the UK. Email:[email protected] Website:www.drimsingh.co.uk)
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh