Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
After the Japanese gave “Britannia ruled the waves” a nasty shock in southeast Asia with their lightening attacks, they sneaked through the jungles of Burma, infested with malaria, cholera and dysentery, right to the outskirts of Imphal. Imphal thus became the nerve centre of the British Commonwealth soldiers fighting the Japanese simultaneously at Imphal and Kohima fronts. It was as if the whole universe was connected with Imphal in a state of gibbering excitement.
Japanlan was the greatest discovery of the world for Manipuris without having to travel since the earth’s formation 4.5 billion years ago. Manipuris were lucky to be part of the pioneering British generation furthering the experimental method of jungle warfare that was not in the old war game books.
The history of the Japanese cutting off the 4th Corps of the British Army in Manipur from the rest of the world in early 1944, is a gripping tale of their courage and endurance. Imphal became a warzone with crumbling buildings, rubbish heaps and all kinds of military trucks packed with soldiers passing through it en route to other parts of Manipur, and to the Burma border.
In mid-1944, young American transport pilots flying their Dakotas to Imphal Koirengei and Tulihal airfields to bring military men, equipment and supplies, brought some glamour to the war. Their easygoing character, smart dress in light khaki poplin trousers without pleats, matching shirts and matching cotton belts, with a fag of lucky Strike dangling from one corner of their mouth or chewing gum, wearing aviator Ray Ban glasses and driving their jeeps, made a quick impression on young Manipuris as they did everywhere.
At the backend of 1944, my eldest brother Gokulchandra, a civil engineer, had to come and live in Imphal as the state Public Works Department (PWD) began to function again. As our home was occupied by the military my brother had to stay with a Brahmin family at Bamon Leikai. He brought me to go to school. This is where I met the late RK Maipaksana, father of RK Dilip, as my private tutor.
Schools were open in 1944 as most people had returned to Imphal and people from outer Imphal did not flee at all. Singjamei and Kongba Bazaars took the place of Khwairamband Bazaar that was still deserted. The only private Bengali School for children of Bengalis living at Babupara was vacant as they had gone back to Bengal. It continued to serve as a big military canteen where we used to buy novelties.
I went to a middle school at Moirangkhom hillock that had seen the worst side of the war. In the school we had bamboo benches to sit on. Teachers used the backside of wooden windows that were painted black for the war, as blackboards. The teachers were very good though. They helped me to qualify with a merit scholarship in 1946 for Johnstone High School in the old building. RK Dorendra Singh, ex-Chief Minister of Manipur and Dr Elangbam Kuladhaja Singh, ex-Principal of RIMS, were my class fellows. Churachand High School was open. Tombisana High School was bombed out.
In 1945, we boys from Bamon Leikai used to walk to the war-torn town centre to see children’s films like Hunter Wali and Passing Shaw. It had a few Indian military policemen patrolling on foot, perhaps to keep an eye on the remaining Indian troops in the bazaar area. Curiously their revolver holsters had no guns inside.
Japanlan ended elsewhere on August 15 1945. Manipur was still a battlefield with pockets of Indian sapper units still left after the British and most of the Indian and Gurkha troops had been evacuated. Many Meitei families from the centre of Imphal could not still return as their houses like ours, were occupied by the remnants of the unarmed Indian army.
When our family did return home in the beginning of 1946, there was a Muslim unit in the homesteads near the main Uripok road. I used to go to brush my teeth at the old toti (drinking water stand pipe) by the road every morning at seven o’clock. When I came back I would go past their langer (Urdu, kitchen) hoping that the cooks would give me a paratha, which they did.
Following the war, boys in Imphal including me, began to feel the impact of the war, especially of the Americans, in dress and manner. Young Meiteis, who were innately mechanical and quick to learn, soon reassembled many trucks, jeeps and motorbikes that, by 1947 Imphal was full of them. My eldest brother had a jeep with which I learnt to drive.
The war bewitched the Meitei nation. The immediate postwar Imphal was the equivalent of peeling onions, removing the unpalatable coverings, unearthing the generations of hopes and regrets. Its tranquil surface belied soul-swelling depths. Literary biopic paterfamilias began to riposte to common social and cultural topics.
There was a natural movement towards modifying traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas and deliberate rejection of the styles of the past, such as an increasing adoption of wearing trousers instead of phijom (dhoti) and a change in unmarried girls’ Mangka-style haircut to the universal. There was liberalism and relaxation in religious orthodoxy, such as allowing Muslims and tribal people in Brahmin-run restaurants and Meitei homes.
Even my father had done away with the prewar orthodoxy of his conventional creed. He cordially accepted my English wife Margaret as his daughter-in-law. Because of the war and his liberalism I’ve become an agnostic as have my daughter Anita, my son Neil, and my wife Margaret.
Before the war, mostly Bengali films were screened in Imphal cinema halls, as Meiteis were fluent in Bengali because it was the medium of instruction in schools. Odd Hindi films were also shown like Bandhan starring Ashok Kumar and Lila Chitnis, which I went to see with my brother. From 1944 onwards, no Bengali films were shown because of Hindi/Urdu speaking soldiers. By 1945 many Meiteis including me, had a working knowledge of Hindi because of the war, to enjoy Hindi films. From 1946 Cinema halls screened Hollywood films. I saw Romeo and Juliet with Norma Shearer at the MNB Cinema Hall.
Exposure to Hindi and English films helped Manipuris to develop an ebbing consciousness that the world is vast with different races, religions, politics and cultures. Manipuris have experienced the exceptional, which wouldn’t have happened without Japanlan.
The postwar period seemed to promise greater equality and diversity among the Manipuri people. It was a time of enormous social and economic upheaval. Education began in earnest in 1944 with the opening of various high schools. There was an engagement and a willingness among parents to fight for their children’s higher education. They began to embrace richness and complexities of life.
The educated Manipuris saw a new dawn of modernity and began to harbour a neo-political frame of mind. The resurgence of Imphal began in 1946 with the reconstruction of Imphal town centre. New buildings have come up very fast with shops at the Maxwell and Sadar Bazaars with goods imported from Calcutta, all run by inexperienced Manipuris born without business acumen.
Three cinema halls and three drama halls have provided relaxation for the Imphal residents. The town has worn the image of a modern Indian town with paved roads and automobiles. More and more hilldwellers have come down to live at the town centre and so have many highs school tribal students.
There was an educational renaissance for all Manipuris, who were until then politically naïve and educationally backward as they lived a cloistered existence. It was not like watching a favourite movie in high definition. It was original. It was a fascinating window on a lost Manipuri civilisation. As a consequence, some educated Manipuris about this time, began to put politics into their heads and dabble in it. And, because they were novices they couldn’t ‘turn the pumpkin into a coach’ like Cinderella’s.
By 1947, Calcutta-printed newspapers like Amrita bazaar Pratika, Hindustan Times and Statesman were available daily in Imphal. Modern sports became regular events. By 1950, ‘Birla Airlines’ introduced daily flights to Imphal and back to Calcutta via Gauhati, keeping Manipuris more in touch with the rest of India. Most families by this time, owned a radio to listen to daily news and Manipuri songs broadcast from Gauhati. There was more reliance on science.
Manipuris owe a great deal to Japanlan. Without it Manipuris (Indians) might still be struggling for a while for independence. It’s a piece of quasi-fiction that the behaviour of the Manipuri youth, who are now in their 80s, formed the first phalanx in a major character upheaval of Meiteis. These young Meitei brains shaped and defined a new Meitei culture by their personal experiences but also by those of our ancestors and by environment.
Exploring the impact of the Japan Lan on Meiteis 75 years ago with the end of British colonial rule; new geopolitical events; social and economic consequences; the mythological, philosophical and psychological effects of the war, one could see their craving for freedom with a relaxed attitude towards a secular world view.
For hill-dwellers there was an intense arousal for a belonging, dreams of equality, fairness and justice, and to be able to freely choose Jesus Christ and follow his ways.
(The writer is based in the UK. Email:[email protected] Website: www,drimsingh.co.uk)
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh