Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
My wife Margaret and I, have just returned from the annual pilgrimage to Imphal to attend the International polo tournament and the Sangai Festival in November. The final match this year between England and India B (Manipur) was played on November 29. England lost.
I’ve seen Imphal from a status of an unknown district of Assam when we had to write P.O. Imphal, District Manipur, Assam. Today it’s a sprawling city.It was so beguiling to see Imphal in this festive mood. The decorative illuminations at Hotel Imphal broughtback to mea certain memory.
In 1987,my wife and I, were invited for an evening-do by Dev Anand, the late evergreen Bollywood idol at his home at 2 Iris Park, Juhu. We were staying at the Taj Palace Hotel near India Gate, along way off. We set off in a chauffeur-driven car provided by a friend of ours. As we approached Juhu we got lost. There was a huge Diwali-style well-illuminated building by the road and many people were gathered there at its lawn for a Seth’s daughter’s wedding. My wife and I walked through the gate to ask for direction. A functionary took us for guests. Profusely welcoming, he seated us down in chairs. Soonglasses of Sherbet came. Embarrassed, we sneaked out quietly.
For the last 4-5 years, old age has been stalking me, but I ignored it as much as I could. This year we met face to face. This started at Manchester Airportfrom where we began our journey.In economy class, there are a few seats in front of each cabin that give passengers extra leg room atan extra cost of £75 each. We bookedtwo such seats. At the airport, the Emirate check-in girlsaid we couldn’t sit there. Asked why, she said we were too old. Unable to lift the handle of the emergency exit door. I humorously said: ‘look I can lift this 20kg baggage’.She went to consult her superior and came back. We were okay. While flying from Chennai to Madurai by Spice jet, we were again seated by the emergency exit door. A comely red-uniformedteenage Air hostess wanted to explain the emergency exit procedure. She took that I speak English but asked my English wife if she could speak English. She said “little bit”. I told her to explain to me and I will tell my wife later’. She did. When we arrived at Delhi International Airport from Manchester, Amrit, the wife of my friend,the late Dr GK Jaiswal,received us. Three days later, we were at the Delhi Domestic Airport to fly to Imphal. I engaged a registered porter boy, prepaid (INR 180) to a peripatetic official girl carrying a ticket machine. The boy said he will do a good job and expected a nice tip. I jokingly showed a 20 rupee-note. He said that wasn’t much. Then, on second thought, to get a better tip, he asked, would I like a wheel chair? I politely declined.
At Imphal Airport on November 19, Prof (Dr) Ranjana sent her car and driver along with her second daughter Kiran to receive us. Kiran, with her coiffured brown bob-haircut, gracefully gave the vote of thanks at the launch of my book at Hotel Imphal on November 28,speaking with poshReceived English accent. No less, herdebonair elder sister, fashion-designer Richana, ‘introduced’ me at the same book launch, with crisp cut-glass English accent. The launch was to release my English book, The Origin of Meiteis of Manipur and Meiteilon is not a Tibeto-Burman language, translated into Bengali script and Meitei Mayek simultaneously, having been published byRanjana, daughter of my deceased friend Kh Dhirendra from Kongba bazaar.
I remain eternally grateful to Dr Ranjana and her husband Dr Ratan for this noble act, after Manipur Shahitya Parishad and Manipur Librarians’ Association curiously declined to do so, despite my offerto finance it. Indeed, my book in Meitei mayek is the first of its kind that contains highly literary material with an introduction togenetics in relation to the origin of Meiteis.
My wife, my sonand I, have been attending the international polo matches for the past four years. This year, we stayed at Hotel Imphal, rather than with a niece of mine and her husband. My wife chose Hotel Imphal because of its rambling gardens that gave her a sense of freedom and non-cloistered surroundings.We were able to receive visitors in the mornings and afternoons, and entertain afew guests to drinks and dinner some evenings.
We were well-looked after by the staff of Hotel Imphal, especially byArunaKonthoujam, Assistant Front Office Manager. The desk manager at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bengaluru, where we stayed after leaving Imphal, reminded me of Aruna, by his pleasant and polite demeanour.
I understood Hotel Imphal has now been managed on a lease from Manipur Government by Babina Health Care & hospitality Industries. I know its MDDr Dhabali, a humble man, whose hospitality industry has made consistent growth within and without Manipur. This year in India, I was pleasantly amusedto meet many Manipuris in various parts of India, mostly in the hospitality industry and with various para-military forces.One such recent meeting was at the Sheraton hotel at Saket in South Delhion November 16, before we came to Imphal. With some friends we went for dinner to celebrate Margaret’s Birthday. Asshe preferred Chinese cuisine we went to its Chinese restaurant. We were served by a well-mannered oriental-looking girl in Chinese costume. To me she looked like a Northeast Indian girl. I talked to her. She hailed fromKangpokpi, Manipur. A Kuki Kipgen. I tipped her with pleasure.
At one of Bengaluru’s famous British style watering holes, The Biere Club at VittalMallya Road, where they pull tastier pints of draught beer rather than serving bottled beer, young Indian boys and girls were supping beer at lunch time. It was managed by a young woman and a man of Northeastern looks. I found the girl was from Churachandpur and the man from Ukhrul. I was told a Meitei man was serving upstairs.
While checking in at Hyderabad Airport, a Meitei-looking police officer was attending us. I quietly mumbled if he was from Manipur. He overheard me and smiled in affirmation: “Pabung I am from Wangkhei.” At Chennai International Airport, a Northeast Indian-looking checking officer looked at my passport and realised I am from Manipur. He told me he came from Churachandpur. From Imphal we flew to Bengaluru via Chennai, where we stopped overnightat Radisson Blu Hotel,en route to Kodaikanal. After a real hard journey with cancellation and redirection of the Indigo Airlines, we felt we were in Heaven with its relaxing decor and polite attentiveness of all the staff.
From Bengaluru we went to Kodaikanal and stayed at the British relic Hotel, The Carlton by the Lake.After 3 days we returned to Chennai via Madurai that is famous for Meenakshi Temple and fresh Jasmine. We stayed overnight at another Radisson BluHotel. This hotel eclipsed the Bengaluru Radisson with its American-style massive interior and pomp, stylishly furnished room, electronically operated lighting systemand the comportmentof the staff. We went to the dimly-lit bar forpre-dinner drink. The bargirl was from Mizoram.
The polo tournament this year under the presidency of Hawaibam Deleep, was the most enjoyable as we’ve been accepted as a permanent fixture by the polo fraternity, sitting in the same two chairs every year. On the opening day,we were seated next to Brigadier RK Singh, Dy IG, IGAR (South). Col Ranjit introduced us to him. He said he reads my column in the Sangai Express every Sunday. At the closing dinner for polo teams at Hotel Imphal, my wife and I, were also honoured for our unceasing support for thetournament, with presents ofmemorabilia. We attended the Sangai Festival performances at the Bhagyachandra Open Air Theatre,first escorted by no other than the indomitable city police force’s boss, Inspector Ingoucha Nongthombam, who sports a Stalinist moustache and exudes charm and humility, as well as by DSP Dev Anand, who is cool, calm and collected with measured efficiency and proficiency. Our second visit was withthe MLA Paonam Bojen, a very likeable man, who accompanied us from our hotel.
Speaking about the ethos of my book, I found a book in Rangoon, “The River of Lost Footsteps” by Thant Myint-U, educated at Harvard (US) and Cambridge (UK). It waspublished coincidently in the same year as my book in 2007. Like me, he denies the fictional history of the origin of the Burmese and Burmese migration from elsewhere, and says it is British supremacism. On page 195, he writes: “It was the British who also began to think carefully about where the Burmese “came from “and how they were related to other peoples. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of race theory. Ethnology was born as a colonial enterprise, and there were energetic attempts to categorise the peoples of the empire and understand how ancient migrations and more recent history might have led to their current conditions and characteristics. Though there were general attempts at science, much was also a way to show how the English were on top. Some ideas did not have much supportive evidence.These are ideas now firmly rooted in people’s imaginations.”
All good things came to an end. After a sumptuous repast hosted by my two grandsons, Dennis and Narendra the previous evening, we were driven to the airport in the morning by another two grandsons, Ibosana and Baleswar, who previously, treated us to a delicious all-veg banquet.
It was a memorable visit to my hometown Imphal.
The writer is based in the UK.
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh