Sometime in 2004, while I was visiting him at his Paite Veng residence in Imphal, Pu Thangjamang Gwite @ T. Gwite (1938-2007) pulled out a neatly stitched manuscript of his memoir from a drawer and handed it to me. It was titled Our Thanlon Times: vignettes of childhood reminiscences. As I flip through the pages, he locked eyes with me and told me, “When it’s all done, you are going to write the review in The Sangai Express. Now, let me show you the places where your grand-father got mentioned…”
At the time, I was working in The Sangai Express as a correspondent and columnist. PuMang, as I called him, pronounced himself to be an admirer of my Sunday columns which go by the name, Lamka Impressions. He had by then retired from service in the Indian Police Service (IPS) and had also done a short stint as chairman of the Manipur Public Service Commission.
PuMang died in September 2007 in Delhi while en-route to the US where he planned to attend his daughter’s wedding. His memoir was not published yet at that time. I don’t know why the publication got delayed that much; that was so unlike him. I had moved to Delhi by that time too. His sudden passing numbed us so much, I lost focus, lost track of the time and motivation and didn’t even know when the book was published by his family the same year.
But whenever I come to remember him, what he asked me to do keep nagging me. I occasionally asked around for the book, but to no avail. It was only recently that I got a copy, and immediately sets out to do what he entrusts me to do.
Our Thanlon Times is, true to the title, about their Thanlon times. It is a chronicle of their times of innocence, their time as small children. This is not an autobiography. In fact, there is little about the author’s personal life history. PuMang must have something close to a photographic memory, or must have kept a diary. He could recollect names, songs, events and dates clearly. This is no mean feat as the main events he wrote about happened during the 1940s and early 1950s.
The book is impeccably, neatly written in good, understated language. PuMang took the trouble to meticulously explain local events and practices which have no English equivalent, in the English language. This is a tough challenge that people who write about vernacular history face. Not many come out well. But he did.
Thanlon is a sub-division headquarters town, or village, located at 150 kilometres to the south of Lamka along Tipaimukh Road. The village is centrally and strategically located, surrounded by smaller villages on all directions. Three important roads, namely, Tipaimukh, Guite and Nungba Roads converge in it. It is for this reason that the Government had made it an administrative centre at least since 1934.
This book would be a useful source material for those interested to know village life in a typical Paite-Zomi community in the early 20th century. The events are described from the vantage of an innocent, if curious, child. They are described as experienced in first person. The transformation of village society by Christianity, the process of spread of modern education, the games played, the festivities, the religious and cultural practices and rituals, common ghost and mythical stories, inter-village interactions and relations, jhum cultivations and related struggles for livelihood, the process of courting between boys and girls, etc. are very well described.
In the villages, it’s a common courting practice for boys to visit girls at night at the latter’s homes. Girls will roll tobacco in the dried outer-skin of maize (and later old news-papers) for the boys to smoke. Everyone, in those days, smoked. And here goes the process of courting and signaling:
“When tobaccos are rolled for the boys, if the girl binds the roll with a piece of white thread, it is just the normal courtesy. But if a girl binds the roll with a strand of black thread, she means ‘I love you.’ Well, if she binds it with a strand of her hair, then, of course, she means, ‘I am all for you.’ The young man who gets such a roll of tobacco with a strand of the girl’s hair round it would not smoke it. He would quietly keep it in his pocket, and when they disperse from the girl’s house late in the night, he comes home and when he is all alone in his bed he would hold the roll of tobacco in his hand, feel it and smell it and he would keep it under his pillow. It is too dear, too precious to light it with fire and smoke!”
This book is a reminder that there were many unsung heroes whose detailed histories deserved to be told and heard. The sincerity, hard work, honesty and humility of those who went before us are laid bare. How much struggle it required to get basic education. The easy and cordial interaction between various communities. Compared to those days, our present preoccupations and enmities look silly and small indeed. There is plenty to learn.
One such hero in the book is Mr. Tualvung Hangshing @ Tualpu. He was from Hanship village and when he passed BA in 1953, many people from the surrounding villages come together to join in the celebration. Tualpu possessed a never say die attitude and determination. When he was in college, his match box lasted twice longer than those of his friends. How so? With the help of his 7 O’clock shaving blade he split each match stick into two!! At the age of 35 when people of his age were settling down wife and kinds, he was beginning to pursue his school actively and carried through to college till he graduated at the age of 44 in 1953 from DM College. He became a hero figure and was the second person to finish graduation from the Paite community. He becomes known simply as “BA Tualpu.” When he suddenly died in 1958, one Zou lady was heard to comment: “BA Tualpu lawm lawm si, ka pa u si zong khawh sa nawn si’ng.”
PuMang recorded that in those days, annual repairs to the Government quarters were carried out regularly. Whenever work was to be executed – be it repairing government quarters or clearing the bridle paths – the concerned Mohurrir would summon labour from the neighbouring villages and would strictly supervise the work. Strict annual maintenance of the main roads were carried out. Whenever inspections were carried out of the schools, all complaints and necessary improvements were acted upon on priority.
Someone once said that while the cities have histories, the villages are full of stores of memories. PuMang’s memories are vivid and even haunting. “In the winter nights with clear sky,” he mused, “we lie flat on the grass, look up at the sky, count the stars, observe the milky way and drink the mountain air to our heart’s content; and if it was a moonlit night and there were thin flakes of clouds sailing across the sky, it appeared to us that the moon was literally flying across the sky, in a tearing hurry.”
Of the many winter vacations spent at Lawibual village, he recalled that they “walked all over the village, sometimes down to the spring from where the village drew water. Sometimes we wandered into the woods and cut bamboos. Sometimes we wandered down to Pherzawl village, sometimes up to Tinsuong and Khuangjang. During Christmas we cut bamboo pipes, filled them with water and in the evening, we deposited them on the slope of the roof of the house. In the early morning we collected the pipes, split them and suck the frozen sticks of ice. Sugar was not so easily available in those days, otherwise we could have made sweet ice sticks!”
As he writes, PuMang said that he could still hear the gurgling of the village stream in his mind’s ear. As I read, my own memories of the village life come to life too. Alas, like him, the villages were long gone. Much of the blue rolling hills, gurgling and sparkling streams, and dark vibrant forests were dead too. But thanks to books like Our Thanlon Times, they will live on in our memories.