My memories of Imphal from 1941-Part III
Dr Mohendra Irengbam
September this year in England has been a glorious Indian late summer finish with our garden dappled in sunlight on most days. While writing my witness statement for those yonder years, I would like to pay a succinct homage to my old mud- walled, mud-floored, Ibotonsana LP School. But for it, I would not have had the proficiency set between learning from experience and being taught how to solve horrible quadratic equations.
In the top-down history of my young boyhood, I mentioned Ibotonsana LP School and Kangchingba (Rath Yatra) of the pre-War days. Ibotonsana LP School had now been replaced by an exclusive Girls’ Higher Secondary School. This feels like a kind of thread connecting the present with my childhood in Imphal. The collapsing of time through anecdotal recollection is an exhilarating time. The physical changes in Imphal with a vast change in worldview of its people are like a paradigm shift in its stark contrast as it is between the scientific theory from the Ptolemaic system (the Earth at the centre of the universe) and the Copernican system (the Sun at the centre of the universe).
In those days with an appetite for wonder, as I walked to and back from this school in July, the month of kangchingba (pulling of vehicle or cart) festival, I saw rows of kang parked along the Uripok Road for many days. Each one corresponded to a temple of every Leikai (a block of a few garden houses). Kang is like a big square box with four wheels, on which four tall sides have been constructed with a pitched roof. Three sides were covered with canvas, leaving an open front. On these side walls, there were fascinating colour paintings, such as the giant Garuda bird fighting the many-headed snake Kaliya from Hindu mythology. Each kang was painted with different pictures.
They mesmerised me.
On the day of kangchingba, a socio-religious festival, in the afternoon, some people of the Leikai, would pull the cart by two long thick ropes, one on each side, up and down the Uripok Road until dusk. They would stop opposite a leirak, a slip road for the Leikai, when the Gods inside the kang with a Bamon (Brahman) pujari (one who perform Puja ie offerings) sitting in front, would be offered fruits and flowers, lotus being the main flower as it was the favourite of Jagannath or Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu – the Supreme Hindu God. The solemnisation would stop when darkness would fall. The biggest kang was at the Palace. Sometimes, an elephant was required to pull it.
Rath Yatra is a festival that has been celebrated from time immemorial in Puri or Jagannath Kshetra in Odisha. Jagannath means Lord of the Universe. Kshetra, holy precinct. At the sanctum sanctorum there are three idols: Jagannath, his elder brother Balbhadra and younger sister Subhadra. They don’t have the usual human face Hindu Gods have.
About 30 years ago, my son Neil and I went into the temple as guests of the Maharaja of Puri. His sister Rajshree Debi, Jubarani of Khariar, Odisha, is a very good friend of mine. But they did not let in my English wife Margaret, giving the example that Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India, was once refused entry as she had married a non-Hindu. We were staying at a hotel in Puri. Because we were associated with the king and his sister, they mistook me as a Raja with my family, perhaps from Nepal. They would address and serve us as royalty. My ears pricked rather than beanstalk.
Among such tongue-in-cheek humorous incidents, I might share one more with you for the fun of it. Once, I had to visit someone at South Avenue in Delhi where the MPs have residential quarters. I was travelling in the back seat of a Mercedes car, which was not common in those days in Delhi. It belonged to my friend, the late Dev Puri, who had a sugar mill in Yamunanagar in Haryana. His chauffeur, dressed in a uniform, with a peak cap like that of a naval officer, drove me through the Rashtrapati building complex from Nehru Place. On that day, the guards at various points were Gurkhas standing in twos. As my car passed the first two pairs of guards, they gave a salute coming to attention with their rifles. I looked behind to see who the VIP was. As there was none I just gave a little wave with my right hand so as not to hurt their feelings.
During this kang festival, everyone enjoyed eating the traditional khichri (rice cooked with dal and spices) with hawaimangal ooti (dry pea dish) with bamboo shoots, and various other traditional dishes, every evening at their local temple mandap (a pavilion with many pillars and a roof, open on all sides, for religious functions), attached to every Hindu temple. It was followed by listening to the traditional Khubak Ishei- a narrative Vaishnavite song about Krishna, Radha and Gopis (women of Brindaban) sung in archaic Bengali with clapping of hands and arm movements by young amateur girl singers. Young boys showered them with rupee notes or coins whenever the lead singer, usually a pretty one, raised her tempo to an exciting crescendo.
Going back to Ibotonsana School there was a long hall, facing north. It was partitioned into 5 different classrooms. It was roofed with corrugated iron sheets with walls that were plastered with soil and cow dung and had an elevated earth foundation. The girls’ school at the back was a bit smaller. At this school in winter, one day every year, a Drill Master would visit. He would pick a few well-built senior boys and gave PE lessons for one morning. When the School Inspector also came once a year, he would declare the next day a holiday. Children’s schooling at these Lower Primary Schools (LPS) began at the age of 5, and ended at 11.
At this school, at about 6 or 7 years of age I was bullied by a senior boy. He threatened to beat me up unless I gave him a pai (quarter of a paisa) every day. So I would not go to school unless my mother gave me a pai. She was curious but she did not tell my father lest he was annoyed with me.
One day, a High School friend of my sister Modhu, who lived near the school, saw my cowardice by the roadside. She told my sister who told my mother who then extracted the truth from me. She sent my second elder brother Yaima, who was known as a tough guy at that time, with me to this bully’s house at Uripok.
He warned his parents. That was the end of my torment. As I was better dressed and better-off than most of the boys and timid, that boy picked on me as a wimp, which I was. I was very scared of him.
In this school, we were often caned by teachers on our two open palms for failure to learn something or the other, or for being naughty. Sometimes we were stood up on the bench for a while and caned on the back of our leg. In winter, some teachers would hold classes in the sun, on the lawn outside. We had black slates framed in wood of different sizes like photo frames, which we used for writing with a slate pencil that was attached to the wooden frame of the slate with a string.
In class five, we were promoted to paper copy books, ink and pen. It was quite an excitement.
In summer, our Uripok Road was repaired with earth dug up from both sides and surfaced with stone chips and sand. They were pressed down and compacted with a heavy road drum roller, while Kabui women from the town, spread water ahead, which they collected in empty three-gallon rectangular kerosene tin containers, from the pools by the side of the road.
The roads became rough and uneven during the rainy season as the heavy downpour of Monsoon rain would wash away the sand and soil, exposing rough bits of stone. As these roads were not all- weather carriageways they did not sustain the weight of fully loaded bullock carts, which in winter, brought paddies in gunny bags from villages to townspeople, who owned the paddy fields the villagers cultivated. They made furrowed wheel tracks on both sides of the road.
The roads turned into dust, which was blown about by the wind every winter. The Uripok Road became dustier as many cows and calves walked every morning in dribs and drabs to graze at Lamphel Pat, after we children had gone to school. They would return home at dusk en masse to their respective homes at Uripok. These cows were kept for milk. We had 2 or 3 cows in a cowshed, near the gate of our house.
There were hardly any motor vehicles plying about. One lorry was owned by a Kangabam family in our neighbourhood. I remember an old open-top car owned by a friend of my father at Uripok. Sometimes, he used to take my father and me for a ride in the evening. Even Political Agents did not have cars except Mr FF Pearson, the then PMSD (President of Manipur State Durbar), who became the first Chief Minister of Manipur.
There is an area in Churachandpur, named after him. Once, Moirangthem Ta-Gojen and I had a ride in his car when we went to seek tickets to see Macbeth performed by the Shakespeareana Dramatic group at the MDU (Manipur Dramatic hall) in 1947.
On this Uripok road, like any other boys or girls, I walked bare-foot to school every morning in summer or winter. I would often knock my right second toe on a stone chip, peeling the skin off and bleeding. Then I would return home, only to be thumped by my father for skiving, when he returned home for midday meal at noon. In winter, we boys with short trousers called half-pants, and shirts, would wrap ourselves with a small ‘ngabong’ - a medium-weight cotton shawl, woven on a loom.
All Meitei girls had to be skilled in weaving clothes on a large loom known as Yongkham, which could only be accommodated in a shangoi (long outhouse open towards the yumjao) or a large mangol (veranda). It produced light-weight cotton fabric by weaving yarn or thread. It was customary to include a yongkham in the dowry. There was another Loin loom (khwang lyong) for heavy duty clothes such as Ngabong that was woven with a kind of back strap, to stretch the yarn while the woman sat on the floor with her legs straight in front. Every tribe in Manipur, weaved their clothes – Khwangphee with this loom. Each tribe had its own specific designs and motifs. Among the many, Tangkhul phee (cloth) was the most adorable.