My memories of Imphal from 1941-Part 4
Dr Mohendra Irengbam
Manipur may not be the most poetic land in the world. It may not be as captivating as the three snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga that turn orange in the glow of the rising sun on most clear mornings. But writing about Manipur’s simple history and its people is joyous, meandering through its lanes and bylanes with my awareness of its past old days. It remained virtually untouched and unconnected with modern civilisation until the Japanese put an end to it in WWII in 1942. I retrospectively fill this account by grasping what I know and what I knew then – a gist of the immense social change of what had already passed, and what I see now.
The source of appeal for me to scribe something of Manipur’s saga harking back 80 years in its sulky intransigence during the British rule and just after, is not far to fathom. It is partly because Meiteis are unique in their temper and disposition. They are usually caustic and quick on their feet and there is the idiosyncratic rhythms and palpable images of Meiteis of yonder years. They have been living behind the modern ways, ideas and paradigms in a tiny cosmic world of their own.I have thus expanded in this memoir, the remit to include a few interesting men and some women of substance, in the immediate pre and post WWII.
First, continuing with our Uripok Road leading to Ibotonsana School. The excavated road sides remained like interrupted moats filled with water and had a lot of Ngaprum (eels). Some Kabui men often came and caught them. There were rows of tall trees known as koubilia along Uripok Road and other roads elsewhere. My father told me that they were called koubilias as they were brought from Kabul to hold the raised soil of the roads by their roots. It is a bit like the beautiful Baramulla Road in Kashmir with tall poplar trees on both sides. These trees had their branches lopped every year to make them grow taller. It was a treat to suck nectar from the clusters of their little dark yellow flowers.
At the end of schooling at Ibotonsana School, the children took a common qualifying examination for entry to the Upper Primary School (UPS) for Class III and IV. Those from Uripok and around, went to Thangmeiband UPS (Upper Primary School). For the next higher class, they had to sit another qualifying exam for entry to a high school that taught from class V to X. There were three High Schools. Johnstone was a Government school. Churachand, located near the Palace and Tombisana at Uripok, were private. There was a Bengali High School by the main road, on the way to Yaiskul. Though it was mainly for children of Bengali Babus (gentlemen) who lived at nearby Babupara, a few Meitei boys went to it. My friend the Late N Nishikanta from Moirangkhom went there.
The top few successful students at the common UPS exam, were selected for Johnstone (it used to be 50 and at my time it was 100). The rest spilled out to the other two, the second best being Churachand. I was in the first batch after WWII in 1946. At my time at Johnstone, Konjengbam Gouro Singh BA was the Headmaster and Chingakham Pishak Singh BA at Churachand. At that time, someone with a BA degree was regarded as highly educated. There were a couple or so Meiteis, who were educated with a Master’s degree like H Dijwamani Sharma from Nagamapal, and Sinam Krishnamohan MA, LB from Keisamthong, Imphal, who married Princess Tamphasana of Tamphasana Higher Secondary School connection.
I do not know what the school fees were as I was exempt being in the second position and the late Dr Elangbam Kuladhaja being the first in UPS exam. He retired as the Principal of the newly established Regional Medical College in Imphal. We both received a scholarship of 2 rupees each every month, with which we went to see a matinee show at a cinema Hall. There were many children’s movies, such as Hunter Wali and Passing Shaw.
On completion of class X at these High Schools, students sat the Matriculation examination, initially under Calcutta University, and at my time, under Gauhati University. Those successful students were rated as First, Second and Third divisions in descending order, according to the marks they scored in the exam. There were no colleges in Imphal in the pre-War period. Only those who passed the matric exam, were considered ‘educated’ and were eligible for clerical and other Government jobs.
In those days, higher education for girls were frowned upon. Once they were able to read and write, they were taken out of school. By 1941, at least before the War, as I remember, the tradition changed. My third sister Modhu who was the class fellow of Arambam Saroj Nalini from Meino Leirak, Sagolband, went to Tamphasana High School with the ambition of going to college but was interrupted by the War, and was married away. Saroj went on to do her PhD from Australia.
She married an Englishman, John Parratt, who retired as a Professor of Theology in Birmingham University. Saroj and John have done a lot for Manipur by writing many books about Manipur’s culture and history. Later in her life, she translated Cheitharol Kumbaba from the original in Meitei Mayek, and translated it into Queen’s English. The book was titled ‘The Court Chronicles of the kings of Manipur: The Cheitharol Kumpaba’. Copies are available in the British Library, London.
I usually don’t have a great deal of positive things to say. For this one, I am putting my feelings into words. Saroj is like a galleon inserted into a bottle. Abandoned by many. She is like the elegy of the poem: chingda satpi engenlei chinnada kenkhiba, ‘o’ pamuida, ‘o’ pamuida[…]. It is a shame that Engenlei (flower) that blooms in the hills, withers away without appreciation. All those years, Saroj had never forgotten Manipur.
Saroj came from a very talented family. Her younger brother Sharat was my contemporary. He wrote beautiful poems, collected posthumously in a book Sharat Arambamgi Khomjinba Sheirengsing (1978). Sarat was also songwriter for many of Nongmaithem Pahari’s intricate melodies. Pahari is Mohamed Rafi of Meiteis.
Nalini’s younger sister Meme, who is married to a distinguished gynaecologist Nambram Sarat from Nagamapal, writes poetry in Manipuri, both in Bengali script and Meitei Mayek, as well as in English. I have read her book Chillo Pamjana (2017). Taking a little literary latitude, Meme’s poems are creative with serendipity but away from the 18th century romanticism of English poets.
Saroj’s father, Arambam Ibungohal was known as Arambam ‘Haosahib’, because he was the administrator for the people of hill areas of Manipur, known as ‘Hao’ in those days. He was a modern radical, while the vast majority of Meiteis including my father, were orthodox Hindus.
An orthodox Hindu social system was represented by the caste system. Though Meiteis had no caste system, they were classified as Kshatriya, the warrior caste. As a result, they were to choose with whom and how they were to associate.
For better or worse, the annual intimate social gathering of Meiteis with Haos at Merahaochongba– a mass gathering of hill-dwellers at the Kangla Konung from prehistory till the reign of Maharaja Bodhchandra in the month of Mera (October-November) with an interruption during the War, came to an end. The festival coincided with Meitei mera wayungba and Mera thangmeithanba, which was sticking a tall bamboo at the centre of the shumang (courtyard) with an oil lamp burning with a wick in a small square shade with glasses on all four sides. The lamp had to be pulled up every evening with a thin rope on a pulley to its top for a month. This was perceived to be a beacon light to guide our ancestors who are looking down from up and above high in the sky to their progeny’s homes.
As the reshaping of Meitei tradition began to impact on the socio-cultural, economic and political dynamics, some educated parents including mine, began to rethink about female education. Many girls began to be educated at the only Tamphasana Girls’ High School. It was then inevitable that these girls made their own sartorial choices, such as wearing their phanek (Meitei women’s dress) around their waist (phanek khoidom setpa). Unlike the uneducated ones, they defied the old traditional Moirang Thoibi hairstyle for unmarried girls, which has recently been made fashionable for some, by none-other than the lovely Mangka Mayanglangbam.
Mangka, a country music singer, became famous overnight after her song and dance performance at the 8th Manipur International Polo Tournament in Imphal in 2014. My wife, my son and I watched her breathtaking performance. For that we remain indebted to Col (Rtd) M Ranjit Singh, President of Manipur Equestrian Association, and Vice President of Manipur Horse Riding & Polo Association, from Keisamthong, and the Vice President RK Dilip of Manipur Horse Riding & Polo Association, from Singjamei Mathak, who jointly researched to find a scholar in the origin of Manipur Polo games and who was able to write the lyrics of her song, Hadasamadon Ayangba […]. The credit goes to the late Sri B Jayantakumar Sharma of Nahabam Leikai, Brahmapur, who composed the theme of the song.
Although I sincerely apologise for our Hinduised ancestors’ racial profiling, I find it hard to blame them. They simply disassociated themselves from those communities that ate meat, including cow’s meat. Cows are sacred to Hindus. Though I am against any established religion, I still do not eat beef as my mother worshipped the cows on the day of Goverdhan Puja. This is the celebration of the day when boy Krishna saved the people of Brindaban from rain, light and thunder by lifting the Goverdhan Hill on the tip of his little finger. The incident is seen to represent how Lord Krishna will protect all devotees who take singular refuge in him.
Meiteis themselves were degraded. The Mayang Brahmins brought the master-servant relationship to the Meiteis. Before the War, all Meiteis had to address the Brahmins as “Agya” (Sanskrit). In Urdu ‘hukum kijiye’. It means ‘May I have your order please’. Even in the years just after the War, I had to bow my head and touch the floor with my right arm whenever a Brahmin came to our house. He would then say ‘Jai Jai’. This draws me to my nephew Irengbam Debendra Singh, a full Colonel in the Indian Army. Once My wife, daughter Anita and I, visited him at his Regiment at Kota near Chittorgarh in Rajasthan. Chittorgarh has the largest fort in India, and is famous for Rajput chivalry and its famous Queen Padmini with her matchless beauty. Whenever Deben drove his Commander’s jeep with us and passed through the Regiment’s gate, the Guards saluted him, saying “Jai Hind, Sahib’. He responded saying “Jai, Jai”.