My memories of Imphal from 1941-Part 1
Dr Mohendra Irengbam
This year of 2020 is the most stressful year for me as it is for everyone on Earth, because of the pandemic of the coronavirus known as Covid-19 that began in China. Every family is cloistered together for months on end with extended family members having been prevented from seeing each other or from attending the funerals of relatives. Even the most loving families began to feel the strain, being wedged with the trapped air, sagging with human mental fatigue and despair.
While my wife and I were on the wagon, many people sought solace in the bottom of a glass as they felt like they were in survival mode. In England, over a period from January to June 2020, domestic violence on women surged by 27 per cent.
During my own lockdown, writing has been suspended. I often relaxed by doing a bit of gardening in the summer months, which were quite hot this year, hottest for many years. But come this time of year, as September has ended and temperature drops, I have become a couch potato. Autumn or Ashit-awantha in Manipuri, is when the sparrows will start picking their potential partners and nesting spots before mating in spring.
I am now in a particular kind of catching up. Since the beginning of the pandemic in the UK, elderly people over 70 years of age have been locked down. It was relaxed a month ago but a stricter lockdown has been imposed from September 24 for 6 months because of increasing number of people suffering from the virus. I am 84 years old and now I have been stuck in a cycle of despair with the thought that my age is at the tipping point. One of the downsides of being old is that time appears to go much faster, perhaps because the perception of time is much shorter to physical stimuli.
While we are snapping and cracking the bonds of our society with the fear of sudden death during this pandemic, Shantikumar Moirangthem from Uripok, Retd. IGP of Manipur State Police Force, and RK Dilip from Singjamei, Retd. Director, CCDU, have been WhatsApping with the suggestions that I write a memoir of my life beginning with my growing up in the immediate pre and post WWII. These events they said, would be of immense interest to the people of their generation and generations after them as there are hardly any written accounts of those days. I have actually written some of them during the 10 years as a Sunday columnist of The Sangai Express. Not that anybody will remember them.
I was not very keen to write a memoir of my life and career, indexing my foibles and achievements. They would be disservice to the readers. Received wisdom holds it that I have no pearls of wisdom to print and there is nothing to pass on to benefit future generations. However, altruism prevailed. And here is my memoir.
Winding fast backwards, as a prelude, I arrived in London on a chilly and foggy morning of February 10, 1966. I came here to do my post-graduate studies in medicine and return home to open a nursing home in Imphal. But things did not work out as planned. I met a girl, Margaret, who is now my wife and we agreed that I should settle here. I felt the climate in London a bit weird though I was used to Hill stations in India, such as Darjeeling and Nainital, where I studied. I spent eleven years studying at various parts of India, outside Manipur.
I was then very skinny because prior to my departure I was based at the Churachandpur District hospital for over one year. It was one of the best times of my life. Freedom, being in-charge of the Hospital. When I took over from the previous doctor, the hospital was in disarray. Luckily, I had very good and efficient staff, nurses, compounder and grade-IV personnel. I am very proud to remember the names of the nurses, Chingnu and Mannu among others. Chingnu often acted as an anaesthetist when I did some major operations, such as Caesarean section.
At that time, the Engineer in charge of Churachandpur was a friend of mine. I got him to construct a separate out patients’ room and to refit the handwashing basins and other utility facilities. I had reorganised the single ward with better lighting and improved hygiene. As the hospital was in an open ground, I got it fenced off with wood cut from the surrounding area. As the Director of Medical Department in Imphal, Dr Malhotra at that time, was close to me because of my friendly association with his superiors, like the Chief secretary Mr Saxena, I could get hold of anything within limits, such as hospital equipment, new foam mattresses, fridge and an X-ray unit with a newly qualified radiologist. I even managed to lay the foundation stone for a brand new hospital by the side of this dilapidated hospital just before I left for London.
It was a few years ago that I visited Churachandpur, which is now a sprawling town, accompanied by Shanti with his police escort. I found that the hospital I arranged to be built had been discarded and a bigger one had been constructed. I was told that Chingnu retired as a matron from this hospital.
Shanti and I had the pleasure of visiting her and her husband at their sumptuous house.
During that time at Churachandpur, the Commander of the ‘7 Guards’ battalion that was stationed at Churachandpur befriended me. Every evening I was invited to the Officers’ Mess for drinks followed by a meal. I soon settled down to the rhythm of drinking officer-quality dark rum before dinner. As a result, I often ate little or not at all. After coming to UK, with a better diet and traditional British beer, I put on a lot of weight. But during this lockdown as foods were rationed and my wife and I stopped drinking alcohol, I was able to bring myself to the right weight and BMI (Body Mass Index).
As the loudest words are least interesting I will limit myself by saying that all these 54 years, I have never forgotten my birth place – Manipur. I used to return to Imphal almost every year with my wife Margaret and sometimes, with my son and daughter, and for the past few years in November to coincide with the International Polo Tournament which we all enjoy.
The most unsavoury part of my life has been the numerous physical fights, some of which could have landed me in jail. Only good luck and a reasonably high IQ saved me from ruination and I am now able to write this memoir. It was years before I realised how incredibly influential a surfeit of the centuries-old egoistic and narcissistic Meitei National character was in those days. It was not that I loved fighting. I have inherited not only my father’s IQ, but also his trait: Ei meena utsitaba yade, meaning I won’t be humiliated. I inherited a lot of my father’s traits.
In passing, there is a short biographical account of my life listed in the index of volume 2 of 4 volumes of my book titled Manipuri Musings: A collection of short Essays in the library of Manipur University. It was written by Gita Sapam – a journalist in 2010. It is titled Manipuri British writer Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh.
This bellicose disposition was like a dog with bone. I could not get rid of it. I had quite a lot of fights with boys from other schools while at Johnstone in Imphal. They were either random ‘street fights’ or challenge fights at dusk at the Mapal Kangjeibung, the outer polo ground- known in the local parlance as Kangjeibung Thoknaba, near its southern end, adjoining the Boro Shahib’s garden that was separated by a narrow raised footpath that connected makha dukan (Sadar Bazaar) with the main road behind the west gate of Kangla.
Boro Sahib or Bara Sahib as we called the Political Agent, at that time Christopher Gimson, a very respectable British officer, lived alone in a large bungalow. It is now Raj Bhavan where the Governor stays. This narrow shortcut walkway was separated from the garden’s large pond and tennis courts by a tall chicken wire fence. It connected the main road by the side of the British Treasury building, which was guarded by a lone Gurkha soldier. This dim part of the Kangjeibung was the usual place for such schoolboy fights. These fights were meant to be fair and each boy would bring a few friends to oversee fair play.
I had my share of fights while at St Joseph’s in Darjeeling as well. For a day of reckoning, I was once sent home in midterm for fighting a Punjabi boy from Burma. His name was Grover but it sounded I didn’t know much Hindi then, and I was not aware that gober means cow dung. He took offence and one day he initiated the fight. But since I was known to be pugnacious, the Canadian Rector in his drawl accent, called me the next morning to office, and simply said “you are going home for 2 weeks”. That was it. No buts. As I was known to be belligerent I was the bad boy.
When I semi-retired, I began to read many books on literature, theology, philosophy and others, on the subject of the existence of God. I wrote two books on this theme. And I also wrote on Meitei National character. I came to understand that the professed egoism or the superiority complex Meiteis have, such as mana kari henna khangdana, eina khangeebasine is an over-assertion of inferiority complex.
My historical memory of Imphal began in 1941 when I was old enough to understand some things.
Anything before that is my prehistory. History began when human beings were able to record in writing. That’s why Meitei history began with Cheitharol Kumbaba.
“Men live by forgetting, women live on memories.” – wrote T S Elliot. Resurrecting old history is like waking up the dead. Though WWII in Asia, or what the Manipuris called Japan Lan (Japanese War) that came to Manipur when the Japanese bombed Imphal on Sunday, May 10, 1942 and ended on August 15, 1945, Imphal still remained a war zone as a few sapper units of the British Indian Army were still there to tidy things up. As a result many families from the central Imphal area including ours, did not return home from the outlying villages as their houses were still occupied by army personnel. Our house was occupied by a British Army Captain with whom my father had a cordial rapport. He kept our home intact.