My memories of Imphal from 1941 - Part-2
Dr Mohendra Irengbam
Using the Latin phrase ‘potiusque sero quam numquam’ which translates as “better late than never”, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself in the style I have adopted in the UK. It is posh. I took the cue from the first James Bond film ‘Dr No.’ in 1962, when James introduced himself, ‘The name is Bond, James Bond’. When asked my name, I will say ‘My name is Singh, Dr Singh”. It has worked out very well in spite of my oriental face that does not fit my Indian surname of Singh as a hand in glove. It was all the more bizarre if I said ‘Irengbam Mohendra Singh’. Irengbam is too long-winded and a mouthful.
It all started in Bombay when I was a college boy in 1952-53. Sometimes, when we were naughty, a Professor, who was standing in front, would ask my name. I was sitting right in the back, high up, like in a stadium. My roll number was 150. I would answer : IM Singh. He would then say “I know you are Singh. But what is your name ? Then I would say : I full stop, M full stop, Singh. It was hilarious. And saying Irengbam Mohendra Singh sounded more ridiculous in those days.
They say a story loses something with each telling. My story is no exception. Besides, this is 79 years old. On reflection of my own values and world view, it turned out that the halcyon days of my childhood were just plain fun with a jostle of interesting and sometimes agonising experiences as those of anyone of my age must have been. The good thing about ageing is that some of the distant memories of my young days still linger on in the hippocampus of my brain. It just takes some time to recall them. We are familiar with the catchphrase ‘It’s just on the tip of my ‘tongue’’.
I am a man who is delighted in my old memories, which unlike the mind, is linked to my brain.
I have an unsentimental view of old age. With this overture let me come to the topic of the title of this piece. I am now beginning to dust through my brain and trying to get rid of almost all the gauzy cobwebs.
I was born and brought up in a prosperous family at Uripok Khoisnam Leikai, Imphal, about half a kilometre from the Maharani thong over the Naga River that connected Uripok Road with Khwairamband Bazar. In this Naga River there was a pageant of boat race every year. I had a strict up-bringing. No swear words were ever allowed to escape my lips. My father was there to chastise me. However, I carried a genuine Meitei National trait of mee usittaba (stuck-up and snobbish), vocalising supercilious catchphrases like Mana kari henna khangdana ? eina khangibasine. Meaning, what does he know that I don’t ? I know everything.
Sagolband was connected over the Nambul River by the ancient ‘Thong Nambonbi’ that was built of thin bricks without mortar, by the visiting Chinese, as I understood it. Because the bridge was low underneath for the passage of water, and Sagolband Road was raised higher, Uripok bore the brunt of the flood every 2-3 years. Families made rafts to sail across to the elevated Uripok road and stayed there for 2-3 days until the water level subsided. Nambul River during the raining season, was used for transporting merchandise in long dug-out canoes from far-off villages to Khwairamband Bazar.
Recently, my emotions surged like poetry drawn from the prose, to read online, the news of the celebration of Krishna Janma, Krishna’s birthday at Mahabali Umang (Mahabali grove) on August 15 this year of 2020. Memories flashed, how as a little boy I went there with my two elder sisters, on this particular day just before WWII. Having had a bath and dressed in a white small boy’s pheijom (dhoti) and phurit (shirt), and with the Vaishnavite sect-mark chandon on the forehead, we walked all the way to Mahabali Umang, carrying some flowers. I remember seeing a life size stone stature of Hanuman smeared with grime and vermillion and how I got scared when one monkey appeared on the dirt road between the grove and the Kabui village.
On our way back home,we called at the Thakurbari Temple at Khwairamband Bazaar and threw a couple of paisa at the feet of the Krishna idol. After the War, I was friendly with the youngest son of this Thakur family. He was a Sharma. In retrospect, I wonder why we go to a Hanuman Temple on the day of Krishna’s birthday! No relation.
My mother Mani Debi had a stall to sell Phanek Mapal Naiba, the horizontally striped formal Meitei women dress, along with the wives of some Manipuri dignitaries in the front row of the tin-roofed open market stalls in awang dukan (Maxwell Bazar). They sold their goods only in the evening, and after closing their stalls they stored their wares at Thakurbari until the next evening, for a fee. Then, they did the shopping for the family meal before returning home.
As dusk fell, tension began to rise in me with eagerness for mother to come home from the market with chanapot (treats), sitting with my father on the traditional thick mat, made of reeds in the southern side of the mangol (veranda). In summer, we had the coiled green kanghidak (mosquito repeller) burning. In winter we had the Meiphoo (charcoal burner stove), around which my father and I would warm ourselves. Many a time, I gazed at the shining moon with a tree-like impression on it, wondering if it was really a heibong pambi (fig tree), after listening to some mothers singing naoshum ishei (Lullaby) in the shumang (courtyard): Tha tha thabungton, nacha morambi pobige, pobi sanam nambige, heibong charong amatang thadabiraku thabungton. Moon, moon, young moon, let me carry piggyback your morambi child. Please throw down a bunch of figs, youngmoon.
Sometimes, my mother would bring edibles like small figures of animals made up of flour (Tanja), which had to be cooked on the stove for a few minutes or sugarcane sticks cut about 4 cm long. At other times, she might bring a small fresh water crab. I would tie one of its pincer legs with a string until the next day when someone would roast it in the fire to eat or let it go into our small pond in the garden.
Many an evening, it was an exciting time to sit with my father in the cool summer, along with local elders and their children, underneath the large old and majestic kadampambi - Kadam tree. It had scented round-shaped orange flowers in clusters that grew in the ground of our Khoisnam Leikai Lairembi (female deity). Some afternoons, we little boys would loiter around the rows of tamarind trees that grew on the grass verge of Uripok road on the side of Haobam Dewan Leikai, eating the sour fruits. I had such a delightful time chasing fireflies with my elder sister Modhu at dusk in the
Shumangon some summer evenings. We loved the twinkling blue light of the fireflies like playing hide and seek and not knowing which way they had gone.
In those days, our family had a natural wake-up morning call. Each morning at the break of dawn, a crow perched on the branch of a tall mango tree at the back of our Ingkhol (homestead), would crow to wake us up. There were always a few crows about and a lot of Chongnga birds (common mynah birds) with dark heads, searching for food in the Ingkhol. Sadly, these chongnga birds completely disappeared in the post-War period due to DDT, which was spread on the still waters that collected in the small trenches filled with pangkhokla (elephant ears) and Ekaithabi (water mimoss) plants and, which enclosed a cluster of Meitei Ingkhol all over Imphal.
The climate of Imphal in the summer months was mostly mild and pleasant never exceeding 26/7 degree C. The winter was always freezing cold with foggy mornings. Sometimes, my sisters would collect ice from a corner of the thatched roof of our Yumjau (large dwelling house). In winter, light-weight woollen blankets were available to wrap around us and thick quilts filled with cotton wool for our bed. The mattress were always very hard as they were made of off-white ngabong (medium weight cotton fabric, woven on a loom) filled with bunches of flowers of Yengthou (Bamboo reeds). Young and middle-aged men used light woollen shawls of different hues with or without embroidered borders for formal occasions.
‘Unforgettable. That’s what you are…” – sang Nat King Cole. ‘It’s impossible to tell a baby not to cry’- crooned Perry Como. It is impossible not to remember your childhood. I do recall the game of Likon-sanaba (cowrie game) like a game of dice, in the night of Krishna Janma (Krishna’s birth day). In every Leikai, a group of young girls would gather at one of the girls’ home on the mangol (veranda) that would be lit with bright light. They in their best, wrapped in a light shawl, would sit in a tight-knit circle, seemingly not wanting anybody to come and sit between them. They would have the cross cowrie game board in the centre.
Boys who would be wandering about aimlessly or in the locality of their dream girls, would be guided by the warm glow of the light spilled across to the courtyard. They would come and gather in the shumang by the edge of the mangol. Then, having plucked up some courage, a boy, one after another, would go and force himself between two of those girls, one being his fancy girl. If the girls disliked him they might not give him space and he would retreat very shamefully. This might be the starting point for a love affair and would be continued with love letters to and from, through an intermediary, writing all sorts of sweet nothings. It is said that human telepaths can read minds in close proximity.
Yaoshang (Holi) and Kangchingba (Rath Yatra) were exciting times for children, youngsters and adults alike. Yaoshang was the only time when boys and girls were allowed to meet for outings and for dancing in the quintessential Thabal Chongba (dancing in moonlight). Yaoshang meithaba numit (the evening when the thatched Yaoshang hut is set ablaze) was always exhilarating. nakatheng niba-when very young children ambled in the neighbourhood homes to collect some paisa for pocket money is unforgettable. Thabal Chongba is the most passionate pastime in a Meitei teenager’s life. This was also the time for women vendors to make a lot of money, selling common edibles, the favourite being rasgulla, laid out on a circular board made of thin bamboo strips. The boys would show off by buying common eatables, such as popcorns, kabok (puffed rice shaped into a ball by molasses) for the mothers of the girls they fancied, who always came to chaperone their daughters.
“Those are the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end. We’d sing and dance for ever and a day.”