My memories of Imphal from 1941-Part 6
Manipur remained wedged between India and Burma, tightly cloistered like a convent by nine majestic tree lined mountain ranges with their peaks dipping in the white cloud. It was under British suzerainty only for 56 years, and was unknown to the world until WWII. In this weird land lived seven clans of Meiteis in the valley, and thirty six tribal communities in the hills, in harmonious coexistence.
Meiteis were involved in a war in which they did not take part. They were suddenly plunged into the mayhem that came from nowhere. Life was uncertain. But Meiteis lived with the hopes tucked in the back pocket believing that, tomorrow may not be a better day, but there will always be a better tomorrow. For Meiteis, hope was a self-filling spa.
WWII brought a hive of energy to Meitei society, accompanied by spiritual laxity among the youth. We began to eat chicken curry prepared in the Kabui village in the evenings, and full-boiled duck eggs sold at Awang Dukan (North market) by Kabui women.
One rupee for a dozen. The change into a new culture after two thousand years of faith and fortitude finally laid the foundation for cementing the diversity of 37 communities in Manipur. By 2020, the storm of ethno Nationalism has passed away like a whiff of malodour, and we are now dredging the quangos. To say that perspectives have changed in 2020 is a profound understatement. A sophisticated new generation began to question the orthodoxy as sceptical arguments entered the mainstream.
The Meitei generation by the late 50s did not care a jot about the traditional racial profiling. Helim Choudhury’s (see Part 5) brother-in-law Bashiruddin Ahmed was a Minister of the Manipur State Interim Council in 1947 (cf. Part 8) with MK Priyobrata as Chairman. He has a daughter, who lives in London now. She was popularly known as Pangal Sanahanbi (real name Fazilat Ahmed) who went to Tamphasana Girls’ High School. They lived at Babupara. She was the first Meitei Pangal woman to get an MA degree from Poona. And she had a beauty to match it. She became a part of the social upper class, hobnobbing with Meitei high society, being invited into Meitei family homes, even into the kitchen.
Before the War, many Tangkhuls used to come down to Imphal for work following their harvest season. They were very good in digging ponds and trenches. They brought their own spades. Each year, some of them came to our house. As my father was educated and was used to hill people, he welcomed them. My mother joined in his hospitality. She would feed them with their midday meal.
The Meitei men’s demeanour with a downside of narcissism by default, ‘eina mahele’, I am the best, mirrored their physical appearance. Though small in stature with a height of about 1.7 metre, they were warrior-like. Women were about 10cm shorter. Their bodies were muscular but slim.
Innumerable environmental factors affect trajectories of human societies. It is only befitting that the Indian Army has more officers from Manipur per capita. There are three Lt Generals, now retired. I know one personally, Lt Gen Konsam Himalay Singh PVSM, UVSM, AVSM, YSM. He is highly decorated for his military skills. His small stature conceals a much tougher and shrewd aptitude. When I was a boy, I was very proud of Capt MK Priyobrata, Capt MK Joy and Major R Khathing. I have four in my family : Wing Commander I Basanta, Col I Deben, Lt Col I Babudhon, Major I Gregory.
Meiteis lived happily in mendacious contentment and in the same naively idealistic lifestyle they had been used to. Illiteracy was quite high though there were a few who were educated in their own vernacular, known as Maichou, who wrote down Meitei history in Meitei Mayek. The British and the last English-educated Maharaja Churachand, preferred to keep Manipuris uneducated. They followed the Machiavellian dictum that says, ‘the less the people are educated the easier is the rule’.
There were feeble attempts by one or two British administrators to educate Manipuris. Captain Gordon, the Political Officer opened a Primary School at Langthabal in 1837. Lt Col James Johnstone was successful in establishing a middle School in 1885. The school provided enough Manipuris to work as their clerks in the town and revenue assessor amins for the villages. It was upgraded in 1906-07 to a Middle School, teaching upto class VII and in 1913-14, to class IX. Students had to go to Sylhet (now in Bangladesh) to sit the Matric exam. It became a High School in 1921.
Imphal was a very peaceful town consisting of many urbanised hamlets such as Uripok, Sagolband, Yaiskul, Thangmeiband and others. Like any town or city it had a town centre with Ima Keithel (Mother’s market), also called Sana Keithel (Royal market) in the Khwairamband Bazaar (K Bazaar) that was dissected into two halves: Sadar Bazaar (Makha Dukan- south market in Manipuri) and Maxwell Bazaar (Awang Dukan – north market) by a main road that ran straight from Kangla to Kangchup Hill, where the first water treatment plant was constructed in 1913 to supply drinking water to Imphal (cf. Part 9). The Sadar Bazaar is the present chock-a-block Paona Bazaar or international Bazaar where the imported foreign goods from across the Moreh border are sold. The Maxwell Bazaar is now Thangal Bazaar.
During and just after the War, there were three cinema Halls in Paona Bazaar: Friend’s Talkies, Victory Cinema Hall and MNB Cinema Hall. There was a teeny-weeny Mosque by the Nambul River, near the Maharani Thong, but without the muezzin’s calls to the faithful for Salat (prayer). Thangal Bazaar was named after the first Political Agent Major Maxwell, who was the escort of Princess Sanatombi and whose life was romantically documented by MK Binodini in her book, Sahib Ongbi Sanatombi.
There were many two-storey buildings made of brick and mortar, lining the streets of Sadar Bazaar and Maxwell Bazaar. The Maxwell Bazaar was separated by a tall brick wall from Johnstone High English School in the east and the school in turn, was detached from the Civil Hospital, the only hospital in Manipur, by a low barbed wire fence.
Khwairamband Bazaar was in an area called the British Reserve, which covered about 5.2 sq m (4.7 sq m to be exact), stretching from Thangmeiband to Police Lines in Yaiskul, contained in the west by the Naga River, and in the east by the Imphal River. British Reserve meant British land with its own police force of about 5 or 6 men. It was beyond the jurisdiction of the native law. Laishram Manaobi with the rank of ASI (Assistant Sub Inspector) was in charge. He was a relative of mine. During and after the War, he owned Friend’s Talkies.
The buildings in the K Bazaar, belonged to opulent Marwari businessmen, who originally came from the Udaipur region with relatives in Calcutta. The British Reserve in the Imphal town centre was lit up with street lamps, including the Kangla Fort that became a cantonment to station a Gurkha Battalion of about 600 men (with their wives and families) with a leavening of a few Khongjais, Tangkhuls and Lushais (no Meiteis) and 4 British officers. It was known as Palton (platoon) and the Gurkhas as Paltonsiphai to the Meiteis.
The Marwaris traded by selling everyday commodities which they brought from outside and bought a lot of starched white thin cotton fabrics woven on the looms by Meitei women. These cloths were used for turbans (koyet in Manipuri) by Marwaris outside Manipur. They exported them to Calcutta. Their main business was to export rice in the form of parboiled rice, processed in the mills that were constructed at Mantripukhri and a smaller one by the road between Thangmeiband crossroads and the north gate of Kangla.
Fertile Manipur produced surplus rice every year until the Marwaris exhausted the overabundance by buying all at a higher price from the sellers. As a result, there was no more rice available for the majority poor women in the Ima Keithel, who used to sell their vegetables, fish, and other home produce, and with the money they got from the sales, they bought their daily requirement of rice from there. The scarcity of rice led to the second Nupi Lan (Female Agitation) in 1939-1940. The riveting memory of the part played by Meitei women and their bravery, stood out a mile in the likes of the Rani of Jhansi.
This Ima Keithel was the biggest women’s market in Asia. There were rows of stalls stretching from south to north. The foundation was earth surrounded by low brick walls. They were roofed with curved corrugated iron sheets and were open on both sides. Women vendors sat back to back. The northern end was separated by a narrow pedestrian path from the rows of two-storey Marwari buildings on both sides of the street.
The Kasturi bridge and building was the most well-known. It was massive and I have been inside a few times when I visited Kasturich and as a doctor in the 1960s.
Kasturi building was adjacent to a swing bridge across the Naga River that connected the bazaar from Nagamapal. In the Maxwell Bazaar there was a cinema hall called Ramkumar before the War. I remember going there to see a film in 1941 with my eldest brother Gokulchandra and his friend Khongbantabam Ibetombi, and his son Ibochou from Uripok. Ibetombi became the Speaker of Manipur Territorial Assembly in 1963.There were two other picture houses in the Makha Dukan. Because of my father our family was often guests in these picture houses.
At dusk, K Bazaar was like a dark sky with twinkling little stars, as tiny lights from the burning of small sticks of pine wood, began to illuminate the stalls one by one, with sales women sitting behind them. The last couple of those stalls by the Naga River were occupied by fishmongers, and the Pangals who sold eggs, chicken and ducks. Nearby, were stalls for terracotta pots for cooking, and other household items, such as salt and alkali (khari) cakes.The southern ends of these riverside stalls sold jewellery of glass beads, gold-plated necklaces and bangles for female dwellers from the hills.
Between the north end of Maxwell Bazaar and the Majorkhul, there was an open space that ended at a crossroad. It had a Sunday market called Hao Keithel –Hao market, for hill dwellers. They could buy meat, home-brew alcohol and food.
The Johnstone High School was a large red brick building with a long and tall central hall, facing south. On each side, it was connected with a row of classroom buildings,set in a row from south to north, enclosing a quadrangle in front on the north side, in the middle of which a stone bust of Johnstone Sahib was erected. I went to this school in class V in 1945. At 10 every morning before the classes began, there was an assembly in the quadrangle. We stood in lines, facing the statue and towards north, while the teacher stood facing us by the Hall. When the Headmaster came out we would salute Johnstone at his command. Then we would proceed in file to our respective classes. Johnstone’s bust was moved to the quadrangle of the New Johnstone Higher Secondary School in 1947.