I’ve just come back from spending some quality time with you and may I tell you, they were among the best days of my life. You might call it favouritism, but of the rest of my life’s best days, a significant number were spent with you. My early childhood, for example.
I came to Churachandpur, a month old. In your hills, I learnt to walk. The SP residence in Churachandpur is where pictures tell me I was sunned. They tell me that in a rambling house, with members of her father’s escort, a baby learnt to love police officers. They tell me that those fierce men in khaki uniforms gambolled about the lawn with a baby. Photos tell me that a girl who hadn’t yet learnt to talk, chattered with men, who carried around rifles and frequently set them aside to chuck a senior’s baby daughter under the chin. That every bit of commando training was employed to play hide and seek with a child not yet one.
In your hills, my mother developed her lifelong hatred of the hills. They did, after all, hide men who ambushed her husband. They did, after all, teach her that plans could be changed at a moment’s notice, that unannounced movement was the best because it did not give the “enemy” time to regroup. I deliberately put the ‘enemy’ in quotation marks. I have heard and read a lot about the Japanese Samurai, with their code of honour, their attention to detail, to planning. I have heard their patience praised. It is my personal opinion, people might disagree with me, that those who haven’t faced the National Socialist Council of Nagaland in battle have no knowledge of the kind of Samurai your hills hide.
Men who lay in wait for the “other” to pass by. Men who packed boiled rice around their middle and carried meat in their pockets to ward off hunger and held their posts for days on end. Their headhunter ancestors, had they been watching, would have been most proud of them. I said, my mother developed her lifelong hatred of the hills there. But I? I developed a special connection with your hills very early in life. I came to admire and respect the people who inhabited them very early on.
From there, we moved to Ukhrul. As a student of history many years later, I learnt that during the Second World War, the Lieutenant General’s Headquarters of War on the Burma front had been built on the highest hilltop,overlooking the valley. The child in me remembered that house. It had been the residence of the SP in the early ‘90s. I spent two years in that house. I had owned my first and only pet in that house. I assure you, it was nothing as prosaic as a dog. I, all of a year and a half old, had been gifted a pangolin! Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep it very long. The house and its grounds lacked ants and my pet was wasting away so my father eventually had it released into the wild.
I distinctly remember the bear another officer kept as a pet. The size of an enormous teddy and just as cuddly, it eventually had to be given away to the zoo. It was getting too big for us amateurs to take care of it and too powerful. One swipe of its massive paw would have opened the adults’ jaws from end to end, to say nothing of the children. And it was playful and ignorant of his own strengths. After that, I never had another pet, partly because other animals seemed too tame by comparison and partly because it was heart-wrenching to have to give away our pet, no matter how well-intentioned the action. Pets are, after all, members of the family. They love unconditionally. And so, I never had another pet.
You, dear Manipur, stood witness to many significant events in my life. My annaprashan (ceremony to celebrate the first time an infant eats rice) was held in your presence. My mundan (tonsuring a toddler which signifies getting rid of all the undesirable traits from the past life), in a marked break from family tradition, instead of being held in Vindhyachal, was held in Imphal, in the 2nd MR Devi Temple. I don’t know, Manipur, whether you accepted me as yours then, or not, but in that moment, I knew, you and I had an irrevocable, undeniable bond. In your hills, I sat on car bonnets and under tricolours, surrounded by the men from Manipur Rifles. The bravest, most loyal men I have ever known and I doubt anyone will ever surpass those men I came to know in your hills.
You gave us some of the dearest, most treasured friends we ever made in life. Whether they were the children who I grew up with and as an only child, who became my siblings, or, the adult friendships my parents made. People often talk about the friends they’d give up their lives for. In your valleys, we met those friends, who risked life and limbs for us. An incident that occurred before I was born, but one that I’ve heard so frequently that I feel as though I experienced it first hand, begs to be narrated here.
In 1991, a year before I was born, my father was selected to lead the Manipur Police Centenary Day celebrations. The honour was great, but so was the danger. My father was on the underground’s hit-list and had received a death warrant from them with the ceremonial umoroks (the world’s hottest chilli). Whatever else you may say about them, the underground in Manipur does not lack for style. Or daring. However, to come back to the point, in his ceremonial uniform, my father could neither carry a weapon, nor wear a bullet-proof jacket. At this time, it was Captain S. K., now a Brigadier, who volunteered himself. He walked by the side of my father’s vehicle, at the head of the parade, carrying an AK-47 under his great overcoat. In photos of the time, if you look carefully, you can see the bulge of the rifle at his side. Those were the sort of friends you gave us.
At three, I left you for Delhi. And for the longest possible time, I missed you, dear Manipur. I came back for my summer vacations at nine and being an ignorant, self centred child, did not absorb as much of you as I should have. I did however, learn to tie the phanek (traditional Manipuri dress) then, a practice that continued when I came back to Delhi. My memories of that last visit include lots of lounging about in Lamphel and picnics to Loktak. I remember the power-cuts and the stars. The brilliant, beautiful, stars, brighter than anywhere else. This year, I was more aware. I landed in Imphal as the worst of the blockade was under way. I felt the effect on your economy.
Yes, I went mad, buying as many phaneks as I could possibly carry back, but I saw that your alienation was justified. While cars burned in Imphal, I sped through its streets. While potatoes’ prices, the vegetable that staved off starvation in Ireland, historically, reached Rs. 160/kg, I watched your inhabitants suffer. As essential commodities became scarce, the media refused to acknowledge your anguish. In Thangal Bazaar (market), we were turned away at many shops, because there was no butter, no ghee, no wheat. Rice, your staple, cost Rs. 90/kg, yet, was almost inedible. Fish was hard to find in the markets. As were onions. I wondered, how did the people manage?
On Christmas, the churches were subdued. There was little carolling, little shopping. Yes, I was in Imphal, the valley, not in the hills, yet, the silence was deafening. From the hills, I heard reports that the silence was a universal phenomenon. A more subdued Christmas, I doubt Manipur had seen in recent times. New Years’ was similarly subdued, though slightly better than Christmas. The Tambola (a board game) in Babupara went on in full swing. I saw a steady stream of cars come to be blessed at the Kali Mai Mandir (temple of goddess Kali) there. I saw the fireworks go off at midnight. And I saw the changes you had undergone.
Lamphel, where we’d once lounged about, was overrun with unplanned construction. Mantripukhri was similarly overwhelmed. At Langol, land that was meant to have been reclaimed forty years ago, was still a swamp and people still lived there. There were fewer power cuts, but your nighttime sky was still just as beautiful as I remembered it. I tried my hardest to capture its beauty, but no camera could do justice to it. In the markets, when I struggled with my Meiteilon (a language in Manipur), the ima (mother) helpfully piped in with Bhojpuri (a language spoken in parts of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh), an event that made me laugh.
In the markets, most shops seemed to be held by people who had intermarried. Biharis and Punjabis married to the Paldis. The distinction between the Paldis and the Myangs seemed to be fast fading, to the extent that because I largely wore the phanek, many weren’t quite sure that I wasn’t a Paldi Nupee. Your social character seemed to be changing. I just wish your stakeholders would do away with the distinctions they seem to identify amongst themselves. The distinction between the hills and the valley, between the Meeteis, Nagas, Kukis, Pangals and the Myangs.
The MR had begun to unofficially refer to me as sister by the time I came back. I just wish, dear, darling Manipur, that you would find your peace and accept me, as I carry you in my heart. I wish you receive your due. I wish this normalisation of an abnormal situation would end.
I love you, Manipur. I didn’t mean to write you a love letter, but look what I did.