Eigi Abok (My Grandmother)

Dr. Jayadeva Phurailatpam *

File photo of Grandmother enjoying Yaoshang Pala in 2010
File photo of Grandmother enjoying Yaoshang Pala in 2010

My grandmother was born way before the Japanese invaded Manipur. She was born in a previously wealthy family of landlords with many lou padis. They were altogether of five siblings. In those days having five children was considered less. My grandmother was born as the youngest. Her age and her eldest sister's daughter was almost the same. They were kind of good friends and felt more like cousins than niece and aunt. Her eldest brother was kind of rebel, who would love to break the norms of the strict society rules.

My grandmother parent were religious and god fearing. Children going to an English medium school were not taken nicely, especially girls. But she did schooling for some few years of her life.

They would be asked to keep the books outside and wash themselves before coming inside the house, as learning English was considered amaangba (untouchable).

If my parents had the same idea, I would have got the biggest excuse for not going to school!!

Abok used to tell stories about her vagabond brother and how much of nuisance he created in the family.

He was always up to something mischievous. One such incident I will tell you. Their family money (mostly coins of those era) was kept in the sunlight to prevent discoloration or fungation every now and then. It consist of mostly pure silver coins of British era numbering in hundreds.

And her luck, she was in charge of guarding the coins from birds and thief when their parents were inside. Little did she knew, she had to keep the money away from her own brother. By this time her brother would quietly sneak and take some of the coins and run away. And she would get sound scolding!!!

They have huge orchards and a big pond in which many lotus plants used to grow. The then King of Manipur, Maharaj Churachand used to come and visit occasionally as her great grandfather was a courtier in the court. He loves to eat the thamchet of the lotus plants.

The king used to be well built and was very good looking who wears leshon (suede) shirt and always accompanied with many servants and horseman. Whenever he come, special Phida (Seat) were offered with all kind of delicacies.

Interestingly, most of the girls in the household were asked not to venture outside. Some of the good looking girls were even advised to put hamuk (black ash) on their faces, so they look undesirable!!

Thus, preventing the King having an eye and making her one of his consort.

My grandmother had her studies till manga sooba (which I am presuming must be class 2 or 3) but just knew how to sign (that too with much difficulty).

Until, she had the courage to sit again and study along with me; taught by my primary school tutor. She ultimately learnt how to read and write basic Manipuri. A proud moment for all of us.

My grandmother always used to narrate folk stories which their grandmother had told when she was small and the most interesting story was that of Lai khutshangbi and Keibui kairoiba. I and my elder sister always used to make her repeat. It was nostalgic when I saw the last animated Manipuri movie, Keibui Kairoiba. Felt like abok is narrating again with graphics!!!

I and my elder sister were always her favourites. Though she is a strict gouriya, I remember those days when she used to make omelette for us when we returned from school tired, though always shouting, "My religion has gone in thin air, I am almost eating eggs by smell". I and my sister will look at each other and laugh. Then she will also laugh with us, putting the omelette on our plates (and making faces).

Every single day she used to wait for us to come back from school. She is not very accurate with interpreting the time from the house clock but it doesn't bother her. She will know when we will come. Sometimes, the school bus tend to go a bit late. Then I know my abok will be waiting at the bus stop.

She was a very strong lady yet soft spoken. Even during small arguments, she always had the less of words. But, she single handedly raised my father and his sister into a well-respected people in the society. That tells all.

There were quarrel in the family like many of the families anywhere in the world. The biggest troublemaker was probably me.

Why I am telling this? Because I am the one who had got the maximum beating from grandmother, mother or dad! Without troubling family, you will not get beating, right?

I used to argue a lot with everyone when I was small. Ultimately used to get nice thrashing. On one such argument, grandmother gave me nicely. I got so furious, I told I am leaving the house and going.

Hoping somebody will stop me and then I will stay back (many of you must have tried this tactics when you were small). But sadly, no one even bothered. I was at fixed. I was only 8 years old. Where will I go? So I decided to do something else. I took a phak(mat), and with the help of a cloth, made to look like a house. And poof!!! My separate house is ready in front of my courtyard.

Told all of them screaming at my top voice to not come inside as this is my own house. The first one to laugh in splits was my grandmother. She had been observing me from far. She came and took me inside the house. And I ultimately went inside happily (at least she came to take me!).

Among the stories my grandmother used to tell, the Imphal war 1944 made an impression.

The Japan laan meaning Japan war, which the then Manipuris used to called the Second World War or Imphal war in 1944. My grandmother was one of the many survivors of that era.

Many of the people of Manipur were unaware of the impending war. When announcement was made about probable air bombing around the Nagamapal area (in Imphal city), residents were curious but did not made much effort to vacate as they have not seen any air strike before and was unaware of the disaster, she said.

When the bomb strike, many got killed and injured. The air strike had made craters as big as a small pond. After which many people vacated and taken shelter in rural Manipur.

All the civilians in the Imphal areas were asked to vacate their houses and leave for the areas in the peripheral villages or jungles to hide, by the then British government.

My grandmother and their parents packed few of their belongings and left. Like many other families, one male person stayed back to watch their property while others leave. In olden times, they generally hide their money, mostly coins inside their mattress. Some put in pot and bury it. Others threw their copper vessels and utensils (a prized procession in those days) in their community or compound ponds. So they can retrieve back when they come. I wonder if some of it are still hidden untouched.

Going as a refugee in far off places, playing hide and seek from the Japanese war planes overhead was not a fun job. Trying to survive each days, seeing people die either due to disease or war must be traumatic enough to forget.

Young and middle aged men in their groups were made to dig underground bunkers which later would serve as hiding places when the planes come. Those bunkers were covered with branches and leaves so as to prevent sighting.

Incidents of snake bites while digging and people dying of malaria or diarrhoea during the exodus were many.

When a war comes, both the sides have their own stories to tell.

Most of the Manipuris in that time doesn't even know why the War was there. My grandmother was very small during the War but I doubt even their parents knew the reason for the War. We were the collateral damage.

She used to tell about big tall black coloured armies, which she used to refer as "megro" (I spelt it right, she says megro not negro!) were in fact the African armies from the British side. "They had the lips the size of an utup and colour black as hamuk", was what my granny used to tell always in amazement probably cause she had never seen an African before in her life.

Now, whenever she sees Beyonce or Halle Berry in television, she used to tell happily that now these people are looking much better!!

One thing I could never forget was, those African armies used to give my grandmother and other kids in the camps, the biggest kabok khoidum (puff rice snacks). And used to hold and hug them and cry. Probably remembering those back home. Never knew if he survived the war to meet his family.

The elders in those time used to tell, "We are escaping from Imphal to rural Manipur, there will be soon a time when we will be running the other way round". Now I think how true it is. With so many insurgents and violence in rural Manipur, people feel bit safer in Imphal.

Anyways, during the chaotic exodus, when people were running amok. There were these group of 'robbers', which comes with a band!! They will come to your doorstep and asked for whatever belongings they desire. You have to give them or those group will thrashed you and rob you anyways. So, most of the residents have no other better options back then. I must say a unique way of robbery.

Many rich people became paupers overnight during Imphal war. Only the non-movable assets were safe. But even houses were made into bunkers. With either broken walls or fully broken houses. They had to rebuild by their own when the war was over with no help from the current British government.

A big loss indeed for people who have already lost so much.

Many incidents of unsanitary child births leading to infection and later death. Malnutrition of children and death of children and adults alike by simple ailments like diarrhoeas were very much prevalent during the Imphal war in 1944.

There was no doctors nor any medications for the people. Only hope and solution was the local witchdoctors (Maiba).

The first child of my grandfather probably suffered from round worm infestation, which is a very common disease that we see in rural India. Easily treatable with a single dose of medication (Albendazole).

Unfortunately, he could not survived. He was the only son at that time. Later my father was born. My grandmother still now used to tell about how they were so helpless and if only they had better options then.

She believes that the first son she lost has come back as my father.

The loud whistling noise made by the siren, all the people understood that the airstrike is about to happen. The Japanese planes are approaching. All of them ran inside the bunkers or tunnels they made. Covered themselves with the tree branches and hid until the overhead planes passed off.

When the war ended, people slowly started coming back to their homes.

My grandmother told us that, if chuhi (jaggery) were missing from a household, definitely a Japanese army (probably hiding from the British armies) must have consumed. Very clever choice of survival food indeed. And they would run back to the woods.

When asked, she doesn't exactly remember till how many days the war lasted. But she remembered every moment of it.

The hardship, the struggle, the lost can be easily made out of a person who is a War survivor.

Many such respected elders are still among us, who had their own share of experiences. If you are still blessed with your grandparents, spend some time and ask them. They are always there to share their experiences with you. All we need is a small part of our time. And they will shower you with love.

* Dr. Jayadeva Phurailatpam wrote this article for
The writer is a Doctor based in Bangalore and can be contacted at jax_pheonix(at)yahoo(dot)com
This article was posted on April 01, 2014.

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