Manipur : As I grew up in
- Part 1 -

Shantikumar Moirangthem *

" God Heavens!
Is my country so beautiful?
Is the valley so enchanting?
Is the Khwairamband so tidy?"

: Laishram Somorendra

Manipur in the 1950s and early 1960s—the years of my childhood—was a place of much enchantment and innocence even as it was characterised by crumbling infrastructures, potholed roads and shoddy bridges.In the turn of the century, the ambiance at Imphal started taking shape the way it looks today. The age-old Khwairamband Keithel was renovated by Col. Shakespear with curved CI Sheets and iron pillars in 1905. Thong Nambonbi, the first and only arch-bridge in Manipur was started in 1854 and completed in record one year and one month's time.

After a cooling period of two decades, another brick-bridge—this time over the adjacent Naga river—was constructed in 1875, completing the connectivity around the central hub of Khwairamband Keithel. In the 1960s, I saw a fleet of local boats tethered near the solitary peepal tree (existing) on the bank of the Nambul river on the northern side of Thong Nambonbi, loaded with piling stakes of earthen pots-–it was the last of commercial transport I ever saw on the Nambul River near Khwairamband Keithel.

At the confluence of Naga river and the Nambul river, on the southern side of the Maharani bridge at the junction angle on the Uripok side, there was a raised space of about 40ft by 50ft where annually Durga Puja was held for the past 50 yearstill the construction of the existing bridge above Nambul river connecting Sagolband and Uripok at the road-heads.

At other times, in the off season of Puja, it was invariably used for religious ceremonies like Asthi-Sanchay, and children used to play marbles under the big twin Keli-Kadamtrees growing tightly in the western side of the same sandy space.

All these structures and spaces had been razed and filled up when the construction of the said newbridge connecting the western end of Thong Nambonbi and western end of Maharani Thong was startedin the year 1993 (*Courtesy: Sri Irengbam Lokendrajit, Rtd. S.E)

Even the usual scene of an Indian Bazar began to take shape slowly and slowly in the main market; the smell of rotting vegetables and filthy drains near the vegetable market mixed with the acrid odour from the open urinals and ill-managed latrines near the Chafu-yonfam (earthen pot stalls) adjacent to Ngari Ducan and fish market seemed to be heightened in the heated stale-air of the low hanging curved iron roofs.

The stains of red betel nut juice spattered the corners of the market. Kwa-chaba or pan-chewing which we learned from the Pong Ningthou in the historical time became a religious compulsion when Meiteis converted into Hinduism in the early 17th Century and turned into a common habit while taking refuge in Cachar in the early 19th century staying amidst indulgently pan-chewing Bengalis during Seven Years' Devastation.

Once Mrs. Grimwood described the pan-chewing Prince Angousana, the twenty three year-old son of Chandrakirti - "I never remember seeing him without a huge piece of beetle-nut in his mouth, which he used to chew. It gave him the appearance of having a swollen face, as he stuffed enormous bits of it into his mouth all at once, exactly as a monkey will do with nuts or anything of the kind (* My Three years in Manipur : MrsGrimwood, page-135). "

We had a very innocent childhood without mobile phones, laptops, andeven without radio until 1956 when my father bought his first electronic box- a Phillips Valve Radio with its Wire Antenna, and our entire neighbourhood crowded at our front corridor to listen to the Manipuri programme.

We all grew up with mother's lullaby of "Tha Tha Thabungton", then graduated to aunt's folktales of "Pebet", "Kabui Kei Oiba", "Shamu Angouba" and when it was all exhausted and we still pestered for more and more stories, aunty migrated her narratives to the inexhaustible repository of Mahabharata and Ramayana. We did not have video games, but for visual entertainments we occasionally visited Sumang Lila in the neighbourhood with relatives and friends.

The one I saw was "Charairongba" in which the actor playing the role of Chaibi, the female protagonist, was good-looking, and fair; next, after sometime, I witnessed 'Sandrembi Cheishra", again having the same cast.

In the game time, we played Football- most of the time substituted by Nobab, a big citrus fruit and hockey with sticks made of bamboo roots.Our favourite game was, of course, marble which we played by counting every shot progressively as Three, Six, Nine (pronounced as Nayen), Twelve and then calling the last shot Mor-re, meaning killed, as the opponent's marble was hit.

When I started my schooling at Uripok Boys' LP School, I found some of my friends still dressed in what we call Khudei, a shortened form of dhotis worn above the knee- a snippet of Meitei cultural continuum.

We had very limited space for playfields in the Uripok area- either we play at the Cheirap Court compound or Laphubon Lampak where a Petrol Pump is now located in the eastern side of Ibotonsana School. The Cheirap Court compound is a centralised location where court games like Volleyball was introduced in Manipur; and many players grew up to reach state and national level.

Maharajah Churachand"s eldest son Bodhachandra was a Volleyball enthusiast and his favourite court was the one inside the Cheirap Court complex and actively played during 1948 and 1949. The day when Maharaj Budhachandra's game was scheduled, both the courts of Cheirap and Panchai were declared holiday and spectators started trickling in.

Budhachandra arrived in his Olive Green car along with his retinue; after due reception by the players and local organisers, Maharaj played with his dhoti tucked up and mostly he did the serves. One day, it so happened that Maharajah while serving stepped over the service line which was a foot-fault and Umpire inadvertently called "no-fault" and the opposite side objected.

When the Umpire ignored the complaint, one of the players from the opposite team, R.K. Hajursana kicked out the ball into the Nambul river. Everybody freezed in apprehension- players and spectators. Maharajah stood still and kept quite for sometime- then asked softly " Who was it ?" Some one beseeched for pardon- "Maharajah,...Nachani (he is your son)"... implying he was also a Rajkumar and related to the Rajah. To cut the story short, the well intentioned king took everything in game spirit and the play resumed.

Yes, in the past we did not have all the luxuries that we take for granted in 2019, but we found joy in the simple things and absolutely no fear and apprehension out of social disharmony; no gun totting criminals or rapists on the prowl. No stress, no worries, in those days even the night life was longer.

We returned late around 10.30 pm after last cinema shows and drama charity shows in groups of families with sleeping children in the arms of parents specially in the festival time: on the way home, we even bought Keli Chana- earlier, only fried Masla Channa was available, than later changed to Mangal (dry pea)- to be had with late dinner.

In 1962, at the time of Chinese invasion, the market was closed at sunset for security reasons. The restrictions and little inconveniences to the public were continued for a long time and then gradually relaxed- only to be resurrected again in a severeform in the late 1970s for a different reason this time.

Twenty-nine years after Manipur's merger with India, the cloud of dissent and disillusionment rumbling for decades, finally burst on 17 July, 1978 when two innocent police officers were killed and their service revolvers were snatched by a group of insurgents in the heart of Imphal town at Takhel Leikai.

It was only a beginning. Towards the close of 1970s and early 1980s, the valley witnessed killings, lootings, extortions, encounters with security forces, both fake and real- against the backdrop of high level corruptions in the government and public apathy. The spate of violence and lawlessness has been continued unabated for years till to-day though in a reduced scale to some extent in the last few years.

This article was first published on 11 October, 2019 in the Souvenir , 94th Birth Anniversary of R.K.Maipaksana

To be continued .....

* Shantikumar Moirangthem wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on December 23, 2019 .

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