Tribute to Khelen Thokchom: Adios my good friend!

Joseph Joute *

Tributes to Senior Journalist Khelen Thokchom  at Manipur Press Club :: 01st April 2018  .
Tributes to Khelen Thokchom at Manipur Press Club on 01st April 2018 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

"Everyone must die once, and after that be judged by God". (Hebrew 9:27)

It was Easter Monday, April 1, the first day after Easter Sunday. After joyous Easter Sunday worship celebration, I was looking for my morning paper The Sangai Express first thing on Monday morning, scanning the pages to see what has taken place in Imphal on Easter Sunday as the state government was hell bent on finalizing financial affairs before the financial year ended so much so that it had ordered financial institutions to work even on Good Friday (March 30); the BJP style of countering Christian's religious days.

I was shocked by what I saw on its front page: "Founder Editor of TSE Khelen Thokchom Passes Away" The headline reads "CM lead in paying tributes, many condole" in bold letters. My heart almost missed a beat. Frankly speaking, Khelen's humble face appeared in my eyes and I saw and recollected all those things we had done together, talked about issues, for development and welfare of journalism in Manipur, The Sangai Express (then The Manipur Free Press) in particular.

Memories of those many years down the lane flashed in split seconds before my eyes and in my mind. The power of the mind, so powerful that it enables me to see through all those years in a split of a second or in an atom of time! Makes me remember that we will be transformed in 'an atom of time' at Rapture! And Khelen's life has been transformed! Made his appointment with God. It was in the early 1990s that Manipur began to see transformation in the print industry, particularly dailies. The first national standard size off-set print of English daily in Manipur The Imphal Free Press was the top daily at that time, though there was The Freedom on letter press. I'm talking about English dailies.

The unfortunate break away of The Imphal Free Press into two publications (with the Manipur Free Press) was a fortune for us, me and Khelen Thokchom and hoard of other journalists and printers in the state. With the two dailies in publication, Khelen Thokchom my friend and mentor invited me to join the Manipur Free Press for which he was the editor.

During the HPC Movement (1989-1994) and the Kuki-Paite conflict (1997-98) we worked together in many fields and that was when I came know about the good nature of Khelen. He frequently came to Churachandpur and it was our SHAN daily office where we used to have Changang (Red tea), sometimes with our face all red after confronting the security forces on various issues in connection with the conflict.

I still remember an instance when a Rajput Rifles Colonel barked at us and Khelen keeping his cool, with a wry smile on his face, standing at ease and in peace while I was wild and ready to counter the Colonel who almost slapped me if not for the intervention of my friend Khelen Thokchom.

We were writing for the North East SUN at that time. He was the North East SUN correspondent of Manipur, along with HA Lalrohlu, the late founder editor of the then Hmar daily newspaper SHAN. I was the Joint Editor until I published and edited my own Hmar daily The Churachandpur Times (2002-06). Khelen then joined The Telegraph in 2003, he said he wanted to go steady at his own pace. I cannot blame him, for he was a reporter to editor and manager working with his old Scooter in Imphal and frequented Churachandpur on other people's vehicles.

I still remember when he used to come to Churachandpur with a camera slung on his shoulder, sweating in the sun, the heat of the ethnic conflict heating us hot within with temperature running high but always keeping himself cool. When I saw his cool face despite the hot atmosphere, it reminded me of how a journalist should remain cool in every situation.

When he was looking after The Manipur Free Press, during the Churachandpur conflict of 1997-98, he asked me to join him. I happily did. During his tenure as the Editor, we used to sit in his office. He said, "Joseph, can you think of another appropriate name for our newspaper? It is not good to have two 'Free Press' in the same state"- the other being The Imphal Free Press.

I said, "Yes, May be. But, let us first make an invitation or a call for the name of the paper from the readers, someone may have a good idea and I will also submit/write about my opinion as Letter to the Editor. I have few ideas too; since Manipur is famous for the Sangai and we are oriental people of Mongoloid race, The Sangai Express or The Oriental Express may be appropriate."

He soon followed-up and put a call for suggestion for a new name of the daily Manipur Free Press, though The Manipur Free Press had already become the top paper of the state with its popular name and wide coverage. But I was of the opinion that 'FREE PRESS' originality belongs to Pradip Phanjoubam since he was the first to use the term/logo.

Though it was differentiated by 'Imphal' and 'Manipur' using of the common FREE PRESS appeared odd and it looked like we were out of ideas for a newspaper name. I, therefore wrote a Letter to the Editor, suggesting the names, and the rest is now history.

Khelen Thokchom's idea was to collect all district news and present the widest coverage of latest happenings in every district of the state. The Sangai Express till today maintains this strategy of covering district news which has become a very informative and a good source of news and happenings around the state. It was Khelen's idea. I was fortunate to become the Churachandpur correspondent.

The Sangai Express with the strong backing of its publisher Mr Nisikanta and the practice of true journalism with innovations started to become more popular and smarter than the others. I am happy and grateful I was able get associated with it through Khelen Thokchom, my buddy, though senior.

The Imphal Free Press was also doing great, particularly with its strong and thoughtful editorials by the eminent journalist Pradip Phanjoubam, one of the finest journalists of our state.

With Khelen Thokchom sitting at the editor's chair and I working as the Churachandpur correspondent during the infamous Kuki-Paite conflict in Churachandpur, the paper began to create impacts and gained popularity, I should say, with malice towards none. The news of burning of houses in the conflict was the burning topic of the day, with rumors and propaganda sometime even becoming the headlines in some local dailies. Just one news item or a write up of Churachandpur news was good enough to sell out the paper the next day, thereby gaining more popularity.

The most famous local daily newspaper at that time was, of course, the SHAN daily, though credibility and accountability was another matter. It was also the time when true journalism and yellow journalism in Manipur began to appear and a good and courageous journalist like Khelen Thokchom was identified.

Khelen also write exclusively for the North East SUN and other publications. He wanted to do more for our state and the region dealing with wider issues but he was occupied with the daily publications of both the English and Manipuri editions of The Sangai Express; sometimes being the reporter, sub-editor, editor and manager.

Maybe that is the reason why he wanted to go slow and steady, dealing with only news leads that interested him and concerned the people and not to have the responsibility of looking after the whole affair on a daily basis, sometimes even of the machines, printers and hawkers.

He was a journalist and a man from toe to head. His head always remaining cool, however hot the topic or issue may be. Even in hard circumstances or situations, Khelen Thokchom was always cool and efficient. He completed the task lightly but efficiently. Problems or difficulties for some people was never a problem for Khelen, he always saw the lighter and positive side of things. That is how we are similar; I always see the half-full-water of a glass, even when it is half-empty.

Even when he came by on his old Scooter with the Sun heating his helmet hot and sweaty, he was always cool to talk to when he reached the office, remained cool under his helmet. He knows I'd have been waiting for him a long time, coming from Churachandpur from morning. Coolly, he dispensed what is needed to be done at the office, with the staff.

Getting a cash payment of Rs 700 to Rs 1, 000 was quite a hefty amount those days, it was worth the effort, coming down to Imphal from Churachandpur, just to pick up the money. There was no wire transfer or ATM Card debit or DBT at that time, no Modi or Arun Jaitley to promote online payment.

The Sangai Express coffer was always doing brisk business, till today, thank God. He will slowly and coolly but surely go about his works, dealing with the daily affairs, the staff and the Correspondents, though there were not many district correspondents at that time. I was the only District Correspondent of the State, if I am not mistaken. Now, there are Correspondents in almost all the districts.

This is the fruit of the seed Khelen sowed, some 20 years back. Thanks to Khelen for his idea of creating district correspondents, we now have balanced news reporting and coverage in the state, particularly with The Sangai Express wider coverage in a nutshell.

Simple Living High Thinker: To sum it up, I think Khelen could be described as a 'Simple Living High Thinker'. He led a simple life, humble and honest but his thoughts were high and wide. He was sincere and accountable. No ill-feelings, open and straight. He never thought highly of himself and that's what makes him and kept him high among friends and in the society.

He was friendly, so much so that sometimes he looked and seemed unprofessional but very professional. He was a man of peace, always peaceful and cheerful, using soft words but strong arguments.

The only thing I regret for him was his love for good drinks and Singzu. I don't mean to demean him. He is miles above me in his carefulness in what he eats and drinks. I also used to drink. We use to cheers on some special occasions, but now I don't. Though, I still drink water and juice.

Drinks could be a luxury and sometimes a need. When it becomes a need it becomes a problem. When it becomes a problem, it needs to be solved. When it is not solved, it becomes fatal. We eat and drink to live but die from what we eat and drink, since Eve (the first woman) eat and die! She died from what she ate , and since she gave it to Adam (man), man eats, drinks and die, too.

So, be careful what you eat and drink, and write. For what we write stay and pass on and what we eat and drink pass off. My good friend Khelen was very careful on what he ate and drank, but still his heart beat could stop. Not because he was careless, but because he was a physical human being, and a good human being at that.

Every human being, good or bad has to die. April 1 was destined for my friend Khelen. I don't know when mine will be. So I will take this opportunity to say, may his soul rest in peace! Amen!

Rest in Peace, my good friend, adios!

* Joseph Joute wrote this article for The Sangai Express
Joseph Joute is a freelance journalist and president of Bible Hill Youth Club, National Social Development & Research Centre
This article was webcasted on April 06 , 2018.

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