Christmas with Meitei eche at Phaijol: Carol of solidarity

Mamta Lukram *

As Christmas approaches, my friend, a dry fish street vendor geared up her full swing fish trade, sans a break. Hailing from Thanga, a periphery village around the Loktak Lake of Moirang, she stayed back till late evenings at Khwairamband market, under the dim street lamps expecting another more consumer after one. Cold waves have approached her trade much earlier, with nowhere to shelter herself from the cold. A pure traditional Meitei lady by ethnicity and religion is my friend, with explicit Christmas preparation, yearning to experience the multi-ethnic cultural diversities of the state.

Every evening, for hours I assist her trade, braving together the cold and so cheering. Street vending becomes a life's parcel, ever since she become a street vendor, whenever free, I volunteer her business. Empathetically I glanced at her, and enquired if she wished to stay back from attending the Christmas celebration and if I should get along alone to which she declined.

Reacting over my suggestion to get back home early, she reiterates,
"Ebemma.... (casual manner of addressing a junior/friend), when we go to your junior's village for Chirstmas together, my business will be halted for 2/3 days, moreover we have to spent too; God's willing, you lost your private job....assist me earning, lets earn, learn and enjoy....(Stops a while...) kids' annual admission, family maintenance, self-maintenance (sigh...) Assh! yondum-yollu! (meaning- just keep selling)

Early foggy morning, we set off for the destination, L. Phaijol Kharam Village under Senapati District, a village around 25 km due north from Imphal. From the mainroad, walked about one and a half km along a narrow strip of the unmetalled road leading westward in the vast expanse of the agricultural field where the road cuts like a meandering stream.

Everywhere barren is the vast field in the post-harvest season with no provision for irrigation facilities, winter crops, winter vegetables or other scientific farming. Moving along the lonely street one could sense the gentle morning breeze refreshing every step and the soaring high birds flapping merrily overhead, in the backdrop of the green hill grudging with the half covered foggy shield.

Indeed, a small village is Phaijol, with 43 households having population around 200, sharing village boundary with Laikot Khram on the north. Village chieftainship is through rotation amongst the clans, which at present, they have 4 clans. The village as informed by the villagers has an UJB school, functional since the last two years back only.

At Laikot Phaijol: 'WELCOME to Laikot Phaijol,' a frame poster and a small playground at the entrance of the village constituted the striking applause of the Christmas celebration. Sporadic football fever was seen, with small boys under 12 having football match cheerlead by the enthusiastic spectators, villagers themselves. More matches were on the row. But hardly could I sense any sporting event for the girls or the women, andwonder was that my misperception? Young girls were seen everywhere energetically volunteering the youth catering and other volunteer services rendering the best service to the village elders and the whole community.

Story began entering my junior's place. A chronologically junior of mine, is 'Thoibi', so address me as 'Eche' (elder sister), in a tone entwined with sense of respect and belongingness. We greeted her parents, presented the few gift items we take along; some dried fish, a plain Meitei phanek (Wrap around) a khudei (Meitei man's traditional attire) and few snacks, cheap, nevertheless emotionally imbibed items.

Never did we waste even a single minute, come out from the home, proceeded towards the church, located at the height of the village, meet and exchange greetings with the pastor. Taking a short-cut route, we visited Laikot kharam village ground, where children were merrily participating interesting events sponsored for them. There we exchanged greetings with one and all present at the spot. On way back Thoibi shared her admiration of the spirit of unity, Kharam Laikot people have amongst their community.

At home, in the small kitchen, forming a circle, seated on small wooden seats, the lunch time conversation oscillates around the seriousness of the deepening social divide in the state. None was an expert, however we tried the best idea exchange for the need to share and shoulder responsibilities.

The need for trust re-building amongst the youths to strengthen the sense of integrity and unity framed the day's sensational topic;
"Hospitality, food, the meat, the celebrations, bonfire and the dances.... is not your purpose of attending Christmas, I know.....(smiling, so did everyone) however marginalised my background may be, I don't hesitate to invite you Eche, (Instantly interrupting.... I intruded her assertion...) 'Let's omit this part from the conversation' (...giggles... continues..) we have been more than sisters since the past years, we did share each other's hard times, extended solidarity and have become each other's moral support, so to strengthen our relationship we should know each other's cultures. We should trust, love and treasure each other"

Suddenly her reinterpretation of my roots to participation reminded me of the last year's Christmas season. In the hassle of the UNC's indefinite economic blockade and the counter blockade at parts of the valley, our friendship was made a scapegoat. Prolonged economic blockade had afflicted enormous hardships to everyone's lives which multiplies with the counter economic blockade. Running out of resource, Thoibi's mother went with some farm harvest pulses and vegetables to sell it. By afternoon I received her call;

(...sobbing) 'Eche, Emado pot yolhanlaktre' (meaning, mother was forbidden from vending), listening to which I melted and broke down 'Thoibi, if you face any problem coming here or any emergency, just call me up, don't forget calling up eche, I will be there' (so helplessly, I convinced her). We console each other yet helplessly cried over the phone wondering who architected such hatred environment?

Following the vague memories, together we walked towards the location of the water source, the perennial spring, that fed the Laikot and Phaijol villages. Walking along, she shared how indigenous forest conservation knowledge prevented drying up of the natural water sources. Simultaneously, her ideas could vividly be apprehended from the villagers' awareness in classifying trees to be preserved and to be fallen in the whole forest range. They possessed the best knowledge of environment conservation.

Little deeper inside the forest, a shallow, clear and cold stream in scanty volume was found dripping down the narrow stony path. More amazingly along the side of the source, found piles of saplings, enquired to which was being informed that once Christmas is over, the community will plantit to preserve the catchment area of the water source for forest cover maintenance, a task purely under community initiative, beyond government assistance or any external intervention.

Wilderness surpasses again remembering my professional senior, Jiten Yumnam, Secretary, Centre for Research and Advocacy, Manipur (CRAM)'s, matter of everyday concern, and instructions for the immediate need to take up conscious efforts and a dedicated study on the traditional knowledge system of forest management amongst the indigenous communities of Manipur, jammed the returning pace.

As evening glide down, the golden horizon dimmed and moonlight showered. Around the small hearth, with flickering flames, encircled to warmth and comfort ourselves, Thoibi's mother sang a gospel number,
"Karigi wakhal wari...karigi ningba thung-dari..." (meaning, why restlessness, why discontentment), in serenity we surrender ourselves into the ocean of love, peace and unity. Church Bell from atop of the village summoned to attend the church service.

Hurriedly we proceeded for the Church and greeted everyone there. the village chief enquired about the outsider guest, to which we responded, followed by the magic spell of converting the medium of preaching, carols, songs, jokes and many more into pure Meiteilon version which we could comprehend. The sense of conscious presence and acceptance filled the air.

Turning around, raising arms, delicately swirling the hands, moving the wrist and fingers to the rhythm, pounding feet taping softly on the floor, everyone danced to the carols in turns. Little kids, young boys and girls, village elders, village authorities and even did we joined the dance. At one corner of the little community hall were seated a long row of small boys, to every rhythm played, swayed together merrily like the wildflower wavering in the breeze.

To every knots and verses of the carol we knew and we didn't, amidst gestures of warm welcome, did we sway together in contentment; where hopes and aspirations for unity galore bright and gay. I could see my friend's wide smile, the most contending part. Elderly women volunteered serving hot red tea every now and then, defeating the cold, keeping the night lively.

When the programme was over, outside the hall, moonlight showered over the gentle slope of the church, calm was everything, as if bidding farewell, suddenly reminded me of a quote,
"If something fades in the sun, it becomes a history, If something gets bathe in the moonlight, it becomes a myth," anxiety reeled inside; all confused thinking our dire aspiration for integrity may not end up as a myth. Thoibi's song "Taibang-gi Nungaiba Thiriba..." (in search of the worldly pleasures) echoed.

* Mamta Lukram wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on 13th January, 2018.

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