TODAY -

My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 18 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

 Author in 1964, with his jeep assembled in 1948 from the salvage depots of WWII
Author in 1964, with his jeep assembled in 1948 from the salvage depots of WWII
[Described by Gen George Marshall as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare"]



The cost of human lives in World War II (1939-1945) stretched over 70 million people (25 times the population of Manipur), more civilians than soldiers. A deliberate bombing of civilians to intimidate the Germans, as in the case of British bombing of the German city of Dresden in 1945, killed many women, children and the aged. A staggering number of Soviet soldiers died fighting the Nazis.

In Manipur we were lucky. The Allied Army had air superiority over the Japanese. The hallmark about the British Empire was its knack of getting natives to fight for Britain. The 14th Army that was newly formed and trained in jungle warfare, which successfully fought the Japanese onslaught, consisted mainly of Indian soldiers who had been captured in Malaya. The rest comprised the Gurkhas, East Africans and British Tommies. It peaked at 1,000,000. In WWII, 2.5 million volunteer Indians fought for the Empire.

WWII ended in the East when the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces on September 2 1945 on the USS battleship in Tokyo Bay. World War II that started on September 1 1939 in the West, stopped on May 7 1945, about four months earlier than in the East, when the Germans (Axis Power that included Germany, Italy and Japan) surrendered to the Allied Forces at Reims, in Northern France.

But the War didn't quite finish in Manipur in that, there were still remnants of the Indian Army until the beginning of 1946. They were unarmed troops, the sappers, demolishing and packing bits and pieces of the leftovers of the War such as unexploded ordnance. At times, odd Indian Army Military policeman (MP) made his appearance at the Khwairamband Bazaar, with white webbing cross belts and webbing holsters, but without the Army issue revolvers.

Just over one year before independence on August 15 1947, we returned home to Uripok in early 1946. There were still a few houses around ours that were still occupied by units of the Indian Army. There were about a dozen Indian Muslim soldiers, who were occupying the houses between our house and the main Uripok Road.

Life in the town centre was still a bit eerie as Ima Keithel was not established yet. It was a great feeling to come back home to live. But I had a queer sensation in the pit of my stomach as there was hardly anybody around our house. A few neighbours had not returned. I had no friends, only class fellows who I met during my school hours at Moirangkhom.

I cycled to Moirangkhom School every day through Khwairamband Keithel on the main road. It was rare to find any cyclist. The year was still 1946. As there were no boys of my age around, I made friends with older boys who lived around lalambung makhong and who attended High schools. They treated me as an angang (young boy).

It's a nostalgic kitsch. I felt grown up among them. My association with them was through a senior, Chanambam Nodiachand, who lived in a two-story house (Dolan) made of timber and roofed with corrugated Iron sheets. He lived in front of our house. They were members of Uripok 'Boys Scouts', named Swadesh Seva Dal. It was great that I was allowed to become a member, having been refused in the first place, as I was too young. I bribed a few seniors with two rupees. I was very keen to join it as I could go with them to the Baruni hill or Nongmaiching on the annual Baruni Chingkba Numit (the traditional day of annual climb to Baruniching).

There were a few other Boy Scouts from other parts of Imphal. The scouts were the pathfinders for a safe journey for the climbers. Sections of the narrow and risky footpath that zig-zagged to the top of Baruniching hill, were mutually allocated to various scout groups, one day ahead.

Our scout party was led by an adult, Moirangthem Gojendra Singh from Uripok, who lived across the road from our house. We had the usual Boys Scout uniform, cap and triangular scarf around our neck, the two ends of which were knotted in front. We had the regular drill and learnt scout laws and field work including first-aid. The three-finger scout salute was explained by Gojendra. The three fingers represented: (1) honour of God and King (British king), (2) help others and (3) obey Scout law. We avoided the king bit.

 Moirangthem Gojendra Singh [April 22 1922  July 20 1993]
Moirangthem Gojendra Singh [April 22 1922 July 20 1993]



Gojendra was a remarkable man. His study (I.A.) at Jagannath Barooah College, Jorhat in Assam, was interrupted by the Bombing of Imphal in May 1942, after he came back home from College in his summer vacation. He always had a perfect gentlemanly demeanour. He never lost his cool. He was fluent not only in English but also in Bengali and Hindi. In the beginning of the War he worked as a clerk for some Army unit.

He was one of the first students who graduated from the newly established DM College in Imphal. He did his MA and LL B from Calcutta. Over the years he climbed the various rungs of the promotional ladder in Manipur Government. He retired as Director of the Local Self Government and the Urban Development in 1983.

Baruniching Kaaba - scaling the Baruni Hill (Nongmaiching), situated in the east of Imphal valley, is an ancient tradition for Meitei youth. It is like a rite of passage in that, teenage boys and girls clamber up to the top of the hill, to give homage to the deity Nongpok Ningthou an indigenous iconic Meitei Lai, now replaced by Shiv. It was associated with the ritual purification in the waters of Chinggoi (chingoiluppa), a stream that originates in Nongmaiching.

 Virtual image of Nongpok Ningthou on top of Baruniching
Virtual image of Nongpok Ningthou on top of Baruniching. Photo Credit: E-Pao.net



This ritual was a very beguiling event in the life of Meitei youth. It fell in the Meitei month of Lamda (February-March) every year after Yaoshang. It was the time for young boys and girls with desires and dreams to get close and share experience, with a hint of excitement involved in hillwalking in the pitch darkness of the night. Teenage is the time for tracking emotions and arousing stimuli in the environment.

In those days, it was taboo for a girl to be seen in the company of a boy. Romance was a hush-hush affair. Risk-taking at best of the times. Romance between the starry-eyed youth was epistolary, scribbling sweet nothings on a piece of paper in broken Manipuri and delivered by a third person. They often grew out of it.

In those days, Meiteis had other negative cultures. They fought shy of speaking English among themselves. It was considered supercilious. It thus impeded in persuasive English speaking and fluency. Tribal people on the other hand, had no such inhibitions and so, they spoke better English than Meiteis.

Wearing a tie with suit was another proscription. A young man with a tie at Khwairamband Bazaar could be beaten up by a gang of boys. I was one of the very few boys who risked wearing a tie, as I studied mostly outside Manipur. Girls were wary of wearing shoes. Even the more forward students of Tamphasana high School, flinched from wearing any footwear. Everyone walked with bare feet. It was like a sacrilege.

About this time in Imphal, as I was growing up in my early teens, I became sick as a parrot of being the ever-cowering rich boy. I was 14. It was partly because I was pampered and partly because of my father's discipline that was harsh and unmistakable. Whenever I looked back at me in 1942 when I was bullied at my primary school, by a senior boy, and shamed as the incidence was noticed by a friend of my elder sister Modhu Devi, I cringed. I could see a timid little boy, helpless and utterly humiliated.

Later on, after the War in 1947, as I looked at my face in the photograph of the Scout group taken in 1947 (Cf. My Memoir, part 6), I stared into the face of a softie stranger. His name was mine and his face seemed distantly related to me. Now, I honour the courage he didn't know he had. As John Keats, the romantic English poet, wrote: "Too long a sacrifice can make stone of the heart."

Without realising that teenage years are the time for rapid changes in personality with potential implications, and age 14 is known as risk-taking peak, I decided to toughen myself, by self-instilling some moral courage to stand up to the bully boys, despite my timorous look and spare physical build.

I ordered a three-strand chest expander from Calcutta, after reading Charles Atlas in an American magazine. I thought I would improve my chest muscles. I also needed some weight. As nothing had happened, I gave it up as a bad joke after a few months. I didn't realise then, I am genetically barrel-chested.

In the months and years to come, I actually became quite tough as iron entered my soul. I morphed in to a no-nonsense boy with an ability to confront any misdemeanour from any unsavoury guy, either deliberate or perceived. This led me to many scuffles, sometimes with the ignominy of being imprisoned. It is difficult to articulate the magnitude of anxiety it built on the fabric of my life as if I had an existential crisis.

Nonchalantly, I was dragged into it in spite of myself, like a dog with a bone. I had to live with it during school days, college days and as a doctor. Many a time, I wished I never tried. Sometimes, I envied my relative and class fellow, the late Irengbam Bijoy (lawyer), who was laisseze-faire in his outlook. The nature of my extroverted personality automatically precluded my enjoyment in going out on Sundays to meet friends.

In this catharsis of my deeply personal story, unlike many memoirs in this vein, it guts me to think why I had so many more altercations and fracases than anybody else! Why most people did not fight at all, let alone have a hot argument. The object of this article is to shed light on 'why me'? And how I came out on the other side, perhaps a more conscious and mature individual! And that I didn't ride off into the sunset. It was my determination, with a high IQ I inherited from my father and my mother's perseverence on my higher education.

 Author reliving with his old semiautomatic pistol in November 2019 In Imphal
Author reliving with his old semiautomatic pistol in November 2019 In Imphal



Some readers might find it quite extraordinary that I carried a pocket-sized semi-automatic pistol in my right hip pocket as a doctor in Imphal, even when I was doing ward rounds in the hospital. It was because I heard rumours that some boy or the other wanted to beat me up. My eldest brother Gokulchandra also warned me one day. Not that I could kill anybody. Only that, I felt safe with it. I moved around without any shred of fear.

Perhaps the handgun in a way, came to my rescue when once, I was in mortal danger. After I was transferred to Churachandpur, one night, I was going back to Churachandpur from Imphal at about 9 pm, riding my Vespa scooter. It was winter. Being very late, I took the precaution of taking my brother's .35 Webley & Scott revolver as well as my .32 Czech semi-automatic pistol tugged in the two front pockets of my long overcoat.

Before I reached Nambol, many villagers were fishing by the main Tiddim Road sitting by the roadside with their lamps. As I was going at about 30 miles an hour, one elderly woman who was sitting on the left side with her back on the road, suddenly got up and crossed the road in front of my scooter. There was a crash.

I was immediately surrounded by everybody. The woman got up alright with no visible injury. I was then escorted to a village about 2,000 metres away, across the harvested paddy field, trudging on the low narrow zig-zagged mud walls. During this arduous journey, one of the captors gave me the benefit of a death threat: 'It was only a couple of months ago, a man, driving a car, ran over another villager along the road. Luckily he survived the thrashing as it was during the daytime, with a lot of traffic on the road'.

We arrived in the village and I was sat up on a mora (bamboo stool) in a mangol, and was left alone. It gave me time to ponder over my chances of survival, with 7 rounds in my pistol and 6 rounds in the revolver. I decided my chances were naught. Then, I prepared myself mentally, just in case. I loaded a bullet in to the chamber of my pistol and slid the safety catch on. I put the gun in the right side pocket of the overcoat, with my hand on the butt and thumb on the safety catch. Then I calmly waited for the impending doom.

After what appeared to be ages, three or four men came. I could go if I paid some money for the injury suffered by the woman. Luckily it was my payday. I took out 50 rupees from my wallet, which they accepted. I shambled back to the road in pitch darkness, as fast as my legs could carry me. I picked up my Vespa and rode back home. It suffered only a twisted handle bar.

Now, fast rewind to late 1940s in Imphal. In this postwar years, Meitei men in Imphal, still feeling the mud between their toes, began to struggle for a radical change in their way of life. The War transformed fashion, food habits and culture of Meitei nation. They became more outgoing with a desire to broaden their horizon. They also became more tolerant.

It was the equivalent of peeling onions, removing the unpalatable coverings and unearthing the new generations of hope and glory. The outwardly tranquil face of the Meitei social fabric belied the deep soul-swelling awakening of modernity. Many literary paterfamilias began to riposte to common social and cultural topics. There was a passionate engagement and willingness among parents to fight for their children's higher education.

The Japan Lan was the best thing for Manipur since sliced bread. It helped Manipuris to discover the world without having to traverse the globe. Their peripatetic imagination took them to places far away from their limited world of Manipur, cloistered by nine mountain ranges. It was a great turning point for the townies of Imphal with their unflagging pride that traced its roots back to 33 CE. The wartime experience began to energise social mobility among them with aspirations for a better quality of life.

The War brought down the curtain on the last show of the feudal system of monarchy. The Meitei society that was vertically structured with instructions and dictates coming down from the king, came to a close and was sealed watertight by the Independence to India on July 15 1947.

There was a social movement towards modifying traditional beliefs and cultures in accordance with modern ideas. There was a deliberate change in man's dress code, such as an increasing adoption of wearing trousers instead of pheijom (dhoti) and an intuitive change in women's thinking. Unmarried girls began to shun Moirang Thoibi-style haircut and opted for the long flowing natural hairstyle. They now preferred wearing phanek around the waist with a blouse and a thin cotton wrapper (inafi) in summer and with a woollen shawl in winter.

There was liberalism and relaxation in religious orthodoxy, such as allowing Muslims and tribal people in Brahmin-run restaurants and Meitei homes. Many boys became disillusioned with organised religion and drifted towards agnosticism. I began to wonder how a man could act, believing that a god in the sky would direct his actions. I became a 'freethinker' who follows my feelings without an external perspective.

What really helped to change the face of Imphal and Manipur, was a vast number of motor vehicles that have appeared on the road. Many literate Meitei men, who were inherently mechanical and quick to learn, began to reassemble many trucks, station wagons, jeeps and motorbikes from damaged parts in WWII savage depots. By 1948, Imphal was full of vehicular traffic, more than any town in India. My eldest brother also had a jeep assembled and I began to learn how to drive it. I wish I could paint a vivid a pen picture of this touch of modernity and the emergence of a modern nation-state of Manipur.

It is a staple of dystopian fiction that a British ethnographer once wrote that Meiteis abhorred education. It was more than hundred years ago. Quest for education that began in earnest in 1945, with the opening of various high schools, led to the opening of DM College in 1946. It was an educational renaissance for Manipuris, who until then, were politically nave and educationally backward. It was not like watching a favourite movie in high definition. It was authentic. It was a fascinating window on the arrival of modern civilisation in Manipur.

By 1947, some Manipuris who had been educated outside and seen a bit of the world, began to put politics into their heads and dabble in it. And, because they were novices they couldn't 'turn the pumpkin into a coach'. But they were there. By 1948, with the reconstruction of the Imphal town centre, new buildings came up at the bombed-out ruins of pre-war Marwari buildings. It was an amusement to see a new traffic policeman for the first time, directing the traffic at the four-lane ends by the western gate of Kangla.

Even though Meiteis were not endowed with business acumen, they were learning the ropes of market economy. They opened shops, selling various items of goods and commodities that they imported from Gauhati and Calcutta. There was a handful of Mayang traders, Biharis and Sikhs, who could provide certain commodities and food products, because of their family connections outside of Manipur, and which were beyond the remit of Meiteis, such as Amul Butter, Brooke Bond tea, ironmongery, electrical goods, and cloth.

A faintly golden new dawn had broken over the horizon. Meiteis had begun to embrace modern way of thinking while keeping their old culture intact. I am humorously reminded of George Bernard Shaw, who observed in his Maxims for Revolutionaries: "the reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." I do have reservation about his observation.

Meiteis are now moving towards sustainable and equitable prosperity. So are the tribal communities.

Corrigendum:

In Part 17. (1) ...at Singjamei, about 40 km should read as 2km
(2) ... Second Nupilan 1941 'December 1939- January 1940'


Author's website: drimsingh.com


* Dr Mohendra Irengbam wrote this article for e-pao.net
The writer can be contacted at irengbammsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on February 23 2021 .



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