My memories of Imphal from 1941
- Part 8 -

Dr Mohendra Irengbam *

Ae dil hai mushkuil hai jeena yahan; zara hatke, zara bachke, ye hai Bombay meri Jan ...
a 1956 classic song from the film "C.I.D."
[Oh my heart! Living here is a hard struggle. Be careful and be streetwise; it is Bombay, my love].

It says everything about Bombay that I found out when I went to study at St Xavier's College in Bombay in 1952. In those days my professional ambition was to join the Army. I sat the NDA qualifying entrance exam, paying Rs 30. But when the time came for parenteral signature, my eldest brother Gokulchandra persuaded me against it, saying it would worry our old mother.

Instead, I did B Sc and then, went for Medicine. Sorry! I have wandered away a bit to Bombay to be among the stars. Now I am back firmly on terra firma in Imphal. At that time, Manipur though economically backward, was still self-sufficient, though many people scrabbled to feed their families. It had no beggars and no homeless people like those in Mumbai. None died of starvation.

Though Meitei people were lackadaisical by default, they had the fortitude to go through tragedies and triumphs and still survive. Walking down my memory lane, I have stumbled over a joyous festival of my boyhood that was full of sanarei (marigold) flowers. Of which, I wrote about in Part 7.

Sanarei (Marigold) in my school days, was in every home and easily accessible to outsiders, just inside of the unlocked bamboo gates. This flower was part of Meitei socio-religious life. It was a must, especially for decorating the palanquin, traditionally, to carry Baby Krishna or Bal Krishna or Gopal Krishna during the celebration of Hari Uthan (waking up of Hari, another name for Krishna) after 6 months sleep.

For days, before the date of celebration of Hari Uthan in the month of November, young girls from the neighbourhood of a temple, would get up very early and trudge around the neighbourhood, to pluck marigold flowers. On the day of celebration, at the crack of dawn, the girls would assemble at a mandab (an open pavilion), attached to a temple.

There, they would thread marigold flowers into garlands and decorate a palanquin. When all set, they would wake up Hari with Aarti (light/ flames from a burner or burners on a plate, which are offered to Hindu deities) and Sankritan (reciting or singing a religious story).

Having placed him on the palanquin, the idol would be carried on the shoulders of four men and taken in a procession on the road, followed by the devotees, and then back to where they came from. I used to get up at four o'clock in the morning and bicycle to the mandab of the locality where a girl I fancied lived. Just to see her face and for her to notice me. That was a great pleasure.

There were many of these carnivals in the Imphal town. Our Imphal town centre had a large brick-built Post office, and a similarly built Telegraph Office by the main IM (IndoMyanmar) Road between Nitaipat Chuthek and the road junction from which one road continues to Yaiskul and the other goes to Nongmeibung.

They were staffed mostly by educated Bengali babus (gentlemen) from Bengal, when illiteracy was sky high in Manipur. They had their quarters at Babupara and established a Bengali High school for their children. Some of them stayed on after their retirement. What annoyed me most, was that all the signboards were written in Bengali, like 'vitoreasiona'- No entry.

The town centre had another impressive building near the road junction mentioned above, in the south-western side of Sanjenthong Bridge, where the PMSD (President of the Manipur State Durbar) used to live. This is the present residence of the Chief Minister of Manipur.

Further along the road to Yaiskul,was a small Imphal Police Station. The man in-charge before and just after the War, was only an Inspector, known as Khomdram IP (Khomdram Dhanachandra) from Tera keithel. Along this road on the other side, there were a few other offices, and in front of them and by their gates, professional petition writers sat in a row with a small wooden box in front of each of them to write letters.

Such a small number of staff of the constabulary, only showed that crime in Manipur was in short supply. But there were enough convicts in jail for petty crimes, dressed in white shirts and shorts with broad black stripes, so as to provide enough free manpower for such jobs as to pull the heavy reinforced concrete roller on the turf of Mapal Kangjeibung (Outer hockey ground).

Before the war, my father once took all the family to watch one rare hanging for murder. It was in the back compound of the Imphal jail, at dawn. Along the four sides of the compound, there stood armed policemen with bayoneted rifles pointing towards the crowd. As serious crimes went, after the War, I saw a man laid on a stretcher outside the gate of the Police station.

The man from a village was unfaithful to his wife. In revenge, his wife sliced off his manhood, saying "if I can't have it she can't have it either." There was another beautiful wooden bungalow. It belonged to the great British Civil Engineer, CF Jeffrey. There was a small ornamental fish pond in the front garden.

He and my father Irengbam Gulamjat Singh built the Hydro-electric Power House at Leimakhong in 1930 when Maharaja Churachand took a fancy to it. That was to light up the Palace and the British Reserve. Imphal town centre was lit up by street lamps. The IM road was lit up within the British Reserve. I must have been about 5 or 6 years of age when electricity came to our house.

I remember when my father taught me how to write the alphabet (Bengali) on our mangol (veranda) under electric light and how I got a thump sometimes, for being too thick. I also recollect that I went to watch a military tattoo performed by the Gurkhas of the 4th Assam Rifles at the Mapal Kangjeibung, sitting on the shoulders of a henchman of my father. My father was organising the illumination with flood lights.

It was about the capture of Rani Gaidinliu, the freedom fighter from Tamenglong in 1932. Jeffrey's bungalow was located by the IM Road, facing Kangla, not far from the PWD (Public Works Department) building complex that was situated near to where the Classic Hotel is now. I have been in it a couple of times with Tangkhul friends when Major Khathing was staying there in 1948, as a minister of Manipur Government.

Khathing was a great Tangkhul, both as a military and a civil officer (cf. Part 5 photo). To crown them all, he was the Indian High Commissioner to Burma. Between Jeffrey's bungalow and the present Gandhi Memorial Hall there were the Municipality building and the Dak Bungalow by the main IM Road.

Behind those buildings and between the PWD and the Civil Hospital in the south, before the Rupmahal Theatre was built, there was a large field where a small single brick-built mortuary existed. On the west side of the PWD there was a road that ran from Khwairamband Bazaar to Thangmeiband. In the east of this road between the PWD and Khwairamband Bazaar the land was mostly unoccupied.

The PWD became defunct during the War and remained so until 1945, when it was reinstituted by Kh Angangjao Singh, using his home garden as office, at Terakeithel in Imphal. My brother who was staying in the village was recalled. But as our house at Uripok was still occupied by the Army, he found a temporary lodging with a Brahmin family at Bamon Leikai. He also brought me to Imphal for schooling.

I went to nearby Moirangkhom UP School (cf. Part 3). During the War, my father was running the Hydro-electric Power House from his office at Leimakhong. From the Senjam-Chirang village he commuted there daily on his bicycle in the morning and back in the evening. After the War in 1949, with the approval of the Interim Government, my father built a new Electric Office block (the present office) at the Keishampat junction.

MK Priyobrata as the Chief Minister, and Major Khathing and other ministers came to its inauguration ( Part 5). A hydro-electric power plant of 98KW was constructed at Leimakhong in 1930. It captured the energy of falling water of Sanahal Lokchao River, by turning the blades of a turbine, which converted the kinetic energy of the water into electrical energy by means of a generator, like a car dynamo.

Sanahal Lokchao River was majestic as the youthful river flowed fast, carrying pieces of rock downstream on the Leimakhong hill face, which to some extent, is reminiscent of the Swiss waterfall of Reichenbach, where Sherlock Holmes did the battle with his arch enemy Prof Moriarty. Somewhere at the foot hill, a small hydropower plant was installed.

It was fed by the gushing torrent of water from a small reservoir about 50 meter uphill,running down in a large concealed culvert, to turn the blades of the turbines of the plant. The reservoir was fed by water from Sanahal Lokchao River, which was transported by half-circle culverts of galvanised metal sheets, from a dam constructed across the river, high up in the ravines.

A swing bridge was constructed across the river, near the dam. There was a footpath all along, by the culverts. It was a beautiful picnic spot. Flocks of birds often drifted past soaring languidly in the calm sky. There were four small bungalows for the staff and one for my father around the plant. During the War, one was occupied by the 4th Assam Rifles' Gurkha sentries.

Whenever I went to stay there with my father, I would go to their quarters for a paratha in the morning. They spoke Manipuri. Once, a Gurkha sentry taught me how to load a magazine of bullets into the 303 rifle and fire. The spent water from the plant was drained out in a narrow and shallow stone-built channel to empty into the mother river as it coursed down to touch the valley.

The channel was constructed along the bottom part of the slope, and above it a footpath was cut from the front of the plant building to the bank of the river as it meandered on the flat plane. Two stone slabs engraved with Mr Jeffery's and my father's names with the date, month and year of its construction, were erected along and above the drain.

Sanahal Lokchao River was full of trout fish known as Sana nga. Once, my father organised fishing for our family, in that part of the river where it snaked on the flat plane of Leimakhong, carrying clear diaphanous water, as it bounced off the boulders and pebbles. He got his men to build a low dam with pebbles. Lime was dropped in the temporarily still water behind the dam.

It stunned the trout as they travelled upstream to breathe (as the water ran through their open mouth and gills) and to catch their food from the current. They fell flat on their sides. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s, the whole place was wiped out by a landslide.In spite of all the technological inventions, we are still at the mercy of natural disasters.

* Dr Mohendra Irengbam wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on November 30 2020 .

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