Angamba and Samuel: A friendship beyond communal riot

Martin Thokchom *

 Angamba and Samuel: A friendship beyond communal riot
Angamba and Samuel: A friendship beyond communal riot :: Pix - The People's Chronicle

As I was lifting up the shutters of my bookstore, a peculiar thought struck me. It was the first time I opened my store that early. An announcement by the Government relaxing the curfew for a few hours from five in the morning was made the previous day.

The unusual hour of opening my shop was not what I felt was peculiar. The ‘reason’ why I opened the bookstore that day was what was peculiar. I needed to surround myself with books-something that I have been doing for the past five years.

I grew up with memories of conflicts, protests, and resistances just like every other millennial Manipuri but what happened in the past few days, as nostalgic as it was, felt very different. At least to me. Maybe opening the bookstore just like any other ‘normal day’ was my way to initiate processing whatever happened. That morning I opened the bookstore for me.

Angamba called saying he was on his way to the store as well. He had joined my bookstore a month ago. As boring as working can be on a hot summer day, he sounded excited when I had called the previous day asking if he could assist me in opening the store. As we started setting up the place, I noticed his mind was preoccupied with something. He was also in constant touch with someone over his phone.

We finally finished dusting off the store and sat down at the coffee counter for breakfast. I had brought tea from home in a flask. As I poured us the tea, I could not help but ask him what was bothering him. He then told me about Samuel.

Angamba is a Meitei. Samuel is a Kuki.

It all happened overnight. Internet was flooded with scary visuals from both sides. A friend from Mumbai, who is a writer was the first to text me. I shared some good memories with him at a literature festival in Panjim last year. He shared his concerns about the whole situation but I could not reply to him. I could not reply to him not because of the internet ban but because I was at loss for words. At our last meeting I had described how beautiful Manipur is to him. Perhaps he needed to know more than that.

I also remembered Easterine Kire, a prominent Naga author and a good friend of mine, recalling her childhood days when she saw a military-style barbed wire fencing during her last visit to Imphal. She was at my bookstore for her book launch. That day we spoke about how those days were long gone.

On the morning of May third, the day all hell broke loose, Easterine had texted me about a friend of hers planning to visit Imphal and my bookstore. She asked me to help her friend sort out their travel plan. But come evening, with a heavy heart I told her to dissuade her friend from visiting. Everything changed so much in a matter of few hours and she understood. Perhaps she has been there before.

Angamba’s mother used to teach at a convent school in Churachandpur. The district where it all started. While Angamba studied in Imphal, his mother successfully convinced him to shift to her school. That’s where Angamba met Samuel, a resident of Churachandpur. They became fast friends, even their families did.

During their summer breaks they would stay together at Angamba’s home in Imphal. Their lives after graduating from school was also no different as Angamba and Samuel chose to study together at a college in Imphal. They constantly kept in touch.

It all happened so fast. Reports of a supposed peace march becoming violent in Churachandpur had reached Imphal. Videos of burning villages were widely circulated. As much as I am in awe of the internet and its capabilities, I also despise it. The same videos were shared with different narratives.

Each community blamed the other. It caught on like a wildfire, in the past, our politicians had successfully stopped wildfires but this time they could not. In just a matter of few hours, Imphal was burning as well. Manipur’s air was filled with sounds of cries, police sirens, ambulances, firing of tear gases and guns. But our Chief Minister’s silence was the loudest.

Samuel was at his college hostel in Imphal when everything unfolded. Nothing was safe then, not even educational institutions. Angamba and his family asked him to stay with them until things calmed down but Samuel knew better. This was no summer break. He shifted to a relief camp somewhere near Angamba’s home. At least that night they heard the same cries.

The next day was chaotic. While mobile internet was shut since the previous day, we still had our wireless broadbands. Videos of vandalism, arson, violence, and theft were everywhere -each carrying different narratives.

Rumours and fake news had also surfaced. This led to more hatred and incited more violence. Reports of insurgent groups joining the violence made a bad situation worse. The Government finally decided to fly in hundreds of riot police.

I came to know a cousin of mine, who is a Squadron Leader in the LAF, co-piloted the Globemaster aircraft that day - the one that flew in the troops. Little did she know the aircraft would become a household word ! People had hoped the situation would improve with the big aircraft’s arrival. It did not. Later that day the broadband was shut as well.

Angamba kept in touch with Samuel throughout. The camp he was lodged in was at a police battalion. They all slept in what looked like an abandoned garage. Samuel had to wait in long queues to use the toilet. They were instructed not to wash their faces or legs due to lack of water. Samuel only had a backpack with no extra clothing. This went on for another three days.

There was no news of transporting them to their homes in Churachandpur as tensions had not yet subsided. Angamba finally convinced his father to do something for Samuel. They packed a few clothes, food and drinks and decided to bring them to Samuel on their family scooter.

As short as the journey was, it was not a comfortable ride and understandably so. At the camp, the police asked them to wait at the gate for Samuel to come out.

“Eshing yaobirakpra?” asked a person standing inside the gate. It was Samuel’s accent but not his voice. Angamba gave him a bottle of water. Samuel finally came. They met momentarily and shared a few seconds of glance before the police dispersed them. It was a moment that did not last but one that will last with them forever.

I believe our lives are defined by such moments.

I was told many people have flown away from Imphal carrying their versions of this unfortunate event. A brother, a mentor of mine rang me up. He does that occasionally and we always talk for a while. He told me that one of his drivers during his time at Cambridge Assessment had connected him to a chief correspondent of a French outlet. Her first question to him was, “Is it true that Hindus attacked Christian minority groups in Manipur?”

The recent clash was never about religion. A simple research would have unearthed the layered issues which led to violence, but no! That’s why they say some news sell and some don’t. I believe the world now only hears what it wants to hear.

On the fifth day, the Government started transporting the affected families to designated camps and the stranded people to their homes. Samuel had to wait another day as women and children were transported first.

As Angamba was narrating this story to me over tea, he got a call. It was Samuel. He was finally on a bus on his way to Churachandpur-a route that passes through my bookstore. Angamba smiled and rushed outside to bid goodbye to Samuel. I was not going to miss that moment. I rushed outside too.

A few minutes later, a huge convoy of armoured vehicles passed us. Samuel told Angamba he was on a small bus, second in line among the vehicles transporting civilians. As the bus approached, Angamba waved his hand as if he was consoling Samuel that everything will be alright and they will be spending summer breaks together soon. Samuel waved back like he believed the same too.

I had the opportunity to capture this moment on my mobile phone. I have read books with stories of beautiful friendships that transcend boundaries but this was the first time I witnessed one. It was everything.

It was finally time for me to shut my store as curfew hours began. As I was pulling down the shutters of my bookstore, I realized the peculiar feeling I had earlier was gone. I also realized it was not books that I needed to be surrounded by, that day.

It was hope that I was longing for.

Note about the writer: Martin is the owner of Ukiyo Bookstore, Imphal.

* Martin Thokchom wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is at Dept of Political Science, Tetso College, Nagaland
The writer can be contacted at aniruddha(AT)tetsocollege(DOT)org
This article was webcasted on 13 May 2023.

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