We called him Oja. None knew his real name or where he came from. Some say he was a convict, a ‘caste-away’ from Sylhet, who had murdered his wife and children. Others say he was a ‘graduate’ from Dhaka University, once known as the Oxford of the East, and a ‘revolutionary’, who was seeking asylum under the cover of silence in our village. Many others associated him with tantric mysticism, a hermit with mystic healing power. For us, he simply was an Oja, embodiment of knowledge and wisdom, whose identity was irrelevant. Folks of our sleepy village fondly remember him, the Oja, and he has become a part of our folklore, tales of him narrated around warm fire-places as children wait for dinner. They say, he was like an ancient tree, a witness to the village’s fortune and failure and a silent listener to the travails of the souls and the travelogues of the hearts, the one who never judges.
Silence can be heard
My childhood memory of Oja goes back to the days of crab hunting. At the wee hours of Sundays, packed with rice and utensils, Oja used to take us at the foothills of Baruni and hunt crabs in the mountain springs. A Phillips-three band radio was his favourite companion, and before ‘Angang-gi Thouram’ was on air, we had to be ready with our collections—firewood, water, crabs and so on. Oja taught us how to bait the crabs with pieces of raw meat, wait until the whole colony of crabs was upon the meat. Once a sizable number had gathered together, we had to throw a muslin cloth upon them; slowly twirl up the cloth from both the ends and finally put them in a narrow-neck open basket. Oja used to say:
‘Don’t worry about the cover; none will escape. Crabs are like human beings. How much ever a crab climbs up and reaches the top, those at the bottom will pull him down. You don’t have to cover the basket.’
As I’ve grown up and am thrown into the reality of the world, his saying has become all the more clearer, like an axiom, having its own merit and relevancy. Perhaps, it might not be a verity, an enduring or necessary ethical or religious or aesthetic truth, but the lesson was in the practical ways of the world, on competition, success and betrayal, which one always needs to be aware of.
We started attending regular ‘institutions’ for education. Those were troubled days. There was good harvest in the village. Old gentry smiled for they could then send their children to schools. Proud mothers eagerly started looking matches for their daughters. The Goddess of fortune has finally smiled upon our village. However, rumours were widespread behind closed doors. People have seen ‘red stars’ and ‘writings’ on the walls. Every morning security forces removed red star-shaped-balloons from treetops. Handbills were strewn by unknown youths almost every evening. Strange looking men, bearded and tired looking, started visiting our village. They talked about ‘change’, ‘liberation’ and ‘revolution’, showed us the pictures of bearded men or a red sickle or a star. They promised ‘more’ land and ‘ownership’ but ‘people’ needed to join them (we thank author of the poem Combing Operation for allowing us borrow and use his lines ‘freely’).
Folks turned to Oja for guidance and comprehensible interpretation of the turn of events. Observant and thoughtful, he was given to answering sagacious questions. His reply astounded us:
‘Nation is the soil of liberation and freedom. When justice is absent, the nation is like a body without a soul. Children, what you are witnessing today is the ‘body’s’ battle to win back the ‘soul’. Years upon years, Manipur will be bleeding for its lost soul!’
Perhaps, he foresaw the blurred and wounded image of Manipur. Today, Manipur cries for justice. Contemporary tale of Manipur begins from the mortuary of RIMS and ends in whimpering sobs in the corner of a house—of a husband, son or daughter never coming home.Another lesson another day.
Yenning grew up into an eligible adult amidst uncertainty as a witness to the weird happenings of our time. And it was at that time... Poetry came to find Yenning. Don’t know, don’t know from where, it leapt, winter or the river…. Yenning was called from the street, from the branches of the night, suddenly, from the others, in violent flames… (adapted from Pablo Neruda, Poetry). Yes, it came in the incarnation of love and touched Yenning.
I guess Oja would have remarked, ‘A materialistic interpretation of ‘history’ does not give room to frailty of the human emotions. Life is a journey, encounters we’d have, but that cannot compromise your goal and mission. Extinguish desires, then there’ll be no sorrow; no regrets.’ Disappointment touched Yenning rather quickly. First love was doomed from the very beginning. At the first wind of our budding relationship, both the families crossed swords and packed us off into different destinations. She was exiled to her native village and poor Yenning to a land far far away across the nine hills. After listening to a painful sermon from the family patriarchs Yenning decided to run away from home.
Oja was sitting on his hunches covered by a tattered old red blanket. The old man beckoned me. Somehow, he seemed to know that I was troubled. For the first time, I noticed his senility. He had never looked so old. Whenever I needed I got the human touch from him. I sat down near him.
‘Sometimes, we transgress. That’s human nature. Tell me, is she beautiful?’
I could not control the sadness saddled inside me anymore. When it escaped, may be it trembled my lips, and the old man must have read it as my acknowledgement.
‘I know, I know. The reckless young heart, but you cannot be reckless.’ He tapped his stick on my head and continued. ‘This must lead you’. Then, he jabbed the tip of the stick at my chest, ‘This can make the head misty’. ‘You are seekers travelling on the road of life. If ever you cross your paths again, then the future belongs to you both.’
He took a long puff at the cheap Burmese cigar. Both of us did not say anything for sometime. His wrinkled face had always been a solace for me—trustworthy and ever kind. He looked at me patiently and said:
‘Silence can be heard. Do you know? You only need to quieten your soul.’
I thought he was mocking me. I was wrong. He was giving a message, as usual, in his cryptic style.
‘Dilemmas can be resolved, only you need to select the lesser evil and throw away the most unfavourable option. Ultimately, it’s the ability to take a decision that differentiates between a strong man and a weak one.’
I joined him, ‘Yet, the perplexity! What about it?’
‘Overcome it’, he said and stared towards the east, in the direction of her village, blowing out rings of smoke from his withered mouth. I wished I could ride the smokes and reach her.
On Teacher’s day
‘Respect for teachers cannot be ordered; it must be earned,’ said Dr Radhakrishnan, the person on whose birthday, September 5, ‘Teacher’s Day’ is commemorated. During his tenure as the President of India (1962–1969), when Dr Radhakrishnan was approached by his friends and pupils to permit them celebrate his birthday, he replied that instead of celebrating his birthday he desired a celebration like a ‘teachers’ day’. Since then, his birthday is celebrated in India as the ‘Teacher’s Day’. On this day, in educational institutions of India, students celebrate to pay their respect to teachers, and Governments (State as well as the Union), award deserving teachers.
On a cynical note, Yenning would like to question the sanctity of this occasion. Schools and colleges are empty, teachers are not paid on a regular basis and the sacred bond between teachers and students is missing. Overall, education has failed to give hope to the younger generation in this State called Manipur. And teachers are the most looked-down categories of people in Manipur. However, this cynicism should not be the ‘rationale’ to debunk education or disregard the teachers.
Recognition of Radhakrishnan by the world comes mainly for his contribution to education, consistent endeavour to pursuit knowledge, and endeavour to employ the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages for the welfare of the human race and finally to free the human race from superstition and fear that originate from ignorance. A popular story tells that when a student in his class failed to answer a question, Radhakrishnan asked the student to punish him, as he had failed as a teacher.
Yenning cannot certainly equate Oja with Dr Radhakrishnan, the champion of education and humanism. However, in a small way Yenning pays tribute to the Oja, who had been a constant companion, from whom many things were learnt. A teacher need not be understood only in the formal occupational sense, for example as a person whose sole occupation is teaching. We are thankful we found a teacher in Oja, who constantly provoked us and made us realise of our mistakes and transgressions.
Six years from today, Oja passed away peacefully in his sleep. Many say he died during his penance. Some say, he was sick. It was during the flood that wrecked the Greater valley area of Manipur. Few days, from today, Yenning learnt, Oja died of starvation. He was too ashamed to beg for food; that was below his dignity. On this ‘Teachers’ Day’, and on this third day of Tarpan, Yenning proudly remembers Oja and offers this small memoir.
(published in The Sangai Express, Imphal, Sunday, September 7, 2009)