Sunday, October 18, 2009

An officer and a stationery shop in Wino bazaar

Officer opened his lines in a poetic note as if singing away his memories in a rhythmic musical prosody. Ukhrul is a misty town. Land of the indomitable Tangkhuls. Legends and myths tell about the Siren like Shirui Goddess, to escape from her charm, how numerous handsome chaps have travelled beyond the craggy mountains – to the valley or across the seas! Perhaps, the cross of salvation could not smother her roaming pining-spirit or tame her eternal search for her beloved. We have indeed heard stories and songs about thousand youths, who have visited this enchanted land and returned captivated or broken hearted, not by the Shirui Goddess, but by the highland maidens with rosy cheeks. They still say the ‘mountain fires are not fire on the mountains but the raging flames in their hearts’. None returns from Ukhrul without a story to tell – pristine beauty of the landscape, the wild and rooted but freely blooming Shirui lily, hospitality of the Tangkhuls and many more.

Yenning was fairly disappointed with him as the interview progressed. The mystic picture he painted of the Ukhrul was completely missing in his tale. We expected a rendezvous between him and the Shirui Goddess or else, of a bitter-sweet romance between him and a chief’s daughter. Conspicuous absence of both in his story reaffirmed our imagery of him as a ‘boring straight young’ officer. He had neither witnessed a head hunting rite of the Tangkhuls nor was he abducted by Naga hostiles, tortured and demanded ransom. In fact, Ukhrul did not exactly form the main basis of the story other than being the setting. Rather, his story turned out to be an account of passion and the mindset of a time that had gone by and a narration often smacked with middle class flavour and Bengali sensibilities. He continued his narration by taking a detour to the political and social milieu of his prime time ie Manipur of the 1960s and 70s.

Manipur was yet to ‘attain’ Statehood. Orchestrated symphonies for Statehood echoed both on the hills and plains alike. It was as if Stravinsky caused riots in the streets of Philadelphia, Vienna, London, Moscow and Manipur. Later we realised he was one of the few music lovers in Manipur who owned one of the first long-playing phonograph records of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and a wooden rexin-cased Gramophone from London designed to be played at 33.3 rpm. He also gingerly showed us LP and extended-playing records of Frederic Fran├žois Chopin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky and others, and added that ‘Rites of Spring’ remains one of his favourites. Each passing day witnessed streams of students (schools and colleges in turns) taking out processions like floating notes in the quintets of Mozart, which could be plucked. We guessed he had never lived in a cacophonic world of Nat Sankritan or the monotonic sound of pena. The croaking vocals of John Fogarty of CCR or ‘Sunday Morning’ was yet to capture hearts of Manipur and even when it did Officer was not swayed by the rolling beats of rock n roll. He recollected one of the talk shows on BBC Prime Time, ‘Contemplation’, a programme, which he religiously listened at around 10 am everyday on his Phillips pocket radio. Few days back, I was watching a programme by David Attenborough titled Our Living Planet. I am reminded of a talk show (I don’t remember the speaker’s name; Betrand Russell and other prominent philosophers used to speak on the programme), in which he talked about a blade of grass. They grow on the most unwanted parts of our garden, field or lawn. In fact, no continent is free from grass. We use weedicides to kill them or burn them away forgetting that they do have life. Or else we plant them on certain parts of our garden simply to beautify. David Attenborough reminded me of this talk when he said that after a forest fire of devastating scale grasses are the first to germinate on the burnt area and grow. Call it resilience or rootedness or ability to adapt, grasses continue to confound me.

Then he gave his opinion on the ongoing impasse on closure of educational institutions. Belonging to a upper middle class family, having served as a Government servant for more than 50 years, and a person who has received his education from Dhaka University (like many of his contemporary as was the practised norm at that time), his observation equally confounded us. The grass, I deduce, is the people. Unfortunately democracy has ‘given’ us varied forms of Government: some people friendly and some anti-people. It is the duty of the Government to break the impasse and bring about normalcy. Otherwise, it would not be called Government at all.

He said there are few reasons why he liked Nirad C Chaudhuri and VS Naipul. I like their treatment of India. Naipul’s An Area of Darkness published in 1964 conveys the acute sense of disillusionment which he experienced on his first visit to his native land. It is a travelogue detailing Naipaul’s trip through India in the early sixties and the narration is anecdotal and descriptive. A gloomy similarity one will find in contemporary Manipur. Travel around Manipur to feel what Naipul has felt years ago.

He said he has not found a Manipuri writer as brave and insightful as Nirad C Chaudhary. To prove his point, he showed us the dedication page of Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, which reads as follows:

To the memory of the British Empire in India, Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
‘Civis Britannicus sum’
Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.

The dedication, which was actually a mock-imperial rhetoric, infuriated many Indians, particularly the political and bureaucratic establishment. Chaudhuri was hounded out of Government service, deprived of his pension, blacklisted as a writer in India and forced to live a life of penury. Furthermore, he had to give up his job as a political commentator in All India Radio as the Government of India promulgated a law that prohibited employees from publishing memoirs. Chaudhuri commented later that he had been misunderstood. The dedication was really a condemnation of the British rulers for not treating us as equals, he wrote in the Granta article. Typically, to demonstrate what exactly he had been trying to say, he drew on a parallel with ancient Rome. The book’s dedication, he said, was an imitation of what Cicero said about the conduct of Verres, a Roman proconsul of Sicily who oppressed Sicilian Roman citizens, who in their desperation cried out: ‘Civis romanus sum’. We are yet to find a Nirad C Chaudhuri of Manipur, Officer concluded. Then he continued his take on Manipur.

Mass participation (including students) in protest and demonstration against the Government is a post-Hunger Marchers phenomenon of August 27, 1965, during Koireng’s Chief Ministership (before Manipur was ‘granted’ Statehood). This incident also speaks of the repressive side of State apparatus. During the movement for Statehood, even Government employees of our time followed Gandhian model of ‘boycott’ and ‘non-co-operation’. It was voluntary not coerced. We wanted to interrupt him and ask about the legacy of Irabot. But before we could do so he continued as if reading our mind. There were radicals, too, but none resorted to burning down of libraries or other reckless acts of vandalism. Government of the day did not use National Security Act to imprison the activist or suppress the movements as Indira Gandhiji was yet to make the precedent with her ferocious brand of politics in India. State police forces were small in number, too. Nonetheless, they never deployed motorcycle riding State forces to disrupt the agitating civilians. The intense nature of protest as is being witnessed today is reminiscent of our prime time, admitted Officer. However, the then Government at least struck a chord with the mass and was able to take responsible decisions in spite of the limitations it suffered. Over and above, the then Government did care for the generations to come. Possible to submit that they believed in the goodness of education and the liberating power of books. Or even more, they did not want a generation to be deprived of education merely on political grounds.

Officer said that it was during the days of turmoil he left for Ukhrul, as a freshly appointed Gazetted officer, with a copy of Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. New place of work and the untamed beauty of the landscape distracted him from reading the book. Once he was into it, he read and read on. I read it three times. I decided to leave the book at the only available stationary shop at Wino Bazaar. Mind you, there were no book stores in Ukhrul at that time. I thought, such a beautiful book must be read by all. He kept the book at the stationary shop to give it away to anyone who wished to read it. Since then, he made the habit of giving books to the shop. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (ranked fifth on list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century conducted by the Modern Library, London in 1999), Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated by Edward FitzGerald, Darkness at Noon by Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, etc are some of the books, he remembers being given away to the shop.

Yenning was reminded of the many Pundits of Manipur who zealously guard their treasured puyas or other manuscripts. Sharing of knowledge, particularly in this age of information, is something our intellectuals are yet to learn. At the same time, we realised, this story will sound weird to the neo-Sophists of Manipur, who unlike the Sophists of Athens do not necessarily earn money for teaching knowledge but earn quick money for quickly cramping competitive examination materials into the young minds. Charges of the solved-papers (known as tuition fee) are sky high and bring to shame other publications that can help in the mental growth of the young minds.

Officer continued. The reading habit and love of books I frankly acquired from the Bengalis; sarcasm and drinking habits from fellow Manipuris. He asked us if we cared to join him for a Jack Daniels, which his son has sent him from Philadelphia. We politely declined. Yenning had pricking questions, which we wanted to ask Officer. Looking at the old man of more than 80 years, we believe, we have every reason to smile. His generation (the intelligentsia) stands accused of non-participation in the issues of Manipur. Perhaps, they did not plunge to solve many of the predicaments of the time. Even our Officer might be accused of his middle class sensibilities. Yet, they were the bedrock of renaissance in Manipur. Nonetheless, he does not claim his act of giving away the books as a yeoman service unlike many other officers who take the pride of having done ‘something’ for the ‘tribals’.

(posted on the Sangai Express, Imphal, Sunday, October 18, 2009)

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