It was the summer of 1977 at Kwakeithel, Imphal, Manipur. I was teaching at a school and came back home during the break time to check on my children. It was a calm scorching day. The roads were empty and I could hear the sound of my creaking chain as I bicycled.
Suddenly I saw one very angry woman and 4 men talking loudly with each other. There were other local people watching them. As the voice got louder, more people started coming out. I didn’t dare to stop though I was curious as to what was the issue. I continued cycling and after couple of gates, I saw Eche Memma standing at her “Konthong” (gate) looking worried and nervous judging from her gestures and eyes. I stopped my second-hand black bicycle and walked towards Eche Memma and asked “What happened? Is there any problem in the “Leikai” (community) that many people are outside at this time?”
Eche Memma came nearer and whispered “Ebemma, one young girl came running inside our house and she is hiding underneath our bed. And all these people are searching for her.”
“Why are they searching for her? Do you know what is her name?”
“She said her name is Tharo-Angoubi and she is from Wangkhei. She looks very simple and I am guarding her. I don’t know why they are chasing her and they don’t know that she is in my house. And I am not going to let these mob enter my house. But I don’t know what to do. I am afraid of the unpredictable nature of mob.”
I can understand Eche’s concern. We have seen mob going out of control and reducing a house to nothing in no time without understanding what is going on. We may be overreacting but things could turn to any direction. I panicked on the possible outcome and heard myself saying “Eche, I want to meet the woman. Please can you help me cross the bamboo bridge to reach your home.”
Eche Memma’s house is beyond a big drainage and there is a bamboo bridge made of 3 big bamboo stick. I was also afraid of crossing the small bridge in the fear of falling into the drainage. Who would want to fall into a drainage filled with the remains of every household’s toilet in that Leikai. I parked my black bicycle on the road side and Eche helped me cross the bridge. I took support of her hand and walked.
We went hurriedly to her mud house with broken walls revealing the underneath bamboo and thatched roof. When I heard the name, I suspected of someone I knew and true enough when I saw her face, I recognized her. She is none other than Tharo-Angoubi with whom I did Masters under JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi). We studied together at one of the classroom of DM college campus in Imphal. We were not the best of friends but we knew each other. We were the first batch of JNU affiliated for students of Manipur.
I saw her shivering with her body curled up on her knees, half beneath the bed, with her hands on a tattered reed mat. I ran towards her and said “Tharo-Angoubi, what happened?”. She seemed slightly relief seeing a known face and replied “Eibu amukta kanbiyu (Please help me!)”
She crawled out of the bed and sat fully on the tattered reed mat. I hugged her instantaneously feeling a pang of pain seeing her condition with her eyes filled with fear and said “Don’t worry. What happened?”
I told her not to worry but my mind was blank and I didn’t know what I was getting into and how I can help her.
Tharo-Angoubi started sharing “I had joined a “Marup” (Chit-fund). I was supposed to get the INR 10K three months ago. But I haven’t got any money. I am now a vendor of “phige phanek” (local meitei silk sarong) and she took 2 of the phige phanek and didn’t give the money for that too. I had planned to repay off some debt after getting the marup money and things got really hard with people coming at home asking for their money back. I couldn’t effort to loose the money she owed me. I had borrowed her gold ear-ring for going for a marriage and I didn’t give her ear-ring back. And these people are behind me because of that.”
“Who is she?”
“She is the woman who leads the marup. She has hired these men to come behind me. I didn’t give back her ear-ring thinking that I will give it back only after she will give me my marup-money and the money for the 2 phige phanek.
Please can you help me get out of this house and drop me to a nearby house I know. I will be safe there. It’s a house of my relative and they can protect me.”
Her eyes pleaded and I was the only option at that instant. I had made up my mind to help her when I saw her first though I didn’t know how to. I remembered that those men were sitting 3 houses away and I knew that we could bend down and escape behind the bamboo woods crossing through the back of the neighbor’s house. My heart started to beat faster and without saying a word, I signaled her to follow me.
We went at the back of the house towards the bamboos, crossed over to the neighbors. Most houses were not fenced with concrete like now, it was mostly “sambalei” plants as fence. I don’t know how fast or slow we went, but we jumped through the bamboo woods, crossed the isolated back of the houses with creepers and dried fallen leaves creaking as we stepped on, the places where we never dared to get out at noon for fear of snakes crawling and the many latrines with buzzing flies. Let me tell you a bit about the latrines. It was an open hole with a plank of wood or two or three bamboos where you can sit and do your business as soon as possible, probably with one hand closing the nose to spare from the stench and partially covering the mouth so that the buzzing flies won’t enter your mouth.
After crossing all these places in the peak of noon heat that summer, we reached a bend where we couldn’t see those men anymore. Then we looked sideways and crossed another Bamboo small bridge which touches the main road. I don’t know how we crossed it considering my fear on crossing such bridges but we crossed it. And we walked hurriedly through the mud road when I heard Tharo-Angoubi long breath with a sigh of relief and said “I can see the house. I can walk from here alone.”
I was tired and suddenly I felt the heat too. I didn’t offer to walk with her till that house and thought of my little ones at home. I needed to go back to the School too. I stood there for a bit and watched her walk away and saw her enter the gate made of 3 bamboo sticks. she removed the top 2 bamboo sticks and jumped over the bottom bamboo.
I turned and walked back to my house. I thought about how her life became. Tharo-Angoubi was a qualified Masters, couldn’t get a job and remained caught in the grip of poverty as many in Manipur. I thought of my life too. I was struggling to be a teacher in a School while my friends were teaching in Colleges. I didn’t have the money to pay the bribes to be in a college. I didn’t have to pay any bribe to become a teacher in this school and was happy that I even received a small increment because of my MA qualification but the other teachers protested. With the increment, my salary almost touched INR 200 per month. At that time, most teachers in the School were BA/BSc qualified. The protest made me extremely uncomfortable and I was in a dilemma of my career and future roadmap in this school.
I helped her escape that day from that angry woman and men but I never met her after that day. I walked into my house and saw my daughter sleeping soundly. I rushed backed cycling faster towards the school as I didn’t want to be late. The roads were empty and the woman and men were no longer there. All the local people have gone inside their houses. Every day is so unpredictable with many surprises. I didn’t know that I will meet Tharo-Angoubi under such tensed circumstances.
Collection of short stories written by Monica Ingudam. These stories are fiction based on Life’s this and that focusing on Manipur and the people of Manipur. Based on a story as told by Ema, my mother.