29 August 2007
Dawn broke silently over the horizon. We watched the orange hues push the night from ink to purple and then slowly the orange took over the sky paving way for the sun to rise. It was magical watching sunrises at five in the morning from our terrace; especially in a place like this where there were almost no man-made obstructions to the view apart from the temple’s prayer flags. Three days into our vacation to our parent’s house and it felt as if we had never left in the first place. As kids, we never ran out of things to do around the sleepy neighbourhood. We knew everyone and we would group up with our cousins & friends and wreck havoc around the small school park across the road to our place. We were both in our twenty’s now and whatever we missed out as children seemed to slowly unfold before us as the sky turned pale gold.
There was evidence of cementing in parts of the front yard of the house which had been evened out to give way to the new Highway. It was to be the connecting road to Myanmar. The same front yard where once our mango tree would sway heavily with ripe fruits every summer with the wind! There were so many memories that had been rooted with the tree. So many moments that every now & then crept up in my mind – sometimes stealing a tear & sometimes making me smile. Now in its place there was a patch of cement running along the bank of the road, stretching as far as the eye could see.
A few summers ago, our parents moved back to the ancestral home in Imphal after Dad’s retirement. It was an emotional trip home that year. We didn’t know when we would make this trip again as a family but we would definitely visit once a year depending on my work & my sister’s college schedules respectively. Like every summer, on our way from the airport to the house, this year too we had involuntarily looked out for that branch of the mango tree that used to loom over the road. It used to be an indication that we had reached home. But this year it wasn’t there.
This year the government had suddenly felt the need to widen the highway after nearly twenty years. Unfortunately for us, our beloved tree was in the way of this grand project. Many illegal constructions & roadside temples where accidents had taken place were to be razed to the ground. It was a sign of change and of better times as the government had put it across in the local newspapers. But it spelt bad news for our garden & our mango tree. My father initially tried to see if there was a way he could urge the authorities to widen the road more on the left hand side of the road without having to cut down a tree. He still finds it depressing to see trees being cut, something which my sister & I have inherited from him as well. My dad even went to the extreme contemplating if there was a way of uprooting the entire tree & planting it elsewhere! Well, of course there were too many practical problems with it. Apart from the scale & absurdity of this operation, we didn’t have enough land for a tree in the back yard. Yes, we did a lot of research over it. It might have sounded silly to others but to us, this tree was much more than just another shady place to rest in the afternoons. My sister & I even went to the local forestry office. They were very amused but sympathetic. And they were happy to see two young people showing interest in conservation. So what if it was just one tree. It was a symbol of home. And all we had of it is a photograph of it that my father took before it had been cut down.
The tree itself used to be a bit of a mystery to us. How we loved hanging from its lower branches as kids! Its fruit when ripe was terrible & we preferred having it when it was green. It never once struck as odd that we preferred its raw green emerald fruit to its reddish gold ripe offering. Till date I don’t know which variety of mango it was. All I know is what my grandfather told me about it. According to him, it was planted by his Great-Great Grandfather and along with it they had planted many other trees but only this one had survived. It wasn’t so hard to believe considering the fact that the number of houses here now exceeds the number of trees. The village had changed over the years and now looked like the rest of Imphal. There were cyber cafes, STD/ISD booths & gift stores in every nook & corner one would turn to. There were billboards staring down everywhere promising all kinds of things like fairer skin & better network coverage aside every road. The locals who used to ride Hero cycles now rode the swankiest motorcycles money could buy. Despite all these changes, our mango tree never seemed to grow any taller or give less fruit each year. It stood as a silent witness to the sea of change that was occurring all around it.
In the beginning of the year, our tree had been felled. That evening, Mom had called and I could make out from her voice that she had probably cried. The tree under whose branches my Dad had courted Mom as a young lad… from under whose shady boughs, a palanquin had brought Mom home… where my grandmother had decided to spend every morning for a month before she passed away. There was just so much that had rooted itself with the tree. This summer not finding it there was something that we weren’t quite prepared for. When we reached home three days ago, I recall my sister’s eyes welling up at the sight of the cemented sidewalk. We had all shed a silent tear for it. The next day I had absent-mindedly taken out my folding chair to sit under the tree after lunch!
This morning sitting on the terrace, we started to trace back the years and all the fun times we had. Somehow the tree was always part of it. She recalled her first crush who she had seen as he passed by on a bike and how every evening for that trip she had stood under the tree hoping to catch a glimpse of him! It later turned out that the lad was related to us in some odd way that I can’t quite recall. It wasn’t too much of a surprise considering the fact that almost every other person was related to another in this small town. We had a good laugh over it every time we talked about it. The sun was slowly peeping out now and we decided to go down to the kitchen and make some tea for the third time that morning.
We both looked down at the place where the tree once stood. It was a reminder to us of how things can never be permanent. Who knew what other changes would come up in the years ahead! But the memory of our mango tree still remains with us. Many people there don’t miss it as much but every year on our way from the airport to home we will still be looking out for the branch of our beloved mango tree.
25 August 2007
It was poison of the sweetest kind.
It played in every blink and every breath
It questioned, it asked, it wrecked…
And it played back every song I ever wrote
Reminding me of sultry evenings on a boat
It channelled through the canals of wakefulness
And it crossed the piers of other thoughts.
24 August 2007
It takes a special something to stir our hearts
It can be the sound of a train passing far away
The smell of smoked wood that burned down the night before
The rainbow on the horizon after a desert rain
On moments such as these my heart cries
And it longs for that one moment in time that sealed the memory.
23 August 2007
When I was in school, what surprised me was that it was more of a matter of ridicule for others if you looked ‘different’ from them! Oft times I’ve been asked if Manipur was in Karnataka, referring of course to the Manipal College in Mangalore. I have been called ‘Ching-Chong’ and Onion (my surname is Oinam). My siblings & my name have always generated very interesting nicknames. Looking back, some of them were really funny and many names have still stuck on, but back then it used to leave me exasperated. Back then there weren’t any psychiatrist on TV to tell you that children tend to be cruel towards each other or offer you advice on how to be tolerant of your peers! I don’t think it would’ve helped much anyway but what the heck. We are all allowed some wishful thinking. Once my brother became school captain of course the attitude changed. It helped that I too later went on to be school captain but till this date many of my then batch mates still recall me by that name!
When I was in college, my attitude changed from defensive to sympathy towards people who didn’t know about NE. I took it upon myself to educate everyone who came across as NE illiterate. It was a one woman mission to change the perspective of people around me. It must have been painful for my friends as I left no opportunity to do so. It was amusing what ideas people carried with them! Along the way, I found many youngsters from the NE who shared my views and my pool of stories just grew from then on. Some were downright weird and most of them hilarious if not ridiculous!
As part of an industry visit, 2 of my classmates, one of whom is Assamese and both are good friends of mine; we went to a Textile unit in Punjab. We had an interesting encounter with one of the top level managers there who had peculiar ideas about everything so it wasn’t a surprise that he had some about NE people as well! He had this notion from somewhere that the streets in Assam were full of elephants and rhinos! So my dear Assamese friend decided to pull his leg and told him that what he had heard was true and there was more! That rhinos were used as local transport and that for a nominal fare, the rhino and its mahout could take you to the airport which was very far from the city! To our surprise he believed it! I can imagine my friend perched on a rhino… it’s not a pretty sight and I don’t think anyone will survive such an ordeal. It’s never been tried before; maybe our man can visit Assam someday and hitch a ride on the great Indian rhinoceros! That would be front page news!
My Assamese friend’s younger sister has had more than her shares of such experiences. Once in college, one of her classmates raised a point that girls from the NE had hands that were genetically modified over the years trained to pick up tea leaves and that they started this occupation of picking leaves from when they were infants! Of course that didn’t go too well with the other students who were from the east and my friend’s sister instead of getting angry added that when she was a little girl she too had been taken to the tea gardens. But she chose to be educated and to join the ranks of the hallowed students with whom she was studying today! By now the class had caught on and the joke was on the girl who decided to voice her information in the first place. It’s not her fault that she had this idea; it was her father who gave her this valuable piece of information!
There have been instances where well educated people have asked such questions as what currency is used in Assam! Some people wanted to know if vegans could survive in that part of the country because they had this notion that it was largely a meat eating population. And recently I was very amused when a gentleman pointed out to me that Manipur was famous for its beautiful dance; and he added that he loved watching our Bharatnatyam! One of my aunt’s is a retired renowned Manipuri danseuse – wonder how she’d react to that. I have been asked if Manipur was in Burma or Thailand! Looks like most of us didn’t pay much attention during our school years when we were all desperately memorising states and capitals of our immense country!
Somehow the concept of NE Indians evokes images of semi-clad tribal folk who still live on trees in jungles and take enemy heads for trophies for many people. Mind you, it was a reality in Nagaland till a few decades ago. What a vision to monkey around with. But that’s just one of the seven states of the NE. Christianity clothed them and now it’s a predominantly Christian state and there are hardly any traces of that life here and if one were to visit Nagaland today, you would find it an extremely modern society with really sociable people.
My husband finds this quirk of mine a great way of getting me agitated! He is of course extremely supportive of my ideas but every now and then he likes to pull my leg on this issue. Ten years ago, I would’ve fist-fought him over it but thanks to the little maturity that has settled into me over the years, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
And here I am trying to educate still more people. I’m so tempted to explain about how things really are in NE India but I shall keep that for next time. Thank you for reading.