The last time I was here in the middle of the economic blockade that benefited every legal and illegal entrepreneur including the state, the oil companies and the airlines. Flight tickets from Imphal to Guwahati were at a ridiculous twenty two thousand, or so which is more than what I intend to spend in my impending South-East Asia holiday, airfare included. Due to the blockade, supposedly nothing was coming into the state. But you could see hundreds of enthusiastic local business people selling petrol and diesel in mineral water bottles outside every petrol pump. At its peak, petrol was being sold at Rs.120/lit and diesel at Rs.80. Needless to say, this encouraged every other clever business persons like auto and cycle rikshaw walas to up their price by at least 4 times the regular rates. Business went about normal, except for days towards the end of the blockade, when petrol pumps would open for sometime, creating miles long ques of cars and bikes. When the blockade opened, 60 oil tankers from Indian Oil Corporation went missing! IOC or the police simply said they don't know.
By the way, what happened to the blockade? Is the road open now? Are things coming in? Are people going out? Who is blocking it? Who has opened it? Please let me know if anyone has a clue.
Last time I was taught by my local friends that I must not give in to the demands of the autowalas because when they say petrol is going at 100 it is actually going at 80. And cycle rickshaws do not need fossil fuel. So, this time at the airport when the auto guy said Rs.250 because petrol is going at 100, I laughingly brought it down to a whooping 200. Later I learnt it should be 150.
On the way from the airport, the familiar sites of log ques outside petrol pumps, made me feel instantly at home. Only to learn later that the situation has become even more complicated. (Don't know how this is possible but only Manipur can be more complicated than the rules of World Domination.) The home secretary, a tad ashamed, unlike their regular undismayed disposition, declared selling fuel on black openly on the streets illegal. He did forget to say that they would make it available legally. So like all bans on anything pleasurable, what it did is not stop the selling at black but pushing the sellers underground. What was available conveniently before on the street just outside your house, albeit at a price, now has become a pain in many parts, what with you having to refresh your skills from those nefarious substance scoring days like looking over the shoulder conspicuously and frantically whispering 'do u have, do u have?' In Meitei. Of course prices of fuel has gone up again as the sellers now have to pay a thousand rupee fine if they get caught.
One early morning as I opened my hotel window into the adjacent petrol pump, I saw an oil tanker filling a blue truck full of large blue barrels. Military supply, I was told. Then came the turn of official vehicles of politicians and bureaucrats. If there is anything left after this, it will be opened to public, standing on a long que from morning and not ensured they will get any at the end of day!
Manipur, however, I can not help repeat, is something else altogether still. In the middle of all this chaos, they held an Asian Film Festival showcasing some really good films. Pity I did not get to catch any, being hectically caught in meeting people for things to do. They also had a big show organised for the Kut festival which is one of Manipur's 365ish state holidays what with the government being strictly equal about giving each tribe a state holiday. Kut is a festival of the Kuki-Mizo-Chin group. It had a Miss. Kut thing happening and the festival was a state organised boring affair with all guest present there being addressed as 'honourable' (?) The DJ played the song Pretty Woman repeatedly for 2 hours straight as the contestants walked the stamp (stage cum ramp) up and down in gory glittering gowns. The fans of Irom Sharmila (of which I am also a half-hearted member, not because I do not believe in her cause but because I do not like being a fan) are organsing a Festival of Hope, Peace and Justice to celebrate her 10th year of hunger strike and resilience. Artists, performers, activists, writers and all other kinds of freaks are togathering, doing numerous things like painting murals, writing and reciting poetry, dancing, doing drama right now. The festival goes on till end of November. Manipur is always protesting and always celebrating!
Moving out of Imphal, there is one thing that has always struck me in Manipur. The taxi drivers are such pansies. They are always scared of going anywhere and always in a hurry to get back fast. So much so that this one I took to a village called Khengmol in Churchandpur district, started asking the village people to come with us, for our protection, till the nearest town of Sugnu which is 20 km away. There is only one bus from Sugnu to the village, which in the first place forced me to hire a pansy from Imphal. If someone from the village comes to Sugnu to protect us how does she/he get back? He was doing this in fast Meitei thinking I will not be able to figure out. But his pissing-in-my-pants body language gave it away and I scolded and threatened him into the car. On the way, he tells me, 'you are very brave like a man'. I wanted to remind him a few things about his and his male relatives' dysfunctional body parts.
Right now I am in Tamenglong supposedly one of the most backward districts of the entire country. As we started from Imphal through a chilly early morning November drizzle, my heart soared at the sight of the ripe golden paddy fields. Abundance! and as we said in our, Manipuri ganja hazed, conversation last evening too, 'North-East is the best. It gives us all.'
Twenty minutes into the drive just when I was preparing to catch up on the sleep lost due to an early start, the car comes to a halt. There is a group of people and cars ahead of us. Accident? No. Nothing in Manipur can be so simple. As it turned out, there is a bridge ahead and the army has got info that a bomb has been planted. The bomb squad is at it but no one knows how long it might take. A group of helpful local tells us to take an interior road that would bring us back to the highway at a point ahead of the mess. Thankfully this was not a taxi and 'we' were not just driver and me. So we drive through the valley, passing villages with many ponds and big old shady trees, more golden paddy fields and an overall charming well endowed valley scene. Very serene. Unlike what you hear all the time.
On the road, my Naga friends spot a 'Manipuri' friend of theirs (for a definition of Manipuri, keep on reading). They stop the vehicle and much hearty exchange of greetings and news follow. I think there was even an invitation for tea. Thankfully they skipped it. I have a feeling my sleepy, bored, cranky expression could have something to do with that decision. So they say a bye-bye longer than the hello and we start. As soon as they are out of earshot, one Naga says, 'Ha, ha, I met that guy at a workshop. He was saying we must support Irom Sharmila. I got up and said, but when so many of our people were killed in 1960, what did u Meiteis do?' The other Naga says, 'yes, and how can anyone live if they do not eat for 10 years? Even a child can fast between meals.' For the first time I was glad I was so sleep deprived that I did not have a thing to say in this conversation!
We stop at Nonei for lunch. It is 9am and every one is very hungry. I am given a choice of meat – chicken, venison or dog. I eat none. The iromba (mashed boiled vegetables cooked with fermented fish and overdose of Raja Mirchi) and boiled beans are good enough for me. A 1 year old child travelling with us is given a taste of the dog meat by his mother. I feel a little ashamed of being a pansy but Pucki, Chiklu and Kei Nyu's (my pet dogs) faces flash in front of me.
I try to complete my sleep quota, but the road by this time has gotten so bumpy that if you do not keep your neck consciously stiff your head might shake off your shoulder. I am told the PWD, on paper, has spent so many crores of rupees on the road, that we would have a smooth ride if we laid the cash on the road in place of the missing tar. As the road turned from bumpy to very bumpy I hear strange noises coming from the boxes they have been carrying at the back. I look at my co-passengers. 'Ducklings', they explain.
We have another stop, this time one of those military gates. As the driver goes off to entry his vehicle, a military man carrying gun comes to the car. He asks whats there in those boxes. They say, 'Duck. Duck? Ducklings!'. Military looks lost. They ask me to explain in Hindi. I say, 'Hans' not sure if that mean I am asking him to laugh or telling him there are a few duckings in the car. He then turns to one of the guys and asks, 'Aap Manipuri hai?' (are you Manipuri)
The guy, 'No, no, I am not'.
Military, 'Where are you from?'
Military, 'Toh Tamenglong Manipur mein nahi hai kya?' (Isn't Tamenglong in Manipur?)
Guy, ' han but hum log Naga hai. Manipuri to who log hai'. (But we are Naga, they are Manipuri)
And the whole car bursts into laughter. The same person, who earlier talked about Sharmila and children, says in English, 'He is a South-Indian. If he live in Punjab, will he be a Punjabi?' They have another burst of laughter and look at me and say, 'please tell him in Hindi'. I try to oblige. Thankfully the driver is back by now to carry us away from the military's uncomfortable silence.
And to end the day, after reaching Tamenglong, I get settled into a room in the only hotel in town – Sui's Hotel. They fret around me, organising my things, buying me water, banana, biscuit in case I feel hungry before dinner and want to know what time I want every meal from tonight's dinner till tomorrow's. I shoo them away gently. People from the North-East can be horribly hospitable.
Once free, I decide to walk down the market and visit a friend. My short hair has always drawn attention in Tamenglong. No where else have I seen so much curiosity and confusion around my hairstyle and my gender. People always ask if I am boy and it often takes them at least an hour to realise I am not. So I get the familiar curious looks and giggles from teenage girls as I walk down the busy market road. Busy in Tamenglong means fifty people in a whole market. Keep that in mind. I decide to pull up the hood of my jacket to protect myself from the cold wind and the curious laughter. But I was seconds late. Two little girls caught me in the act and followed me a few steps. When I turned around to look at them they shouted, 'BLOODY INDIAN!' and ran away giggling.
That's about it for now. There are many many many more stories from Manipur to tell. I have skipped about half a dozen that involve killing, corruption and chaos from today. Sometimes I feel like running away. Then I think about staying on. At least my diary would have unusual things to say.