Imphal Diary: The Christmas Gift

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

It was mid afternoon on Christmas eve. I was alone in my office on the first floor of our office building, editing a copy and occasionally browsing the internet for updates on news of the day. The reporters were out in the field and the night desk staff were still to show up. I did not see him enter my room so when he announced himself, I looked up with a start. It took a moment for the familiar figure approaching me with a wide smile to register as a long time friend from the hills, and one who contributed from time to time for the newspaper I am editor, although most of the time his copies had to be spiked despite radical application of the copy editor’s scissors.

He had a plastic bag with him and before I even had time to wish him, he walked across my table towards where I was sitting and placed the bag near the foot of my table.

“You must be tired of eating Broiler chicken so I brought you some local one,” he said, his face splitting into a wide smile followed by a hearty guffaw. “This is for you.”

He did not give me time for even a word of polite protest or gratitude, but sat down at one of the two plastic chairs on the visitors’ side of my table and proceeded to tell me he came to Imphal to do some shopping and thought he should drop by to say hello. “I have bought some gifts for my children and wife and I am leaving now for home to be there before dark. There is nobody at home.” He said.

The pressure of time was written large on his face. I tried to calm him down with my pleading look, but it was obvious he was acutely conscious there was somebody waiting for him downstairs and was impatient to leave. They have also to be leaving soon to reach home early to prepare for the celebration later in the evening.

His visit was quite a pleasant surprise and I indicated his friend should understand and should not mind waiting a while longer. We did that, inquiring after each other’s family, work and the usual pleasantries. I realised soon enough he had also intended to buy a laptop computer, but fell short of the price quoted and would be returning home without his heart’s desire. “I will have to buy it next time,” he said.

I decided to help. Not only is he a friend, but he also is a loyalist of my newspaper and a contributor as well. I did not carry too much money with me so I offered him some. He took it. Nothing bought or sold, no debts owed or paid, it was just between friends.

“I will rush off to the computer shop then, and from there head back home.” He said getting up from his chair. I saw him off to the door and bade goodbye.

No sooner did I return to my desk, my mobile phone bleeped its high pitch ringtone. Quite to my surprise again, the caller was an old friend, a British journalist married to a local woman, calling not from his own phone but a local one.

After the customary exchanges of pleasantries, he said “I am here for a few days only, can I come and see you now if you are in your office. I am close by.”

I let him know I would be delighted to see him right away. He said he would arrive in 10 minutes.

As I left the phone, I thought I heard a rustle on the floor near my feet, and looked down. There was nothing there except the plastic bag containing the chicken my friend from the hill left me. I thought I must have been imagining and was about to settle back into my chair to continue what I was doing before my guest arrived, when I heard the rustle again, and this time a cluck too. I looked down again and to my amazement the plastic packet was moving. I bent down to inspect it and found a rooster with frightened eyes on its side with legs bound securely. Wow!!! I couldn’t help an amused smile. Thinking the fowl may be uncomfortable in the position, I turned it over to its other flank. I think I guessed right, for it stopped kicking.

Not long after my British friend arrived with his wife and another friend. As we settled to into our chairs to chat, the bag near my feet began rustling again.

“A friend left me a rooster as Christmas gift,” I explained sheepishly to contain the atmosphere of bewilderment.

As I expected, I could see my journalist friend’s eye widen almost in disbelief. “Let me see.” He said and got up.

He took a step forward and craned craned his neck over the table to have a look.

The rooster had popped its head out of the plastic bag by then, eyes as startled as ever.

The look on my friends face would be difficult to describe. I was afraid at one point his jaw would drop on the table and break the glass slab on it.

“This is a normal practice here,” I told him. His wife nodded.

It did not take time for him to get a grip of the situation. After all he is married to a local woman.

After my friends left, I thought I should also quickly go home and leave the gift there. I straddled up my large, trekker’s, waist pouch, on my hip, emptied the larger compartment, and slipped in the rooster in it, still keeping the bird in the plastic bag lest it dirtied my pouch. When I zipped the pouch pocket gently, I made sure the rooster’s head stuck outside it so that it does not suffocate. I then went to my bicycle and after carrying it downstairs, mounted it and was off.

The rooster probably was enjoying the ride, or was petrified cold, for there was no sign it would try to escape.

When I reached home and rang the bell, both my daughters of 12 and 8 respectively, and my dog answered the door. I told my daughters somebody had left me a nice Christmas gift and they screamed with delight. Immediately they began searching me with their eyes to see if I was carrying anything. My waist pouch was towards my back so they did not see the content immediately. Their mother who was stretched out on a sofa, with a blanket over her, reading something, also heard what I said and looked up eagerly and expectantly.

Like a big daddy who has just come home with a prized hunt, I unfastened the strap of my waist pouch and held it up before them, high enough so that my dog does not pounce on the bird. At first they did not realise what it was, but soon enough they did. I did not expect this. Both the girls simultaneously let out blood curdling screams, and in a panic ran for the other sofa next to where my wife was and jump up on it, still screaming. My wife soon realised what the commotion was about and instead of trying to pacify the girls, join the screaming.

The dog too noticed the bird and began barking and jumping on me to grab the bag.

That was one hell of an awkward situation. A while ago I was expecting frenzied hugs and here I am standing next to the door, holding up high a bag with my right hand and with my left trying to shoo away a growling and snarling canine. Ahead were three healthy lungs demonstrating how they can deafen any aggressor.

I shouted at them to stop. My wife was the first to come to her senses, and she in turn helped calm down the two girls. My dog as expected also did not fail to notice my mood and cowered away to find its familiar hiding spot under the table.

Some semblance of sanity having returned, I explained to them how I came to have the fowl and that it was meant for dinner.

No sooner did I say this, I sensed I mentioned another taboo word. My elder daughter placed her clenched fist on her hip: “How dare you talk of killing and eating that bird?” She threw the challenge. The younger one joined the chorus, imitating her sister’s body language. A curious mix of outrage and panic rose in me, even as my wife watched amused.

“What to these girls think?” I had just enough composure to say to myself. “They love chicken dinner don’t they? Do they think dressed chicken is a vegetable the butcher grows in his garden and brings to his shop?”

It was however not the right time to explain. The general mood just wasn’t right.

“Okay, this bird will not be killed?” I declared. The silver lining showed up immediately heralding the end of the storm.

In our backyard, there is a chicken coop which belongs to our day helper. Since most of the time, all of us are out of home, the kids to the school, and my wife and I to our respective work places, our maid had requested she would maintain a kitchen garden as well as rear some chicken for the eggs. We obliged and built her a small two storied pen where she kept some chicks which have now grown into 10 egg laying hens. She is a prudent woman and weeded out all the male chicks soon as their gender became evident. Her explanation is the males are good eaters only and lays no eggs.

We agreed to let the rooster I brought live in the maid’s pen for the time being until we found some use for it. Keeping my promise, I took the fowl to our backyard. I found the hatch to the upper floor of the pen, untied the string used to keep it securely locked. I then unfastened the legs of the rooster, opened the hatch slightly and slipped it in.

The next morning our maid came rushing in from the backyard where she had gone to feed her birds. Her voice was full of surprise. “There is a rooster in the pen.” She declared wanting to know if any of us know how this came about. My wife explained to her the circumstances that led to the population increase.

“The rascal is chasing all the other birds around all the time and the hens have stopped laying eggs.” She complained.

I don’t want to give the bird away. It was given as a gift, with so much love. So do what I do with it? Perhaps one day, when everybody has forgotten about it, I will quietly slip it back into my waist pouch and take it to the butcher’s to return with what my daughters love for dinner.

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