By Bobo Meitei
We were not stopped nor the notion of frisking us hadn’t crossed their minds, instead the armed commandos directed the way till the door of the legislature. The influential man with me didn’t consider it necessary; he gave an understood holler and from behind the door the legislator’s soft voice came. He shook my hand and said the influential figure with me was a well-respected person. I did have a fair idea, but had never attached that importance, since to me he was just an old friend. In his soft-spoken voice he talked about the recent security arrangements, and then he went on to talk about ministerial portfolios and some upcoming foreign trips. The men whom he had been courting before we had arrived stood up and the eldest-looking among them asked with a brimming smile, ‘So, can it be considered done?” He said they should start with the walls, and then the cheque would be signed. The men lingered and pressed on,” what about the chief engineer?” They didn’t have to worry, he himself would go and slam his head his against the man’s desk. A peal of laughter filled the place.
My friend lamented about the manner in which the Public Work Department was delaying his nephew’s cheque, said the nephew wasn’t rich and he could be blamed for not having done anything to get the minister signed the cheque. The legislator said the minister had been busy with the Chief Minister, but he had the number of the minister in question. When he called the minister was with his convoys on his way to his constituency to distribute free blankets, then the phone changed hands. My friend rebuked the man in their understood friendly tone; he said he would sign it right away and he could have it the following day. Tea came, and the bellboy bowed and asked if anything more could be done. Yes, his escorts had to take us to the Telecommunication Department Office so that the security posts there wouldn’t bother us with nonsensical queries.
Before we left the legislator told me about his son in Europe and the daughter pursuing medical studies in the States. I said, “ it must be expensve!” He said it was, but he wanted his children to get the best. How many individuals in this rotting state could afford that? In front of the telecommunication building we parked our car in the area reserved for VIPs. The security personnel manning the gate stood up to attention and behind us they exchanged warm words with the personnel escorting us. We didn’t take the cracked-steps set against the spat-on walls, we were in a lift, which took us up straight to the Director’s office. Since the commandos were left downstairs, the clean-shaven secretary chewing kwa (betel nut) stood up and demanded our identities, but my friend could be quite arrogant when he was confronted by a little man like him: he gave the man a shove and pushed opened the door and there, inside, was the bearded, burly man in tweed jacket and corduroy pants belted below the imminent belly, which kept on rubbing against the edge of the fine desk.
Set against one side of the beautifully-painted wall was a sofa and a clean tea-table bearing some china cups. Three men in large, thick jackets sat there with their legs crossed and their hands placed on the laps; they had been paying attention to the bearded, burly man. They were his men and had come to ask for his favour, but my friend was a much important person; his friends were the ministers and the legislator and any unwanted incident could jeopardize his position in the department. So the men stood up spoke fast and the bearded- bulry man waved his hands and at the same time smiled suggesting they were in fovourable term with him.
The director appeared much humbled and he asked the secretary to get some drinks; we were given options. And the man who had stood up to stop us now began smiling and was exceedingly polite: he began calling me tamo( big brother) and my friend khura( uncle). My friends had come here to ask the director to help activate the 3G connection for his minister and legislator friends. Having associated with those men, the man stood up, as though he was tickled by the request, and came and stood by the sofa.
The Director, with the secretary, accompanied us till the main gate, stirring up the security personnel. The commander in-charge of the gate was ordered to escort us till the Chief Minister’s official resident. Above the few-metre-high walls towers stood, and in the towers the security personnel’s faces were scarcely visible behind the sandbags and the long-barreled rifles. Since it was the biggest man’s resident we were not directly allowed to enter: the commander from the previous place did the talking with the commander at the gate, and then the commander at the gate smiled at us and greeted us as he would do to his superiors. Having accomplished his duty the commander from the previous excused himself and said he was pleased to have accompanied us.
It was so unlike the places we had been to and I never thought no individual could dream of living in such a grand and opulent place. The cemented path running between the green hedges was as clean as a family’s kitchen floor, the huge garden was populated with flowers of all kinds and the gardeners in uniform wore gloves and wellington boots, on the mowed-lawn a canopied structure sat; its roof was painted olive green and the pillars white ,and the floor was tiled. At the porch was the bullet-proofed BMW sedan of the biggest man guarded by his eye-rolling elite commandos wielding Israeli sub-machine guns. Since we were accompanied by the commander from the gate the eye-rolling elite commandos didn’t bother us while taking the marble steps. The foyer was furnished with settees and lion leg tea-tables bearing expensive magazines. The biggest man’s personal secretary ran out, confirming our importance to the commander from the gate, and led us in to a private room.
He sat in a straight-backed chair and the whole body was wrapped in a white sheet except the head: the beautician was applying make-up on his ageing face and every now and then was trying to fix his thin hair over the bald patch. So without any eye contact he sounded out his acknowledgement. He said he was going to give a television interview and we were welcome to watch him. He whined about the fact that the state was deteriorating in all aspects, and then only to contradict himself, he talked about the recent achievements. The hair was fixed over the bald patch and the face was meticulously made up, then the wrapping was removed; he was in his North Indian kurta, just like any other stereotypical statesmen without any conviction and to appear just like one among them was to consider himself a man of the people.
From the make-up room we moved to the mowed-lawn. The camera man and the interviewer, from a well-known television channel in mainland, were waiting for him; they came with a local journalist in case. I recognized the journalist; never thought I would see him as one though. We stood about when he took his seat facing the interviewer. Before they could start the local journalist butted in and whispered in the biggest man’s ear: he was asked if he would be comfortable to do the interview in English. He was offended and he made a gesture showing disapproval of the local journalist.
The first few simple questions were asked; he answered them in a calm tone in his best English. More came, but this time longer and hypothetical ones; his eyes blinked and the face was tensed, but he managed to give the answers; the answers came in fragmented bits and ,sometimes, he didn’t have the words to describe, at this point his eyeballs were on the corners seeking the sight of a reliable language proficient individual. Lucky that the interviewer had some sympathy for the biggest man in the state: his eyes were full of pity for the man and involuntarily he clicked his tongue and said they could wrap up the session. But the biggest man, a while ago talking about big aspects and huge recent developments couldn’t sense any of that. He was good only among his kind, though he appeared to be aware of the successes of big people, he must have been completely unaware of the labours those people had to employ to arrive at what people termed ‘success.” His success would be to horde wealth in a gross fashion and then to corrupt the minds of a naïve people; contrary to a personality and manifesto election. To him his an increase in his wealth was the enhancement of his personality; he might have been driven on the smooth six-lane roads in some country, but he would be happy cruising in his pullet-proofed BMW on the pot-holed seven-foot wide road of the state which was reliable as far as Imphal went. The only difference between the naïve people of the land and him was that, he was a filthy rich parrot and the others were a miserable, wretched parrots who would like to be just like him: to become rich overnight without hard labour and then to live out a meaningless life.
We were back in the same room, only three of us and his secretary. The face which looked so puzzled and lost a little while ago now full of confidence and he began talking: believe me, the place will soon be transformed and you all should put your shoulders to the moving wheel. In five years unemployment will be a thing of the past; all the districts will be electrified, schools, hospitals and colleges will be as abundant as kwa kiosks; Imphal will be the meeting point of India and ASEAN nations. You all should put your shoulders to the moving wheel.
As simple as that! Did he mean a single word he said or was he paraphrasing some archaic academic? It became much clearer when I put to him how he would obtain the capital for all the developmental works: his answer was New Delhi and ASEAN Bank. I never heard of ASEAN Bank, and wondered why New Delhi would inject billions to such a corrupt and rotting place? His childish trick of pulling words from thin air discouraged me from asking further; but it was good that the secretary went out and returned with some beer. He put down the beer tins on the table, no one touched but me. While I was enjoying the chilled beer my friend started serious talks with the biggest man in the state: my friend wanted the big man to give him few big contracts and in return the big man would have the support of some his legislators and plus he would get a slice from each big contract. What I didn’t know about my friend was the influence he enjoyed as a kingmaker, though he wasn’t a public moron. His left elbow pressed on the sofa arm revealing his Swiss watch, the right hand on his lap, with eyes half-closed, he listened to my friend and released a “hmm” to every sentence, and when my friend was done briefing the arrangement he smiled and in an avuncular tone, “we need people like you”.
Before he was whizzed out from the official resident in his BMW swarmed by eye-rolling commandos to hop into a copter he gestured to one IPS officer, who ran up with his upturned right hand placed on the forehead, and instructed him to see us off. He escorted us till the main gate where the commander who had escorted us till the porch was found; he jumped on his feet to salute to the IPS man and then to us. Outside the gate, few metres away there were hordes of people standing with hastily-done placards “ stop killings!” “ justice should be done!” “ What was Tomcha’s fault?” To confront the horde demanding many things some of the bold commandos were on the move with truncheons, soon they delivered their usual nasty warnings, then with the nasty words the truncheons came down on the horde. They were the same commandos who had stood to attention and indicated their readiness to lick the path before us. Now they were nasty, brutal and hence effective.
The IPS came along and the gate commander walked with us till the car park; two big cars were on both sides rendering it difficult for my friend to pull out his. It was gate commander who jumped into the car and with great precision got the car out and parked the sedan right in the middle of the road, holding up the traffic, no one dared to honk.