The world is full of secret and unknown places. For example: the Vatican Secret Archives have recently been estimated to contain 52 miles (84 Km) of shelving and 35,000 volumes in the selective catalogues alone. Another unknown place was Manipur, hidden between gigantic Burma and India.
When I went to Primary school at the place where now stands Ibotonsana Girls’ High School at Uripok, I was taught how to write letters. It was usual to write a letter to an imaginary brother who was studying at Cotton College, Gauhati, Assam or Murarichand College, Silchar, Assam or Presidency College, Calcutta. At that time the three colleges were popular among Manipuris. My father and eldest brother went to Dacca to study engineering.
I was taught how to write my address: “Irengbam Mohendra Singh, P.O.Imphal, District Manipur, Assam. By the time I went to middle school I hated this P.O. business and would write simply – Imphal, Manipur, Assam. I noticed that Gauhati or Sylhet did not have P.O. in front. It worked since letters and postcards I wrote with simply “Imphal, Manipur, Assam”, got their replies back. So I “raised” Imphal to the status of a town.
I along with my wife, son, daughter and her husband visited Imphal in November 2010. It was quite exciting when I saw how much Imphal has changed to the status of a city. It is similar to any city in India except for the old metropolis cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai and others.
A city is an urban settlement with a large population, commerce, culture and educational institutions, incorporating a municipality. In the U.K a city is usually a large town with a cathedral.
The urbanisation of Imphal accrued construction of adequate shelters, new buildings, churches and mosques in relationship to economic growth and general urban developments. It draws people from the rural and hill areas.
The haphazard population growth with the natural movement of people into Imphal as well as migration of north and south Indians, and Nepalese, topped up with illegal immigrants is exerting a huge pressure on the available existing facilities in Imphal.
The urban poor feel the pinch as they struggle to feed, clothe and to improvise other basic services and amenities such as water supply, electricity, sanitation and waste disposal. This is where the Manipuris need a good governace.
Imphal has proliferated. In my school and college days the only noticeable place in Imphal was the town centre with a few brick and mortar buildings, built by rich Marwaris at the Khwairamband Bazaar with its tarmac and paved roads.
During the last War the Indo-Burma road (NH 39) was surfaced with bitumen to carry troops from Assam to the Burma Border. The rest were dirt roads with lots of dust in summer and ankle-deep mud after the Monsoons. We were all bare-footed.
While taking a trip to memory lane in my home town I recall a conversation with the penultimate Political Agent in Manipur, Christopher Gimson.
In 1967, I went with my girl friend Margaret (now wife) to see Gimson who was then staying in Leicester. He was warm and gave us a nice lunch with fish. He knew my father very well, as the Electrical Engineer, who, with the British engineer CF Jeffrery, constructed the first hydro electric power house at Leimakhong, which was later destroyed by a landslide.
Hoping that he might want to see the improved Imphal town, I showed him a Manipuri picture calendar. When he saw the page with the tarmac road in the area between Johnstone High School and the Kangla gate, he remarked that during his time, the cost of paving the area would have done for all the roads in Imphal.
Every summer, Uripok and Sagolband roads were repaired with earth dug up from the sides and surfaced with loose stone chips and sand. They were rolled over with a rubber-tired roller while
Kabui women from the town spread sand and water.
As the roads did not sustain bullock carts and odd lorries plying about, they turned into a long pile of dust every winter. There was a bus that took passengers from Sagolband Nagamapal to Moirang and back daily. It was called Moirang gari. The body was made of galvanised metal sheet.
On this Uripok Road I, like any other boy or girl walked bare-foot to school every morning in summer or winter. It is now a metalled road and all children wear socks and shoes and most travel to school by mechanised transport as in any city.
Imphal town consisted of a group of villages. People lived in dwelling houses known as Yumjao with thatched roofs, and walls plastered with a mixture of soil and cow dung, and for some houses finished with a painting of leimoo – a type of bluish-black clay.
The kitchen and brass utensils were hygienically clean, rubbed with ash of burned paddy husks from “phunga” (hearth) and washed with water from the pond. Many cooking pots were terracotta clay made by the “Loi” people – non-Hindu Meitei.
All houses faced east, inside an enclosure known as Ingkhol, which were loosely fenced with bamboo in the north and south. The back was bounded with four-foot tall earth mounds on which bamboos were planted. There was a bamboo gate in front. Sanitation was poor but the Meitei lived very clean with daily baths at noon and wearing freshly washed clothes for cooking and to eat the midday meal.
Now very few such houses are surviving including our house, which my father built ninety years ago with vernacular architecture and indigenous engineering. The source of water for drinking and washing was communal ponds, before my birth; and stand pipes on the main roads as well as ponds, after my birth.
The lamphel pat had medium sized ponds with lotuses and lilies growing in them, with cows grazing about. Imphal had two very large communal ponds: Thangmeiband Pukhri and Ningthem Pukhri. Now most homes in Imphal have hot and cold running water, flush toilets and bathrooms.
City life has made log fires for cooking a thing of the past. They are replaced by smokeless gas burners. I must have been about 5-6 years old when electricity came to Imphal as Maharaja Churachand took a fancy to it. Only very few VIP houses had electricity fitted including ours.
Most households had small circular lamps made of tin, filled with kerosene and with a cotton wick protruding from a snout in the middle, known as podon. There were also many poor families that could not afford the kerosene and were using pine sticks for light.
Later, Kerosene lamps known as ‘laltel’ (lantern), which were used by the cowboys in America’s Wild West 150 years ago, appeared on the market. They were quite affordable for the general public. Much later, medium sized lamps known as ‘half-lamps’ and ‘petrolmax’ that were fuelled with refined kerosene, were owned by very few people, to be used for social functions. Imphal is now awash with electricity.
There were 3/4 cars in Imphal as I remember. One or two were owned by the Maharaja. I remember an old car owned by a friend of my father. Sometimes he used to take my father and me for a ride in the evening. The Political Agent did not have one except the last one, Pearson. Now the vehicular traffic is such a problem, necessitating flyovers and 3-4 lane carriageways.
Manipur was a cloistered unknown country and the Meitei were so backward that only a few old men saw a train in their life when they went on a pilgrimage to Nawadeep or Brindaban with few belongings wrapped inside a locally made white cotton sheet called “Ngabong”. And many of them did not return having succumbed to disease or starvation.
Imphal has now 4/5 air flights to Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore and other towns. The construction of railroad to Imphal has begun. When I used to study in Darjeeling it took 3 days; Bombay- 4 days; and Agra- 3 days by train. Now one can fly to Delhi in 3 hours.
When my father and then my eldest brother went to study in Dacca, it took 6-7 days. They would walk along the Old Cachar Road (Tongjei maril) for 3 days and then from Cachar, another 3 or 4 days by boat to Dacca.
During my father’s time there was only one school that taught students up to Class VI – to learn enough English to run the Government machinery, turning out clerks and amins.
Medical doctors were LMP’s (licentiate Medical Practioners). After the War we had the first MBBS doctor L Nando Roy while I was in school, followed by Dr Nambram Shukumar, in my college days.
It will be hard to imagine now that after my MBBS, I was immediately put in charge of the Medical department in the Civil Hospital in 1964. Now Imphal has many specialists as in any city.
Imphal only had a semblance of a modern town after the Second World War II when the bombed out Marwari buildings were rebuilt by the Meitei. There were a lot of jeeps, lorries and motorbikes, thanks to Meitei ingenuity. They were rebuilt from the scrap yards of the War.
After the end of the War in 1945, Meitei boys and girls began slowly to modernise themselves by shedding old hair style and wearing modern clothes like their counterparts in any city in India, and now as in any city in the world, thanks to the electronic media and ease of travel.
Imphal had Olympic Games organised by Capt. MK Madhurjit (deceased) as the President and Ningthoujam Binoy, currently the President of the Senior Citizen’s Society, as the Secretary. Now apart from the indigenous ones, all the common world sports are played in Imphal including golf, because of the facilities, only available in a city, such as a Sports Complex with a stadium.
Imphal now has so many cars that traffic is a problem in the town centre just as in Delhi. There are motor taxis, three-wheel-auto scooters and a vast number of rickshaws. It has even a noise level recording machine installed.
There are a number of academic and technical colleges, a law college, one IT college, two medical colleges with hospitals, and two universities. There is a modern state-of-the-art private Shija Hospital under the expert management of Dr Palin.
In the field of sports Imphal has airbrushed all the cities in India out of history. Two boxers, one female – Mary Kom and one man – Devendra Singh are representing India to the London 2012 Olympics. My wife and I have booked tickets to watch them box. Female boxing is being introduced for the first time in the 2012 world Olympics.
The percentage of literacy in Manipur is so high that every other youth in Imphal is a graduate, creating difficulties in their employment. As there are so many private Kindergarten and Montessori
Schools all children can now speak with fluent and correct English accent as in any city in India.
Imphal has a modern medium-sized airport with night landing facilities and an excellent 3-star ‘Hotel Classic’ with all the mod cons, thanks to entrepreneur Dr Dhabali, who has also established the latest electronic technologies for all the pathological investigations in his ‘Babina Diagnostics’.
Manipur Government has begun the planning for a modern 5-star Hotel to attract businessmen and tourists.
P.O. Imphal has now been consigned to the dustbin of history. Imphal is a thriving city and should now be addressed as ‘in Imphal’ as ‘in Delhi’ and not as ‘at Imphal’. Any small thing helps.
The writer is based in the UK