Thursday, February 7, 2008


Three on a Mission
A task involving battling it out in the mud, against weeds, leeches and dirty water, which is neither part of a household assignment, nor an academic exercise, yet you are prepared for, even enthusiastic about, needs not much of implements as a couple of metal plates, normally meant for serving meal, a spade and a ngabawm (I prefer to avoid inappropriate English translations like bamboo fish container)
There are several pools or water bodies within the banks, which have, at one time or another during high spring, been integral parts of the river, which may more appropriately be referred to as a creek, Tuitha. When the mainstream recedes to the core bank, such water bodies become islands of habitat for fishes and other aquatic species. We had plans to drain one of such pools and catch the fishes. Such game is called ‘Tuitheh’ in Paite, my mother tongue.
My village comes within the coverage of Torbung, which was basically the name of a constituency in Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council (MDC), the constitution of which had given effect, during the 1970s, to the broad ideas of autonomy and self-governance for the scheduled tribes, as mandated by the Constitution of India. The Khuga river originating in the Singngat Sub-Division of Churachandpur District, winds its way through the gully that begins to form as it enters Torbung Area, between the two hills of Thangjing and Lentang.
My Friend and I had undertaken similar ventures in the past. On that particular day, about the month of October, in the early 1980s, a young boy was with us too. The under aged could have easily been rejected, but for his extra-ordinary gift; he had the energy and dexterity to plan, co-ordinate and supervise, leave alone ‘join’ projects of this kind. Even as we were deliberating on which particular pool to dry out, we had been on our way towards the river un-worried.

On our way to Tuitha I was mulling over the idea of raiding a pool near ‘Khousang’, which means high edge or a bluff. Depending on the nature of landmass in the riverbed and intensity of the swelling current during monsoon, the river's tract is liable to shift here and there within its bank. All through my childhood days, the river touched my village side of the bank at a point, thus forming a high edge. That serves as a prominent landmark since I could remember.
“Hasn’t that been raided this season?” MF (My Friend) said scratching his forehead. Even I remembered having seen some people bending over and getting muddy in that pool. Still I was not sure about the exact time. It takes full bank flows for a considerable period of time of the river water, for a pool to entice fishes into taking shelter there. That was a simple puzzle for YB (Young Boy). Wiping his steamy nose with the back of his wrist, he inhaled the rest of the compound within, and said with his typical nasal twang, “I..ii hi, there had already been full bank flows two times ever since”. He was proudly smiling in assertion of his superior knowledge. Then he raised his fore finger and middle finger, displayed them in front of MF, and repeated the words “Two times, okay”.
It’s confirmed. YB had the best knowledge (read encyclopedia) among the boys. He knew the location of each family’s paddy field or jhum. He recognized each cattle like anyone knows his or her own contacts. Even the number of pregnant cows in the village at any point of time could be ascertained from him. As a matter of fact, if he did not know something, no one else knew either.
In the Pool
Even though the water, which was originally waist deep, hardly receded to knee level by afternoon, none of us cared to give up. The three of us, different in many aspects, shared, by coincidence, a common personal virtue – perseverance. MF, who in no way was brilliant, topped the class in Grade B, purely by virtue of hard work. As for me, it’s a habit to hang around with the last batch in endeavors of such nature, which earned for me the nickname, “mihai” (fool). We had to make do with just two aluminum plates to throw the water on rotation basis. Time was ticking away.
As the fishes began to tumble out from their hiding, YB, was high with excitement.“Had Lumpoo been in our company, he would have been too hungry by now, right?” he giggled through the words as he turned to MF. A fervent friend of mine, Lumpoo normally didn’t take interest in regular assignments like cattle tending, or any domestic work.“There wouldn’t be problem, even so” countered MF. YB wore a puzzled look as he kept on throwing the water. Still he had the urge to release another ripple of laughter. The water had become brownish.“How?” his upper lip slowly tripping upon his unbrushed teeth, he seemed to have expected MF to contribute a complementary remark on Lumpoo. MF didn’t care to turn his head as he put on the urge to cackle under restraint. Briefly he passed a smile on me, stared away into the paddy that stood on the alluvial soil just next to the pool and then said, “Some one would have fetched lunch by now”. At this, YB suddenly turned defensive. He stood upright and roared back, “I would never have”. Surely, there must have been a story I didn’t know behind this. I was laughing nervously as MF started to interrogate him, ‘who told you, you would have fetched lunch?’ The bickering between the two resembled the water throwing in intensity and continuity.
The First Catch
While the two were engaged in verbal duel, a carp, alerted by the rapid decrease in water level, bumped into YB’s leg. Immediately, he threw the metal plate aside and started probing the muddy waters. We waited silently as YB’s hands were slowly closing in on the whirling waters. After a few seconds, he declared the first catch with excitement, “Ngapeeeeek!”
Immediately I fetched the erstwhile dry ngabawm. The carp jabbed down on the walls of the ngabawm. Eventually the whole fish populace started to run helter skelter. YB, unleashing energy full throttle, swept away the remaining waters with rhythmic enthusiasm. I was also equally excited. MF, on the other hand, kept on scoffing at the mechanized movement of YB.
As the three of us was busy catching fishes, a stranger in his mid thirties appeared on the sidelines of the pool. Carrying a spade on his shoulder, he was staring at us from beneath the shadows of his air mesh jungle hat. There was an air of hostility. Surely the guy was from the neighboring village of Thingchom, the cultivator of the small patch of paddy field next to the pool.

Areas within the banks of the river are normally fertile. As a child we generally presumed that adjacent villages are legitimate owners of such patches. As such it was disgusting to see strangers loitering in our neighborhood let alone carrying on farming activities. Unrestricted quarrying in the riverbank by complete strangers was another activity that posed unanswered questions. There was nothing that kids could do. Nor did any authority seem to take notice. These became perpetual sources of discomfort.
Under the grip of tension, we continued probing the ground for fishes that might have been left out. The excitement was gone. MF, who was meticulously cleaning nooks and corners of fishes, didn’t show signs of fear. The only perceptible change in him being the fact he had since stopped making fun of YB, who was enjoying himself between muddy raps and blind catches. His fervor was still loud and clear. Even though we had put up a good catch, the unsolicited trouble was waiting to happen.
After allowing us sufficient time to clean up the pool, the man put down the heavy spade with a thud. “How come that you guys touched the fishes in this pond?” he growled at us. That was more an announcement of ownership than an interrogation. We were clueless how to respond. The man from another village took up farming in our territory. And he laid claim to assets in the vicinity. Ridiculous!
Since we were covered with dirt he might not like to beat us up and get muck stained as well. YB and myself were waiting for our leader to deliver a fitting reply. MF, himself was completely embarrassed and shocked. The problem was that there was no one else to take up the challenge. With all the courage he had managed to gather up, he said in an almost inaudible voice, “Tuitheh.. ivoi”. The man was not responding immediately. Perhaps, he didn’t get the words clearly or he didn’t understand the words, which according to my understanding, is more or less characteristic of my village.
“Tuitheh… (i) vle!” he gained more control as he repeated immediately with a more universal word ‘vele’ appended to the extremely localized slang. The three of us were standing completely muted and physically as drained as the dehydrated pool where we were standing. The man was determined to take full command. He swung his left arm and pointed at the paddy field nearby.“This is mine. And how on earth did you kids manage to drain the waters….”.“Well yes, that’s yours” without waiting for him to finish MF started to respond, myself holding the fish filled ngabawm.“Yes that is mine,” the man sounded dangerous as he interrupted. Through the net of fear psychosis thrown in by the man MF carried on, “ But”.“But but but..What but?” the man hollered back with spiteful indignation, then he lowered his voice and said, “Hey you. Are you not talking too much!” and the pitch, which was at once soft and bitter, suddenly turned thunderous as he continued: “Shall I bury all of you underneath these mud?” the man went mad. Completely mad. The three of us were quiet. Even the man was quiet for a couple of minutes. There was silence except the sound of wind gently blowing northwards.
The man walked around in full command of the situation, and half way across he halted on the borders of the pool just adjacent to where YB was. Then he gestured for the ngabawm to be passed on to him. YB roughly snatched the ngabawm from me and holding it, stood in front of the man. He might not run even if the man raised a sledgehammer over his neck. Even I knew how futile it would be to try and run.
The man was by no standards, burly, only that we, the three of us, didn’t stand a chance to either beat up, run away from or outwit the fully grown man who had the nerve to do farming in an alien territory. If we try, we might or we might not succeed in running away from him. Either way he would only feel triumphant, for as a result of our flight, he would have lost absolutely nothing. Instead that act of cowardice, if shown by us, would only have served to support his claim of ownership.
A passionate angler myself, as a child, I had never liked the taste of fishes. So, I wouldn’t have difficulty parting with the catch. Our fishing gear consisted of just four items i.e., a spade, two aluminum plates and a ngabawm. The spade we took with us that day might cost twenty rupees, and the two plates might not even sale for ten rupees. The ngabawm, on the other, is something I considered a work of art, the likes of which even my father, in all his greatness as a man of invincible energy and unparalleled genius, was not able to weave. Still I considered running away with the fine handcrafted bamboo product as an act of cowardice.Even if we had had the time to deliberate and decide on the course of action to be adopted against the intruder, I’d only have insisted on allowing the adult snatch whatever he might deem fit, than to run like a thief from the vicinity of Khousang, something no one else but us owned. Supposing that the man would confiscate our implements and the entire catch plus our personal effects like slippers and slingshots and disappear, we would only have to let him do it. In high spirits. We would let him do anything. But we only wanted to watch him leave the vicinity of Khousang, a landmark so significant in our lives.To YB the container was like a cup of dark misery. He was dying to give it away. Sitting on an earthen precipice, the man who himself had become fatigued by now, stretched out his hand slowly. And YB seemed only relieved as he passed on the catch. Quickly.
The man was remorseless as he was removing the fishes we have labored for. He was incessantly muttering indiscernible words till he removed enough quantity. Then he regarded YB for a couple of seconds. He almost broke into a smile as he quizzed, “Is it much?”
YB shook his head violently and said, “No. Not much”