Monday, May 19, 2008

The Sting of Thiahte: Bad Weather

Worship service starts after evening meal, which can be anytime between 4 pm and 6 pm depending on the convenience of the janitor. First he would toll the Church bell, then open the church doors, illuminate the Church and then dust off the furniture swiftly. We used to soak our tiny hands with a kind of highly inflammable spirit used by the janitor and then kindle it from the flame of the paraffin lamp that stood on the table.

It was one of such nights while we were basking around the petromax lantern that I was summoned by Thiahte from outside.

Being summoned by Thiahte gave me a sense of importance. I didn't have the  slightest suspicion of evil designs against me as I headed towards the exit door.

As I stepped out into the darkness something hammered me at the right eye. I was blinded for a moment. Sparks seemed to fly off my eyeballs and my skull rang like the church bell.

“How dare you call me a weakling?” said Thiahte. I was flung sideways and was shocked to know that it was him who hit me unawares. But who called him a weakling? And when? It’s silly that I was understood to have called him a weakling. I was too confused and ashamed that I could neither cry or say a word properly. 

I had plans to attend the ensuing worship service with complete decorum. I used to harbor hopes of being assigned the part of scripture reading and prayer in worship services. Lungkhap had been entrusted with the job multiple times. Joni Joni had bagged the role for that night. Papen was endowed with the job over and over again. It was the same in the case of all others too. I never performed the ritual reading out of more or less memorized Bible verses and praying in such worship services. People used to say that a bit of training in this regard while being in Sunday school is essential to transform a child into a successful adult. Such an opportunity seldom came my way. Yet it was my consistent endeavor to conduct myself in a Godly manner.

In prayer fellowships, which is not as formal and eventful as worship services in the Church, I had earned such favor with so much of effort and restraint. I was ninety percent satisfied with my performance. Should I get a chance in the Church service, I could have perfected the art. However the embarrassing ambush of Thiahte shattered my dream. I went away and disappeared quietly. I thought over and over again as to why on earth should God sustain Thiahte and his tribe.

Thiahte is my senior by about four years. He was not so tall. But his clenched, oversized fists made for a chilling sight. Moreover, his attitude towards me was terrorizing. Even in times of peace, he talked of destroying opponent’s eyeballs. The irony was that in real tests of physical fitness like football games where my name always figured in the first line up, his tribe could not make much impression on the bosses. I thought I could finish these people in a fair fight. Still I was scared of him.

One Saturday it happened that by some reason Mangpi, who also disliked Thiahte, proposed, “Why don’t we thrash this evil creature” In such matters as taking revenge, I am in no way capable of roping in any one, leave alone the likes of Mangpi, who was no doubt cool enough not to embroil in people’s war. I thought the time had finally come. I was misty eyed as I replied, “What else can we do with evil things such as Thiahte”.
However before we could lay a hand on him, Thiahte had a bully on his side. More surprising was the fact that the bully was even angrier than him!

That evening just before sunset I was walking with Mangpi towards his Pute’s (the house of his maternal uncle) when Thiahte and the bully accosted us.

“Mangpi do you think that I forgot what you said about me?” the bully challenged.

My heart was beating fast. Mangpi’s lips curled up and before he could respond to the challenge, he snorted the choking substances inside his nose a couple of times. Then he roared back furiously, “Bang kon chia eita?".What the hell did you say that I said about you?.

“Do you think that I forgot being labeled a rascal by you?” said the bully.

The bully was from a poor family. The family seldom had enough grain to last for the year. So it was very obvious that he was called a rascal by people, let alone Mangpi. He was dumbfounded.

“Do you think my family lives on your bounty that you insulted me like that?” he continued. Before the confused Mangpi could respond, Thiahte, who had been standing by triumphantly, concluded the challenge, ”If you two really challenge us, why don't you meet up with us tonight”.

The bully was the de facto champion. Even Somu who lorded over the fraternity of football lovers, had never seriously challenged him. In spite of being extremely foolish, the bully was physically tough. Mangpi, as far as I knew, had not experienced combats of the nature I used to encounter, nor had he suffered physical assaults of any kind from big boys. He was simply shocked and upset over the way things turned out. I was sure he wouldn't have any idea about the chances on both sides in the event of a fight being held. I was at a loss as to how on earth Mangpi would tackle the bully. On the other hand, the thought of my handling Thiahte single-handed was taking toll of my erstwhile confidence. We were completely demoralized.   If we fail to show up, that could be history. I could imagine how boastful Thiahte would be thenceforth.

Wordlessly we resumed walking towards Mangpi’s Pute’s. It's hard to make eye contact. The sound of our footsteps seemed to convey our anxiety. Till that time the idea of being defeated had not crossed my mind. But now with the bully on the other side, winning seemed to be a distant dream.

My friend was the gem of his family. He was the only begotten son, studious, and he had a promising future. If something happened to him that would haunt me for the rest of my life. I might or I might not come up in life. But I was sure he would, provided that the normal flow of his life is not upset by any accident, or other disappointments. And I honestly wanted a good future for him. At least him.

Even though he was senior to me, he might not be more capable of tackling the likes of that bully. On the one hand he was physically not so supple. On the other hand the bully was rock hard. Mangpi had seldom played games of any kind while the bully was a regular kicker. Ball or no ball the bully would try and kick around, would miss the ball. Yet undaunted he would strike the leg or shin of someone close by. He would even kick their thigh and butt or even deliver punches, which normally happens when someone had the audacity to point out his faults or when someone had the agility to avert his gladiatorial encounters or dared to feint him away. Even walls or stones had to sanely bear with stray kicks from the leg that missed the ball.

I thought that if Mangpi fell or got hit in a certain way he might get injured to degrees beyond any extent of imagination. Suddenly I felt the need to talk. It’s difficult. But that was the moment of truth between my friend and me.

“H h how do you feel about us?” my throat was dry and I was choking through the words. Yet knowing that I didn’t have a choice, I continued, “Can we beat them oh o or shall we?”

I was short tempered and always involved in fights. People enjoyed watching me fight against someone slightly bigger and more tough than me. It was their hobby setting me against my seniors. Sometimes I became the butt of joke, sometimes the hero. Because I either got beaten or I beat up somebody who was a wee bit too huge than me. So I was in the limelight always. On the other hand the life of Mangpi was all of drudgery. He went to Lamka, study hard performed well, and came down to spend weekends and holidays in the village, where everyone was so equal and he so different.

Even though Mangpi looked desperate in his random search for words, he was emboldening and put his nerve into shape as he interrupted me, “Do you think that I would ever be scared of such rascals?”.

That was the first time I heard him actually use such words as 'rascal'.  The words fit well into that psychological vacuum. We could go ahead. I shook off the fear of Mangpi being hurt.

Even as I rose from dinner that evening I became restless. Would it be possible that I take on the bully instead? I asked myself. The problem is that I wanted to take on Thiahte. Even if I agreed to take on the bully, it was Mangpi that he challenged. It had to be Mangpi, who was more bulky than me, against the bully and me against Thiahte. As a matter of fact, I might volunteer myself to face the bully, but I had just no chance to beat him. I thought that if I could swiftly floor my own opponent, I could come to Mangpi’s help.  But something in me couldn’t believe such a possibility. My heart raced beyond normal pace. I hoped that God would help us against, at least, people who told lies and stole out during prayers.

Though we spread no word about the ensuing fight, people came to me and got the rumor confirmed. I felt uncomfortable. Mangpi’s elder sister, Zamnu used to mingle with other girls in the village. An incorrigible girl, she refused to study in English medium schools located in Lamka, the district Headquarters. Most of the time she was seen in the village. So she might be in the village at that moment. Girls always talk. I was apprehensive of our plan going haywire. If his parents heard about it I might be branded a bad company straight away. Dinner for them was as late as the boss’s arrival from office. I had to see whether Mangpi's parents got wind of our schedule. Some boys were already trailing me from a distance.

As I stood by the outer walls of Mangpi’s kitchen, I heard the clatter of some utensils through the bamboo walls. My presence scared away some livestock. Then I heard the sound of footsteps. Hoping that Mangpi might see me, I climbed upon the stone slabs leading to the kitchen door. Just as I bent down trying to gaze through a hole, I sensed an aroma of fried curry. Then as I turned around I saw Mangpi, who was observing me from hardly an arms length across the door, with a smile. Inquisitively he drew closer towards me. Then I whispered to him, “They know”. Thereupon, he looked worried, leaned over his shoulder towards where his parents were. His mother was dishing out extra rice to his father who was broadly smiling. At such a time there was no guarantee for Mangpi’s father being as sober as he used to be in the morning. Apart from the three of them there was no one else in the house.

So I was rest assured that his parents had not got wind of the rumour.

Mangpi waved me to wait as he disappeared inside.

When he re-emerged from the door, it was clear that he really made up his mind; he was wearing a shoe instead of a slipper. I felt more motivated. The two of us walked straight towards the public well, which was situated in the heart of the village. More boys were milling in just like vultures. That was truly resentful. Debates over who had better chance of winning commenced.

Thiahte used to batter me in the past. But this time, I had the friend I was so proud of to stand by me. However, Mangpi was a totally different one from the common run of boys in the village. He had no track record worth mentioning in the field of combat. Therefore, we had little chance of winning based on the previous records. It’s simply hatred that fuelled us. We might win or we might lose. One thing was, however, certain; enthusiastic fans would be watching. And they started betting.

Darkness seemed to descend a wee bit too soon. News came that Thiahte and the bully were drumming up support in Pamveng (yonder) locality. There upon I threw a brief glance at Mangpi and registered his typical grimace. In spite of me being the worst victim of Thiahte’s sting, even Mangpi, who is a philanthropist at heart, had every reason to detest him.  Thiahte’s eldest brother, of whom the family was so proud, used to loot Mangpi’s house. Besides he used to indulge in drunken brawls suspending the peace in the village every now and then. On occasions when he would be pitted against another guy, people would try to stop him. He would be surprisingly stubborn. As much as the number of people trying to stop him. His parents either remained silent or spoke in support of him. In fact his family members hailed him as a hero.

Fortunately, with the passage of time, women and children learnt to bear with such incidents by remarking that it’s the sound of an empty pot. Later the family migrated to a village in the hill side.

At around 7pm, the congregation in the Church rose with the hymn “Kuate Hihiam? (Who Are These?)”. Obviously the Speaker was about to take his time. Every beat of the drum heightened disquiet in me. Mangpi and I held each other’s hand always. Amidst the bustle of opportunist observers I could guess who were Thiahte and the bully. The rest of the boys were gleefully murmuring, and I didn't know, nor did I tried to figure out who was who. The memory of Thiahte’s surprise attack in the Church was still afresh in my mind. I couldn't help but get jittery. Thiahte, on the other hand, seemed solidly confident. He bent his head forward and followed me with his gaze. His clenched fists were hanging on his sides, slightly closed in front, that gave him the look of Rocky Balboa in wall posters.

Meanwhile, a passerby, smelling rat, inquired about the matter briefly. The bully was insisting that it was no big deal, just friends on a meeting.

I thought about Mangpi's father and I thought about Mangpi. The only two males in his family. I had two brothers, he had none. Crazy things like street fights are a bad things worth avoiding. Still I had a feeling that for good or for bad his mother welcomed his association with people in the village. She might even be proud of her son getting physical sometimes. As long as there is no fatal injury.

I used to fight with people. But I knew how not inflict too much harm. Whether the bully and Thiahte would have such a sensitivity I couldn't say, only hope. I said something in my mind. May be God heard it. May be not. My mind was very busy.

The passerby left. There after the other party commenced their fight. My attention was slightly distracted. In that split second, I was smashed on the eye. That was the same point and style I was hit in front of the Church. Flashes of light emanating from my eyes seemed to linger on and on and on. I didn't even know the outcome of the other match.

Wherever I was- in the Church, at home or in school, I saw nothing but the face of Thiahte. Nor could I pay attention on any constructive issue for a considerable period of time. 'This can't be final, I need another chance' I thought.

The next showdown also took place at night. I was party to a lively company under the auspices of Tingtangh. Thiahte always clung by Tingtangh's neck. Mangpi was not available in the village during weekdays. There was no one in the confluence, who I could count on as much as if Mangpi had been around. Because if someone was friendly to me, he was not quite as hostile to Thiahte. Indeed Thiahte was a public relations buff; he could rope in anyone to his side without much effort and sacrifice. So he was having the capability to sideline me, which he used to do delightfully.

Apart from being the best fight in his batch, Tingtangh had a charisma that enticed people to him. Thiahte must have felt secured. He manufactured his typical discriminatory grudge once over again. It appeared that he felt my touch amidst the playful scuffle wherein boys were jostling around Tingtangh.

Every one brushed against every one. Certainly I might have touched him too. He hollered at me, “How dare you push me? Do you want a beating?” I was somehow physically agitated due to the pushing and brushing act amidst which I was marooned. My happiness turned sour too soon. I was broken hearted. A group of ladies who passed along giggled by as one of them crackled a witty remark- “Has the Power gone out of you when someone touches you?”. Yet no one present there understood the Biblical significance of the statement made by the lady.

Under the shadow of darkness someone pinched me from behind and whispered, “Come on finish him. Lian I’m sure you can do it” Even I was thinking likewise. I was only demoralized by the play of Thiahte’s stratagem on my psyche.

I tried hard to believe what I heard. Inspite of Mangpi being out of bounds I had a motivator, who was as friendly to Tingtangh as Thiahte was. Besides a super star like Tingtangh might not take sides. Once he remains neutral, no one would take sides either. I thought the situation was not so bad. May be a God sent opportunity. I recalled how I tried to pray to God and failed. I used to take it for granted that may be God knew my inexpressible grief without my having to do a thing. I recalled how this boy even on other occasions, took particular offence of me, how he made fun of me, took the names of my mother and my sisters. I felt a shot of fury down my spine, as my motivator continued, “Isn’t this humiliating. Can he really beat you up? Come on Lian! This is the right opportunity to shut this big mouth forever” The others started to withdraw, waiting for my response. So I made up my mind, moved one step ahead and announced my decision, “Beat me up if you can”

Not everyone got the words clearly, but they understood the meaning of my response. They had stood in a horse shoe formation around me. And Thiahte was in front of me. Alone. He was backed against a hedge fencing.

He tried hard to carry on the image of a champion. As I closed in on him, he lifted his right leg to kick me. Immediately I took a short jump backwards. Taking advantage of the moment, he lunged forward and swung the same old fist that struck my eye many times in the past.
The previous encounters were one sided. In front of the Church, I was unprepared when I bumped upon his packed punch. I the group fight I was distracted when he struck me. I was unprepared and the strikes were unbalanced. Not this time. Perhaps the previous encounters had adapted my impulse. His tactic of ‘one first hit at opponent’s eyeball’ failed to click this time. As he struggled against me tooth and nail, I found myself catching hold of his hair and pushing him down waist level. He bent down under pressure of my left hand, frantically groping for a grip at my legs. Meanwhile I landed an awkward punch on the back of his inclined torso. He snarled and growled with utmost fierceness. Pressing his head into my waist he shoved the whole weight of his body against me. As I slipped backwards my right knee dropped on the ground, which prevented my body from further sliding backwards. The spectators were hissing encouraging words, ‘come on striiiike’.

Till that moment I was dying to strike only at the face I hate so much.  Somehow I was convinced that unless I hit now I might never get a better angle. It was not so hard to push his head further downwards knee level. As he punted, he kept on barking at me. Still I continued pounding his back because I was physically agitated at that point of time that no words had effect on me.  As I delivered thee rapid strikes, his breath turned heavy. While I struggled to adjust my position, some spectators shouted, ‘Come on harder,right now!’

The last three blows seemed to deflate his over-bloated ego. He cried out with the whole breath he had been holding back. And immediately I unbuckled my grip and let go of his head. Slowly he rose with shame and the sound of his moaning came full volume. I heard someone say, “No it’s not him who is weeping. See for yourself. It's Thiahte” Another one said furiously with a suppressed tone, “Serve him right, no?”

As I turned around, I saw multitudes of heads silhouetted against the ray of light projected through the curtain less Church door.  My mother used to tell me to attend the Church, because according to her rustic understanding, 'there are bad things outside of the Church'. Amidst the rapturous delight of the spectators, Thiahte whimpered on and kept talking all along. He chided the onlookers for not stopping minors like us, me and him, from fighting (sic).