The Indigo flight was supposed to land at Imphal by around 9 am, and I greatly looked forward to having my morning meal at home and catching up with family and friends well before noon. But old Mr. Fog refused to loosen its grip on Delhi that morning and by the time we took off it was already past 1 pm.
To cut short details of trying to jack up an Indica car with a screwdriver to change a wheel which blew up about 5 minutes from Imphal airport even as the sun was already setting on the horizon, the arrival of good Samaritan-friends with whom I managed to hitch a ride, the startling sight (at least to me) of soldiers in full battle gear patrolling the highway on foot at regular intervals, it was already dark by the time we reached Churachandpur.
As we passed Tuibuong and drove into town, Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ came to mind:
The old hometown looks the same
As I step down from the car
And there to meet me is my mama and papa
…..Its good to touch the green, green grass of home
After so many years, I was back home.
As we drove up what we used to call Sielmat ‘lamtung’ (steep road), I could not but notice how a road which once seemed so steep during our childhood that to bicycle up it without stopping used to be a great achievement now seemed so ordinary and not at all steep. Compared to some of the roads where I occasionally jog in Tokyo, my old Sielmat lamtung seemed quite tame and the thought that I could probably jog up from the bottom to the village field without breaking a sweat crossed my mind 🙂
And so, just as 2008 was drawing to a close and after a gap of more than 6 years, I again set foot in the only part of the world that I can fully call home. That I never fully felt ‘at home’ in the real sense of the word during my too short stay there is another matter. Though seeing my parents, especially my mother, after more than two years was a real comfort, the visible presence of so many soldiers in full battle gear on the streets and the road from the airport to my hometown made it difficult for me to feel at ease and at home. Maybe I was there for too short a time, and maybe it was only me, but I sensed a general feeling of insecurity, a feeling or sense that something bad was about to happen at any time. Especially at night, in the absence of streetlights and, for that matter, electricity, which, I was told, came on alternate nights, that also till around 10 pm. Quite a contrast to a place like Tokyo where people take such things so much for granted that they probably do not even have the word for load-shedding in their language.
For those of us who left home at a time when the highways needed no patrolling, I guess the image of ‘home’ remains that of lazy, carefree summers when we’d fish and hunt with out home-made catapults to our hearts’ content and one could go anywhere at night without fear. Those days are just memories now. Even my short, two nights’ stay is just another memory now, as I sit here in faraway Tokyo trying to make some sense of the many conflicting thoughts and feelings that engulfed me during my short visit home.
Though I did not have the time to see places or meet old friends (except those who managed to spare the time to visit me at home), it was exhilarating to be able to breathe the clean, unpolluted air of home, of my beloved hills, to look up at night and realize that there are stars in the sky and that the moon does shine more brightly than in the city. Everything felt the same, unchanged, at a standstill.
For the one day I was there, it felt as if I had been transported back to the early 80s, before I left home. The same buildings, same lack of infrastructure, same lack of electricity, same dusty roads, same water problem, same cooking gas supply problem, same daily struggle for survival and, I suppose, even the same sermons, same periodical crusades, occasional revivals, same nightly church services, same annual conferences. It was all oddly comforting in a way but, at the same time, indicated the almost complete lack of general development and change in our society, community, church and state as a whole. Like a stagnant pool or a broken record repeating the same song over and over again.
Though I had no time for any detailed interaction with anyone, the overwhelming feeling I had from the few conversations I managed to have with a few friends and relatives was that of despondency, a sense of quiet desperation, of being trapped. But I must admit at the same time that they themselves probably had no such feelings because they have become so used to their situation. It was just a feeling I had, looking at them and their situation from my position as something of a casual visitor. Having had some experience in living amidst some of the most highly developed societies and economies as well as having seen and tasted to some extent some of the highest living and working conditions, the fact that they still managed to laugh and crack jokes at the slightest provocation and generally seemed content with life made me realize that there are some things in life that cannot be quantified and the yardstick by which we judge the quality of life is not the same everywhere.
I now live, at least for the next one or two years, in one of the most developed societies and arguably the most technologically advanced city in the world with all its attendant material comforts and facilities. But there are so many things that we miss on a daily, almost constant, basis. Carefree conversations and that incomparable feeling and contentment of being amongst real friends, for one. The special camaraderie and companionship that can only come from shared experiences and a common root and language, for another. These are just a few of the things that make life worth living and, in that context, life back home does not seem so bad and, in fact, much more worth it sometimes.
It was a sunny morning, the day I left. A last look at my brother and parents, my mother waving with tears in her eyes, another goodbye and last wave, and we were off. Except for the usual stop just after Bishenpur to water the roadside hedge-fence, we drove without stopping and reached the airport well in time. We drove past small towns and villages – all so familiar and still more or less looking exactly the same as they did all those years ago during my college days in Imphal when I would rush to catch the last bus to Churachandpur every Friday evening to spend the weekend with family and loved ones at home. The scores of security personnel at almost every curve on the road the evening I came home were conspicuously absent that morning. Maybe the early morning winter chill or it being the last day of 2008 had something to do with it, but the day seemed that much more better and brighter.