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Somewhere in the middle of the 500+ songs in one of my pendrives, which I listen to on my daily commute to and from office, is a folder named ‘oldies’ which contains favourites mostly from the 60s. It’s one of those folders I rarely listen to mainly because my cheap Chinese-made car mp3 player does not give me the option to select/choose and play from different folders. Once I plug in the pendrive, the songs automatically start playing from the beginning. The only way I can select a song is to keep on clicking the forward button till I get to the song. Which is why I rarely listen to the ‘oldies’ because they are somewhere in the middle of the pendrive which means I have to click more than 200 times to get to them in the first place.

This morning, with several heads of state from Pacific countries in town and traffic slower than usual, the smooth golden voice of Engelbert Humperdinck from my ‘oldies’ folder telling the world ‘there goes my only possession…’ suddenly filled my car as traffic crawled slowly opposite Maurya on SP Marg.

Humperdinck gave way to Dean Martin’s ‘Blue Spanish Eyes’, followed by Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ and I suddenly found myself back in the early 70s, in Mission Compound aka Old Churachand. In my mind’s eyes I saw grandpa HL Sela, white-haired but looking fresh and spry, his signature hnang lukhum (bamboo hat) on, smartly dressed as always, with pipi at his side, as always, walking home from early morning prayers in church. I pictured myself sitting in the big living room where my putes (maternal uncles) kept their most precious ‘record player’ with their collection of the latest Neil Diamond, Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Jim Reeves, CCR as well as various Gospel LPs neatly stacked on the side.

One by one, I saw my putes’ faces from long ago. Pute Rayson, Pute William, Pu Lien, even Pu Royal (just back home on retirement from the Army). I saw Pu Zalal’s ever smiling face from long ago, before he joined the Army as a chaplain.

I clearly felt Pi Kim hugging me as I waved to my parents and brothers leaving me for a month-long trip to thingtlang. I still have no idea why I did not go with them on that trip but I still recall, as if it was yesterday, the extra care all my putes took to make me feel at home that month.

With Tom Jones singing of how they laid him ‘neath the green, green grass of home’ I felt myself transported back to a time when time hardly mattered and life and love and a bright future seemed to be there for the taking. I was young again.

All too soon I found myself rolling down the parking ramp in office, looking for space to park my car. I sat for some time in my car, unwilling to let the feelings go and return to reality. Listening to nostalgia.

Then, suddenly, I saw mom, young, beautiful, smiling, waiting for me as I walked home from school.

That’s when the tears came……


Back Home, For a Day

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.

My Place of Refuge

I have a place where I spend at least an hour a day. It is probably the only place that I can call exclusively mine. The stereo, which is the centerpiece of this place of mine, starts the moment I enter and sit down. I keep it stocked with all my favorite songs, which I keep within easy reach from where I always sit. From Deep Purple to Guns N’ Roses, Emmylou Harris to Jim Reeves, Mozart to Vivaldi, Youssou N’dour to James Blunt, Coldplay to Greenday, Bob Dylan to U2, Zaituokung to Daduhi – they are all there, just waiting to keep me company. It is the one and only place where I am the Boss, and anyone entering the place listens to what I play – and yours truly normally does not do requests – except for my daughter who has me wrapped around her fingers. In any case, with me, she doesn’t request – she just goes ahead and puts in whatever it is she wants to hear. I’m happy listening to what she wants to hear, as long as I have her for company.

I have the place to myself on weekdays. After a hard day’s work, I rush in to relax and find comfort in my music. I am often found lingering there more than necessary, especially after a tiring day at work, or when a particularly good piece is playing on the stereo. Friends and my better half occasionally drop in on weekends. They have all come to accept that listening to whatever music I play is a part of the price they have to pay to enter this place of mine – because the music simply never stops as long as I am there. Even the more religious minded have been serenaded by the likes of Jewel, Tracy Chapman or Cyndi Lauper in this place of mine. Depending on my mood, I am known to occasionally do some requests, or turn down the volume. The volume, though, usually returns to its original level after some time. I have perfected the art of returning the volume to its original level little by little by fiddling with the volume control whenever the person is not looking.

The place has all the comforts of modern life including an air conditioner, which is switched on only when my better half comes calling – for me it does not matter one way or the other, as long as the stereo is there and my collection within easy reach from my seat. The Delhi heat and my humdrum existence fade away as soon as the stereo starts, and I’m transported into another world.

If you happen to pass by Motibagh Crossing around 9:30 in the morning or 6:00 in the evening on any weekday, you will find me comfortably ensconced in this place of mine. It shouldn’t be difficult to spot me – I’ll be the one drumming my finger on the steering wheel, listening to my music, as I patiently wait for the lights to turn green along with the other drivers.

Delhi, 3 Sept 2006

Gentleman Jim

Jim Reeves would have celebrated his 83rd birthday yesterday, had his plane not crashed on that fateful 31st day of July, 1964, just 20 days short of his 41st birthday. He was deeply mourned by those who knew him, personally and through his legacy of some 38 albums, 17 of which were released posthumously by his widow, Mary Reeves, who combined unreleased tracks with re-recorded previous releases by mixing updated instrumentals alongside Jim Reeves’ original vocals.

Driving home from church yesterday with our own balladeer extraordinaire Pu L.Keivom, I mentioned that 20th August was Jim Reeves’ birth anniversary. His mind went back instantly to that day 42 years ago when, as a student in Gauhati University, he heard about Jim Reeves’ untimely death. Pu Keivom told me that he skipped dinner that day, to mourn the passing away of one of the greatest voices of the last century.

So, who was this man who, more than half a century ago, captured the imagination and hearts of a whole generation in faraway NE India? It was a time when, just before my generation was born, our people and society found themselves at the crossroads, the future before them. There was hope in the air as our first graduates and future leaders returned home from far-off places such as Gauhati, Calcutta, Allahabad and even the UK and USA, having completed their studies. I imagine them in my mind – bright, starry-eyed, young men from our society, the first to reap the fruits of our fledgling Mission-driven education system and legacy left behind by the white missionaries. Even though rumblings of the coming implosion in our society and church may have been sensed by some of the more discerning, our people and society were still more or less organized under one umbrella and worshiped together in the same church on a Sunday morning.

Arriving into the scene after the implosion in our society and church in the late 60s and 70s, I remember listening to great bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Beatles, Slade, Tony Orlando, Elvis, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and, of course, Jim Reeves, whenever we visited my grandparents both in Old Churachand (Mission Compound) and Muolvaiphei. In Lamka, old timers like the late Pu Jeff Biekthang, Pu Mawia Khawlum were busy playing their adaptation of the Beatles’ ‘Obladi-Oblada’ which went ‘In rock shoes, beatles shoes hai bun raw…..boys, kawng bawng rakin inher raw…’ Much to my loss, I never had the privilege of hearing them live. I was still too young – but I remember this particular song being sung by those who were a little older than us. If I’m not mistaken, it was also recorded by AIR Imphal and used to be played on the Hmar Programme on radio.

On the gospel music scene, my uncles were at the height of their own popularity as members of the ‘Mission Compound Quartet’. I remember preening with pride whenever people commented on how good their voices blended together. Songs like ‘On the Jericho Road’, ‘Lily of the Valley’, come to mind whenever I think of that era. This may not be true of everyone of that era, but in the privileged circle of western music lovers that I was a part of during my wonder years, thanks to my music loving extended family from both my parents’ sides, country legends like Skeeter Davis, Freddy Fender, et al formed a big part of our lives. I remember upcoming young stars like Olivia Newton-John on whose ‘Banks of the Ohio’ I learned to play the guitar. Unfortunately, my guitar playing ability never progressed beyond that particular song which, by the way, could be played just by interchanging three chords.

Above and beyond all these great singers, was Jim Reeves. His 1962 gospel classic ‘We Thank Thee’ remains THE gospel album of all time to me, and, I’m sure to each and every one of us from that era. To hear him croon ‘Never Grow Old’, ‘Across The Bridge’, ‘Take My Hand Precious Lord’, ‘This World Is Not My Home’ is to be transported to another world and, perhaps, the closest one can come to experiencing real heaven on earth. His 1963 Christmas album, ‘Twelve Songs of Christmas’ which include perennial favourites like ‘Silver Bells’, Blue Christmas’, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, ‘An Old Christmas Card’ also remains THE Christmas album for me. I don’t remember any Christmas when I’ve not listened to this classic. To a great extent, the album defines the spirit of Christmas for me. From ‘…silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city….soon it will be Christmas Day’ (Silver Bells), to ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ Christmas would simply be not Christmas without this great Jim Reeves album.

His warm, velvety, rich and light baritone voice immediately transported you to another world where you either pined for a lost love or reveled in the warm embrace of a loved one. Poignancy is redefined when one hears ‘I Missed Me’, ‘Rosa Rio’, ‘Is It Really Over’, ‘Distant Drums’ while one experiences what warm, everlasting and true love should be when one hears ‘I Love You Because’, ‘Anna Marie’, ‘I Won’t Forget You’ or ‘Have I Told You Lately That I Love You’. Then there are songs like ‘Bimbo’, Mexican Joe’, ‘Yonder Comes a Sucker’ which transport you to a world of innocence and light-hearted banter. That he was a part of our lives was amply demonstrated by the fact that no wedding was complete without Jim Reeves being played on the PA system. In fact, if someone asked ‘When will you be playing Jim Reeves?’, it meant ‘When are you going to get married’. Seventeen years, two months and twelve days ago, we played our Jim Reeves. I still have the ‘Hitachi’ cassette in which I recorded the songs we played that Day. Though it remains a treasured part of my music collection, I don’t play it anymore. My Jim Reeves now does his stuff from CDs I’ve collected through the years.

So, here’s to Gentleman Jim. Happy Birthday, wherever you are. Forty two years after you left us, the world you created remains, and I thank you for welcoming me into that world.

Delhi, 21 Aug 2006

Monkey Business

There’s this boy in our office whose job is to roam around the corridors, carrying a catapult/saihli, which he uses to scare off the monkeys that simply refuse to leave the safe haven of one of the greatest architectural monuments left behind by the British. Together with the langur boy, his big black-faced langur in tow, their job is to roam around the office, making the corridors and rooms monkey-free, at least till the last man leaves office. Come night time, and the whole edifice becomes the monkeys’ home. Till morning dawns and they troop out, clinging to the sides of the walls in single file, fleeing the langur hot on their heels in pursuit, while the saihli-boy gleefully takes potshots at the fleeing troops from the ground. I am told that this is their daily routine which I get to witness on the few rare occasions that I am forced to reach office before 9 in the morning when duty calls.

I often wonder about the langur quietly following the langur-boy around in office. After all, she is a colleague, a government servant, as much as the smug bureaucrats strutting around, self-importantly trying to appear busy. She gets a monthly salary like me, attends office from 9 to 5, and, even has a family to go back to, as I found out the other day. The same day I found out that the langur was a she. It was the day I rejoined duty after a short one-month leave. I had gone to relieve myself of all the excess fluids resulting from too much coffee. As I came out, feeling all relaxed and ready to face the rest of the day, I suddenly came face to face with the langur softly cuddling her baby, an exact tiny replica of herself.

They made such a perfect picture that I stopped and stared. The langur-boy, sensing my interest, commented that since she had the baby a week or so back, she had refused to leave her baby at home. As the langur looked at me, her doleful eyes seemed to say that she deserved her own maternity leave as much as any other government servant. I couldn’t help but agree with her. After all, every time I saw her, she had been busy doing her job – chasing or at least scaring off the monkeys with her mere presence in the building – definitely earning her salary. I could think of many humans, a few in my Division itself, who have perfected the art of appearing busy without actually doing anything the whole day. After all, I thought, if they can get maternity leave, she deserves it as much as them, if not more.

Two weeks have passed and I’ve not seen her again. I like to think that some babu has taken pity on a fellow colleague and she’s been granted her maternity leave. But I still see the saihli-boy every day, busy taking up position in the many nooks and crannies in our office, waiting patiently to ambush any monkey trying to take advantage of the langur’s absence. I suppose he’s come to some sort of an understanding with the langur-boy or the babu to work extra hours during the langur’s maternity leave. I keep a lookout for her and the cute baby every time I roam the corridors and wait for the time I’ll see them again. But, at this rate, I suppose the baby would have grown up and, perhaps, taken over from her mother by the time I see them again. Or, perhaps, she will come without her baby who will be waiting at home to grow up and take over eventually. Maybe, under the die-in-harness scheme, just like any other government servant.

Delhi 3 Aug 2006

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