Road to Freedom
By Leisangthem Gitarani Devi
Fajabi hastily walks back from the local bazaar. Two tiny catfish lay lazily in the polythene bag she is carrying. As she immediately turns right to enter the gate of her house, she bumps into the loud-mouthed Ibempishak. A frown escapes her lips.
“Eeesh, again this nosey woman,” she curses.
“Fajabi, are you coming from bazaar? What a well-bred fish you have in the plastic! My mouth is already watering thinking of iromba with this fish.”
Fajabi smiles without much willingness.
Ibempishak continues, “Why don’t you leave me one? Don’t worry about money. I will pay you back surely.”
Immediately Fajabi defends, “Iche, I don’t think it will work out. The Teacher is unwell. He hasn’t eaten for two days. I thought if I prepare smoked-catfish and serve it with caked salt and hot steamed rice, he might want to eat a few morsel.”
The mention of the Teacher changes Ibempishak’s expression.
“Why don’t you stop sheltering them? You have neither husband nor mother-in-law. Don’t you know what the entire leikai is talking about you,” warns Ibempishak.
“Why, iche? He’s not here for a long time. He says he has to go to the hills very soon,” replies Fajabi.
Everyone in the leikai knows with whose money she’s buying fish. Earlier she had no money to buy even dried fish, let alone fresh ones. Since her husband died leaving her with her second child still in her womb, she’s tried all means of enterprises. In Manipur, all enterprises are like fair-weathered friends; as long as there is no bandh, things run smooth.
The entire leikai knew that last year she borrowed money from “them”, when her son had to be admitted to the hospital.
“But still, hill or no hill, you must stop what you are doing. We stay right next to your house. You know that all my children are outside. If anything happens, what will your uncle and I do? Look at yourself, you have a daughter and a son growing up. With all these shady men come and go at ungodly hours, nothing good can come of it,” cautions Ibempishak.
“Iche, why do you get shaken all the time? Don’t worry, nothing will happen. They have people around to inform them of any threat any time,” comforts Fajabi.
“But still, one day you will land us all in trouble. That day, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. I will not let you go if your greed and servility endanger us as well,” retorts Ibempishak.
Knowing that nothing will come of talking to this woman, she makes an excuse to hurry back home.
Fajabi doesn’t think she is doing anything wrong. What is wrong and what is right, she cares not. All she understands is she is doing a great service to the cause of the movement. She has involved her young daughter and her son too, in ferrying information for them.
Even as she enters the house, she smoothens the frown on her face and asks the Teacher:
“Oja, I am back. Let me quickly go and start the fire-place. Are you any better now?”
Without waiting for an answer, she busies herself in the kitchen.
Fajabi is an admirable woman. A widow like her with no source of income and no one to support her sends her children to the finest convent schools in Manipur. Her neighbours say that if a coin touches her hand it turns into rupees. So enterprising and resourceful she is! The only time she was seen crying was when her husband was brought home wrapped in a white cloth. She collapsed on seeing her husband. He had gone out all neatly dressed up to negotiate a contract. And in the evening the lifeless body of her husband was laid in front of her. What would have become of her! With the child still in her womb, people thought she might run mad.
Fajabi pulled herself together, though. She knew nothing will come of her helplessness.
Things began to look brighter when the Teacher and one more man started staying at her place. The Teacher is an elusive person. Nobody ever saw him. Once in a while if Ibempishak stands in the verandah of her house, she can hear his voice.
They say these people who are in the top rungs are normally very courteous and kind. It is the foot soldiers who are most inconsiderate and ruthless.
In one of her summer vacations, Ibempishak’s youngest daughter went to Fajabi’s house. She likes going to Fajabi’s house. She finds her dynamic and likeable. The Teacher was reading something. Somehow he knew about her.
“Abem, are you home for vacation?” he asked politely.
“Yes, kaka,” she replied.
“You must work very hard and try to make everyone at home proud. You mustn’t bring bad name, OK?” exhorts the Teacher.
By this time Ibempishak’s daughter was a little nervous.
“So, what will you do after studies?”
“I don’t know,” replied the clueless girl.
“Don’t you want to join our fight, abem?” “We need young, bright girls like you,” said the Teacher.
“No, I don’t want to,” replied the young girl determinedly.
After some time she got up and went home. She never went to Fajabi’s house after that, but she didn’t tell anything to her mother either.
The Teacher is neither seen nor heard of for quite some time. It is rumoured he has gone to the hills. Even Fajabi will not know his whereabouts.
One evening Ibempishak was nursing her stomach inside the latrine. This is her fourth time in a row this evening. The knotting pain in her stomach after the iromba at dinner has been sending her on a marathon trip to the latrine. Suddenly she hears some gunshots very close by. Immediately she rushes out.
Their latrine stands as an outhouse in the farthest corner of their land. It is surrounded with ankle-length grass. Finding small-time labour to cut grass or clean-up their land is quite difficult. Earlier mayangs (non-Manipuris) used to do such work at cheap rate, but since the threat issued by insurgents to these migrant-labourers to leave Manipur, they are not seen around often. But it’s not like the local men are eager to fill in the vacuum of labour created by such threats. And such exorbitant price they demand!
Ibempishak has been asking her husband to find someone to cut the growing grass. With the recent rain it has overgrown. Their house looks like a haunted house – with the dilapidated, mossy bamboo fences that supposedly protect them from the eager glances of passersby on the adjoining lane on the right and the discolored, perforated earthen wall of Fajabi’s house on the left.
Even as Ibempishak enters the door to the kitchen, she hears another round of firing. There is no seeing what is where. And she forgot her lantern in the latrine. The entire house is plunged in darkness as there is no current.
Suddenly Ibempishak is sickened by the thought that the firing must be because of the Teacher in Fajabi’s house. Fajabi, of course, is not the only over-ground supporter in their leikai. There are others, who equally serve “them” for their little kindness. Fajabi and her husband are pensioners and at this age they neither need the glitters of life nor need anyone’s help to feed their mouth.
“Quickly, get under the bed,” whispered her husband to Ibempishak.
There is no questioning. Her husband is even more scared than her. Every time he is ill, he is scared of their family compounder who is fond of piercing needles at the slightest instance.
Ibempishak slid under the bed. Both of them crouched under the bed for a long time; both with eyes wide-open but saying nothing to each other.
Suddenly they hear a man cry out in pain. It has come from Fajabi’s house. There is no way of knowing whose cry it is. And then another, and another, and another. The sound of heavy boots kicking the man is easily audible. All the windows in their house are still open. They have no courage to close them after the firing began.
“Please, don’t beat him here. Take him with you. Who’s he? Take him with you,” pleads Fajabi.
The mayang army threaten her.
“Keep quiet, woman. We know who you are hiding. We have got all the information.”
BAANG – another loud crash, and then kicking and throwing something against the wall.
“No, no. You are mistaken. I live here alone with my children. My good-for-nothing brother-in-law sometimes come back, sometimes doesn’t,” pleads Fajabi again.
Ibempishak can’t help wondering at the unwavering courage with which Fajabi told this lie. There was not a hint of tremor in her voice. And here they are, without having anything to do with what’s going on, hiding under their bed next to the earthen wall that’s supposed to keep them away from the likes of Fajabi and her teachers and the army.
“Whose typewriter and briefcase is this then, huh? What do you need them for? We know what you do, woman.”
“They are my late husband’s things. He needed them for his contract works. I don’t know why you are accusing me. I am only a helpless widow. You have picked the wrong house.”
Entire night there the sound of hitting and kicking and groaning and crying continues. Things are heard thrown against the poor walls as though they are the culprits; loud sounds of objects crashing and clothes ripping escaping the helpless walls. BOOOM. Another explosion goes off.
Both Ibempishak and her husband cover their ears and are completely shaken. The long night continues. Both the terrified husband and wife await most painfully for the first crack of dawn. As though the light of the day will ease their trauma.
Ibempishak didn’t realise that she had done it in her phanek. She had lost control of her nerves when she realised the end of their lives is just a pull of trigger away. She has only heard of such encounters and combing operations on the radio and the television, and from people who have been witness to it. She didn’t realise it will come to her doorstep.
When she realises her phanek is soiled she crawls out from under the bed to go to the latrine. The first light of the morning dispelled the long tormenting night.
As soon as she gets out and reaches the latrine, she sees the body of a man sprawling in front of their latrine in a pool of blood. A lump chokes her throat. It’s not the first time Ibempishak is seeing a dead body. But it’s not every day she sees a dead man lying at their backyard!
She can briefly see his soles had bluish marks and he had such a handsome face. Mayang army surrounded both the houses and they chased her inside. She rushes back to her house again, with the same soiled phanek – very angry and very scared at the same time.
“Why did he come and die here?” she thinks to herself.
At that time somebody knocks at the door. As soon as Ibempishak opens the door, they barge in and look around the house. Her husband tries answering whatever was asked in his miserable Hindi. Finally, they leave on not finding anything of relevance.
One of the personnel asks for something to sit on. It is meant for their commanding officer. He doesn’t go inside Fajabi’s house. Instead he chooses to sit in Ibempishak’s courtyard, as interrogation and threats continue in Fajabi’s house. Fajabi is heard shouting and crying.
Meanwhile, the local police, who must have been informed of the death, arrive. The dead body is then whisked away without as much fuss or explanation. They must have already settled everything beforehand.
After a few hours, the army leaves as though Rahu has finally released the Sun from its mouth. One of them carries the typewriter and the briefcase. Two of them push Fajabi’s brother-in-law and her teenage son into the truck that is parked outside the gate. Fajabi runs after them crying, holding on to her son. Ibempishak takes this chance and hastily enters Fajabi’s house.
Everywhere rice, papers, cotton, clothes are strewn on the floor. Everything is upside down, as though it were storm hit. The cupboards are also lying back upward and half broken.
Fajabi enters the house, still crying. Ibempishak doesn’t lose a moment to say this:
“Did I not warn you, greedy woman?” “For a little money, see what you have done to yourself and to us.”
“Whoever that man was, his body should have been in your house. You have spat the bones on us after sucking out the flesh and the juice,” curses Ibempishak.
Fajabi appears relentless but doesn’t speak-up. She is grieving more for her son than for the heightened drama that has unfolded at night. Ibempishak walks out of their house without as much offering a word of sympathy for this ambitious widow.
The next morning the headline appears, “ONE INSURGENT KILLED IN ENCOUNTER.” The news reports Ibempishak’s husband’s details. It reads:
“He was killed even as he tried to escape by pushing down the bamboo fence in one Mr Thangjam Tomchou’s household. He is a retired school teacher…”
But the dilapidated bamboo fences still stand honourably doing their duty. In fact, another row of bamboo fences is erected between Fajabi’s and Ibempishak’s house.
Some days later, it was rumoured that the man, whose name was Thomas, was beaten almost to death even before he was brought to Fajabi’s house for interrogation. They say it must have been a fake encounter, which also explains the loud boom in the morning, to cover the custodial death. How could a dead man make escape, anyway!
Two months later, a heavy vehicle pulls up at Fajabi’s gate and gives the loudest, longest honk.
It is a truckload of bricks.
Leisangthem Gitarani Devi teaches English at Shivaji College, University of Delhi. Her research interests lie in Manipuri literature, particularly women’s writing, and folklore studies from North-East India. Her other areas of research include postcolonial literatures and gender studies.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.