Known for his sauciness in the locality, Modhumangol one day turned up and asked for Baba. I called out Baba. He came out of the Yumjao in his typical slow paced stride. “Taada”, addressed Baba to Modhumangol, as the latter was slightly older than him. “Get your Yumjao cleaned up. This afternoon some people from the television are coming for video recording”, said Modhumangol. He continued, “They are not able to find any Yumjao, leave aside a proper one, in Imphal.” Baba nodded, but without a word. Modhumangol soon left. Later I protested that Baba shouldn’t pay heed to the decree of the cocky man.
Baba took an affectionate glance of the frontage of our Yumjao. All over again he seemed to be admiring the elaborate wooden carvings beneath the roof, the rounded wooden pillars and the scaffoldings. He had once told me that not a single iron nail was used in constructing the Yumjao. The workers built it using ancestral craft. Byproducts of bamboo and cane were exclusively used to clasp the wood works as well as the bamboo frames that support the roof. Ever since it was built our Yumjao has stood firm facing east, every single day greeting the rising sun. For reasons unknown the television crew failed to show up that day. I was happy.
Our Yumjao, where Baba sat at the southern end of the kitchen floor just near the granary to have his daily meals.He relished every meal without any complaints. Seated on the phan with his left elbow resting on the left knee, Baba would hold the ngarou with his left hand while eating. If not a ngarou, either a roasted wafer or a fritter would take its place. If nothing, a green chilli was enough for his left hand. When asked about this foible of his, he would say it elevates his dining spirit. Evening meal was special for us as this was the time when we all sat down together to eat. Baba, Ima and their five children.My usual place was to squeeze in between my two elder sisters and share the plate with either of them. The one with whom I shared the plate was obliged to comb out the bones from the ngarou. Ima would be the one to initiate the mid-dinner conclave. By that time my second elder brother would have completed his dining sprint. “I don’t know how he eats”, Baba would mumble behind his back.
Our Yumjao, where we hada Phung-ga. The fire in this particular place was never put out. One would always find a dull smoulder of rice husk kept at the fringe. Family council regularly took place around it waiting for dinner to be served. At times neighbourhood cronies dropped by and joined the council. A few of them took liberty of washing their feet with warm water that was kept for the family. They would also join us for dinner especially when fish curry was cooked. Most of them who visited us were very good story tellers. They also happened to be viewers of first day-first showof the latest film in town. Besides this, they were perpetually equipped with the hottest gossips in the locality. Their presence in the council always made the wait for dinner a pleasant pilgrimage. As a refreshment of the council, dried peas or chickpeas roasted over the pan would be served. Fresh potatoes or cassavas baked beneaththe warm ashes of the fireplace were also served. An ardent devotee of fish, Ima would come back with fishes like catfish, snakehead or climbing perch if her sales margin at the Keithel* for the day was good. She would grill them meticulously over the Phung-ga. Savage temptation to devour everything in front swept over me whenever she grilled catfish. She made neat incisions of the fishes with a knife to be sprinkled with salt as the final assault before they go to the fire. No catfish worth the name is available in the Keithel now.
Our Yumjao, where my two elder sisters were adorned with bridal attire and jewelleries on their wedding days. These two sisters have conflicting attributes. One is a workaholic who barely cares for what she wears. The other is a dandy of sorts who also loves to relish deep fry foods in spite of her health. The only thing common between them is their handwritings. Is it because they went to the same college – the Ghanapriya Women’s College? They used to have bickers sometimes but still slept in the same bed. The Yumjao, “the big house”, could not offer them extra space for another bed. But the two sisters were the ones who kept the house neat and tidy. They were the ones who seemed to have better connectivity with the household deities through their daily prayers. They had to follow Ima’s stern instruction of using only resin powder mixed with drawn butter as incense during prayers. They were also the ones who bore the brunt of Ima’s verdict on the taste of the day’s meal.
Our Yumjao, where the first television set of the family was brought in with a subdued fanfare. It was subdued because the wait for the wonder-box (before it became an idiot-box) took a little too long.A few electrical shops in Imphal had started selling televisions then. The prices were inflated, we were told. Elder brother who runs a shoe shop at BT road in the heart of the town, who was also among the early riders of Vespa scooter (MNS/4549 was the registration number) in the locality contacted someone who frequents Delhi. So our Beltek black and white TV came along with a Sikh shoe wholesaler in an aeroplane all the way from Delhi. By the time it arrived the zeal among the prospective viewers had died down a little. The dip in enthusiasm vaporised as soon as the box started showing images of all kinds. The aluminium television antenna erected on a bamboo pole at our backyard signalled prideof the residents living under the thatched roof of the Yumjao. Not a single programme beamed several hundred miles away from Delhi was missed by the devoted viewers. Films mostly made in Bombay, which were earlier projected only on big screens in theatres, came piercing into the Yumjao. Weekly film songs came in the name of Chitrahar. Side by side the glamour of the game of cricket bewitched not only a young boy but also the entire male members of the house. Our octogenarian grandfather who stayed with uncle in a different house too had joined the sporting union. Elder brother’s bedroom in the Yumjao soon became a mini cinema theatre cum makeshift stadium.He became worried that the studies of his youngest brother, who was the first among the siblings to be sent to a private school, would be affected. Viewing hours had to be curtailed. Soon after the arrival of the television set, the boy flunked in mathematics in his third standard exam. I wanted to confess that neither cricket nor television is to be blamed for my misfortunes with mathematics. My midlife musings apprise me a better picture. The reality was that there was none who could drive away the fear of mathematics haunting inside me. I needed someone who could exorcise that fear. Not someone who would force me to memorise table and formulas. Ima tried sending me to different teachers for private tuition but to no avail.
Today the three brothers have three separate kitchens. Landholdings have also been distributed among us. Elder brother is raising a concrete house in place of the Yumjao. My longing to lie down on Baba’s bed inside the Yumjao to escape the scorching summer heat and to listen to the rustling of bamboo leaves in our backyard has never been so compelling.
Phan – a wooden tool
Ngarou – dry fish
Keithel – market