On my Day 3 in Manipur, I woke up at 6:37am and headed down to talk to Padamji, the caretaker of the farm. I'd had a bright idea last night. I asked him if there was a spare cycle in the premises. There had to be one. After all, it was a farm.
Just before my arrival in Manipur, the price of petrol had rocketed to five times, due to the ongoing economic blockade at the state border. Right now, it is about twice the nationwide price. A cycle would be an affordable way to explore. As luck would have it, there was an old cycle in the shed.
But it had a punctured tyre. I took it and asked for directions to the nearest cycle repair shop. He told me to go to the same market where he had taken me to buy groceries on my first morning here. Couldn’t be far, I guessed, because we had reached the place in 5 minutes by scooter that day. I had my breakfast soon after and set out with the cycle.
Padamji’s spare cycle on a road leading to YVU
The road just outside the farm was clearly the culprit. It had so many sharp rocks thrown all over it that must have perforated many other wheels besides my cycle. I passed the paddy fields, an Anganwadi center, Thoubal College, the office of a political party and several houses.
It was 8:45am and the sun was bright. I saw children in uniforms on their way to school. All the houses had trees and plenty of open spaces in front of them. The men and women were getting ready for work. There were bamboo bushes on both side of the road and one could see ducks and hens darting in and out.
Thoubal Anganwadi center
I periodically asked for directions to make sure that I was on the right path. On the way, I also saw Mr Premananda, the manager, riding towards the head office. He smiled and nodded a greeting. Very soon, I reached the heart of Thoubal market. Shop owners had started opening their stores and the Imas (women vendors) had already set up their vegetable stalls.
The leftover after paddy harvest being burnt in the fields
I found the cycle repair shop that Padam had directed me to and put the owner in touch with Padam over the phone. Padam had instructed me to do this as I might be overcharged because of being an outsider. Good guy, Padam. The person fixed the puncture and charged me only Rs 20.
Bamboo flanking the road to the Thoubal market
I paid and now was the lucky chap with a working cycle. It had been a while since I'd used one of them and this seat was a bit high. However, I got on it and started pedalling. The joy of riding a cycle on a village road! I took it in random by-lanes, partly for the fun of it and partly to get comfortable with my new companion. After that, I went to buy ingredients for Poha, a popular breakfast option in Central India.
My mother had given me strict instructions to eat healthy because eating Maggi everyday was bad for the stomach. Of all the possible things like cobras, dogs, bugs, rebels and sometimes police and army in Manipur, my mother was worried about the evils of Maggi. What is worse is that I might agree with her.
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I needed some lemons for the Poha and went to Thoubal’s Ima market. I did not know the Manipuri word for lemon but had hoped to point at it and buy it. I assumed it would be common and easily available. But such assumptions must not (and cannot) be made in Manipur. The economic blockade had made many commodities (lemon being one of them) scarce in Manipur. It took me some time to find it.
Padamji, on one of our visits to the Thoubal market
The Imas did not understand either 'lemon' or its Hindi translation. I called up Padamji to ask for the Manipuri word. He also did not know it (it was not just me!). His wife Sanju came to the rescue and told me that the word was 'kharpa'. The Ima asked for Rs 50 for 4 lemons. In my mind, I calculated that I could get four times as many lemons at that price at home. Again, I reminded myself I was in Manipur. I finally bought two lemons and headed back.
I got back by lunch time and people had begun to gather in the canteen. I went over to the stove in the corner and started to make khichdi ( a north Indian lunch, made from rice and lentils). They asked me to join them for lunch and it was then I realized that they had been waiting for me so we could have lunch together. I quickly finished cooking and joined them. They put a carpet on the floor of the canteen and everybody took out their homemade food and shared with each other.
All of them offered me food they had brought from home. I learnt the names of my colleagues that I would work with for the next six months. The food was good and the atmosphere felt like a picnic.
I felt that Manipur was a place where two worlds co-exist. There is one world where people help you out, welcome you into their lives and treat you like family. The other has blockades and four lemons for Rs 50. What would someone who needed emergency medicines need to do? It is in the middle of these two worlds that the everyday life in Manipur goes on.