Throughout the morning session I couldn’t have him speak more than two sentences. My name is Aribam Ngangom. I work for Manipur Times.
“Like Aribam Syam Sharma!” I quipped.
It was meant to be a compliment. Aribam Syam Sharma was a celebrity. A film-maker and artiste from Manipur.
“I’m Nalini Datta.”
His eyes were cold steel. Like the one he said later he once held in his hands.
It was a cool 2001 March morning on the first day of our Annual North East Media Fellowship Seminar in the wood-scented northeastern hill town of Shillong. We took in the view across the lawns of Hotel Pinewood, one of Shillong’s finest. Of the twenty gathered, Mr. Sharma, Sumana and I were the organizers. We gorged on our English breakfast early. Plenty of bacon and ham, usually not a staple if the seminar were to be elsewhere in India. We Northeasterners, often touted as omnivores, were pleased with the menu although there was aloo paratha and lassi, too.
Nine o’ clock’s introductory session was where we all formally met. I delivered a small speech to the participating journalists after Mr. Sharma, our chief program coordinator, opened with a keynote address. About forty, 5'5'', with a conical face, Mr. Sharma was of tardy speech. His lips pursed even the longer, rounder vowels but he made his point clearly. If he ever needed to raise his voice he raised his thick eyebrows. That way, his conical face looked further elongated. He always dressed semi-formal.
My colleague Sumana was thirty-ish, dusky and pleasantly pixie-faced. While she smiled even during trying times, her black eyes sought out any problem before solving it quietly. She always wore cotton saris neatly pleated, and loosely tied her shoulder-length hair, even while rushing to work. I was about her age, a year more or less, and could easily furrow my brow under pressure. But because she was a good one-arm taller than my five-one height, she treated me like a kid sister and advised me generously.
Sumana nudged me when Aribam Ngangom spoke those two sentences and went silent.
From ‘the jeweled land’ – on India’s map you can see Manipur’s shaped like a teardrop pearl – Aribam had one of those faces where you couldn’t tell whether he was thirty or forty. But his low-pitched voice was heavy like a mature man’s. The prominent lines on his face could have come from overexposure to the weather, as if he had lived a hard life in the villages. Later, I saw that a couple of lines were scars; one on the left cheek, the other high on his forehead close to the hairline. He wore his hair short, almost like an army buzz cut.
Sitting one spot away from him in the conference room, I saw that his locked hands were rough and blunted as though used for chopping logs, not filing reports. If I thought Mr. Sharma excelled in sporting a completely expressionless face, here was his competitor. With his clean-shaven wide square-ish face, Aribam’s eyes were beady and still like a coarse brown paper bag, with two dark dots on it. Just about 5'7", he appeared well-muscled.
“We’re all rice eaters!” I said to him during our lunch break.
He didn’t reply. Instead, piling rice high on his plate, he eyed me once or twice.
The afternoon waned. Of the seventeen journalists with dreams of breaking the 'big story' one day, Aribam and another were left to speak.
“Mr. Ngangom, it’d be a pleasure hearing you,” Mr. Sharma said.
“I came to Manipur Times after my village schooling.”
“He speaks a lot!” Sumana nudged me again with a whisper.
Aribam rambled slowly: his rural upbringing, education in the town, his writing. Said he took a break for some ‘field work’ before getting back to reporting.
“Please tell us more, do,” the usually unruffled Mr. Sharma said with interest.
Aribam’s face appeared puffy. He probably reflected hard on this. Journalists often have unique experiences. In Manipur, we knew life was sometimes difficult and dangerous: insurgency, unemployment, and seasonal calamities. Aribam spoke of living inside forests, braving floods and landslides, building homes in ravaged villages. When he complained, his voice rose protesting how the “mainstream media” barely focused on life in India’s backwaters. We agreed. Cricket, politics, films and fashion constituted the daily menu in ‘mainstream’ newsrooms. Rural struggles and developmental issues had little oomph value. That’s why we were here, inside Hotel Pinewood’s conference room, working with dedicated journalists to help set the alternative agenda. We shared Aribam’s concern. Yet, looking upset, he mumbled that in the name of controlling insurgency, the army and paramilitary were clamping down brutally on his people. No one said much about this. These were controversial issues even among conscientious journalists.
I hardly got a chance to speak to Aribam the next one and a half days. Too much work too fast. Sumana’s help kept me going. With the media fellowships and citations awarded – Aribam among one of the winners – things came to a rapid close.
We were having a going-away party until the next annual meet. In a log cabin by the majestic Lake Umium outside Shillong town, plenty of good food and liquor made everyone happy. It was like a college party. Because I knew quite a few participants personally, I also knew who could sing, recite or tell a joke.
“Ah, look who’s talking!” Sumana said. “I know you sing Nalini. Get started now!”
Everybody else goaded me on, too.
I hesitatingly sang a boatman’s song that seemed to make an impact. The assistant editor chimed in with a song he claimed to have learned on a fishing village trip after a devastating cyclone. The political correspondent recited a tribal lore with couplets about a woman’s plight. Normally shy, Sumana sang a Bollywood song where a peasant praised his ancestral land. The gathering got boisterous. On a second request, I sang the lore of Lord Krishna from Assam, when he deceives the householders into meeting Radha, his ladylove. “He’s a liar, he is divine/he's a thief, he is mine” – thus gasped Radha. Alcohol-infused and relaxed, everyone cheered this one wildly. Love stories don’t fail, especially if they are about gods who behave like mortals! At the last refrain, there was very loud applause. Aribam was clapping with his coarse heavy hands, ignoring the stares. I noticed earlier he was barely drinking. Unlike the others he didn’t get stuck like a fly on the sweet rum and the kebabs and pastries. Then he started singing in his language, which I guess was Meitei, of which I knew a few words. He sang throatily and kept beating on his thigh clumsily with one hand, smiling for the first time. Sumana and I joined in, keeping the beat. Then the others followed. What a party.
“My wife was raped by the paramilitary,” Aribam said, unceremoniously on our way back.
Party over, we hit the road. Evening light wasn’t dead yet. Two big vans they called ‘Matadors’ in these parts, had been hired. Aribam sat next to me. His mouth was near my right ear, so hearing him was easy. The breeze from his window blew my long hair into my eyes.
“They flushed the village and questioned my wife. They told her I was a terrorist, an insurgent. I was late in coming back from buying charcoal from the nearby town. They dragged Ranja away. I spent months hiding inside the forest. They kept coming back, picking up many others. This was when I’d just started as a rookie reporter with the Times.”
He glanced at my cheek. Gently disentangled an errant strand of hair.
“They caught me later. Locked me up and beat me bad.”
His face was distorted in the falling light. Voice heavy and angry.
“Here are the scars…”
He swerved with the Matador, and drew away respectfully.
“Later someone bailed me out. Gave me a gun. Ranja’s pain had made me a madman. I killed one of those dogs. Now no one came after me, I hunted them. Staying away from writing was painful too. I resumed my reporter’s job a couple of years later.”
Aribam looked through the window. It was dark outside now.
“Nalini, don’t bun up your hair. You look better this way.”
The road from Shillong to the plains was not treacherous. Not very serpentine. But these Matadors were vehicles with impatience. They tended to hurtle down the hills with us topsy-turvy inside. Like life does sometimes.
Copyright Nabina Das